The film has remained in pre-production purgatory for nearly ten years.
In End Zone, Don DeLillo’s 1972 tragicomic second novel about college football, Coach Creed cancels Friday practice. He is “famous for creating order out of chaos, building good teams at schools known for their perennial losers,” and needs to shake things up. He tells the team to have a party that night: “no coaches, no females, no time limit.” Mass vomiting is followed by singing, wrestling matches, push-up competitions, mock bullfights, ketchup-chugging, and then a pissing contest: “not for distance but for altitude.”
Team captain Gary Harkness calls it the “most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent.” The Logos College Screaming Eagles soon travel to West Centrex Biotechnical Institute, where they spend their pregame warmup engaged in ritual chanting. Then they burst out of the stadium tunnel and look up at the fans, “Americans on a Saturday night,” congregated to watch violence. DeLillo delivers: 30 pages of methodical game description with the occasional theological or cosmological aside, ending with the quarterback playing a football board game in the locker room.
End Zone skewers the world of football with a smirk and a tear. DeLillo was used to mocking things he loved; he said the Jesuits at Fordham taught him “to be a failed ascetic.” One particular French Jesuit — the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin — remains a philosophical influence. Teilhard’s best known theory is the Omega Point, the evolutionary trend of the universe toward synthesis, an ultimate consciousness. Harkness channels Teilhard in the Texas desert; he is an exile, an outcast, an intellectual convinced death is coming, either on the gridiron, from nuclear holocaust, or both. End Zone is a novel about coming disaster: on the football field, and in war zones. It might as well have been written in 2017.
DeLillo’s guilty love for the game is palpable in his lyric descriptions, a postmodern version of NFL Films. Somehow the novel has never made it to the screen. But it came close once. Fresh off the creepy kid flick Joshua, director George Ratliff was announced with an enticing take on the project. A native Texan, he called the novel “wonderfully subversive” and “M.A.S.H. on the football field.” his spec script caught the eye of DeLillo, and filming was to begin in New Mexico in 2008. Josh Hartnett was cast as the brooding Gary Harkness. Kat Dennings, who said the script was one of the best she’d ever read, was set to play Myna Corbett, Gary’s eccentric girlfriend (in the novel, she wears a dress printed with an atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud; in one of the story’s climactic scenes, they have sex in the library). Sam Rockwell was chosen to play mouthy Wally Pippich, the college’s sports publicist who “don’t know squat about football . . . I’m talking human interest. I’m talking dramatic balance.”
It could have been wonderful. Yet the film has remained in pre-production purgatory for nearly ten years. Somebody needs to jump on this project right now. I can’t think of a better book to resurrect into a film for our increasingly entropic world than End Zone. I’d like to see what William Friedkin would do with it, maybe even the Coen brothers. Think Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, populated with linguistics majors and Alan Zapalac, a weirdo professor of exobiology who convinces Gary to smoke a joint before a game as a “scientific experiment.”
DeLillo’s entire novel might be an experiment, a synthesis of subplots and random characters, exiled to the desert, where the coach surrounds the field with canvas blinds to hide their training. Dynamo running back Taft Robinson transfers from Columbia to Logos before tiring “of white father watching me run.” An All-American turned monk, he decides that his “new way of life requires a new language,” one of contemplative silence.
An assistant coach commits suicide with his ivory-handled Colt .45. Linemen debate whether Sir Francis Drake or the prophet Isaiah was the greater man. Coach Creed rapidly loses weight, becomes remote, and stands silent in a tower during practice like an absent God. The players describe him as “part Satan, part Saint Francis.”
Gary walks two miles in the desert to a motel, where he takes ROTC classes with an eccentric major whose father was part of the crew that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Major Staley says war is the ultimate game. Gary becomes obsessed with the language of mass destruction: “men embedded in the ground, all killed, billions, flesh cauterized into the earth, bits of bone and hair and nails, man-planet, a fresh intelligence revolving through the system.” DeLillo parodies the prevalence of the “football as war” metaphor, but cleverly doesn’t reject the metaphor itself. Zapalac rejects the idea that football is warfare because “Warfare is warfare. We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.” And yet the real thing is never real in End Zone. War is practiced but never experienced. War is a game of language.
While the National Football League and the NCAA reel from domestic violence cases, the tragic legacy of a concussion epidemic, and other scandals, fans remain devoted. Like Gary, they are bored out of their minds during the offseason. They pine for fantasy leagues and office pools; Gary and his team play pick-up offseason games in the snow: “We kept playing, we kept hitting, and we were comforted by the noise and brunt of our bodies in contact, by the simple physical warmth generated through violent action, by the sight of each other, the torn clothing, the bruises and scratches, the wildness of all fourteen, numb, purple, coughing, white heads solemn in the healing snow.” For all of its artifice and spectacle, football is an elemental game, an autumn refrain. We could hate it, but we’d be hating a part of ourselves.
Despite early praise, End Zone has since been lumped with DeLillo’s comparably slight early novels like Running Dog and Americana. Time dismissed it as “much overpraised.” New York Magazine called it an “ultimately unsatisfying read.” That’s a shame. It is the best football novel that has ever been written, a prophetic paean to the terrible beauty of controlled brutality, a cogent and lyric explanation for why Americans can’t stop watching football. “A nation is never more ridiculous than in its patriotic manifestations,” Professor Zapalac warns. He was taking about football. Or maybe it was war. Does it really matter?
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Paris Review. He’s on staff at The Millions.