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Spring Books 2004

A Life in Words
How Howard Cosell helped a stuttering student find his voice
David Shields, whose life and stories have been influenced by sports, now swims for his exercise, every day of the week.
I KNOW THAT Howard Cosell was childishly self-absorbed and petulant; that too soon after he achieved prominence the beautiful balance between righteous anger and comic self-importance got lost and he was left only with anger and self-importance; that the very thing he thought needed deflating — the "importance of sports" — he was crucially responsible for inflating; that he once told a Senate subcommittee, "I'm a unique personality who has had more impact upon sports broadcasting in America than any person who has yet lived."

I know all of that and don't really care, because its first four years, when I was in high school, Monday Night Football mattered deeply to me, and it mattered because of Cosell. I haven't watched more than a few minutes of any MNF game since then, and at the time I had no very coherent sense of its significance, but looking back, I would say it's not an exaggeration to claim that Howard Cosell changed my life, maybe even — in at least one sense — saved it. MNF was the first sports broadcast to feature three sportscasters, nine cameras, shotgun mics in the stands and up and down and around the field. Celebrities showed up in the booth: Nixon told announcer Frank Gifford he wished he'd become a sportscaster instead of a politician; John Lennon told Cosell he became a troublemaker because people didn't like his face (Cosell's comment afterward: "I know the feeling").
PhotoA professor of English at the University of Washington, David Shields is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including "Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season" (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award ). His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times magazine, Harper's and Slate, as well as other publications. The following is an excerpt from "The Wound and the Bow," the prologue to his new book, "Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine," which is being published by Simon & Schuster in May.
I grew up in the '60s and '70s in suburban San Francisco, the son of left-wing Jewish journalist-activists. My mother was the public-information officer for one of the first desegregated school districts in California. One day the human-relations consultant informed her that the revolution wouldn't occur until white families gave up their houses in the suburbs and moved into the ghetto. My mother tried for the better part of the evening to persuade us to put our house up for sale. When cousin Sarah married a black man from Philadelphia, Sarah's mother wasn't able to attend, so my mother substituted and brought the temple down with an a capella finale of "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

My father held dozens of jobs, but perhaps the one he loved the most was director of the San Mateo poverty program during the late '60s. He sat in a one-room office without central heating and called grocery stores, wanting to know why they didn't honor food stamps; called restaurants, asking if, as the sign in the window proclaimed, they were indeed equal-opportunity employers. The salary was $7,500 a year, but I never saw him happier.

No one ever had his or her heart more firmly fixed in the right place than my father and mother, with the possible exception of Howard Cosell. Traveling in a limo through a tough part of Kansas City after a game, he told the driver, Peggy, to stop the car when he saw two young black men fighting, surrounded by a group of guys cheering for blood. Cosell got out and instantaneously was the ringside announcer:
Shields, the author of many books, essays and stories, is a professor at the University of Washington. Here, he teaches a class in advanced story writing.
"Now, I want you to listen here. It's quite apparent to this observer that the young southpaw doesn't have a jab. And you, my friend, over here, you obviously do not have the stamina to continue. This conflict is halted posthaste." Handshakes, autographs. When Cosell got back in the limo and Peggy expressed her astonishment at what she'd just seen, Cosell leaned back, took a long drag on his cigar, and said, "Pegeroo, just remember one thing: I know who I am." Which, according to himself, was "a man of causes."

Cosell defended Muhammad Ali when he refused to serve in Vietnam after his conversion to Islam. When Cosell died, Ali said, "Howard Cosell was a good man, and he lived a good life. I can hear Howard now saying, 'Muhammad, you're not the man you used to be 10 years ago.' " Ali was referring to Cosell standing up at a pre-fight news conference and saying to him, "Many people believe you're not the man you used to be 10 years ago." Ali replied, "I spoke to your wife, and she said you're not the man you were two years ago." Cosell giggled like a schoolboy. Asked once what he stood for, Cosell replied, "I stood for the Constitution, in the case of the U.S. versus Muhammad Ali. What the government did to this man was inhuman and illegal under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments."

Music to my parents' Marxist ears. As was this: "The importance that our society attaches to sport is incredible. After all, is football a game or a religion? The people of this country have allowed sports to get completely out of hand." And this: "In the spoon-fed, Alice in Wonderland world of sports broadcasting, the public was not accustomed to hearing its heroes questioned."

This is where it gets complicated, because I was a monomaniacal, 5-foot-4, 120-pound freshman basketball player at Aragon High School in San Mateo who, somehow, was supremely confident that he was destined to become a professional athlete.

From kindergarten to 10th grade, all I really did was play sports, think about sports, dream about sports. I learned how to read by devouring mini-bios of jock-stars. I learned math by computing players' (and my own) averages. I remember once hitting a home run in the bottom of the 12th inning to win a Little League All-Star game and then coming home to lie down in my uniform in the hammock in our back yard, drink lemonade, eat sugar cookies, and measure my accomplishments against the fellows featured in the just-arrived issue of Sports Illustrated.

