A Game We Play

Bill Curry has a story about bullying. It’s from a different time and so it is a different kind of bullying story from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin thing so much in the news these days. Curry’s story lacks the racial taunting, the TMZ videos of a shirtless madman, the modern opinions about football and intimidation and the merciless code of the locker room. It is a story with an unexpected ending.

“There are no Sunday school dudes in professional football,” Bill Curry is saying. “Not one. There’s not one nice guy out there. We all have our hangups. We all make our mistakes. We all have something dark coursing through us.”

Curry does not wear his rage. He is, by all accounts, one of the best people you will meet in or out of sports. Five or 10 times a year, someone will tell me a Bill Curry story — a touching letter he wrote, a thoughtful call he made, a surprise visit to a hospital, a piece of advice he offered someone he never met. Curry is 71 years old now, retired, living the contented life of a grandfather and supportive husband to Carolyn, who has written her first book. “Now, I get to be the quiet figure in the back no one notices,” Curry says. If any other football coach said that, the words might be tinged with wistfulness or regret or despair. Not Curry. He says the words joyfully. He LIKES being the quiet figure supporting his wife.

But that rage, he says, oh yes, he felt that rage. “I’m telling you,” he repeats. “There are NO nice guys. … Vince Lombardi used to tell us, ‘you don’t mature like regular people.’ That used to make me so mad. I would think, ‘I’m a man. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m not some kid.’ But, like with most things, he was right. All NFL players are teenage males. I don’t care if you are 37 years old. You have to be a teenage male to play that game at that level.”

Curry says he was particularly immature and angry when he showed up to play football for the Lombardi’s Packers in 1965. From his first day in Green Bay, Curry hated the middle linebacker Ray Nitschke. It was the sort of hatred Curry had never quite felt before or since, a particularly football brand of hatred made up of a thousand crashes and a hundred thousand slights. Curry bubbled with resentment and fear and frustration and this overwhelming powerlessness. Ray Nitschke lived in his nightmares. Bill Curry could not block him.

Nitschke simmered with his own particularly level of fury. Nitschke’s father died when he was 4. His mother died when he was 13. You have probably heard the story of Alexandre Dumas, the writer — he wrote that on the day his father died, his mother saw him walking away with his father’s gun. She asked him where he was going. Dumas said. “I’m going to heaven to kill God who killed my Daddy.” It was that sort of passionate anger that fueled Nitschke. He played through unspeakable pain, through numbing exhaustion. Nitschke could not stop.

And he battered Curry day after day. Nitschke beat him in drills, of course. Nitschke beat him in simulated games, of course. Nitschke beat him in one-on-one battles specially designed by Lombardi. But it went beyond that. Nitschke would flaunt the rules to beat Curry. He would jump the snap count. He hit Curry late. He kicked Curry when he was down. He mocked Curry when he tried to fight back. “He wouldn’t even kick my behind,” Curry says. “He would just hold me off and laugh at me.”

Off the field, it was the same. The treatment wasn’t anything as obvious as a racist voice message. Nobody would have called it bullying then. It was just this daily drumbeat meant to remind Curry that he was was nothing, less than nothing. One time Nitschke and teammate Elijah Pitts were talking, and Pitts told Curry, “Hey, get in on this conversation. you’re one of us.” Bill spoke, and Nitschke looked at him with disgust. “Nobody asked you anything,” he said. “So keep your (bleeping) mouth shut.” It was like that day after day.

And Bill Curry found that Nitschke’s cruelty got inside him. Curry could not sleep before practices where he would be matched up with Nitschke. He found himself constantly aware of where Nitschke was standing in every situation. Bill Curry was a big man, a strong man, a relatively fearless man. He had never hesitated in fighting for himself. But Nitschke had invaded his psyche. Nitschke had unleashed his darkest feelings and blackest terror.

