fan fiction

Words and Art: Dave Tompkins


Prior to the invention of fantasy football, playing football alone, free of personal endangerment or computer, without a bar or a hot wing or remote financial interest, required an imagination. You had to command every position at once and pipe in your own crowd noise while dodging invisible defenders. Split your dimensions, fake yourself out. Keep your head in the game and out of reality long enough to win. This could take all day if you, like me, were the Detroit Lions. 

Being a Lions fan in North Carolina during the ’70s called for a dedicated sense of make-believe. The Lions never found themselves televised except when losing on Thanksgiving or as the butt of another team’s highlights. I’d spend Sundays miming games in the Vickers’ field, a neighboring parcel of farmland in Charlotte, hoping my Hail Mary to self would somehow voodoo its way into the actual Lions’ game plan that day. If anything, I was playing the Lions’ own ghosts, with a sewer creek for a sideline.

Until then, my closest approximation to professional sports was when Wahoo McDaniel crashed his leisure van in the Vickers’ yard. According to Vinnie Vickers, the passenger seat landed in a scratch of onion grass 15 yards east of what I called end zone. A beer remained lodged in the armrest, unperturbed. Nearby a telephone pole lay flat on its back. It’s not every day a professional wrestler from a Choctaw-Chickasaw bloodline blunders his vehicle into your personal arena, giving up his prime seat to boot.

Charlotte didn’t qualify as an NFL market, so we outsourced our allegiances rather than suffer through everybody’s dad issuing nostalgic burps on behalf of the Redskins. (Though nobody bothered consulting Wahoo on his feelings about the Redskins slur, Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson does remember being obliterated by the wrestling star, when Wahoo played linebacker for the Dolphins.) The Detroit Lions were my chosen squad, despite them not having acquired a championship since the Eisenhower administration. I’d like to say my decision was informed by the fact that two of the Lions’ star players—Mel Farr and Lem Barney—had gold records from singing backup on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Or that my favorite player, Charlie Sanders, was from North Carolina. Or that they had a guy named Dick “Nighttrain” Lane. But I chose the Lions for no other reason than they weren’t Washington, a team that had been reliably beating them since 1935. 

To watch the Lions I bought a book about the Lions. Detroit Lions: The Great Years had a black-and-white photograph of tight end Charlie Sanders extending for a catch against the Oakland Raiders. It’s a two-page spread, Sanders on the right, Oakland safety George Atkinson closing in from the left. The crowd is out of focus, disoriented. The darkroom effect of dodging and burning had blurred the nosebleeds into a black void. Atkinson and Sanders seem to be playing by themselves. I feared for Sanders, stuck in this moment of imminent collision. Did he catch that ball? 

George Atkinson was one of the most feared hitters in the league. He and Raider teammate Jack Tatum were, in their words, out to “sever players from reality.” My older brother adopted this mission statement when we’d spend Sunday afternoons beating the church out of each other, acting out goal-line stands on the vinyl couch in the den. It was sibling violence erupting from the Nerf-brained boredom of being stuck watching Washington. Slo-mo was required for exaggerated grimace and historical accuracy. Occasionally, my brother would speed up the action to ensure that my face arrived into the crook of his arm on time, a technique he learned from Jack Tatum. Once described as “Genghis Khan with an afro,” Tatum had studied the Lions’ own Nighttrain Lane. Then it hit me. Then my brother hit me again.  

Fall of 1998—I met with Tatum and Atkinson on a golf course north of Oakland for a story that would run in the Aquemini issue of Rap Pages. We talked about Tatum’s uncle, who bagged groceries at the A&P down the street from us in Charlotte. I remember him standing at the end of the conveyor belt with TATUM namegunned to his red apron, the same Tatum that had been steamed onto the back of my brother’s Raiders jersey, ordered from Sears. I shared my anxieties concerning the Charlie Sanders photo in The Great Years, but I didn’t show Jack my childhood rendering of him.

In 1978, at the age of 9, I drew a series of imagined scenes from NFL games that never took place, sketched in pencil and filled in with a limited palette of Magic Markers. There’s one of Tatum—the Super Collider—disrupting a pass intended for Dolphin receiver/Miami skate-rink owner Nat Moore. Both appear to be missing their faces. Other players, like Charlie Joiner, had their torsos on backwards. Everyone has a great mustache; noses are implied. And apparently the Jheri curl was trending here 10 years before Ice Cube. Magic Marker had yet to devise an Anglo pink, so born-again-Christian QB Jim Zorn was transparently white. Cleats were tiny Rice Puffs, and the absence of shoulder pads, to say nothing of shoulders, was in clear violation of NFL regulations. Some players are in fact boneless, like grotesque invertebrates.

