The Archetypes of the Gridiron, and The Real Men on the Other Side

USA Today Sports photo

This article is by guest writer Andrew Swensen, a man I have gotten to know through the Pittsburgh Music Alliance, a cohort of five organizations, including mine, which he put together. The more I get to know him the more I find out about the vast range of his interests and knowledge. We happened to be talking before a meeting earlier this year and discovered we were thinking along similar lines in regards to sports figures. Here are his thoughts:

We love to tell stories. It is in our nature, and we do it all the time – even when we are not aware of it. Our lives become stories as we look for cause and effect, a beginning, middle, and end. On a smaller scale, particular days become a story for us, and a day becomes “good” or “bad” because of the story that we have made from events. This quality has been rooted in our play and our work since the time when we gathered around campfires to pass on our tribal history, and we continue it to this day.

These stories need characters, and we “write” those characters much as we write the story itself. The place where our storytelling nature is most obvious is in places like books and movies. Here we find that the nature of characters falls along a spectrum, a continuum between two poles. On the one side we have characters that represent some abstract idea or quality, good or bad, and these characters become what we call archetypes. The most archetypal characters do not evolve or develop in a story but instead capture some idea, unchanging throughout a plot, and act and react in predictable ways.

The gods of myth are obvious examples here, and so, for example, we never really expect Thor to discover his sensitive inner side but do expect him to respond to any problem with a pounding hammer. Call him the archetype of blunt-force problem solving.

Archetypes are important to us because we project into them some aspect of our inner nature. The archetype and their story give shape to something that is difficult to understand – good and evil, love and loss, and so on. Archetypal characters are easy to spot if you know what to look for, with abundant examples in movies. Darth Vader is an archetype. So too is Yoda. The Wizard of Oz is a modern fairy tale, and fairy tales are all built on archetypal characters – the helper, the villain, the sage, and of course the hero.

At the other end of the spectrum are characters whom we can term to be “realist.” The idea of narrative “realism” is tricky, but the basic idea depends on some connection to what could be real. Realist characters look like people we know, and they have problems like our problems. Realist characters have dimension and ambiguity. We care about them because of their mix of flaws and virtues, and their story arises in the places of psychological motivation, uncertainty, and chance. Unlike Thor, the real character is not sure how to handle every situation, and our engagement with them rests on watching how they weigh options and make decisions – sometimes to achievement and sometimes to disappointment.

Most of our stories and their characters slide along the continuum between these two poles. Dorothy is just a realist girl in Kansas until she is turned into an archetypal hero in a fairy tale world. Luke Skywalker is just a young guy fixing robots until he gets wrapped in a cosmic mythology of good and evil. On the other hand, apparently realist characters still carry archetypal qualities, and in many respects, these qualities are what makes us care about them, what makes them “universal.” We care about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman because he is an archetypal “everyman.” We care about the reporters in the recent Best Picture Spotlight because they are archetypal searchers for the truth as they uncover evil and fight the good fight to bring it to light and to justice.

Somewhere at the midpoint between archetype and realism is the tough-talking detective like Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The movie mythologizes him – a tough guy who makes wise cracks to the bad guys as he solves the case. Yet at the same time, he is still cast as just a regular guy that you could meet just down that bar at your local watering hole – archetypally real, and realistically archetypal.

Professional sports is all about story telling, filled with archetypal characters. Sports have the entire essence of story, stories that we live out and stories that we tell. Like all narratives, the audience, the listener or viewer of the unfolding dramatic plot, builds its affiliation with the players on the stage or screen. The whole point of heroes and their tales lies in our vicarious experience of them. The hero plays out a narrative on our behalf, and we take a personal stake in the outcome.

So it is in sports. Have you ever sat back and wondered why we feel such strong emotions when “our” team wins or loses? It is because we have mythologized them, taking a personal stake in the victories and defeats of our mythic heroes. We have invested part of our own identity in our team, and we are so invested and psychologically affiliated that we even take on tribal colors to claim our identity. If you are from Pittsburgh, one of the first things that you know about your tribal identity comes in sports. The phrase on t-shirts “I bleed black and gold” is tribal, archetypal identity. It does not matter that you have no knowledge of the “real” characters. These are the colors of virtue.

As for villainy, well around here that comes in purple and black, orange and black, and brown and white. This tribal thinking runs deep to visceral reactions. My wife and I were walking together one day, and each of us grabbed our baseball caps. She had lived in New York and so had a Yankees cap. I had lived in Boston, and my cap sports the Red Sox “B”. As we are both Pittsburghers at heart, we didn’t realize the incongruity of this pairing until someone else pointed it out, noting as I well know that wearing the “B” in the Bronx comes with peril, as does the “NY” on the streets near Fenway.