But, Curry says, that’s what football does. That’s the game. It pushes men to their limits of pain and fatigue and aggression. The reason we are repelled by it are obvious. But the reasons we are drawn to it are obvious too. “When you’re dying in the fourth quarter,” Curry says, “and it’s 138 degrees on the turf, and it’s your 23rd straight game, and you are four points behind … you have nothing left to give. There’s nothing left inside you. But you play on for those guys in the huddle. You play on beyond yourself, beyond what you believed was possible. You don’t do it for yourself. You don’t do it for the fans or the coaches. You do it for those players who you play with, those players who are the only ones who really understand what you are feeling and thinking.”

Those sorts of feelings, he says, are so raw and so intense they go beyond words.

What could he do about Nitschke? Nothing. There was nothing to be done. He could not talk to Lombardi about his feelings. He could not admit to teammates how he felt. He could not even explain it all to his wife. He was all alone. On cue, Curry can recite a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Law of the Jungle.”

“When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar
Lest others take part in the quarrel and the Pack be diminished by war.”

And so, Curry dealt with his hatred of Nitschke the way football players will — by gobbling it up, burying it somewhere deep and taking any chance he could to get Nitschke back. After a couple of years — Curry started at center in Super Bowl I for the Packers — Curry moved to the Baltimore Colts and he managed to get a few shots in when they played Nitschke and the Packers. In 1977, Curry and George Plimpton wrote a book called “One More July,” and Curry unleashed some more of his feelings about Nitschke. Here was the scene Plimpton described when he asked about Nitschke as they drove up to Curry’s last training camp.

“He was a friend of yours,” I asked innocently.

“Friend?” Curry’s hand came off the wheel and made a fist. I thought he was going to punch it down on the horn.

“What was wrong with him?” I asked. “He was a teammate.”

“He was just about the embodiment of my despair in Green Bay,” Curry said. “That’s one part of it. The other may be more interesting. You’ve been asking me about the qualities that seem to turn up in great players. In his case he was driven by an intensity that was simply demonic.”

Curry says he could not let go of his feelings toward Nitschke. They met a couple of times in later years, and Nitschke — in his own awkward way — attempted to make peace. Curry would not relent. He could not. There were scars he could not even feel anymore. Nitschke and his wife Jackie adopted three children. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a legend in Green Bay. Curry went on to coach at Georgia Tech, then Alabama, then Kentucky. He worked as a television analyst. He came back to start a football program at Georgia State in his beloved Atlanta hometown. It has been a great football life.

And in the late 1990s, Curry decided he needed to reach out to Nitschke, clear the air, forgive and ask for forgiveness, put the past behind them. He was told by mutual friends that Nitschke very much wanted to do that too. Curry has never had trouble forgiving people. He is one of those people who understands — even exaggerates — his own flaws and so he is entirely sympathetic to others’ flaws.

But he did not call Nitschke. He kept meaning to do it. He thought about it pretty often. He wrote about it in his journal a couple of times. But he did not call and he did not call and he did not call. And then in March of 1998, he opened up the Atlanta Constitution and saw the headline: Ray Nitschke was dead. “Terrible,” Curry says. “Just terrible. I’ll never be able to make up for that. He was a man who sought to make amends. And I …”

He stops. He had started talking about bullying. But, in the end, he realizes that he’s talking about something else entirely.

“It’s a game we play,” Curry says, and he might be talking about football.

40 thoughts on “A Game We Play

  1. Michael Green

    Without defending anyone involved here (beyond lauding Bill Curry’s conscience), a thought: in the days when they played for the Packers, how many people had guaranteed multi-million-dollar contracts? These guys were playing to put food on the table. None of that is to justify any kind of behavior, but we should consider different times when we consider different forms of behavior.