My father didn't particularly mind my mindlessness, since, in addition to being director of the poverty program, he was a lifelong athlete and sporadic sportswriter who still writes an occasional sports column for the local suburban California weekly. My mother, on the other hand, disapproved. Once, she said to me, "Sometimes when people ask me if all you ever do is play sports, I want to tell them, 'At least he's devoted to something. At least he has an activity at which he excels,' but other times I wish you were obsessed with something a little more permanent."

"Yes, I know," I whispered; it was very late on some Sunday night.

"Sometimes I just want to tell those people: 'Leave me alone. Leave him alone. He's like a dancer on that damn playfield or ballyard or what have you.' But what I usually tell them, what I really feel, and what I guess I'm trying to tell you now is that I wish you'd dedicate yourself with the same passion to a somewhat more elevated calling."

"Yes, I know," I whispered again, turning and trotting off to sleep.

SPORTS AND POLITICS have always been, for me, in curiously close conversation, alliance, overlap, competition. None of the kids I played sports with were Jewish. They asked me why anyone would want to be. So when Sandy Koufax refused to pitch during the World Series, I suddenly felt proud to stay home on Yom Kippur.

In high school I was athletic, and thus, to a certain extent, popular. However, I worked unduly hard at it, at sports, which made me extremely unpopular among the really popular, really athletic people. Why? Because I made popularity or grace look like something less than a pure gift. Only the really popular, really athletic people knew I was unpopular, so I could, for instance, be elected, if I remember correctly, vice-president of the sophomore class and yet be, in a sense, underappreciated.

Cosell knew the feeling, amplified. "I remember going to school in the morning," Cosell said in his Playboy interview. "A Jewish boy. I remember having to climb a back fence and run because the kids from St. Theresa's parish were after me. My drive, in a sense, relates to being Jewish and living in an age of Hitler. I think these things create insecurities in you that live forever." As if in proof of these insecurities, he said, "I am the most hated man on the face of the earth." Still, he did have a point. He was voted the "most disliked sportscaster of the 1970s."

For Cosell, language was everything. "You're being extremely . . . truculent," he admonished Muhammad Ali once, and what I loved was the way Cosell paused before "truculent" and the extraordinary torque he put on the word so that he seemed to be simultaneously brandishing the word as a weapon and mocking his own sesquipedalianism. In Gifford's memoir "The Whole Ten Yards," surely leaning more than a little on his co-writer, Gifford says about Cosell: "His genius lay in turning his liabilities into assets." I, too, wanted to turn my liabilities into strengths. I knew what my liabilities were; only what were my strengths?

I had been aware since I was 6 or 7 that I stuttered, but the problem would come and go; it never seemed that serious or significant. Now, as a sophomore in high school, with my hormones trembling, my lips were, too. In class, I'd sit in back, pretending not to hear when called upon and, when pressed, would produce an answer that I knew was incorrect but was the only word I could say. I devotedly studied the dictionary and thesaurus in the hope I could possess a vocabulary of such immense range that for every word, I'd know half a dozen synonyms and thus always be able to substitute an easy word for an unspeakable one. My sentences became so saturated with approximate verbal equivalents that what I thought often bore almost no relation to what I actually said.

One day I was asked whether the origin of the American Revolution was essentially economic or philosophical. I wanted to say, as my mother and father had taught me, that revolution arises from an unfair distribution of wealth, but instead I replied: "The Whigs had a multiplicity of fomentations, ultimate or at least penultimate of which would have to be their predilection to be utterly discrete from colonial intervention, especially on numismatical pabulae." The teacher looked down at his desk. The class roared. By the end of the week I'd been scheduled to meet with the school's speech therapist.

Miss Acker knew I was a basketball player and proved to be surprisingly knowledgeable about the game, so for the first half hour we talked about how it doesn't matter if a guard is short if he knows how to protect the ball; what a shame it was the high school had no girls' basketball team; how John McPhee's "A Sense of Where You Are" was good but Ed Linn's "The Last Loud Roar" was maybe even better.

When I read aloud for her, she said, "You're a stutterer. I want you to admit that fact. It's an important step. Once you acknowledge it, we can get to work on correcting it. When you're a professional basketball player, I don't want to see you giving hesitant interviews at halftime."

The flattery tactic didn't work the second time, not least because she was wrong: As Howard Cosell well knew, the athletic aesthetic is always to assert that the ecstasies experienced by the body are beyond the reach of words, whereas to some cerebral people, unfortunately, the primal appeal of a warrior-athlete is incalculable.

I stood and said, "I don't want your happy posters or your happy smiles or your happy basketball chitchat. I don't want to be happy. I want to be u-u-unusual." Then I did something I thought was very unusual: I tore down a poster of a seagull and ran out of the room. Having never before confronted myself and found myself in any real way wanting, I returned to her office the next day and began what — 30 years later — still feels like my life: a life limited but also defined by language.

