The Power Of One Picture

Among the volumes on my reading table these days is a book titled simply Football with the subtitle “Great Writing About The National Sport.” The pieces in the book start with a portion of a 1954 memoir by Grantland Rice about Notre Dame’s 1920s player and frequent reprobate George Gipp and end with a 2012 piece by Roy Blount, Jr., contrasting the players and team of the modern era Pittsburgh Steelers to those of the 1970s.

Maybe the best piece I’ve read so far – I’ve gotten through about half of the book – is Gary Smith’s “Moment of Truth,” a 1999 Sports Illustrated piece that begins with a picture taken in the locker room of the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs moments before they took the field against Jim Brown and the rest of the Syracuse Orangemen in the 1957 Cotton Bowl. From there, Smith spins a gripping set of tales – tales that would be remarkable in fiction but are more so because they’re built on facts that Smith had to gather through reporting – that relate the stories of the 1956 TCU football team, its coaches, the photographer and, peripherally, Jim Brown.

As I said, I’m about halfway through the book (although I’m not reading it sequentially; I’m jumping back and forth, having first started on Page 355 with Pat Forde’s piece for ESPN.com about the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between Boise State and Oklahoma). I might yet find a piece as affecting as Smith’s take on TCU and marvel at that. But the one thing I keep coming back to is the picture on the book’s dust jacket.

Football SchulianIf you’re a sports fan, you know the picture: Dwight Clark of the San Francisco 49ers, reaching high in the air to grip a football for the decisive touchdown of the NFC Championship Game in January 1982, with Everson Walls of the Dallas Cowboys earthbound and reaching for Clark in vain. We’ve all seen the picture thousands of times in the last thirty-two years, and it’s still an astounding shot. But the version of the picture on the cover isn’t cropped as tightly as usual, and what catches my attention these days is not the ballet of Clark and Walls, but one of the players standing utterly still in the background, watching the play: No. 71 for the 49ers, Keith Fahnhorst.

Why? Well, I watched that NFC title game back in 1982, of course, the Other Half and I cozy in our mobile home just outside of Monticello and making plans for our annual Super Bowl party. And as we partied with a few friends two weeks hence, we watched the 49ers defeat the Cincinnati Bengals for their first Super Bowl championship. In the aftermath of that game, as we and our friends scooped up the last of the chip dip, one of the players interviewed on television was 49ers tackle Keith Fahnhorst, battered and jubilant.

I knew him and had followed his football career. I knew that he’d played tight end at the University of Minnesota, and I knew that after the 49ers drafted him in 1974, they’d moved him to the offensive line. I knew that before he’d been at the University of Minnesota, he’d played on the offensive line at St. Cloud Tech High School. That was where my first year as a manager for the football team coincided with Keith’s senior year, a season when the Tigers were ranked as one of Minnesota’s top ten teams by the Minneapolis Tribune. So there was a little bit of vicarious joy on that long-ago Sunday when I saw Keith’s champagne-drenched grin on my television.

That’s a pretty slender thread, I guess. And I don’t know that it’s all that important. But seeing Keith Fahnhorst on the cover of Football this week, seeing him looking on in the background as one of the most important moments of his football life was taking place, reminded me of a lot of things, things like the skrich sound that athletic tape makes when it’s pulled off the roll; the celebratory feeling of a winning locker room and the tomb-like atmosphere in that same room after a loss; the intimidation of being an underclassman manager in an organization dominated by senior athletes; the visceral tug I still get when I think back to the sight of the Orange & Black under the lights at St. Cloud’s Clark Field; the pleasant but odd feeling you get when someone you knew years earlier reaches the apex of his very public profession; and the comfort of small gatherings of friends, a comfort that was absent from my life for many years but one that has now returned in greater measure than I once might have hoped.

That’s a pretty good haul from just one photo.

One Response to “The Power Of One Picture”

  1. Yah Shure says:

    Keith’s fraternity closed down at the end of Spring quarter each year, so he roomed at mine during the summer of ’73. Between working during the day and splitting nights between the campus radio station and the one I ran at the frat, I never saw much of him. Nice guy, from what I remember. Big, too!

    I was both surprised and moved by the Strib’s story of his kidney transplant some years ago, and am happy for him that it was a success.

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