The names of teams reflect some regional piece of identity in many cases. These team names actually have some amusing consequences when a franchise moves. There aren’t too many lakes in Los Angeles, and Utah never was known for its jazz. At least Dallas knew to take the “North” off of its “Stars.” But of course each in its original conception was all about the tribe. In college this is most conspicuous with your Hawkeyes and Buckeyes, Hoosiers and Sooners. A lot of them like local animals like Badgers, Wolverines, Gophers, Ducks, and even Horned Toads; and yes, California used to have Golden Bears, and Pennsylvania was once home to many mountain lions, Nittany Lions and Panthers in local parlance. Professional sports also like regional animals – like Arizona Diamondbacks, Florida Panthers, and Baltimore Ravens (thanks to one of our greatest storytellers, Poe). Then you have the names of regional industry like Oilers (both Edmonton and Houston), Whalers, Brewers, Packers…

And of course Steelers.

Yes, steel is in our archetypal blood. This town likes its heroes to be gritty and tough, and we play out our mythic dramas every Sunday through the fall.

I would argue that football is the most archetypal and most story-like of all sports. This essence appears in its persistent language of warfare, as if we write every game like a Homeric epic. People use phrases like “the battle is won in the trenches,” and the players are “warriors.” A game plan takes on the tenor of a military campaign, with strategic and tactical objectives. The characters in this drama have their own Homeric mythos attached to them, and we have given them the status formerly reserved for the likes of Achilles and Ajax.

I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s, and I feel that mythology deep inside, enduring in me to this day. I moved away for 20 years but then became a Pittsburgh cliché, a boomerang, about 10 years ago, and football was part of that story. I was living in Boston but attended a wedding here one January. I was talking to the wedding musicians, and as it was January, the subject was the playoffs. At the end of that wedding, I said to myself, “I love this town. Even the musicians talk about football.” It was not that I was a diehard Steelers fan who painted my face black and gold. But I had that thing in my blood, my tribal self: I wanted to be a city where even the artists had grit, determination, and down-to-earth integrity. I wanted to be in a city where the two mythic heroes that greeted you at the airport were George Washington and Franco Harris.

Like so many Pittsburghers, I gravitated to the stalwart types. I loved Rocky Bleier, Jack Lambert, and Mike Webster – a guy who played December games in short sleeves. In the modern era, I found a new assembly of characters for my Achilles and Ajax. Now they were Jerome Bettis, Troy Polamalu, and Hines Ward. Yes, in Steeler nation even the wide receivers know how to pancake a defender with a jaw-dropping block.

Yet there is one big problem with our story, and it is a problem that we have written into our own narrative. You see, there is a tension between the archetypal character and the realist character – or better still, the real person.

This tension hits in some amusing ways where you get a reality check, so to speak, about the person and not the legend. I had such a moment when I was walking around Sewickley one day with my kids. We were walking up the street to our car, and walking toward us was Franco Harris. I stopped dead in my stride, like I had seen Thor himself. He walked by and gave a very friendly smile and nod, and suddenly it hit me: Franco Harris actually walks down the block to get coffee!

The thought hit me like a sledgehammer, though it shouldn’t. In my tribal mind, Thor doesn’t drink coffee with the rest of us. But Franco is still a guy, and by all accounts a very nice guy at that. I had a similar experience one night when I was at an event where a few Steelers attended to support a cause, including Brett Kiesel and Troy Polamalu. These were two incredibly nice people who were giving time in their day to help out something that they believed in. Troy is as quiet as everyone says, and Brett is as loquacious as Troy is quiet. It was nice to meet them where they are. Good people doing good work.

Yet the tension between our archetypes and these real people have some dark consequences. One of those consequences comes when you consider all of the guys who don’t make the headlines. These are men who have worked, and worked hard to make a team, so that they can be one of the other numbers on the sideline, a number whose name you don’t remember. The system of our myths does not always treat these fellows so kindly. They are young guys for the most part, with our athletes typically being in their 20s, and they have been caught up in the industry that is America’s pastime. They make pretty good money for someone at that age, but these fellows can get cast around the country from one trade to the next, and even cast out on the street without a moment’s notice.

One such player told me the story of his football career, now long past. He was a center who did his share of travel. He played in Europe and spent a couple of years in the NFL as a backup center. Two stories struck me about his life.

One story, which captures the tension between the archetypal and the real, concerned a conversation that he had here in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The Ravens had signed him, but he was visiting friends and family in Pittsburgh during the off-season. Someone here learned that he was playing for the Ravens, and asked incredulously, “How could you do that?!” He answered simply, “What do you mean, ‘How could I do that?’ It’s my job.”

The other story is not quite so amusing. His team had a star receiver who was injured. They did not want to put the receiver on injured reserve, and hoping he would recover by the playoffs, they kept him on the active roster. Yet at the same time they needed pick up another receiver…and needed to make space. A backup lineman would be the one to make room on the roster, and so my acquaintance got his notice. That same day he needed to pack up his gear in one of those big industrial plastic garbage bags. He says that he will never forget the sound of the door as it clicked behind him, and standing on the sidewalk with a Hefty bag of gear on his shoulder, he wasn’t quite sure what to do next.

