Bringing the Heatby Mark Bowden
“Among the best football books ever.”
“Among the best football books ever.”
Bringing the Heat is a gripping, behind-the-scenes look at one professional football team’s campaign for the NFL championship, told through the personal stories of the men on the field and the coaches, managers, and owner on the sidelines. The team is the 1992 Philadelphia Eagles, a group of players assembled in the iconoclastic image of their former head coach, Buddy Ryan, who are known throughout the NFL for their ferocious defense led by Reggie White, Seth Joyner, and Andre Waters, and for the otherworldly talents of their mercurial quarterback Randall Cunningham. Award-winning journalist Mark Bowden’s in-depth account spares none of the game’s ugliness’the greed, the racism, and the often sadistic violence”while capturing the beauty of athleticism at its highest level, the unwieldy cohesiveness of a modern pro sports team, and above all the exultant glory of victory that inspires their struggle to be the best.
“A phenomenal feat of reportage, perfect for football fans coast to coast.”
–H. G. Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights
“A gigantic celebration, written with so much humor and energy you are left laughed-out and breathless . . . There are now four mandatory books on football: Dan Jenkins’s Semi-Tough; George Plimpton’s Paper Lion; H. G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, andthe hilarious, incorrigible son of them all, Mark Bowden’s Bringing the Heat.”
–Michael Bamberger, Sports Illustrated
“Bowden employs a muscular, brazen writing style. . . . His book overflows with stories of pro football dreams, of bravery in the face of injury. Yet it also unflinchingly tells of the darker side of life in the NFL: uncontrolled egos, ruined families, marital infidelity.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“Among the best football books ever.” –Kirkus Reviews
A colossus, Jerome Brown strides the sun-soaked playing fields of his youth beset by children.
Dozens of children, all ages, sizes, and colors, the bigger and bolder ones shouldering in close, clutching, hollering ‘me, J”rome! Me, J”rome!” while the smaller and more timid hop at the fringes, waving, begging.
“Please, J”rome. Me! Me!”
‘sit Down!” bellows the beleaguered big man.
He is weary, but patient. He knows exactly where these kids are coming from. The millionaire star defensive lineman of the Philadelphia Eagles knows all about the Gimme! Gimme! instinct. He and the rest of his teammates are enthusiastic adherents to the MEAT (Maximize Earnings at All Times) principle. Asked what it meant to him the first year he was elected to the NFL’s Pro Bowl, the year he was first acknowledged by his peers to be the very best at what he does, Jerome didn’t go all mushy.
He rolled his eyes, flashed his trademark shiteating grin, and sang out, ‘mo’ money! Mo’ money! Mo’ money!”
Jerome is big and black and wide as an old cast-iron stove, only instead of heat he gives off noise. “Even as a little boy, we always heard him comin” before we seen him,” says his father, Willie, a big, wide man, though not as formidable as his son. Everything about Jerome is wide. His head widens from the temples to the place where his neck joins his shoulders. Inside this frame his deep-set brown eyes are set wide over a broad, flat nose and even wider mouth, thick lips closing over big white teeth, perfectly straight, even, amazing teeth, teeth that jump out of that broad dark face like one of those blazing electric marquees that line the Strip in Vegas. Wide chin, wide neck, wide shoulders, wide chest, wide belly, wide butt, wide thighs, wide calves, wide ankles–why, even Jerome’s posture is wide; he stands with his feet set on a line with the far reach of his shoulders to provide secure undergirding for the bulwark above. You would expect someone so large to move slowly, but not Jerome. He’s always bouncing on that wide-open stance, always on the move or ready to move, like a motor with its idle set too fast. Jerome is hardwired for fun and action, and there isn’t a calculating neuron in his brain.
“I mean it!” he warns the children.
He’s here in his hometown of sleepy Brooksville, Florida, to host the First Annual Jerome Brown Football Camp–you know, trying to give something back. It ain’t easy. Jerome has had the idea now for several years. His teammates Keith Byars and Byron Evans do it, hold a weekend football clinic for kids from their hometowns. But he’d put it off. The details of staging Camp Jerome were daunting–reserving the field, advertising, coordinating the date with all his teammates’ schedules–who has time for that shit?
“Pay attention!” he pleads.
