still remember my first football game. It was 1983. I was six. My father took me to our local high school, in northern New Jersey, and we sat on the home team’s side, but it wasn’t long before my allegiance began to waver. The opponents, from a town called Passaic, were clearly superior—or, rather, they had a superior player whose simple talents were easy to identify in a game so complex and jumbled-seeming that even lifelong fans do not fully understand it. He wasn’t the biggest person on the field, and probably not the fastest, but he was strangely fast for a big person and unusually big for a fast person. He played both sides of the ball: running back and linebacker. He was also the kicker, and he returned punts. In my memory, he scored a touchdown, kicked a field goal, and sacked the quarterback for a safety. 12–0. As my father and I searched for his name in the program, a man seated a couple of rows in front of us spun around and said, “They call him Ironhead.” I was smitten.
Ironhead, whose given name was Craig Heyward, went on to become a star at the University of Pittsburgh and then a pro with several N.F.L. teams, although he was probably more famous for his nickname and for his physique than for his accomplishments on the field. He was strictly a running back after high school, but he looked more like a lineman: a “bread truck with feet,” as one writer called him. Heyward did not run sweeps. He ran up the middle: into, through, and over, but seldom around, defenders. His style of play embodied Newton’s second law of motion: force equal to mass times acceleration. I think of him every time I see the Old Spice commercial in which the Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis emerges from the shower naked except for a suit of fake soapsuds, because Ironhead, as a spokesman for Zest body wash, in the mid-nineties, was a pioneer of the genre. He was that crucial thing in the marketing of football: a cuddly warrior. It’s easier to marvel at the gladiatorial nature of the game when the participants appear to be laughing about something as trivial as personal hygiene.
“He would lower his head into opponents’ stomachs, and one opponent said it hurt so much that Heyward’s head had to be made of iron”: that explanation for the name that made him my favorite player appeared in Heyward’s obituary in the Times, in 2006. The anecdote referred to his habit while playing “street football,” without a helmet, as a “wayward” boy in Passaic. He was only thirty-nine when he died, from a brain tumor. Even the hardest of heads is vulnerable to disease. I’ve never read or heard any suggestions that the cancer was related to Heyward’s football career, but when the executives at the N.F.L.’s headquarters, in Manhattan, talk about “changing the culture” of the sport, as they have been doing with increasing urgency in the past few months, in response to growing public concern over concussions, the use of the head as a battering ram, with or without a helmet, is near the top of the list of things they’d like to disown.
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