So he hit the gym to get workout while he sorted through next steps. He handled the uncertainties well and lived within his means, and always kept a vision for a career beyond football, and things have worked out in the long run. However, some of these men have not acted with as much foresight, and both he and others have told some sad stories about what happens when you are turned loose from a sport to which you have devoted your days and nights since your childhood. You come face to face with a tough and very real question: What next? Some young men don’t have an answer ready, and the consequences can be tough.

Another dark underside emerges when our mythology comes face to face with realism. A lot of these individuals have been treating like heroes for years, and like heroes from our stories, they may perceive the privilege of living by a different set of rules from the rest of us. While they play the archetypal sport with its glories, living in the real world has real laws and real ethics. We – and yes, we are responsible collectively – lionize these people as our heroes, but then seem somehow shocked when they break some of society’s rules. We have created a system where being able to run the 40 in 4.3 seconds and catch a flying piece of inflated leather gives you the message that you do not have to treat other people well when you walk into a restaurant or when you get into an argument with your girlfriend. Yes, we can call for individual accountability, but the truth is that we have let down something along the way when we made a pantheon of our athletes.

Darker still is the tale of one of my childhood heroes. Like many, I watched Concussion with a deep sadness. For me, one image stands out above all the others, and it comes early. Mike Webster sits alone in his pickup truck, living his final moments of a very real tragedy. My childhood hero was sniffing glue and stunning himself with a taser in order not to feel headaches and not to hear the voices that weren’t there. He wasn’t “Iron Mike” any more. He was a man. A man for whom we should have deep compassion in his place of such profound loss. Then my mind turned to the suicides: Junior Seau, Dave Duerson, Andre Waters. These men were real lives, and those lives were lost somewhere after they were no longer the gods in stories that we yearn to tell.

I do not mean to suggest that football or any other sport should be abandoned. However, I think that we need to own the collective narrative that we are telling ourselves with archetypes of our own construction. They tap into that beautiful, primal part of ourselves, but somewhere along the way we seem to have tripped while playing out the dramas of our collective unconscious. Someone knew that there was a dollar to be made on the collisions of swift and strong men. Someone knew that there was an alumnus who wanted a good football team, and was willing to look the other way on what it takes to bring it together. But maybe we should look at the real people on the other side of the facemask. Yes, their determination and talent are impressive. Yet they are still real people at the end of the day. Maybe we should hold them to a standard not written in the mythos of our tribal identity but instead in its ethos.

I will part from this subject on an optimistic note. I return to the night that I met two legends, who were also two honorable and very real people. Brett Kiesel and Troy Polamalu were greats when they played out our archetypal stories. Yet greater still are the real stories that they are playing out still. Both are deeply committed to helping others and work together on veterans issues. Brett takes groups of veterans out on backcountry trips, so that they can successfully address some of the challenges of life after combat. Troy does similar work. Beyond that he also travels to American Samoa year after year, with crate loads of medical equipment, in an effort to meet the needs of this isolated population. These are good men. They were once great football players, but I have never been more impressed than when I saw what they did as people.

Thank you so much to Andrew for this fascinating take on how we perceive our sports “heroes.” Here are my February articles on the subject: “Knowing” the Steelers—Fan Perceptions and Misconceptions and Myths and Archetypes: More on Fan PerceptionsSeveral of Roxanna Firehall’s articles also deal with similar thoughts. Here are a few of my favorites: Terry Bradshaw: Complicated Hero and James Harrison: Hero or Thug?  Then there are Ivan’s wonderful pieces on Randy Grossman and Mike Silverstein’s series on Myron Cope and—well, I guess you get the idea that this is a subject which fascinates us around here…

Here’s a brief bio of Andrew, taken from the Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College, where he teaches:

Andrew Swensen, PhD, MA – Executive Producer and Producer of Journey to Normal:

Andrew Swensen provides professional support to nonprofit organizations in the Greater Pittsburgh area and serves as an adjunct faculty in the Heinz College of Carnegie Mellon University and the College of Fine Art, teaching aesthetics and critical judgment, and in the Conservatory of Performing Arts at Point Park University where he teaches narrative theory, film theory and film studies. He has held the positions of Director of Pittsburgh Filmmakers and Special Assistant to the President at the Pittsburgh Foundation. Mr. Swensen has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University, Hamilton College, Wellesley College, and Western Michigan University where he taught courses in comparative literature, cultural studies, religious studies, the history of ideas, and Russian literature. He received his PhD in 1995 from the University of Wisconsin.

One comment

  • roxannafirehall

    I enjoyed Andrew’s thoughts and insights. Many of the stories of players we construct are myths, rather than truths. It is, perhaps, because being a fan (fanatic) Is primarily an emotional, not an intellectual avocation. Thanks to Rebecca and Ivan for creating a place where the emotional and intellectual are celebrated.


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