To no avail. Cradled in Brown’s massive arms are T-shirts, Eagles pins and pens, color team portraits, travel bags, all manner of goodies, icing on the cake for these kids after a morning of autographs and football drills led by real NFL football players–Jerome, Reggie White, Randall Cunningham, Seth Joyner, Wes Hopkins, Clyde Simmons, Andre Waters, Ron Heller, and others. But instead of setting up some kind of system for handing these things out, Jerome just scoops up armfuls and wades in, provoking this kiddie riot. It’s like trying to line up a swarm of bees single file with a bucket of honey under one arm.
But hey, planning ahead has never been Jerome’s way. Thinking things through, organizing, taking things one step at a time, heeding caution, slowing down for yellow lights–none of this is Jerome’s way. Jerome’s way is to feel the itch of impulse and act, throttle wide, cylinders afire, wind in his hair. Speed and daring are Jerome’s friends. And don’t knock it. Jerome’s way, after all, has served him astonishingly well. Just a decade back Jerome was one of these shirtless, back-country Florida homeboys, dusty and scraped from playing ball on these very fields. Now his barrel-ass methods have sped him to the dizzying pinnacle of American pro sports, made him a millionaire at age twenty-seven, awarded him with fame, his pick of beautiful women, the admiration of family, friends, and football fans everywhere–given him so much, in fact, that every once in a while it all becomes a strain.
Of course, off the football field, Jerome’s way sometimes makes for trouble.
In just six weeks, it will make big, bad, lovable Jerome dead.
But there is no shadow on this day in early May, the day Jerome gives something back. It hadn’t been as hard to arrange as he had feared. A couple of days before this weekend event, Jerome had roared his big black motorcycle up to his buddy Tim Jinkens’s bar, the Red Mule, and sauntered into the cool with an empty yellow legal pad and a pen.
“Okay, Tim. What do we do?”
From behind the bar, his chubby old friend was brought up short. “Tell me it isn’t true, G.”
“You haven’t done anything yet?”
“There’s time!” Jerome complained. “You’re gonna help me, right, Tim?” with the big, soulful grin.
“Jerome! This all should have been done two months ago!”
‘mr. Worrywart,” sneered the football star.
Of course, Tim knew what this meant. It meant he and his mother and brother, Jerome’s support team, were going to be working their asses off day and night to make sure that this idea of Jerome’s got off the ground. Jerome would get all the credit, of course. But that was okay. Tim understood. How was a big star like Jerome supposed to know how to get kid-sized T-shirts printed up? How to set up a Coke-and-hot-dog stand to serve a crowd like that? And how was Jerome going to keep that many kids moving through a long morning of activity without its degenerating into chaos?
Tim and his mom sort of adopted Jerome way back, when Tim coached him on the junior-high football team, and they’re used to their big friend dropping by with tall orders on short notice. They moan, but they love being included. They love Jerome’s unswerving loyalty and affection. Jerome calls Mrs. Jinkens his “white mom” and delights in making a big fuss over her when he runs into her in public places, a black giant embracing this slight Irish woman, sweeping her up off her feet, and planting a big kiss on her cheek, greeting her with “Hi, Mom!” loud enough to turn every head–this still being a community where white moms with black sons raise an eyebrow or two.
The support team had done the best job it could with the limited time remaining–four hundred T-shirts, hot dogs, buns, condiments, Cokes, applications, tickets, advertising. On Friday night, as hundreds queued up outside the Hernando High School gym for the weekend’s kickoff event, a celebrity basketball game between the Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tim had no tickets to sell. He called around and found out that the tickets were in the backseat of Jerome’s Bronco, which was parked back at Jerome’s house, and, of course, nobody was quite sure where the big guy was. So Tim drove over, found the tickets, and got back in time to avoid unpleasantness.
But things like this are just part of Jerome’s charm, evident again in the slapdash course of this whole rowdy day.
“Y”all gonna make me pass out right here!” Jerome pleads as the children press closer.
