Green Trice was born a slave during the Civil War and became a Buffalo Soldier, one of the black soldiers sent to fight the United States’ wars against Native Americans. He was someone stolen from birth, given to a sort of freedom, which he then for a time loaned to the United States in service of enslaving someone else. They fed him and clothed him and sent him to West Texas, where he was stationed.
It’s not clear exactly where he served. Green Trice might have been stationed in the kilnscapes of New Mexico or Arizona, where he would have worn Army-issue wool in hundred-degree temperatures and been more miserable than you will ever be, for longer and at greater intensities. The infection from stepping on a mesquite thorn or just scratching himself badly enough on a rusty door hinge could have killed him. There were Native Americans. They were not happy and had firearms. There were so many ways to die and most of them were very bad and often took forever.
He might have also been further north in the Great Plains. This is pretty likely. Trice made his living as a buffalo hunter for a while, and most of the surviving buffalo herds would have been up north, where Native Americans had been hunting them for centuries. At buffalo jumps — the spots where Native Americans funneled buffalo herds off ridges and cliffs in massive hunts — in Montana, you can still find piles and piles of bison skeletons along the bottom of the ridgelines, or at places in Canada with names like “Head-Smashed-In.”
Trice hunted them with a gun, most likely. The most common rifle was a Sharps, good from 500 yards with a .52-caliber bullet capable of bringing down a buffalo. At eight to 10 shots a minute, even a middling hunter could do an obscene amount of damage in a short span of time. Hunters, in numbers, made good money doing just that, so much so that by 1882, the last great herds were erased from the continent.
The buffalo disappeared, so did the job of buffalo hunter, and so did Green Trice from wherever he was in the West. Despite living at the intersection of four of the most horrific charnel houses in American history — the slave trade, the Civil War, the American Indian wars, and the massive slaughter of buffalo herds — Trice decided to get an education.
Maybe he decided to do that because he was born of and lived in total horror and spent most of his life running from or toting a gun for someone else. It’s impossible to know what anyone in the present is thinking, really, but to imagine someone removed at a 150-year distance? That’s just speculative fiction at best. I imagine the life of someone like Green Trice as an unending silence of dust, heat, periodic violence, rains you could not escape, of bad food and horses and all the little horrendous details peppering your average scene from Blood Meridian.
He enrolled in the first grade in his 20s. He married a woman named Anna, and they had one child. They named him John and called him Jack. Before a game Jack Trice played against Minnesota, he wrote a pregame note to himself from his segregated hotel.
My thoughts just before the first real college game of my life: The honor of my race, family & self is at stake. Everyone is expecting me to do big things. I will. My whole body and soul are to be thrown recklessly about the field tomorrow. Every time the ball is snapped, I will be trying to do more than my part. On all defensive plays I must break through the opponents' line and stop the play in their territory. Beware of mass interference. Fight low, with your eyes open and toward the play. Watch out for crossbucks and reverse end runs. Be on your toes every minute if you expect to make good. Jack
Jack, their only child, the son of a son of the worst of all possible American violences, would die playing American football. The note in his suit pocket was found while preparing him for his funeral at the age of 21 years old.
I got fascinated by buffalo sometime this year. Bison, properly. I got fascinated by bison, because that’s the name for the American species, though I’ll call them buffalo for the obvious semantic reasons — that like a lot of historical things, the wrong feels better than the right, and also because this is about football, and only North Dakota State insists on the proper name. They’ll even get on your ass about the pronunciation: “biiiiiiee-zun,” not “bye, son.”
Buffalo seem, by design, completely indestructible. Male buffalo are built for headbutting, carrying a shocking percentage of their mass in what you and I might call the t-shirt muscle territory, around the neck and down the shoulders, so that their yoke renders them nearly neckless. Inside that almost non-existent neck is a windpipe the size of an HVAC tube, protected on all sides by inches of muscle and tissue, wide enough to warm frigid air up to body temperature long before it hits the lungs. There is no set number on how cold a bison has to be before its metabolism stops slowing down. While yaks and Hereford cattle tapped out well before -30 degrees Celsius, the bison’s kept going, right down to the coldest temperature the trailer-sized refrigerator could reach. It could be lower, but there isn’t a big freezer that gets cold enough to hit the bison’s threshold.
