A Darker Shade of Red
You can run fast enough, hit hard enough, but it's still not good enough. How much more abuse can you stand? Pete Prosser is a redshirt running back on a third-rate college team preparing for their 1965 season opener against one of the toughest teams in the country. Tired of books about star athletes? This novel takes you to a place you've never been before, the world of college football's forgotten warriors, the redshirts, and what it takes to survive as one of them. You will be stunned and shocked by what these young men have to endure, and you will never forget them. * * * * * High School Athlete Resources: VarsityEdge.com Student Athlete Resource Center The Athlete's Advisor Recruiting Resource Center A Parents' Guide to College Football Recruiting
A DARKER SHADE OF RED—A TALE TWICE TOLD
Author redrafts football novel thirty years laterEditor's Note: It’s early October, when the hearts of America turn to...FOOTBALL! High school football on Friday night, college football on Saturday afternoon, NFL on Sunday afternoon, Sunday night, Monday night, and on to the water cooler and sports shows all week long until Friday night…
We’re a nation obsessed, and obsession can lead to abuse. Books have been written by victims this national obsession and its abuses, and some have made it to bestseller lists and the Big Screen.
Here is Lloyd Pye's story of how he told -- and published -- his tale in 1977, and now, 30 years later has redrafted and republished it.
Redshirts aren’t as bad as you thought, eh?”
His big shoulders shrugged. “Some are, but I used to be convinced they all were a bunch of lazy screw-offs who didn’t want or deserve to play because that’s what the coaches always said about them. But that’s not the way it is at all. Some of them want to play as bad as anyone, and several of them—especially Prosser—have more than enough ability. But someone got down on them at some point, for whatever reason, and they’re just screwed.”
“I know what you mean. Nothing sticks harder or longer than a bad rap on a football field, even if it’s all wrong.”
His head hung in silence, and I could see he was wrestling with more than what he’d already said. “Last year, before I transferred, this hot-shot high school tackle came in as a freshman. Big kid, and cocky, so the first thing if he could back it up. I blew him out about ten times in a row, and it got easier and easier each time. The easier it got, the more I punished him, and by the end he was dodging like a squirrel on a rifle range. It was pathetic.”
Skid paused to look off into the distance, visiting a blot on his record that he still hadn’t come to terms with. “He was an eighteen-year-old kid, away from home, probably scared to death, going against an older, bigger, tougher guy at a really important moment. And sure enough, the coaches judged him once and forever on that first day’s performance. He never got another chance, and he never got his confidence back. He might have been great if the coaches handled him right, but we ruined him and he quit a few weeks later. I’ll always feel bad about that.”
Skid stared hard at his Coke glass while I said nothing, knowing he had to find a way out of that one by himself.
“Anyway,” he went on, “It’s bad enough that I believed he was weak just because the coaches said so. Now I realize it’s what I wanted to believe. I wanted to feel superior to him because it made me feel like a winner. But now I’m in that kid’s shoes, stuck behind the redshirt eightball, and I can see how wrong it was, what I did him.”
“You didn’t do that to him, Skid, they did. They used you to serve their own screwed-up ends.”
He shrugged and nodded, but I knew no platitude from me would ever let him off that particularly painful hook. It was one of those things he’d have to learn to live with.
* * * * *
A DARKER SHADE OF RED—A TALE TWICE TOLD
I was a scholarship football player at Tulane University in New Orleans from 1964 to 1968, when I graduated. During my sophomore season, in 1965, I was redshirted, a practice that still occurs today for players who are deemed not quite varsity material. Seven years after graduating, I began to seriously write about my experiences as a redshirt. I novelized the story I created to protect the innocent as well as the guilty, but it was—and it remains—a fact-based, thinly disguised roman à clef.
What led me to write it was a bestselling nonfiction book by Gary Shaw called Meat On The Hoof (1972), which harshly criticized the University of Texas football program of the mid-1960’s, the same time I played at Tulane. He was written about in major periodicals and reached the top rung of sports celebrity of that time—an interview by Howard Cosell.