The mob giggles. The giant isn’t feared at home. Everybody down here knows Jerome. He’s the most famous kid Brooksville ever produced, and he hasn’t changed a bit–white Nike cap worn backward, baggy denim shorts hanging to his dusty knees, oversized ankle-high leather sports shoes worn sockless and untied. Money and fame may have overtaken Jerome Brown, but age hasn’t put a dent in him. Down here they used to call him Freight Train for his heroic collisions with fences while playing outfield for the Hernando High state baseball champs, or maybe it was for the way he used to scatter the ordinary schoolboy opponents trotted out during football season to try to block him–nobody remembers which. They would all remember how they had never seen anyone so big, so fast, so strong, whose personality was as outsized as his accomplishments. “We’d just give him the ball sometimes and watch him drag three or four kids over the goal line,” says Tim. “In one baseball season, he stole twenty-four bases in ten games. Whatever he did, there was just no stopping him.” And for Jerome nothing’s changed! Ol” Freight Train just keeps barreling down the rails, his life tracing a path that keeps pushing on and on, farther and farther, faster and faster. He has yet to hit a wall he can’t move. Today he’s even bigger, quicker, and stronger; hundreds of hometown fans have become millions; the cheers from the high-school grandstands have become the blood roar of tens of thousands, a stage more magically grand than Jerome or his family (lots of family) or friends (lots of friends) could have ever imagined.
But Jerome is still just Jerome. Why change? Just like back in high school, he’s still breaking the rules, staying out late, skipping class, juggling girlfriends, drinking too much, driving too fast in any of his six (that’s right, six!) custom sports cars and souped-up cycles, blasting his music through the center of town, playing poker for stakes higher than any annual wage ever brought home by his truck-driving daddy, vanishing off into the thick Florida veld to loosen up his collection of high-powered automatic weapons, and partying, partying, partying, rolling in snatch. Just watch Jerome for three days on his home turf and you come away wanting to eat hearty, swagger, laugh, boast, stay up late, talk a mile a minute, banish petty worry, and squeeze every sweet moment of life dry. To be Jerome is to practice the art of always making a joyful noise.
“Y”all ain’t lis’nin”!”
But now Jerome is beat. “I quit,” he whines at a cameraman, here at Jerome’s invitation to tape the event so the fans back in Philly can see JB give something back. “I don’t want to see another kid! I am teetotally tired.”
Hell, he’s got all his teammates in town for this. All he wants, all Jerome ever really wants, is to get down to some serious partying, get back to Home Jerome for some backyard barbecue, cold beer, and cards on the shaded deck out by the pool, a chance to show off his race cars and his new sleek fianc”e, a fashion model from Miami. His friends have already started back to the house. Out on the high-school playing field you can see Jerome’s motor smoking as he tries to finish things up with these kids. They all think his exasperation is an act, but it’s not. Jerome has had about enough of this Role Model shit for one day.
“That’s it! I quit! Y”all gwan home!”
And, abruptly, he hurls fistfuls of the goodies up in the air, divests himself in one grand gesture, and as the little mob falls on it, Jerome struts off with relief, moving fast. Let them fight it out ” the timetested Jerome method proved once again. And not a minute too soon. Because back at the house, just a few miles away, things are growing edgy.
OUT ON THE SCREENED-IN PATIO, muscular giants in colorful, state-of-the-art sports gear are draped all over the deck, wisely forsaking the patio furniture, which looks Lilliputian in this crowd. Home Jerome is a suburban rancher ballooned out about four times normal size, finished off with white stucco and painted with purple trim. It sits about two miles north of Brooksville’s city limits on a sullen, green ten-acre patch cut out of flat, fly-infested Florida fruit groves–a certified DHM (Dream Home for Mom), the mandatory first major project for every homeboy who gets the million-dollar payday in the big city.
Camp Jerome is really a reunion. The Eagles’ “91 season ended badly back in December, short of the postseason play-offs for the first time in four seasons, and most of these teammates haven’t seen one another since. That’s the way it goes. From July through December they are together night and day, then for six months they go home to heal, step out of the spotlight, and work at being real men in a real world: husbands, fathers, sons, lovers; men with family and friends, with responsibilities, with a future beyond next weekend–what a pain! Gatherings like this one are a welcome respite. Jerome is picking up his teammates’ airfare and hotel bills, but most of them would have paid to come.
Once the team is together again, however, it doesn’t take long for the old tensions and rivalries to surface. When Jerome is around, these things tend not to get out of hand, mostly because when Jerome is around it’s tough paying attention to anyone other than Jerome. But today Big G–as in a raucous “Gee-rome” –is delayed, and the usual teasing banter has turned a touch raw. Predictably, it’s that Seth Joyner picking on Randall Cunningham again. The team’s fierce linebacker can’t stand the star quarterback, a fact he’s been taking fewer and fewer pains to hide in recent years. And Randall (or “Ran- doll” to the less enthralled) has given Seth an opening.
He’s done something new with his hair.