    Reply
    1. Ben Goldberg-Morse

      Couldn’t you argue, though, that with the millions of dollars floating around pro football now (forgetting that the vast majority of contract money is unguaranteed) that competition for those spots, and thus the intense rage with which teammates go at each other, would be greater now than at any point in football history? When they were playing to put food on the table, they weren’t making significantly more than they could have as a butcher, contractor, college professor, whatever. I don’t claim to have any true idea of what went on in Miami, but I’m fascinated to see what else comes from the various investigations going into the Dolphins organization and the locker room; it seems to me that when you have teammates at the same position, fighting for millions and job security…it’s almost a surprise that true hatred and serious discord doesn’t happen more often.

      Reply
    2. sanford943

      They don’t have guaranteed contracts now. Only the big start get those and then the only thing guaranteed is a signing bonus. Those are certainly nothing to sneeze at.

      Reply
    3. Jake Bucsko

      @Michael Green – In 1969 the average U.S. salary was about $5,900. The average NFL salary was $25,000. That discrepancy is nowhere near what it is now, but even so, let’s not pretend that guys from Lombardi’s age were making comparable money to Joe Everyman.

      Reply
      1. robert magee

        Joe Namath made 100k. that meant 4 guys made total 25k to get to $25k ave. just slightly above for a simple example why you need to look to median salary. big stars contracts throw averages out of whack

        Reply
  2. Kuz

    I met Ray Nitschke years ago. I told him I was a New York football Giants fan. I asked him to give the Giants a couple of breaks, like an arm and leg. I could see the rage in his eyes and he gently slapped my cheek. It was scary.

    Reply
  3. DjangoZ

    It’s a football game. It isn’t life and death, it isn’t war. It’s a sport and a profession.

    There are assholes in every profession. There are assholes in every pick-up game of any sport we’ve ever played.

    I understand why Curry made this into something mythic. But I don’t think it was.

    That’s why bullying and harassment and threats shouldn’t be tolerated in football or any other sport or profession.

    Reply
    1. Nathan MacGregor

      You might feel about some other field the way these men feel about football, but I doubt it.

      It’s just a violin concerto. It’s just a hypothetical question about riding a beam of light. It’s just a runny-nosed kid in an Indian slum. But to a certain kind of person, it is life and death. And having “perspective” means that instead of hypocritically pooh-poohing it in a sports blog YOU are reading, you recognize that it is a recurring and distinctively human aspect of some people who we often admire no matter how irrational that may seem..

      Reply
    2. BobDD

      If you are trying to say here to someone who is CONSUMED about something to ‘lighten up’ then stop it. I have always resented someone who is disinterested in something trying to tell those who are interested that they shouldn’t be. You are trying to tell someone to stop caring. When I read the quotes from Bill Curry I envisioned his whole body being tense as words squirted out under immense pressure and didn’t land all straight and ‘purty’ on the page. It’s quite often OK to not care, but not near as OK than to care and care deeply. Frankly, I like to care about things and people and whatnot.

      Reply
  4. Cathead

    People in the Army, especially the infantry, talk about a similar type of battlefield anger and mentality. It’s the kind of thing that can lead to wartime atrocities. And I’m afraid, as Curry seems to say, that it’s in all of us, usually suppressed, but sometimes coming out at just the wrong time. But for the grace of God, there go I.

    Reply
  5. bellweather22

    My son was hazed last year joining his fraternity. It was illegal, completely banned by the university and by the national fraternity. But they still did it. It was way more than friendly pranks. It included sleep depravation, paddling to the point of large bruises and more. These are things that are not permitted when interrogating terrorists….. But the frat leadership decided it was OK anyhow. Of course, there were a couple of guys who took it way too far. My sons take on it was that he would always hate those guys and would punch them in the mouth when the opportunity presented itself. If you ever wondered why hazing has been banned most places, it’s because bullies take advantage of it to go way beyond acceptable levels. The frat was turned in, suspended and now is strictly following the rules…. But it goes on still in many places. On occasion, people are seriously injured or killed, like with Robert Champion from Florida A & Ms marching band, so hazing should never be tolerated anywhere.

