There are many sports fans who will remember Nick Nolte as Pete Bell, head coach of the Western Dolphins team that featured Butch McRae, Neon Boudreaux and Ricky Rowe in the 1994 classic film “Blue Chips.” Nolte played a fiery and passionate coach who only wanted to return to the glory of yesterday, but in a movie he played in 15 years prior, all his character wanted to do was attain some glory on the football. You see, before there was “Any Given Sunday” or “Jerry McGuire,” there was another film that trailblazed in trying to portray what really goes on in professional football.
The story was about the Dallas Cowboys 40-50 years ago. Nick Nolte played Phil Elliott, our first gritty and gutty white wide receiver on cinema screens. Michael Oriard, a former wideout for Notre Dame in the ’60s and a member of the Kansas City Chiefs in the ’70s gave, a great summary of everything that is “ND40” for Deadspin in 2011:
North Dallas Forty is excessive, melodramatic, and one-sided. As such, it belongs to the mainstream of football fiction written since the early 1900s. Football always seemed larger than life—that was the primary source of its appeal—and football writing always tended toward extremes of melodrama and burlesque rather than the lyrical realism and understated humor of baseball writing. Consistent with this tradition of football writing, the “truth” of North Dallas Forty lay in its broad strokes rather than particular observations. The characters weren’t “real,” but collectively they conveyed the brutality, racism, sexism, drug abuse, and callousness that were part of professional football—just a part, but the part that the public rarely saw and preferred not to acknowledge at all.
My grandfather was the one who made me watch this film, as I was negative 4 years old when the movie came out. Grandpop told me that this will tell me a ton about everything I needed to know about football. I was 8 at the time, and I had no idea what he was talking about. “North Dallas 40” is the cinematic version of an autobiographical novel written by former Dallas Cowboy receiver Pete Gent, as Gent penned a controversial book that was revealing to NFL culture in the 1970s. Many loved it. Others tried to get it off the market like they did ESPN’s “Playmakers.”
When ESPN Classic caught up with Gent as the network was going to air the legendary film that was first unveiled 24 years prior, it did its best to prove what were truly loosely based facts versus true reality. From the origin of naming the film to the struggles of being a player in his era, you begin to understand why the film is held in such high regard … and why some may have feared how transparent the film really was.
In Reel Life: The movie’s title is “North Dallas Forty,” and the featured team is the North Dallas Bulls.
In Real Life: Why North Dallas? Gent, a rookie in 1964, explains in an e-mail interview: “I was shocked that in 1964 America, Dallas could have an NFL franchise and the black players could not live near the practice field in North Dallas — which was one of the reasons I titled the book ‘North Dallas Forty.’ I kept asking why the white players put up with their black teammates being forced to live in segregated south Dallas, a long drive to the practice field. The situation was not changed until Mel Renfro filed a ‘Fair Housing Suit’ in 1969.”
In Reel Life: In the opening scene, Phil Elliott (Nick Nolte) is having trouble breathing after he wakes up; his left shoulder’s in pain. He struggles to the bathtub, in obvious agony.
In Real Life: Jim Boeke, one of Gent’s Cowboy teammates (who also plays Stallings in the film), said this scene rings true. “I can’t say it happens to every player every morning after every game,” he told the Washington Post in 1979, “but the older you get, the more it happens to you.”
In Reel Life: As we see in the film, and as Elliott says near the end, he can’t sleep for more than three hours at a stretch because he’s in so much pain.
In Real Life: Elliott is, obviously, a fictional version of Gent. “When I was younger, the pain reached that level during the season and it usually took a couple months for the pain and stiffness to recede,” says Gent. “Usually by February, I was able to sleep a good eight hours. As I got older, the pain took longer and longer to recede after the season.”
I happened to find a DVD copy of “North Dallas Forty” at a pawn shop a few years ago, and it still holds up as one of my best pawn shop transactions of all time. (I’m not at liberty to speak about anything else I may or may not have pawned off in my past life.) Maybe you’ll come across the flick in the $5 bin at Walmart, or maybe the Netflix gods will bless us with the viewing pleasure of this film, or maybe you’ll be so inclined to drop $2.99 on YouTube to watch the whole thing, but whenever you watch it … remember what our National Football League is currently, then remember that’s it’s been this way since the game’s inception. This is Grown Man Football.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”