At one point, the scrapbook breaks from NFL fossils into a gallery of prehistoric reptiles, as if Draw 50 Dinosaurs would improve my grasp of skeletal infrastructure. After the ichthyosaur, you find Tampa Bay running back Ricky Bell scoring a touchdown. His face is birdcaged in bright mango, with matching sweatbands. Floating in the end zone are the unfinished traces of a defender, juked out of his essence. Bell would die of a coronary at age 29.

Maybe everyone in my fantasy league played blind because their eyeballs had been knocked out of their heads. Maybe it was because they were never seen, in games that never happened, as if I was documenting the alternate NFL reality being acted out in my neighborhood. All along, the nib bled and the Lions won, making up for lost games. Most scenes had their own scoreboards, so each nonexistent action was appointed a time, however arbitrary. As one friend pointed out, “I don’t think the Bills ever had three timeouts in the bottom of the fourth quarter.”

Fantasy clock management aside, the real challenge was drawing a dolphin jumping through a ring of fire on a thumb-sized helmet. How does one draw a dolphin in a helmet on a Dolphin’s helmet? And what’s inside that dolphin’s helmet? A peek into the helmet’s blowhole could reveal a hairnet of electrodes used for translating dolphin brainwaves into human cognition. I think they’re trying to tell us something: Why do you still play this idiotic game? The dolphin on the newly refreshed Miami Dolphins logo is not even wearing a helmet.

Winn Fuller, my best friend and only known Dolphins fan in Charlotte, in fact could’ve used a helmet the day my lamppost nearly stoved-in his head. My brother had sent him streaking down our front yard on a routine fly pattern, putting an arc on the ball that enabled all vectors to convene at blackout. It was a clean hit. My buddy ran home wailing and the lamppost was never the same. Some nights it just stood there in the corner of my yard, blinking. This caught the attention of Winn’s father Ed, a Washington fan who informed my mom that I was trying to signal the Martians again, perhaps the first evidence of lamppost-to-alien contact. The Martians would later respond by hurling a ball of lightning into my grandparents’ pool house one Sunday, knocking out the TV in the middle of the Washington–Miami game. I have no recollection of the incident—this being the pre-concussion-protocol days.

Ed Fuller used to clown me for carrying around a copy of John G. Fuller’s We Almost Lost Detroit, because I thought there was some link between a partial reactor meltdown in 1966 and the Lions’ poor play. My fondest memories of Ed find him dozing in his recliner with a Budweiser, put to sleep by the Redskins. I’d be down in his backyard, eking out another hard-earned win for the Lions, occasionally hurling myself to the ground because the offensive line just wasn’t there. Victory doesn’t come easy to the can’t-block-for-shit.

It’s also hard to properly execute when Vinnie Vickers is trying to pop you with a BB gun from the tree house next door. Vinnie claimed he found the rifle at our neighbor’s, a Neil Young impressionist who had already stolen my dad’s .38, which, incidentally, we’d used for shooting up football cards. (I once brought down Washington fullback John Riggins from 20 yards out, no easy task.) Vinnie swore the gun wasn’t loaded when I confronted him, all welts and tears. As a demonstration, he pumped some breath into the rifle, put the barrel under his neck and squeezed the trigger a few times. See? The only other witness in that tree house was my brother.

That was a particularly black Sunday. I’d been trying to reenact that Charlie Sanders catch from the book, the one backyard play based on actual events, putting the photograph in motion and into a future where Sanders eluded Atkinson and scored, and the Lions went on to beat the Raiders, finished with a 10–4 record, and made the playoffs. I’ll wahoo to that.

Last summer, a friend recommended that we sneak into the Pontiac Silverdome, the Lions’ former home, now left to wishbone decay. Equipped with a reel-to-reel recorder that her parents had used for séances in Ontario, we wanted to capture sonic residue from late hits and crowd noise, feeling the sense of loss. Maybe we’d find Wahoo McDaniel’s ejected captain’s chair sitting on the 50-yard line. It didn’t have to happen. The suggestion gave presence.

Charlie Sanders died last July and running back Mel Farr followed in August. You can still hear Farr on that Marvin Gaye refrain, if not in the world itself. You can find Sanders in the Hall of Fame, or smiling from the autographed picture on my bookshelf, the Lion who wrote back. I never drew Charlie Sanders because it would’ve been impossible to live up to that catch against the Raiders, a photograph of someone else’s memory. You had to be there. Many of the players in these drawings are now forgotten and faceless, unable to remember what never occurred, dodging and burning in darkness, penciled outlines of ghosts that have been left, if not abandoned, to the imagination. Only the markers and damage are permanent. Whatever happened before and after those moments has been left out on the field.