    Reply
    1. Largebill

      I assume there is more to the story, but have to ask why in the heck would your son want to associate with people who treated him poorly?

      Reply
      1. bellweather22

        It’s a good question. He says he associates mainly with his pledge class who got through it all together and have a very tight bond. Personally I always looked at frats as a bunch of douches that I would never associate with. But obviously many people do.

        Reply
  6. Kate

    Sorry Joe, I’m a huge fan but this is misstep along the lines of Homeless at the Raphael.
    Why tell this story now, unless there is some corollary to Incognito/Martin? The only way this is relevant is if Richie had sought treatment, made reparations and asked for Jonathan Martin’s forgiveness. And JM refused.
    If Nitschke was really sorry, he would have been humble enough to actually apologize, to own his rage and his baggage and all the ways he caused pain in Curry’s life (and probably a number of others). My guess is that the reason Curry didn’t get around to reaching out, was because Nitschke never truly took ownership of all the havoc he wreaked. Instead he did what most abusive people do, felt kind of bad about his behavior, but not bad enough to really admit how truly awful it was.
    In a weird way your piece lays the blame on Curry. And today, that just isn’t a helpful story.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      Apparently you missed the part where Nitschke tried to make peace and Curry wasn’t interested. Forgiveness is critically important in the process of moving forward…. Not so much for Nitschke but for Curry himself. Curry knew this but still couldn’t forgive. It was a mistake he’ll always regret.

      Reply
      1. Kate

        “Nitschke — in his own awkward way — attempted to make peace.” It doesn’t say that he called Curry and apologized. Had he done that, the onus would clearly have been on Curry. Perhaps that happened, but that’s not what the story says, so I’m assuming it didn’t. My guess is that someone said something like, “Ray feels kind of bad about what happened,” to Curry. Why should the responsibility be on the victim to reach out?

        Reply
        1. bellweather22

          It’s a fair question, the implication to me is that if a guy like Nitschke makes any move to try to move past it, it’s then on you. You’re not going to get more than that. It just wasn’t in his makeup. My read on it is that Nitschke may have felt that he tried and if Curry didn’t want anything to do with him, then that was his right. The apparent attempts to reach out through mutual friends makes me believe this. It seems unfair, but if Curry wanted to move past it himself, then it was on him to make the next move.

          Reply
          1. NevadaMark

            “It just wasn’t in his makeup”. Heck, that was the whole problem in the first place. If you are asking forgiveness, aren’t you supposed to go beyond that? Walk the extra mile? If an apology is grudging, how can it be a sincere apology? I think Kate made a good point here (not that your comments are wrong either; I just think you are giving Nitschke too much credit).

      1. Kate

        Then why tell the story now? My point was, this is an abuse story at a time when another abuse story is in the news. I certainly can’t speak for him, but the timing seems more than coincidental.

        Reply
        1. Karyn Ellis

          Lots of reasons. To give insight into how that kind of harassment affects someone–Martin isn’t talking. I don’t mean to imply that he should, but telling this story gives us a look into how this phenomenon affects the victim at the time, and throughout his life.

          It also shows us how harassment plays out on an NFL team. It’s a little different here, because Nitschke and Curry played on opposite sides of the ball, and not on the same line, but it does tell a story. It gives us a window into how locker-room culture can go sour.

          I still don’t think that Joe was trying to blame anyone, least of all Curry.

          Reply
  7. Blake

    Curry is a mensch, but he should feel no sadness. He had no obligation to give late-life solace to a man who bullied him for years. If that would have made Curry feel better, fine. But Nitschke made his choices, day after day, and was entitled to the outcomes.

    Reply
  8. brad

    While it’s to Curry’s credit that he has the generosity of spirit to care about Nitschke like that, it’s unfair to even subtly, if perhaps unintentionally, imply that it’s on the bullied to give their bullies a chance to make amends. Victims are not obliged to give their abusers a chance to clear their conscience, especially if they don’t feel like they’d gain anything from it themselves.