They can run 35 miles an hour. They can and have headbutted tourists into trees; there’s video and everything of that and more, and because no one died that video is EXTREMELY FUNNY. Bison can ford rivers and are strong swimmers; they can jump six feet in the air. They can bring the full force of 2,000 pounds to a point at the crown of their massive, beautifully engineered heads. They are nearsighted, and might decide to do this to a passing car. If hit by lightning, they might die — or might not.
Bison would make fantastic linebackers, terrible safeties, and the best fullbacks ever created.
Despite all that, you can slide the mandatory nature documentary warning about life’s universal fragility here. The Sharps rifle and the United States Army helped bring bison to the brink of extinction. Even after a century of conservation efforts, the indestructible bison sits at “near threatened” status. Those efforts began with the American Bison Society, founded out of New York City by someone whose first encounter with the animal came through the crosshairs of a rifle: Teddy Roosevelt, who might have helped save American football in his time and the buffalo forever.
Please, a pause: I don’t want you to get the idea that Roosevelt is something apart from this, a saint, or doing anything for the right reasons here. He is not. Theodore Roosevelt killed pretty much every species that moved on this planet, not for sustenance, but for sport. For fun, even.
Every appalling photo you’ve ever seen of some Minnesota dentist or a wealthy scab-son touring the African savanna, holding up the severed tail of a rhino, straddling a dead lion triumphantly, or teabagging the lolling head of a water buffalo? That’s Roosevelt, a man so obsessed with masculinity and violence and the need to mark his territory by metaphorically peeing on it that he inserted himself bodily into wars he, as a member of an extremely upper class, didn’t even need to show up for in the first place. He extolled the rigors of outdoor living and boxing and exercise and travel and a noble primitive lifestyle he, as that wealthy type, did not have to worry about actually living. He resigned from being Secretary of the Navy to kill Spaniards and wrote thousands of pages into tens of weighty books and had a photographic memory and learned judo in the White House after sparring left him blind in one eye and he was exhausting, reader. Teddy Roosevelt is just exhausting to read about, much less to have existed around.
That exhausting streak got Roosevelt into strange situations. For instance, Roosevelt tried to fix football, or at least thought he had after a spate of football-related deaths led to Roosevelt lobbying hard for rules changes. He got them in 1906, not because he abhorred violence, but mostly because he didn’t want others to complain about it or shut the game down entirely. He was a conservationist not out of some deep belief in man’s role as but a cog in the natural machine, but because he wanted to keep animals around because they were fun to kill, then to pose with in triumphant, codpiece-first standing postures. That was his idea of conservation, more or less: there were beautiful places, and they should be kept full of beautiful animals you could gun down, so long as you did it in reasonable numbers.
Football and the buffalo both owe some of their survival today to Teddy Roosevelt, who loved them both because they were accessories to one of his first loves: violence, which he and others of his time and a lot of people living right now believe tempers men into steel.
If you asked me the closest I have ever come to seeing someone die on a football field, the answer is a fast one: Junior Rosegreen hitting Reggie Brown in the 2004 Georgia-Auburn game.
I think of it in sterile terms. It makes it more horrifying. Georgia’s in a three-wide receiver set with two backs and no tight ends. Auburn sits in a cover 2, where the linebacker peeps in the backfield for a second before running deep to cover the middle of the field. Watch Travis Williams hesitate, then sprint back to follow what he realizes correctly to be a pass play going over his head.
He’s not the only one running to the ball. Brown, the Georgia wide receiver, is running a post route that bends to the middle of the field. In a cover 2, the safeties both hang back, and then make their reads, and Rosegreen, the strong safety, has made his. Coming downhill from deep in the defensive backfield, Rosegreen cannonballs into Brown.
Brown barely whips his head around to look upfield before Rosegreen blows through him.
