Editor’s note: This article appears in the Aug. 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
While reading about Terrell Owens’ training camp meltdown and subsequent suspension last week, I couldn’t help but wonder … what happened to wide receivers?
Seriously, what happened? When did the most endearing position in football turn into a breeding ground for self-promoting, self-centered lunatics? And is this even a bad thing?
When I was growing up, you had a better chance of seeing Bjorn Borg dropping F-bombs than an NFL wideout hogging the limelight. Receivers were seen but rarely heard, graceful gazelles who zipped around and kept their traps shut. They peacefully flipped the ball to the nearest referee after touchdowns and received attention only for superhuman plays (Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X) or near decapitations (Sammy White in Super Bowl XI). If the QB was Gladys Knight, then receivers were the Pips: background dudes, interchangeable pieces, faceless rooks on a chessboard. Whether it was Cliff Branch, Drew Pearson, John Stallworth, Charlie Joiner, James Lofton, Reggie Rucker, Stanley Morgan or pretty much anyone else, they were described as classy, professional and workmanlike. Only five stood out: Swann (moonlighted for ABC Sports); Steve Largent (noticeably and undeniably white); Harold Carmichael (6’8” and a constant alley-oop threat); John Jefferson (wore goggles and played with genuine flair); and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson (wiggled his legs after every touchdown).
Well, guess who my favorite non-Patriots were? That’s right, JJ and White Shoes. I can still see that 1979 SI cover with a begoggled Jefferson coolly staring into the camera, accompanied by the headline “The Touchdown Man.” I can still see Bob Costas breaking into an NBC game and happily uttering the words, “Let’s go to Atlanta,” me praying that White Shoes was involved so I could see him wiggle those legs. Those two proved that receivers could distinguish themselves beyond mere productivity, a little like Ali pimping his own greatness (something he always did with a twinkle in his eye, although the same couldn’t be said for everyone who followed) or the Fab Five wearing baggy shorts and carrying themselves with a comical amount of swagger (a tiring hoops fad that continues to this day).
Impressionable kids see something working and want to emulate it, maybe even take it to another level. And it keeps escalating and escalating, the bar being raised each time. Now White Shoes and Jefferson are dinosaurs, one of those old Duran Duran videos on MTV that makes you wonder how these could be the videos that revolutionized an entire medium.
Still, you can’t blame White Shoes and JJ for what’s happening now, just like you can’t blame “Hungry Like the Wolf” for spawning those brutal R. Kelly video operas. The new breed of receiver can’t go a month without slamming his QB or coach. He demands to renegotiate contracts that were negotiated 12 months before and rarely seems happy unless he’s appearing on a talk show or a magazine cover. He writes books with in-your-face titles like Just Give Me the Damn Ball! and Catch This! He always wants the ball — always — and if you ever thought about forgetting that, he keeps reminding you. He jaws with D-backs after every catch, screaming stuff like “All day, baby, all day!” and “That’s right, baby, that’s right!” On the sideline, he stalks around like a caged puma, with no teammate coming within 10 feet of him. He spends an inordinate amount of time working on TD celebrations, de rigeur forms of expression at this point (but really, what are they expressing other than “Look at me?”). Everyone else makes excuses for him — “He’s a warrior, he just wants to win” and “What can you do, he’s a wide receiver?” being my favorites — only they’re really thinking, Should we start sneaking Prozac into his Gatorade? Invariably, he wears out his welcome and changes zip codes. And if he’s fortunate, everyone will forgive his sins when he retires-after all, it was just part of the act, right? — so he’s free to pursue a lucrative TV career.
Of course, there isn’t a more compelling position in team sports. For rookies breaking into the league, the difference between No. 20 and No. 140 comes down to two-10ths of a second on a stopwatch. They’re competing against the deepest possible talent pool in any sport, with dozens of sleek athletes emerging from the college ranks every spring. They can’t survive without the requisite physical chops; no position is more unforgiving. Unlike basketball or baseball players, they can’t hide behind guaranteed contracts, show up for camp with a Farley-size beer gut or tank games to get traded (well, unless they’re Randy Moss).
They’re risking their lives — literally, unquestionably — every time they cross the middle for a floating spiral. And no matter how gifted any one of them is, his success depends universally on two people: an offensive coordinator (who calls every play) and a quarterback (who throws him the ball). If either slips at his respective job or fails to involve him, then he’s simply running wind sprints in front of 70,000 people.
Me me me me me. That’s how you have to think. Two of the most successful modern receivers, Keyshawn and TO, are also two of the savviest. They know which buttons to push, how to keep their names in the limelight, how to make sure the Kornheisers and Wilbons will always be arguing about them and, most of all, how to keep footballs coming their way. With Owens, at least, it’s definitely an act. Behind the scenes, he’s soft-spoken, even a little shy. I met him while working on Jimmy Kimmel’s show and couldn’t believe he was the same guy who once played part of a game with a Sharpie embedded in his sock.
And you know what? He’s probably not the same guy. Like it or not, receivers have evolved into pro wrestling characters, borderline villains who never stop working the crowd, like Triple H or Rowdy Roddy Piper. When one of them lacks the talent or charisma to pull this off, it’s pathetic. Just ask Freddie Mitchell.
Then again, we can’t possibly understand a position where A) your success relies on two other people; B) you’re one poorly timed hit away from becoming the next Darryl Stingley; and C) you must adopt a warrior’s mentality because of the reality of those first two points.
When running backs score, most are so relieved that they don’t have the energy to think of anything creative to do. When receivers score, the scene plays out like one of those World Cup goals: “I scored! I actually scored! It happened! There was a chain of events, and I did my job, and now I’m here!” Like soccer players, they milk the moment as much as possible, never knowing when they might be back. When Kobe misses a jumper he knows he’s getting the ball again. When Manny strikes out, he knows he’s up again within three innings. When Brady overthrows his tight end, he knows he’s getting four fresh downs minutes later. But receivers, they don’t know anything. And I think it drives them a little crazy. You know, functionally crazy.
Why wasn’t this always the case? Because the sports world didn’t always reward athletes who brought attention to themselves. Now we have dozens of highlight shows spread over hundreds of channels, along with a morass of talking heads, columnists and bloggers searching for something to argue about. You don’t think TO knows this? You don’t think Joe Horn knew this when he pulled out that cell phone? If Billy White Shoes had come along in 2005, I can’t imagine how much time we would spend watching him wiggle those knees. It would be fantastic at first, even cute for a while, right up until he started wiggling on commercials and late-night shows and co-wrote a book called Wiggling Free! Eventually we would be rooting for Tonya Harding’s henchmen to take Billy out with a lead pipe.
But remember, we’re the ones who cultivated a climate where me-first athletes prosper, where they’re rewarded for acting like selfish asses, where “Look at me! Look at me!” became a rule of thumb for anyone looking to make a splash. At the rate we’re going, receivers will be humping goalposts and fake-pooping footballs in the end zone some day. It’s bound to happen. So either kick back and enjoy the lunacy or ignore them like you would a deranged homeless man on the street.
Just don’t complain, because it’s only going to get worse.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.