His entire book was read into the Congressional Record by a legislator intent on crafting changes in the way young men like Shaw were being treated at “football factories” like the University of Texas. And if, as the legislator suggested, things were so bad at Texas, then surely they were similar at other major football powers.
That was absolutely true. But what the legislator didn’t know, and what I knew for a fact, was that the horrors Shaw exposed at powerhouse Texas were very close to what I had experienced at dinky little Tulane, known as the “Harvard of the South” because it steadfastly preferred—then as now—academic excellence over football excellence.
Brutality had become the coin of the football coaches’ realm.
Gary Shaw’s success with Meat On The Hoof convinced me I could write a book similar to his, to verify his story as basically true, and to establish my name in the writing career I was then starting to envision. However, he limited his range of expression by writing a strictly nonfiction, wholly true account of what happened to him. He simply couldn’t write a page-turner.
I felt a fact-based novel could provide me with the best of both worlds. I could recount many aspects of the truth about what I had experienced as a player, while crafting a more entertaining, and a more gripping, story. I could be creative where Shaw could not, so I should be able to deliver a book that was easier to read, and more poignant, than his.
I began writing it in 1975. When I reached the halfway point, I needed to know if I was wasting my time or proceeding on the right track. I lived then in Washington, D.C., where renowned writer Larry McMurtry owned an equally renowned used bookstore in Georgetown. One day I barged in on him and told him what I was doing.
Incredibly, he was sympathetic, promising to read the first half of my story and tell me what he thought of it. He later called to say that what he read struck him as good enough for mainstream publication, and if I could finish it as well as I started it, he’d help me find a publisher.
My new book’s core theme was the plight of being a redshirt on a college football team. Redshirts were called by various upbeat euphemisms to make their lowly status sound less demeaning: Go Squad, Spirit Squad, Scout Squad, etc. But no euphemism could disguise their roles as living, moving dummies for blocking and tackling.
In late 1976, I finished my manuscript. Larry McMurtry approved its final half and helped me find an agent to represent it to publishing companies in New York. Don Fine of mid-sized Arbor House accepted it, and a deal was done by March, 1977. The book was slated to come out in the first part of September, in time for the upcoming football season.
That Prosser Kid did reasonably well for a first novel. It was resold as a paperback and optioned as a movie, though no movie was ever made. Then recently I decided to read it again. I could still see the many strong points that allowed it to be published and be moderately successful, but I could also see many areas in it that were weak or ineffective due to my youth and inexperience as a writer. I knew if I rewrote and revised it, I could make it much, much better than it was in its first incarnation.
When planning my revision of the old story, A Darker Shade of Red became the new title because it provided a perfect double entendre for redshirt, while hinting at the darker aspects of what it meant to actually be one. The revision is still the same basic story I published at Arbor House in 1977, though in applying three decades of writing experience to it, I’ve made it read much better in many places, and a little better in most places. On balance, it’s quite an improvement over the original.
Naturally, the world it describes will, in certain ways, be unfamiliar to fans and players of today. However, in every era football is football. The basics remain. No fan or player of today will fail to recognize the heart of the story, which—when you move beyond the timeless essentials of blocking, tackling, catching and running—is really about the macho rituals that create many nebulous notions regarding “manhood.” Those were core issues when I played, and I’m sure they will remain central forever.
For me, with the hindsight of thirty years, A Darker Shade of Red provides a fascinating glimpse back in time. It’s no longer the novel I wrote at thirty, when I boiled over with the same youthful angers that drove Gary Shaw to write Meat on the Hoof. Now, for me, it’s a stroll down a memory lane holding many things I cherish and remember fondly, along with things I wish had never happened—not to me or to my teammates who endured that fateful redshirt season with me.
* * * * *
A Darker Shade of Red
By Lloyd Pye
330 page paperback; $20.00