    Reply
  9. Largebill

    We all think we are doing someone else a favor when we forgive them. No, we are the one who benefits from the grace of extending forgiveness and lightening the burden of anger we carry with us in life.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      Thank you. This is the point I was trying, probably unsuccessfully to make above. Curry was the one who had the most to gain from forgiving Nitschke. It meant laying aside hate, bitterness and anger. These are emotions that eat a person up.

      Reply
    2. BobDD

      absolutely

      some talk about what seems most fair here, but Bill Curry has somewhere gotten the belief (that I know from experience to be true) that to forgive is the most freeing and growth friendly thing to do for yourself when you are ready to do so

      Reply
  10. invitro

    I’d like to ask Curry if doesn’t he think the bullying brought the team closer together, and made them tougher, as the defenders of bullying say.

    Reply
  11. brad

    That presumes an effect such as in Curry’s case. There’s no denying the catharsis can be mutual, but most who are bullied, however badly, move on in life. If it’s merely the bully seeking to unburden their conscience to someone who is not burdened by their shared past then the bully is, again, being rather selfish. Curry and Nitschke are clearly a different case, and I don’t see my, or the other similar, comments denying that Curry might well have lost something himself by not giving Nitschke that opportunity.
    I mean this with much respect, but the language involved alone makes me wonder if religious impulses are blending in here in ways which color perception.

    Reply
  12. brad

    My prior comment was meant in response to Largebill, but I appear not to have enabled enough scripting permissions for my comments to go through quite as intended. My mistake.

    Reply
  13. Richard

    Great piece, Joe.

    I wonder if Kate’s misintepretation of this piece has to do with the gender divide in this country (though, really, it exists in most countries).

    Does any guy (or at least any American guy) think Joe is blaming Curry in this piece?

    Does any guy (or at least any American guy) think Nitschke could have been _capable_ of making more of an attempt to apologize to Curry? Personally, I think Nitschke would have been as psychologically capable at really attempting to apologize as Japanese general Matome Ugaki would have been at deciding to surrender rather than fly a final kamikaze mission to his death when he heard Emperor Showa announce the surrender of Japan.

    This is certainly a story about (male) (American) bullying when another story about (male) (American) bullying is in the news. What it’s more of, though, is a story about how people (American men in this case) are trapped and shaped in the roles and responses that society and their experiences put them in to, despite what they know to be good or right. It’s also a story about tradeoffs. Nitschke was terrible to Curry because of his rage. But without his rage, Nitschke probably would not have been such a force on the football field. Without his rage, Ray Nitschke would not have been Ray Nitschke

    Reply
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  15. bellweather22

    Richard, I think that’s part of it. I don’t think the ladies can relate to the locker room mentality… and that’s not even saying it’s right that it’s the way it is. Us guys who have been part of a locker room realize it can be a tough place. Most of us, when we look back, were bullied and bullied others… in the name of comradarie. Some was good fun, and some things crossed a line. Obviously Nitschke crossed the line in a big way… and we all probably knew guys who did so also in our locker rooms. Most of us just stayed clear of those guys & therefore had minimal problems. But if you ended up in their sights, look out. But then you meet them 30 years later and they’re not the same guy. The immaturity of youth has given way to a much more mature middle aged person. I know one guy in particular, who was the closest I can think of to Nitschke. He’s a really nice guy these days…. and he wasn’t that bad of a guy then…. but he did have that mean streak that Defensive Tackles probably need to continually physically dominate their opponenents. I thought he was really into pain. He could take it and he could inflict it & was really proud of that. A wannabe gang member at our school found out about that when the guy gleefully snapped his arm in half for foolishly challenging him. But, things change. Hanging on to hurts doesn’t help. Curry recognized that, but he just couldn’t pull the trigger on the reconciliation. Poz wasn’t blaming Curry at all. Curry was upset at himself.

    Reply
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