Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Swann Drive

I might as well tell my Eric Swann story.

In another life far different from my current and previous lives I was the Assistant General Manager of the U.S. National Semipro Football Team on its first-and-only tour of the British Isles.

My job duties as described to me consisted of 1) carrying the ball bag and 2) paying the General Manager $1,800. By all measures I did fine on both counts.

However, other duties arose that were not described to me when I performed Duty No. 2. For instance, when the team arrived in England we were under the impression that we had reserved two 14-passenger vans for our sojourn to Blackpool, the aptly-named quasi-resort town on the North Sea. However, the people at the rental-car agency were adamant that we had reserved seven four-passenger sedans. And because this was England, not only did the cars have the steering wheels on the wrong side, they had standard, shift-it-yourself transmissions.

I was quickly named one of the seven drivers, and was tasked with driving from the airport to Wembley Stadium, where the inaugural World League of American Football championship – the never-less-aptly-named World Bowl – was being held that day.

The counter clerk drew the route from Heathrow to Wembley. It looked like something the Gauls painted on their chests before battle.

Two wide receivers from Texas whose combined height was not more than 10 feet piled in the back seat and a linebacker sat up front with me, in the seat where there should have been a steering wheel. They had no idea what they were getting into, but since that was the usual state of affairs in semipro football, they were content as lambs. With only a modicum of grinding – and only some of that from the gears – we were off.

If you’ve never made the driving-in-America-to-driving-in-England changeover, let me set the scene for you. The roads around London were built in 1670 and are clogged with Vauxhalls, Citroens, Peugeots, Skodas, Opels, Morrises, Morgans, MGs, Minis, Minors, Majors, and assorted packing containers that would never be allowed past American customs, all running as quietly and efficiently as chainsaws and spewing enough exhaust to conceal the Sixth Fleet. Plus, the roads are slightly less wide than Vince Wilfork, and moving over to accommodate oncoming traffic usually means climbing a wall. The English also view the roundabout as the solution to every traffic situation, including parallel parking. And all of that would be manageable if you didn’t occasionally glance to your right and notice six feet of car sticking out where a mirror should go, and a freaking gear shift where there should be an arm rest.

In other words, I would not recommend your first English driving lessons be in a stick-shift automobile navigating from Heathrow to Wembley Stadium. I’m thinking something a little less crowded, like the Crab Nebula.

In between finding second, searching for third, and learning English culture through its vulgar insults I glanced in the rear-view mirror at the two diminutive wide receivers. They were huddled together, as far from the doors as they could get, with the same popeyed looks on their faces that Z-list B-movie actresses get before the knives come down.

I still don’t know how the car and I made it to Wembley unscathed, though I was one of the fortunate ones. A tight end named Al who swore he could drive a stick broke down 14 miles from Heathrow. Turns out he never shifted the car out of first.[1]

After that the World Bowl was anticlimactic, but the inaugural World Bowl was anticlimactic after a warm bath.

Eventually our little caravan made it out of central London onto the motorway. I caught a few minutes’ sleep cuddled up amongst the ball bags and then spent the rest of the ride to Blackpool getting to know the individual members of the U.S. National Semipro Football Team.[2]

In addition to the fellow you’ll meet later who claimed to have taught Pete Gogolak everything he knew about soccer-style football-kicking, there was the guy whose most memorable game came against the inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary. (It was a home game for the inmates, naturally.) One set of goalposts was painted on the prison walls. He said it made The Longest Yard look like an episode of Full House.

A number of the guys had played against Eric Swann, who was drafted No. 1 by the Cardinals in 1991. They said he wasn’t the best semipro player they had ever seen, or even the best semipro lineman; instead, he was the most logical, for one reason or another.[3]

I hadn’t realized this until today, but Branch Rickey said the same thing about Jackie Robinson.

In that context, Eric Swann was what Jackie Robinson would have been if integration in baseball had stopped right there, if there had been no Larry Doby or Roy Campanella or Monte Irvin – a sort of footnote, something for people like me to write about.

There’s a gulf of differences between the situation of Jackie Robinson and the situation of Eric Swann, most having to do with the heart-wrenching unfairness of Robinson’s situation. But they tunneled under the English Channel. They joined France and England. The things that unite Swann and Robinson are in many ways greater than what separates them.

[1] We later named him “Lucky Al” for this incident, coupled with the sprained ankle he received crossing the street and the case of the “flu” he came home with after a tour of Blackpool’s livelier establishments.
[2] Except for the guy from Indiana who couldn’t make it because he thought you could take a passport photo yourself. With a Kodak Instamatic. In front of a tree. With your dog.
[3] Not having a rap sheet as long as your arm was one big reason.

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