The notion of tackling in football, even in the Harvard Slaughterama days, was always to arrest, to detain, to stop forward progress by wrapping someone up and bringing them to ground. A tackle in slow motion is like watching someone turn someone else into a lamprey. They attach themselves and hang, letting gravity do the work.
The best tacklers I’ve ever seen do this with an added edge. Ray Lewis, for all his flair and intensity, simply sucked into people like cruel velcro and refused to be torn off his target. He left bruises — but the real malice of someone who tackles like that is purely psychological. They deny you. They limit you. They reduce your will to an irrelevance and do it again and again and again in such identical form and fashion that you start to hate yourself for not being able to figure out such a simple trick. Offensive linemen wept trying to block Lawrence Taylor. They didn’t run out of glycogen and ATP and all the other fuel the body needs to run its systems. They ran out of the ability to comprehend their own futility when faced with perfect, replicable cruelty over a finite series of downs.
This is not that kind of tackle. This is a blow-through, a city cab blazing through a crosswalk full of pedestrians, a boulder swiping a climber off the clean face of the Eiger. This is a garbage can thrown through the plate glass of Madison Square Garden during a bumrush of an Earth, Wind, and Fire show in 1979. This is every video of a small child plodding adorably through a backyard interrupted by a streaking, oblivious Labrador. This is the buffalo head-punting an idiot dad into pine tree.
Rosegreen leads with the head and the hands and runs at a 45-degree angle through Brown. He “puts a hat on him,” in coachspeak term: the crown of his helmet meets the side of Brown’s at one of the worst possible angles, a side-to-side impact, something the skull is not built for. (The skull generally handles front-back collisions a lot better, via thicker bone and better-angled neck musculature.) Rosegreen follows through with the hands, too, pushing Brown away from the point of impact like he’s clearing off a dead steer from a train’s cowcatcher. That’s a brutal simile, but I want that there. He’s pushing him off like a dead thing and that is, on repeated replay, one of the worst enduring images from this.
For a second, that’s what I thought he was: a dead thing. Brown doesn’t move after the hit. He’s unconscious, gone. There isn’t even the posting and scary, ghostly autonomous nerve reflex you sometimes see when a player is knocked out on the field. There isn’t the heavy breathing, seizing of the legs, or any rolling around in agony. Brown lies on his belly. He is in the upside-down. He’s gone.
The play is still live, by the way. Brown’s body — it’s really unfair to say “Reggie Brown” is doing anything after the moment of impact with Rosegreen’s helmet — releases the ball for a fumble. I almost have to note that here, because you’ll notice that football falls away at a moment like Rosegreen paving Brown into a flat asphalt of unconsciousness.
There are, if you are watching it live, no fewer than three different moments and worlds tearing into the next in rapid order.
- There is arrest, the moment you know something very bad is going to happen, or at least something very loud. This is the moment you see the cigarette fly into the fireworks factory. This is the moment when, just before the crash, you notice the novelty plate of the truck about to neatly swipe the back end of your car from its frame. This moment is the blur of Rosegreen into the frame, familiar to anyone who’s watched a deep ball drop into the gap between a corner and a safety and held their breath, waiting for the rush of a shoulder into the rib cage.
- Impact is next, the violence realized, when you, as a viewer, might do things you are not proud of in retrospect. When I saw Rosegreen’s hit on Green, I stood up involuntarily. On other hits I have yelled “OOOOOOOH” or “NOOOOOO” or some other variation of astonished and thrilled horror. Most honestly, there is a physical response you cannot control, or at least I can’t, a thrill, a lightning through the body, an adrenal jolt that is involuntary. It is a form of pleasure that evaporates in nanoseconds when the rest of the brain catches up to it with reason, conscience, and guilt.
- The final phase: processing horror, the part when the higher function catches up to the limbic system, and you realize and evaluate what just happened. There’s a sound to this in a stadium, after a momentary exultation: dead silence, when everyone realizes at once that something out of code has happened. Football is codified violence, where we continually channel, legislate, and then commodify that violence.
