A Narrow Escape from Toronto
Nicholas Dawidoff, Collision Low Crossers (2011)
Having grown up in Toronto following the Maple Leafs, I feel a certain affinity for the New York Jets, or perhaps for their fans. The Jets are the Leafs of the NFL: a team separated from past glory by an increasingly lengthy (and seemingly interminable) period spent thrashing around in search of a path to excellence – this thrashing consisting mainly of continually hiring and then firing a parade of coaches and general managers who are heralded as saviours when they arrive and derided as incompetent losers when they depart (often to success elsewhere) – while the team occasionally shows glimmers of something approaching competence for a season or two, only to sink sighing back into the muck of mediocrity (or worse).
So I was curious about Dawidoff’s book, which chronicles a year spent “embedded,” so to speak, with the Jets organization. And what a year he chose: the 2011 season, when, after consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game and a general acknowledgement among football’s serious heads that they were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Jets publicly and spectacularly collapsed back into their accustomed incompetence, with accusations, recriminations and vituperations all around.
Pond Hockey in the Cosmopolis
The early chapters set the stage for what is to come, introducing the coaches and players. And it turns out that Jets coach Rex Ryan (and his twin brother Rob) have a Canadian connection. This passage deals with the period in their childhood after their parents, Doris and Buddy (the legendary Bears defensive coordinator) divorced:
Leaving the twins with her mother in Ardmore, Doris went to the University of Chicago’s school of social sciences and got a doctorate in education. She took a job at the University of Toronto, and that’s mainly where Rex and Rob Ryan grew up. Ryan believes his parents’ divorce didn’t affect him much because he was cushioned by his friendship with his twin, but it’s true that he and Rob got into a little more trouble than most boys. Doris was concerned enough about them as teenagers that she sent them to live with Buddy in Minnesota, which Rob later decided probably saved their lives. (53-54)
And then, a couple of paragraphs later, this:
There weren’t many college options for indifferent high-school students who wanted to play defensive line and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds. Buddy knew the coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State, in Weatherford, and so the twins were admitted to the school and off they went, a nine-hundred-mile drive. The land around Weatherford was flat and dusty, the tumbleweeds as high as a linebacker’s eye, and from a sixth-floor dorm-room window, the horizon was so long and uninflected the brothers had the feeling they could just about see Chicago. Coming from a childhood mostly spent in vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, the Ryans were horrified – and lonely. (54-55)
It’s certainly plausible that there were other cities along the way, but given that the Ryan twins “mainly…grew up” in Toronto, it’s indisputable that Toronto must be one of the “vibrant, cosmopolitan cities” being referred to here. We’ve seen this pattern before, and here it is again: another reference to Toronto’s “cosmopolitanism,” and again the reference comes from an American (it’s hard to imagine a Parisian, for example, calling Toronto “cosmopolitan”) and is made in the context of football.
Toronto’s cosmopolitan identity is (again) slightly undermined by the fact that it is being compared to Weatherford, Oklahoma, which, based on the description Dawidoff gives, must be one of the least cosmopolitan places on earth. (Isn’t the use of the word “uninflected” to describe the horizon lovely, though?)
And what are we to make of the idea that being sent away from Toronto saved the lives of the Ryan twins? Details are not forthcoming, beyond the bare statement that they were getting into trouble, but this seems to hint at a side of Toronto that we don’t normally see. Americans tend to regard Canada as a relatively safe, peaceful place when compared to the U.S., with far less danger, particularly in major urban centres; but here Dawidoff suggests that Rob and Rex had found the dangerous side of Toronto, and needed to be saved from it. So in this telling Canada has an element of unspecified menace, in contrast to its usual, squeaky-clean image.
Much later in the book, we discover that his time in Toronto has left at least some impression on Ryan:
I was cold at the walk-through, so I wore a green ski hat. “Nicky!” said Ryan. “That hat! That’s the kind of hat we used to wear to play pond hockey in Toronto.” I was instructed to lose the hat and “put a hood on!” (366)
The association of Canada with cold weather and hockey is obvious and doesn’t really bear remarking on, beyond the fact that Ryan mentions exactly the things about Canada that any American would expect. But pond hockey in Toronto? That’s a bit of an odd one, as Toronto has plenty of outdoor rinks, but isn’t exactly rich in ponds. Grenadier Pond, perhaps? True pond hockey would fit more with rural Saskatchewan than Canada’s largest city. Perhaps Toronto was different when Ryan lived here? Or perhaps, despite the fact that his mother worked at the university (which is right in the city’s pond-free downtown), the family lived out in a thinly developed suburb?
I’d rather consider a more intriguing possibility. Perhaps Ryan played hockey on outdoor city rinks, not ponds, but when he refers to his Toronto upbringing among Americans, he romanticizes (or ruralizes?) it to fit more neatly with what Americans think of Canada: namely, that it is a thinly populated wasteland, where the monotonous tundra is only occasionally punctuated by a cluster of igloos and a frozen pond where a few children are whacking a rock around with sticks.
The Importance of Nicknames
During the description of training camp, we get the following:
So much that went on in August was about achieving group closeness. Because Garrett McIntyre had played in Canada after his college career at Fresno State, people at first thought he was Canadian and that his name was McIntosh. Even when his biography was clarified, he continued to be known in the defensive room as O Canada, just as Matthias Berning, who really was from Duisburg, was called the German. Gradually it became clear that McIntyre had, as they said, “the good awareness,” and he was also tough and physical. As he proved himself to be one of them, O Canada fell away and he became Mac. Berning, not quite as good a player, remained a foreign element, the German. (223-4)
There’s certainly a lot to “unpack,” as they say, in that passage.
The essential narrative movement, if you will, of the paragraph is quite straightforward: a player is given a nickname that is completely inappropriate for him, but the other players don’t care until he earns their respect, at which point his nickname changes to something more fitting.
Canada plays its small role in the drama. For starters, we can note that American football players are at least familiar with the title of our national anthem. And the changing of his name to “McIntosh” is intriguing, though unexplained – does this have something to do with apples?
More importantly, though, the “success” element of the story, from McIntyre’s perspective, is that he is finally able to shake the nickname that associates him with a country that is not his own. The means by which he accomplishes this are also of note: he shows football awareness and, more importantly perhaps, proves that he’s tough. Though it’s never explicitly stated, there seems to be the undercurrent of an idea that toughness and physicality are not typical Canadian traits. By proving himself and morphing from O Canada into Mac, McIntyre shakes his association with the gentle, pacifist nation to the North and reclaims his martial, macho Americanism.
So at least his story – unlike that of the Jets’ 2011 season – has a happy ending.