A Game We Play

Bill Curry has a story about bullying. It’s from a different time and so it is a different kind of bullying story from the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin thing so much in the news these days. Curry’s story lacks the racial taunting, the TMZ videos of a shirtless madman, the modern opinions about football and intimidation and the merciless code of the locker room. It is a story with an unexpected ending.

“There are no Sunday school dudes in professional football,” Bill Curry is saying. “Not one. There’s not one nice guy out there. We all have our hangups. We all make our mistakes. We all have something dark coursing through us.”

Curry does not wear his rage. He is, by all accounts, one of the best people you will meet in or out of sports. Five or 10 times a year, someone will tell me a Bill Curry story -- a touching letter he wrote, a thoughtful call he made, a surprise visit to a hospital, a piece of advice he offered someone he never met. Curry is 71 years old now, retired, living the contented life of a grandfather and supportive husband to Carolyn, who has written her first book. “Now, I get to be the quiet figure in the back no one notices,” Curry says. If any other football coach said that, the words might be tinged with wistfulness or regret or despair. Not Curry. He says the words joyfully. He LIKES being the quiet figure supporting his wife.

But that rage, he says, oh yes, he felt that rage. “I’m telling you,” he repeats. “There are NO nice guys. ... Vince Lombardi used to tell us, ‘you don’t mature like regular people.’ That used to make me so mad. I would think, ‘I’m a man. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I’m not some kid.’ But, like with most things, he was right. All NFL players are teenage males. I don’t care if you are 37 years old. You have to be a teenage male to play that game at that level.”

Curry says he was particularly immature and angry when he showed up to play football for the Lombardi’s Packers in 1965. From his first day in Green Bay, Curry hated the middle linebacker Ray Nitschke. It was the sort of hatred Curry had never quite felt before or since, a particularly football brand of hatred made up of a thousand crashes and a hundred thousand slights. Curry bubbled with resentment and fear and frustration and this overwhelming powerlessness. Ray Nitschke lived in his nightmares. Bill Curry could not block him.

Nitschke simmered with his own particularly level of fury. Nitschke’s father died when he was 4. His mother died when he was 13. You have probably heard the story of Alexandre Dumas, the writer -- he wrote that on the day his father died, his mother saw him walking away with his father’s gun. She asked him where he was going. Dumas said. “I’m going to heaven to kill God who killed my Daddy.” It was that sort of passionate anger that fueled Nitschke. He played through unspeakable pain, through numbing exhaustion. Nitschke could not stop.

And he battered Curry day after day. Nitschke beat him in drills, of course. Nitschke beat him in simulated games, of course. Nitschke beat him in one-on-one battles specially designed by Lombardi. But it went beyond that. Nitschke would flaunt the rules to beat Curry. He would jump the snap count. He hit Curry late. He kicked Curry when he was down. He mocked Curry when he tried to fight back. “He wouldn’t even kick my behind,” Curry says. “He would just hold me off and laugh at me.”

Off the field, it was the same. The treatment wasn’t anything as obvious as a racist voice message. Nobody would have called it bullying then. It was just this daily drumbeat meant to remind Curry that he was was nothing, less than nothing. One time Nitschke and teammate Elijah Pitts were talking, and Pitts told Curry, “Hey, get in on this conversation. you’re one of us.” Bill spoke, and Nitschke looked at him with disgust. “Nobody asked you anything,” he said. “So keep your (bleeping) mouth shut.” It was like that day after day.

And Bill Curry found that Nitschke’s cruelty got inside him. Curry could not sleep before practices where he would be matched up with Nitschke. He found himself constantly aware of where Nitschke was standing in every situation. Bill Curry was a big man, a strong man, a relatively fearless man. He had never hesitated in fighting for himself. But Nitschke had invaded his psyche. Nitschke had unleashed his darkest feelings and blackest terror.

But, Curry says, that’s what football does. That’s the game. It pushes men to their limits of pain and fatigue and aggression. The reason we are repelled by it are obvious. But the reasons we are drawn to it are obvious too. “When you’re dying in the fourth quarter,” Curry says, “and it’s 138 degrees on the turf, and it’s your 23rd straight game, and you are four points behind ... you have nothing left to give. There’s nothing left inside you. But you play on for those guys in the huddle. You play on beyond yourself, beyond what you believed was possible. You don’t do it for yourself. You don’t do it for the fans or the coaches. You do it for those players who you play with, those players who are the only ones who really understand what you are feeling and thinking.”

Those sorts of feelings, he says, are so raw and so intense they go beyond words.

What could he do about Nitschke? Nothing. There was nothing to be done. He could not talk to Lombardi about his feelings. He could not admit to teammates how he felt. He could not even explain it all to his wife. He was all alone. On cue, Curry can recite a verse from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Law of the Jungle.”

“When ye fight with a Wolf of the Pack, ye must fight him alone and afar Lest others take part in the quarrel and the Pack be diminished by war.”

And so, Curry dealt with his hatred of Nitschke the way football players will -- by gobbling it up, burying it somewhere deep and taking any chance he could to get Nitschke back. After a couple of years -- Curry started at center in Super Bowl I for the Packers -- Curry moved to the Baltimore Colts and he managed to get a few shots in when they played Nitschke and the Packers. In 1977, Curry and George Plimpton wrote a book called “One More July,” and Curry unleashed some more of his feelings about Nitschke. Here was the scene Plimpton described when he asked about Nitschke as they drove up to Curry’s last training camp.

“He was a friend of yours,” I asked innocently.

“Friend?” Curry’s hand came off the wheel and made a fist. I thought he was going to punch it down on the horn.

“What was wrong with him?” I asked. “He was a teammate.”

“He was just about the embodiment of my despair in Green Bay,” Curry said. “That’s one part of it. The other may be more interesting. You’ve been asking me about the qualities that seem to turn up in great players. In his case he was driven by an intensity that was simply demonic.”

Curry says he could not let go of his feelings toward Nitschke. They met a couple of times in later years, and Nitschke -- in his own awkward way -- attempted to make peace. Curry would not relent. He could not. There were scars he could not even feel anymore. Nitschke and his wife Jackie adopted three children. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was a legend in Green Bay. Curry went on to coach at Georgia Tech, then Alabama, then Kentucky. He worked as a television analyst. He came back to start a football program at Georgia State in his beloved Atlanta hometown. It has been a great football life.

And in the late 1990s, Curry decided he needed to reach out to Nitschke, clear the air, forgive and ask for forgiveness, put the past behind them. He was told by mutual friends that Nitschke very much wanted to do that too. Curry has never had trouble forgiving people. He is one of those people who understands -- even exaggerates -- his own flaws and so he is entirely sympathetic to others’ flaws.

But he did not call Nitschke. He kept meaning to do it. He thought about it pretty often. He wrote about it in his journal a couple of times. But he did not call and he did not call and he did not call. And then in March of 1998, he opened up the Atlanta Constitution and saw the headline: Ray Nitschke was dead. “Terrible,” Curry says. “Just terrible. I’ll never be able to make up for that. He was a man who sought to make amends. And I ...”

He stops. He had started talking about bullying. But, in the end, he realizes that he’s talking about something else entirely.

“It’s a game we play,” Curry says, and he might be talking about football.