Within a week, Miss Acker got me switched out of Typing into Public Speaking. The speech teacher, Mr. Roshoff, was tall and lean and witty and bottomlessly, brutally ironic in a way that seemed not entirely dissimilar to Cosell's manner. Every week or so, we had to present a new speech, and with these I suffered predictably, but then I hit on the idea of doing a speech imitating Cosell. This was 1972 — the second year of Monday Night Football — and so I went to school on "The Mouth" the only way I could. I simply watched him and thought about him as much as I could, even more than I had before.

"The Mouth" was a good nickname for him. He was such an insatiably oral guy, talking nonstop and always pouring liquor down his throat and jamming a huge stogie in his mouth. With his pasty skin, his stoop-shouldered walk, his ridiculous toupee, his enormous ears and schnozz, he always reminded me of nothing so much as a very verbose and Jewish elephant. The things he could do with that voice: the way, every week at halftime, he'd extemporize the NFL highlights in that roller-coaster rhetoric of his and "add guts and life to a damned football game." He'd found a way to be better than what he was reporting on, to bully reality, to make life into language.

After a week of practice, I had my Cosell imitation down. Stutterers typically don't stutter when singing, whispering, acting or imitating someone else, and when I did my Cosell imitation, I didn't stutter. I was melodramatically grandiloquent and entertaining in the Cosellian vein. Everyone in the class loved my performance, and Mr. Roshoff loved it, too. For the next three years, he rarely passed me without saying softly, "HEL-lo, every-BODY, this is HOW-wud Cos-SELL." It was easy to see why my sister and several of her friends had crushes on him. Still, I could imitate Howard Cosell; so what?

TOWARD THE END of my sophomore year I went to the beach with my mother. After a while she dozed off, so I walked along the shore until I was invited to join a game of Tackle the Guy with the Ball. After I scored several times in a row, some of the other guys ganged up to tackle the guy with the ball (me), and down I went. Suddenly my left leg was tickling my right ear, the water was lapping at my legs, and a crowd of a hundred people gathered around me to speculate as to whether I was permanently paralyzed. Bursting through the throng, my mother threw up her hands and wailed at me, "See? See what sports will do to you?"

I had a badly broken leg and was in traction the entire summer, but when the doctor misread the X-ray and removed the body cast too early, I had a pin inserted in my leg and I used a leg brace and crutches my entire junior year. I still stutter slightly, but in high school my stutter was so severe that it effectively defined who I was. My whole life was structured around the idea of doing one thing so well that people forgave me for, and I forgave myself for, my "disfluency" (Miss Acker's term). With the jockocracy newly closed to me, I became, nearly overnight, an insanely overzealous chess player. But I was certainly never going to become a chess whiz, and I rationalized to myself that if one could be (as Bobby Fischer was) the best chess player in the world but still a monster and a moron, the game wasn't interesting, and so I abandoned it after several months, joining the school paper.

By my senior year I'd recovered well enough from my broken leg that I was 12th man on the varsity basketball team and second doubles in tennis, but sports no longer meant much to me. All that physical expression had gone inside; language was my new channel. I suddenly loved reading; I became the editor of the paper; my parents were thrilled; it was sickening. I spent no more time on my studies than I had before, but now instead of six hours a day playing sports, it was six hours a day working on the paper. My bible was "New Journalism," an anthology of pieces edited by Tom Wolfe. I thought I'd become a new journalist, à la Hunter Thompson or Joan Didion.

In college, though, writing for the weekly, weakly student magazine, I got in trouble for making stuff up. Also, I was trepidatious — still — about calling people on the phone (I couldn't imitate Cosell), and so I crabwalked into creative-writing courses. I'd make stuff up, and that would be OK. The only problem, as I discovered in graduate school, was that compared to other fiction writers, I'm not very interested in making stuff up. I'm much more interested in contemplating the so-called real world, including, alas, the world of sports.

I've now written several books of fiction and nonfiction, and to my astonishment and horror, half of them deal more or less explicitly with sports. In "The Wound and the Bow," Edmund Wilson analyzes how various writers, such as Dickens, Wharton and Hemingway, used the central wound of their life as the major material of their art. In Rocky, asked what he sees in dowdy Adrian, Rocky says, "She fills gaps." I was a great child-athlete, and I just assumed this play-paradise would last forever. It didn't. Writing about it fills gaps.

I wish I could say instead that the material I keep returning to is 17th-century Flemish painting or the Cold War or unified field theory, but it's not. I keep coming back to sports, of all things.

Much of what I write seems to feature an exceedingly verbal person contemplating an exceedingly physical person. I return over and over to the endlessly complex dialectic between body and mind. Whenever we talk about the body, we inevitably lie, but the body itself never lies. At a deep spot in the river, Howard Cosell showed me the way across; he showed me where to look and, looking, how to stand.

Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Magazine staff photographer.

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