We don’t just do that in terms of outcomes. We do that in form, regulating what is acceptable violence and what is unacceptable violence. When someone like Reggie Brown is tattooed and left flat on a field, it’s not the idea of violence that people condemn. It becomes about leading with the head, going low, hitting past the whistle, or some other violation of the rules we built around and under and over the basic angry core of the sport itself. It’s not that you made the mistake of climbing into a tiger’s cage; it is that you didn’t properly address him, didn’t serve his snacks in the correct order, and failed to send him a thank you note.
Football is the sport that asks you to believe that there is an acceptable and controllable amount of being on fire. In moments like this, when Brown might be lying there dead on the turf, that becomes an improbable request. For what? For what reason? For a game? For masculinity, for nation, for thrill, for proof of some ideal Roosevelt and a thousand other Greco-Roman fanboys clawed out of their classics readings? For hatred? For money? For the approval of strangers who, just before they realized you might have been separated from your body permanently, were cheering the imminent violence of you meeting another player’s helmet side-on?
Why create something like this not by accident, but by design?
Jack Trice died on the field on October 8, 1923. He may have been targeted because he was black, or at least that’s what Iowa State thought. There is little way of knowing, but three Minnesota players dogpiling him on a single play made it seem likely enough to Iowa State. Trice died of internal bleeding and hemorrhaged lungs. Iowa State and Minnesota would not play again until 1989.
Trice died, by the way, well after the reforms that made football safe enough to pass the admittedly low safety standards of Roosevelt and America at large. Trice’s death sparked no lasting debates about safety, football, or racism. America and football thundered right over and through it, with the only real interruption or footnote coming in Iowa State students getting the stadium named for him in 1997, 74 years after his death.
Consider that thread, pulled out to its full length. A freed slave and war veteran and buffalo hunter has a son, who goes on to play America’s fastest and most violent game. He dies playing it, and the tribute to him is to name the stadium where they play football after him.
The word “American” is overdetermined a lot of the time, a kind of cheap shorthand you can slap on something for a quick-evaporating gravitas or significance. I want you to see this American story, though: the endpoint of all this historical violence in this case is to take the dead body, and honor it by placing it on a football stadium where they play more football with unpaid labor and acceptable concessions. It’s sweet, sad, and also for lack of a better series of words, extremely fucked up all at once. At once, this is is football honoring its dead, and beautifully so. But this is also football as cannibal, remembering you fondly and memorializing you by naming its bowl after you.
Jack Trice Stadium is located in Ames, Iowa. There is a lovely statue of Trice taking a knee next to it. It seats 61,500 people and is still the only FBS stadium named after an African-American player.
The outline I kept tracing here isn’t around football. I don’t believe the game creates violence any more than it reflects it, channels it, and attempts to legislate it. Football is a windmill. It is a machine that turns the wind from an undefined, random energy into a defined circular momentum, a shape. At the other end, there are all kinds of outputs. There is the bad, which in college football comes in the form of cash that goes everywhere except to its labor and corrupted institutions and the physical toll it takes on its players and the violence it can excuse in them off the field and the reflected violence dressed up as nobility. There is, despite all that, some good, too: the beauty of the game, its speed, its potential, and the marginal but still real opportunities it could create, somewhere beneath that sea of graft.
It is an outline of a violence that doesn’t exist inside football alone. Football feeds on violence, on consumption of tissue and calories and bone and muscle, on endless expansion of the franchise, on new blood and labor and ever-more-specialized ways of gouging new space out of opposing territory. It’s a fundamentally destructive game of zero-sums and very short lifespans.
And I’d love to trace that as something separate, or at least something separate from the hands typing this or the eyes reading this. The ghost haunting football is violence, and always has been, from the days when the son of a former slave and soldier and frontier hunter would have his son taken not by the barrel of a gun or a knife or a prison, but by football. Roosevelt never tried to fix football at its heart, and neither has anyone in the sport, including me, you, and anyone watching the game for a living or for fun.
The violence at the heart of football is the thing that will eventually kill it. It’s in the bones and marrow of the sport, and has been forever, and fatalism in the face of it or mitigating it by degrees of manner or ritual or rule is a dodge. The worst part isn’t even that it’s thrilling, even in measures we consider acceptable like doses of radiation.