“Check out the weave!” shouts Seth. Randall is standing just inside the patio door, his rented white monster Mercedes coupe glistening out on the lawn like a sun chariot. He is tall and unusually lean for a football player, especially coming off surgery and months of rehab after blowing out his left knee. He cuts an elegant figure, but his face is rugged; he has uneven skin and a vicious scar on his nose, which earned him the college nickname “Hook,” high forehead, blank liquidbrown eyes, moustache, and an underbite that juts his wide, flat lower lip into a natural pout. His hair is shaped in the stovepipe coiffure de rigueur this spring for fashionable young African-American men, the back and sides cropped skull close but with the pillbox top jutting up a good three inches and leveled off clean enough on top to shoot pool. Of Ran-doll, who counts ‘dressing up” among his favorite off-field activities, one expects nothing less. But arching from the dimple at the base of Randall’s skull, sprouting from the bump of his first cervical vertebra, the inimitable Scrambling One has this ” this ” tail! He’s let a few strands of hair grow out about four inches, and he’s had the spindly thatch twisted into a tight braid that extends the length of a crooked index finger from the back of his long, graceful neck. The tiny braid is fed through nuggets of gold to make this unbearably cute toy ponytail! This is just too, too precious for stone-faced Seth, who has been eyeing the thing all day with disbelief, waiting for a chance to pounce. He begins by clowning, miming wonder, shaking his head. This starts his teammates giggling, but Cunningham, the orphan prince, ever cool and aloof, tunes out the ridicule. He’s used to it.
You have to understand. We’re diving into the green dragony depths of envy, rivalry, and grudge that lurk beneath the surface of a pro football team.
There’s a history here that goes back years.
The way Seth has it figured, he and the Eagles’ superb defense have been carrying Ran-doll’s skinny, sweet ass now for about four seasons, and whenever they’re on the verge of getting somewhere, like at the end of the “90 season when they faced the Redskins in the NFC Wild Card game, their franchise quarterback folds up like one of those life-sized cardboard stand-ups in front of candy racks back in Philly that offer the new chocolate-covered, caramel-and-peanut-scrambled Randall Bar.
But it goes deeper. Randall is odd. There’s something about the guy, something so pliant, so sensitive, so ” artistic that somehow he seems not even to belong on a football field. This is the kind of kid usually weeded out in the Pop Warner League (No offense, ma”am, but are you sure your boy here is cut out to play football? Gits a mite rough out there). And yet here he is, the highest-paid player on the team and one of the most acclaimed in the league, which, frankly, irks the hell out of many of his teammates.
And Randall doesn’t help himself either. He walks around the locker room and practice sessions sometimes for weeks at a time like a man in a fog, saying bizarre things to the press, doodling and daydreaming his way through coaching sessions, then trying to finesse things on the field come Sunday.
“Being confused has a lot to do with my personality,” he says, and if you don’t believe him, just listen to what pops out of his mouth over the course of a football season. Randall’s soft voice emerges from the labyrinth of his psyche in constant lamentation; he’s never happy with himself, he trusts no one, and in the wide silence between Randall and the rest of the world he hears voices: “There’s an evil spirit and a good spirit; I lean toward the good spirit all the time, because that’s where my heart is, and I know I can be tricked.” Just having a wiftbrain like this calling signals for the offense troubles Seth, who is as spiritual as a hand grenade. Seth is a player who has built a terrific career without overwhelming athletic talent, who makes up for what he lacks in finesse with dogged preparation and an on-field intensity that borders on sociopathic. But every time he and his brothers on defense have stomped some opposing offense flat, he has to stand on the sidelines, helmet in hand, and turn the game (his game!) over to this fruitcake–who’s making triple most of their salaries.
So when Randall does something like show up an hour late for Camp Jerome, which he did earlier this day, and all the kids and parents are asking “Where’s Randall Cunningham? How come Randall isn’t here? When’s Randall going to be here?” it’s like poking Seth with a cattle prod.
“What do you expect from him?” Seth growls. “It’s just like him to be late. He’s such an asshole. He’s more interested in being a TV star than a football player.”
The crowd, startled by the raw hostility, slowly backs off.
Face it, Randall’s the man they most want to see. From a safe distance, one of the fathers asks a newshound, here to record the sweet chaos of Camp Jerome, “Who’s that?” pointing across at Seth, who in no time has a corner of the playing field all to himself, better to accommodate the glowing green penumbra of his intensity.
