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'The Great Gatsby' author's football obsession


More than a hundred years ago, 15-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a snappy little poem about football for his school paper, The Newman News. Here's the heroic moment where Newman wins the game:

What is this? A new formation.

Look! their end acts like an ass.

See, he's beckoning for assistance,

Maybe it's a forward pass.

Yes, the ball is shot to fullback,

He, as calmly as you please,

Gets it, throws it to the end; he

Pulls the pigskin down with ease.

Scott Fitzgerald, author of the novel "The Great Gatsby," the film version of which opens this weekend,  was desperate to be a football hero from boyhood. Though he wasn't in high school, he tried again in college -- with even worse results, for at the time Princeton was a football powerhouse.

In 1869, Princeton and Rutgers played the first college football game, and by 1913, when Fitzgerald arrived on campus, Princeton had won many of its 28 national championships. They'd had so many wins, to be sure, because there simply weren't that many other college teams yet, but don't let this discredit the status young Fitzgerald accorded to the Tigers team, their All-American stars like Hobey Baker and the magnificent new Palmer Stadium. The 138-pound, 5-foot-7 Fitzgerald tried out for the team and didn't make it.

How to make up for this failure and disappointment? He used it to drive his writing, admitting, "it was in my mind that if you weren't able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it, because you felt the same intensity -- it was a back door way out of facing reality."

Fitzgerald's novels and short stories come back to football again and again. Only two stories, "The Bowl" and "Basil and Cleopatra," are all about the game (and the football hero's directly consequent winning of a girl). Yet "This Side of Paradise" (1920) revolves around Princeton football weekends. Benjamin Button, aging backward, applies to Yale and is rejected as too old; two decades later, he leads Harvard's team to triumph over the enemy. In "The Great Gatsby," Tom Buchanan's early success as a Yale football player is -- along with Daisy and his family's money --- all he's got. He was "among the most powerful physical ends that ever played football at New Haven -- a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anticlimax." His glory days long behind him, his physical brutality stored up to use against women, Tom Buchanan is one of the nastiest characters Fitzgerald ever wrote.

After he became a famous writer, and after that fame diminished, Fitzgerald remained a constant college football fan. Living in Hollywood in the 1930s, trying to finish a new novel and pay his family's substantial bills working as a screenwriter, Fitzgerald followed Princeton's season in the national papers and in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. On Dec. 21, 1940, he was making notes on an article in the PAW entitled "Plus and Minus: An Analytical, Long Range View of the 1940 Football Team; The Outlook for Next Year." The author, Gilbert Lea, was an All-American in football at Princeton and the son of longtime Princeton head coach Langdon "Biffy" Lea. The following paragraph is circled in pencil:

"Faced with such men as Reagan [a Penn player], Arico of Dartmouth, Willoughby of Yale, or Mazur of Army, a player has his work cut out for him. The first prerequisite of a good tackler is his desire to tackle. You must want to tackle. After that it is a matter of training and the ability to think quickly and act quickly."

In the margin, next to this paragraph, is a short comment in Fitzgerald's unmistakable penciled writing: "good prose."

Seconds after he wrote those words, an appreciator of both good sport and good writing to the very end, F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Anne Margaret Daniel lives in New York and has taught at Princeton University, the New School University, New York University and Bard College. She writes about Bob Dylan, baseball, Irish literature and culture, American Modernism and, since 1996, about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. She has just finished her first novel and is working on a book about Fitzgerald and Hollywood. She can be reached via Twitter.

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