The scariest part of thinking about the inherent violence of football — America’s most popular sport, even now — is that it’s just a sliver of something huge and more monstrous and inescapable. That being an accomplice is a fact of being American. That somewhere in a long history of violence, even the home I buy or the car I drive or the food I eat is a feeble payment against a long debt of crushing injustice, inequality, and ambient malice.
That every story here — beyond football, even — is one of trying to save or pardon the killing thing you love in spite of itself — even if, or when it turns on you. Even when it is, inescapably a part of you.
When that thing is you.
After all that geeking out over buffalo, I finally got to see them in August. It was in Montana, at the National Bison Range about an hour out of Missoula. I had to jog about 12 miles out of the way to get there, following a really appealing sign that just said BISON RANGE: 12 MILES. The road cut through farms with big sprinklers firing in the air and tractors buzzing around and cattle lumbering through fields grazing. I noticed all of this while driving at no less than eight miles per hour, because with a huge blue sky and a distant frame of mountains, gauging distances and speed becomes nearly impossible. I mention the tractor specifically because I almost plowed into one toting a huge hayroll; I braked but not before getting the metallic taste of fear in the back of my mouth you get when very fast and heavy things almost hit each other. (Particularly ones carrying you.)
It was past 5 o’clock and I had no cash, so I skipped the self-pay station and went straight back to the car, passing a pile of buffalo skulls arranged into a cairn and reminding myself that I owed the National Park Service $5. I drove the shortest road, a loop through tawny yellow hills spotted with patches of piney-looking trees. Look one way, and you could see all those orderly, human-friendly farms; look another, and you were staring into True Grit territory. There were dark, dark brown rocks moving slowly across them in the distance like paper cutouts being pushed across the landscape. Bison.
I drove, listening to Montana NPR. The lead story concerned the governor and his use of a state plane, a necessity in the state that he may or may not have abused for personal use. A coyote with zero concern for their own life or mine bolted out in front of me, crossing the road with a lope and their tongue wagging. The only buffalo I could see were still the brown rocks up on the slopes of the ridge overlooking the site, and the little chevron-shaped roof of the ranger’s station.
I drove up a hill out of a wash and around a curve.
There were three of them. The one closest to me was a bull. They’re both smaller and bigger than you expect them to be: shorter, yet denser, darker and yet with more variation in the colors of their hide. In direct light they appear jet black, but at an angle you can see something like the deepest brown imaginable coming off them in little subtle shimmers. It makes them look like something imported from a planet with a much higher gravity, where survival requires a greater density and strength than we could imagine. They move like they’re a little ticked-off all the time about something, but not exactly mad enough to do anything about it.
There are buffalo jumps in Montana with so many bones at the bottom that rains and wind still uncover the piles of past hunts, hunts that happened long before colonization, Wounded Knee, and the last Sharps rifles leveling the last herds. There’s carnage built into the ground, piles and piles of it, some from river floods that took whole herds, some from prairie fires. When lightning strikes a group of buffalo, it can chain through the whole group, leaving a cluster of dead bison smoking in the middle of nowhere.
They survived all that violence, fire, lightning, flood. They survived man, for now, for the strangest reason of all: because, after nearly destroying the brute, ugly, and beautiful thing to the point of mining its bones for cash, someone decided to try and undo that, even by a fraction. Maybe too late, or in an altered form unrecognizable in habitat or even size and numbers. But it lived. I saw it. It walked right past my car and looked as dangerous and huge and hostile and beautiful as a prairie thunderhead. It was the closest thing I have ever seen to a mirage and yet so real I could hear its breathing. Not even the darkest knife edge of despair can cut through the live fact of a heartbeat, of life. Of survival.
The bull could have charged. They do that sometimes, even to cars, because they have terrible eyesight and often very bad attitudes. Instead he and the other two bison walked across the road, and into the next field and away from me. I was driving a car named after a horse that used to wander the American West, but now mostly lives behind fences. It was a Mustang.