‘didn’t he go to the Pro Bowl this year?”
“No wonder. Is he always like that?”
But even envy and a certain disdain for Ran-doll’s fey manner aren’t enough to fully account for the depth of animosity toward him on this team. Seth and the others would tolerate anything in Randall if his gifts delivered victory. But they haven’t, at least not consistently, and not in the big games. Cunningham is the cynic’s quintessential bigmoney sports star: he has made enough brilliant plays and spectacular scrambles to star in NFL highlights reels forever, and his stats are otherworldly, but in seven seasons he hasn’t gotten the Eagles even close to the Super Bowl. This small fact doesn’t seem to bother Randall. Pick up, for instance, the Sports Illustrated “Weapon of the Nineties’ issue with Ran-doll’s picture on the cover showboating like the little statue on top of the Heisman Trophy, or read him in another issue calmly classifying himself with the singular superstars of modern sport, calling himself the Michael Jordan of the NFL, the kind of player who can completely, single-handedly take charge of a game. And this isn’t just some starstruck sportswriter bullshit; this is the stuff in quotes! Randall would later claim he was misquoted, but to some of his teammates, the quote rings true. After playing with him for years, they believe this is how Ran-doll really sees himself! It seems to them that Ran-doll fancies himself in the pantheon of black American stardom, the standard-bearers of trend, the black stars of sport and screen, modern media idols; we’re talking nothing less than Black Pop Royalty here: that’s right, his Airness, Prince, Charles Barkley, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Oprah, and Eddie and Spike and Ice-T and Denzel and Hammer and, the impresario of it all,
If you’re Seth, every time you see Ran-doll across the couch on a TV talk show or see him on the front of a supermarket tabloid lounging at some exotic beach resort, rubbing sunscreen on Whitney Houston’s back, or read about him hanging out with his good friend, that fairy-chimp-loving-white-skin-worshiping weirdo Michael Jackson, or catch him strutting out on his weekly in-season TV show wearing one of his ridiculous, self-designed outfits with striped pants and gold buttons and silver fucking epaulets (in honor of the brave men and women of Desert Storm) “
it makes you want to “
want to “
–well, we’re off here into the red zone of Seth Joyner’s rage.
So, yes, Seth has this thing about Ran-doll, and the little goldstudded toy tail is just the latest” well, twist. And once Seth gets the ball rolling, and Jerome is nowhere in sight, the lampoon escalates.
Jumping up in front of the quarterback, Seth begins whirling in circles, whipping his long thickly muscled arms in sweeping chops, pretending he’s a character in a martial arts movie, gleefully manufacturing sound effects. “Whack! Thwack! An” when you spin around” – he’s laughing so hard now he can barely get this out–”takin” people out with yo’ little weave!”
Reggie White and Andre Waters and Keith Jackson and Wes Hopkins and Mike Pitts and the rest of them can’t help but laugh along–Seth is really throwing himself into it. Randall grins sheepishly, clearly pained. He comes all the way down here, just to be nice, just to show he really is one of the guys, and what’s he get?
The men are doubled over now, choking with laughter. Randall begins to protest, quietly. “That’s enough.”
Which is, of course, the worst thing he could do. Especially because there’s this writer here, this rumpled white guy with Amazon tree frog eyes, with the ever-present tape recorder and notebook, taking it all in– every word!–just dying to clue the world to his humiliation.
Who needs this? Seth, this joyless grind, this ever-sour, selfappointed team scold, is goosing royalty, right here in front of the fucking tree frog–and the rest of his teammates are yuk-yukking.
“You guys are mean,” Cunningham protests.
But he is saved.
Just as the moment threatens to turn ugly, in bursts JB, who bangs open the screen door and hulks theatrically across the patio, swinging his black leather briefcase (in which he typically carries his wallet, electronic games, football cards, candy, and so on).
But Jerome stops short.
Who is that he spies sitting quietly in the corner?
“It’s you,” he shouts, dropping the briefcase, arms akimbo, wheeling at the wide-eyed frog.
All eyes turn from Randall and Seth to this new confrontation.
“At my house! On my turf!”
The frog stands. He’s been expecting this.
‘mama! Daddy!” Jerome shouts. “Come out here. This is the one. This is the one I’ve been telling you about. The one puttin” all those things in the newspaper about me! Now I’ve got you on my own turf.”
Devastating pause. Wicked grin. “Daddy, get my dog! Where’s my dog!“