Tales From the Vault: They Travel in Pairs

Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault

Who looks more impressive — Luck or RGIII?
How about Coke or Pepsi? JFK or Nixon? The Big
Mac or The Whopper? The Incredible Hulk or
Spider-Man? The Vault Keeper reflects on the relationship
between the NFL Scouting Combine and popular culture.

The recently concluded 2012 NFL Scouting Combine certainly had numerous examples of impressive athleticism, but I sort of wish the combine was a little more like one of those auditions for the school musicals on “Glee.” I’d like it if a guy ran a really slow 40, then turned to the scouts and said, “Look, I know your average Kenyan can finish a marathon in the time it takes me to run the 40. I know I have the vertical leap of a ping-pong ball. But what you can’t see is my heart – and it’s a big heart! That’s got to count for something. If you draft me, I’ll work my butt off.” In “Glee,” this guy gets the lead. In the NFL, well, he’s probably headed for the Indoor Football League.

Robert Griffin III (AP)

While athleticism can be quantified, there are those pesky intangibles that no one can measure. Take Danny Woodhead of the Patriots — he’s a “Glee” kind of guy if there ever was one. The value of the combine as a true predictor of NFL success has been endlessly debated by others who know more about it — and care more about it — than I do. My own misgivings about the NFL’s annual dog and pony show are purely personal. It reminds me of two traumatic events in my life: little league tryouts (1961) and armed services induction physical (1969).  But there’s no question that the combine always has its share of interesting storylines that will keep us fascinated until the upcoming draft in April.

This year’s most compelling subplot involves two quarterbacks who are likely to go one-two in the draft: Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III. RG3 won this year’s Heisman Trophy as the nation’s most outstanding college football player. Luck was runner-up, but he’s generally considered to be the most pro-ready quarterback to emerge from the college ranks since Peyton Manning — the very man it appears he’ll replace in Indianapolis.

To me, the fascinating thing about Luck and Griffin is that they’ll always be tied together in the minds of football fans, because in this moment in time they are the two best prospects at the most important position in the game. It won’t matter whether one winds up with his bust in Canton and the other winds up as a bust. Look at the 1998 draft, when Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were the first two players off the board. It was a rare instance when two quarterbacks were taken with the first two picks, and it was the culmination of a period that began with the combine and ended with the draft, during which a number of scouts pegged Leaf as the superior player. The guy had a monster arm. Manning had the football smarts, but not all teams value intelligence above arm strength. What if the Colts had taken Leaf? What if Paul Revere’s trusty steed had pulled up lame? What if Charlize Theron was 4-foot-9 and 1/2 instead of 5-foot-9 and 1/2? History would be a lot different for sure.

Norm Van Brocklin (AP)

We can even look back further into NFL history to see how quarterbacks with contrasting styles forever remain linked together. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin offered a study in stark contrasts. Waterfield was the “athlete” who kept plays alive with his feet. Van Brocklin was the classic pocket passer – maybe the NFL’s best until Johnny Unitas came on the scene. Waterfield was also a placekicker, while Van Brocklin handled the punting chores. Both won world championships and both are in the Hall of Fame. The neat thing about these total opposites is that they both played for the same team at the same time (the Los Angeles Rams). Sometimes, Waterfield started and Van Brocklin came in to relieve him. Other times, Van Brocklin started and Waterfield was the reliever. Both were intense competitors, but the quiet Waterfield internalized his intensity to such an extent that he developed a serious ulcer that forced him to retire in 1952. The combative Van Brocklin wore his intensity on his sleeve, and that’s what got him traded to the Eagles (where he won another world championship). These two quarterbacks couldn’t have been more dissimilar, yet they are joined together forever in pro football history.

Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell argued that all myths and narrative were structured around binary oppositions, doubling and dichotomies. The greatest stories were basically a matter of yin and yang, alpha and omega, plus and minus. Think Damon and Pythias. … Thor and Loki. … Arthur and Lancelot. … Abbott and Costello. … Sprite and 7 Up. But why get all highfalutin about folktales and fiction? Like Luck and RG3, certain aspects of our lives are tied together because they manifested themselves at roughly the same time. It’s all about choice, because the things that really matter in life travel in pairs. F’rinstance:

    • The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: The pre-psychedelic era Fab Four wore the same get-ups, had the same mop-top hairdos and wrote catchy pop tunes. The scruffy Stones reached back to cover the raw blues, then later performed their own original songs about the devil, too much blood and the B-word that rhymes with “itch.” Choice Boils Down To: Do you want to hold her hand or have her under your thumb?
    • Coke vs. Pepsi: Americans are as passionate about their brand of soda pop as they are about their political-party affiliation. I’m a confirmed Coke person, although if you blindfolded me and gave me taste test, I don’t know if I could tell the difference. Choices Boils Down To: Fructose levels.
    • “Wyatt Earp” vs. “Tombstone”: These dueling Western sagas came out within a year of each other. Both featured star-studded casts, plenty of straight-shootin’, bloody action and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Kevin Costner starred in “Wyatt Earp,” which was dark in tone and ran for a butt-twitching 190 minutes. Kurt Russell was the star of “Tombstone,” which was only 128 minutes and had more gunplay. Costner was a dour, unlikable Earp. Russell’s Earp had a raspy voice, but how can you not like Kurt Russell? Choice Boils Down To: Russell’s handlebar moustache or Costner’s Chaplinesque nose-tickler.
    • The Incredible Hulk vs. Spider-Man: These two Marvel superheroes heroes both made their first appearances in 1962, and eventually brought about a game change in the world of comic books. Both were mutants who battled inner demons in a world that didn’t really understand their anguish. Teen-aged Peter Parker (Spidey) and insular scientist Bruce Banner (Hulk) usually unleashed their alter egos during times of maximum stress. Both defined the 1960s in numerous ways but have transcended their time, thanks to TV series, movies and the nerds who attend Comic-Con. Choice Boils Down To: Lou Ferrigno or Tobey Maguire?
    • Kellogg’s Raisin Bran vs. Post Raisin Bran: People aren’t as passionate about their raisin bran as they are about their cola drinks or their political parties. Both cereals claim to have the same amount of chewy raisins in each box. I like Kellogg’s better, although if you blindfolded me and gave me a taste test, I don’t know if I could tell the difference. Choice Boils Down To: Crunchy bran flakes or crunchier bran flakes.
    • Leno vs. Letterman: Both of these talk show hosts are worthy successors to Johnny Carson, if not equal to Johnny. Jay is relentlessly upbeat, while dyspeptic Dave can go off the reservation at any time. Both do monologues that are occasionally funny and both make same banal chatter with the same guests. I don’t know, the talk show format is getting kind of tired. Choice boils down to: Swimsuit model Top-10 list or “Headlines.”
    • Bell, Biv, DeVoe vs. Tony! Toni! Toné!: Everybody had their favorite New Jack Swing artists, right? Choice Boils Down To: Gimme a minute on this one, will ya?
    • Degas vs. Renoir: Essential contributors to the French Impressionist movement were both masters of color and light. They each painted water lilies, ballerinas and nude bathers. Choice Boils Down To: Chunky nude bathers or chunkier nude bathers. Bonus choice: Manet or Monet?
    • “Capote” vs. “Infamous”:  I get why they made two movies about Wyatt Earp at the same time, but simultaneous films about Truman Capote? “Capote” was the more celebrated of the two, and Philip Seymour Hoffman won an Oscar for playing the author and social gadfly who wrote “In Cold Blood.” The guy who played Capote in “Infamous” was good, too. I liked Hoffman’s performance better although if you blindfolded me, I don’t know if I could tell the difference. Choice Boils Down To: Whichever one isn’t wait-listed on Netflix.
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