To begin our last class meeting before Super Bowl LV, we will turn to a piece of writing about football–not simply to read about a sport that’s on the minds of many of us this week but instead as an opportunity to explore how skillfully the writer Michael Lewis dramatizes a few seconds on the football field.
In the passage that follows, Lewis recounts the moments in the November 1985 Redskins-Giants football game leading up to the injury that ended quarterback Joe Theismann’s career. These are the words that begin Chapter 1 of The Blind Side, now widely regarded as a nonfiction masterpiece.
From the snap of the ball to the snap of the first bone is closer to four seconds than to five. One Mississippi: The quarterback of the Washington Redskins, Joe Theismann, turns and hands the ball to running back John Riggins. He watches Riggins run two steps forward, turn, and flip the ball back to him. It’s what most people know as a “flea-flicker,” but the Redskins call it a “throw-back special.” Two Mississippi: Theismann searches for a receiver but instead sees Harry Carson coming straight at him. It’s a running down—the start of the second quarter, first and 10 at midfield, with the score tied 7–7—and the New York Giants’ linebacker has been so completely suckered by the fake that he’s deep in the Redskins’ backfield. Carson thinks he’s come to tackle Riggins but Riggins is long gone, so Carson just keeps running, toward Theismann. Three Mississippi: Carson now sees that Theismann has the ball. Theismann notices Carson coming straight at him, and so he has time to avoid him. He steps up and to the side and Carson flies right on by and out of the play. The play is now 3.5 seconds old. Until this moment it has been defined by what the quarterback can see. Now it–and he–is at the mercy of what he can’t see.
What Theismann cannot see is Lawrence Taylor. A second later, as Taylor sacks Theismann, Taylor’s knee drives straight into Theismann’s lower right leg, leading to the “snap of the first bone” that Lewis mentions in the first sentence. He hooks the reader by linking the beginning of the play, “the snap of the ball” to the gruesome “snap of the first bone” that will follow. Lewis develops the paragraph using the common one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi method of marking seconds to present the events leading up to the compound fracture that ends Theisman’s career.
Lewis doesn’t dramatize the injury itself because his interest lies instead in the blind side that led to it and subsequently elevated the status and salary of the left tackle, the player who protects the quarterback’s blind side.
When you’re struggling to develop a piece of writing, reread the opening paragraph of The Blind Side. Study how Lewis dramatizes 3.5 seconds–yes, only 3.5 seconds–with 224 words.
And now we turn to a game of another sort: Scrabble, the subject of my version of the You’ve Got to . . . assignment, the sample that I wrote for you.
A Game for Hardscrabble Times
The Guardian article “Spell Bound” notes that the exact beginning of Scrabble is “debatable,” adding that “Scrabble experts are the kind of people who like to debate it at length.” In a piece of writing such as this–one that begins at the beginning of the game–the starting point could be Lexico, which is the game that Alfred Mosher Butts developed before he invented Scrabble–which, by the way, wasn’t named Scrabble until Butts sold the game to Jacob Brunot. That’s when the game that Butts had christened Criss-Cross Words became the game that would multiply to more than 150 million sets worldwide, a game that can now be found in a third of homes in America (Bukszpan 16).
If that description of Scrabble’s beginnings doesn’t capture your interest, perhaps because you don’t think of yourself as a word person, consider this: Scrabble’s inventor wasn’t a word person either. Butts was fascinated by games of all sorts and saw word games as the category that offered the most opportunities for innovation. For him, that innovation meant creating a game in which the frequency of letters corresponded with their frequency in the English language. As part of his research, he documented how often each letter appeared on the front page of the newspaper. E is most common, so there are twelve E’s in Scrabble but only one tile for each of the rarest of letters: J, K, Q, X, and Z. For many players, including me, part of Scrabble’s appeal is the combination of skill and luck. Word power alone won’t win the game. You don’t know which letters you will draw or which seven letter tiles are on your opponent’s rack. And for many players, another source of the game’s appeal is its synthesis of crosswords and anagrams.
Since creating words from anagrams is a process of letter scrambling, James Brunot may have chosen the name Scrabble in part for its similarity to scramble, but the word scrabble itself is apt for a game that often requires players to struggle (or scrabble) to make a word from a seemingly impossible combination of tiles. It’s notable, too, that Scrabble’s beginnings date to the 1930s, when its inventor was an out-of-work architect. He wanted to create a diversion from the dark days of the Depression. Now it’s a game that many of us have returned to, pantomiming the ghosts of those first-generation players. Once again, it’s a game for hardscrabble times.
Bukszpan, David. Is That a Word?: From AA to ZZZ, the Weird and Wonderful Language of Scrabble. Chronicle, 2012.
“Spell Bound.” The Guardian, 27 June 2008, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2008/jun/28/healthandwellbeing.familyandrelationships.
In addition to including my model of the assignment in the body of this blog post, I am including it below as a PDF along with an additional copy of the assignment file. (See the links below and the rectangles labeled download.)
You’ve Got to . . . Assignment Notes
- Unlike my sample, yours does not have to include sources. If, however, you do quote or paraphrase a text, follow MLA style guidelines and look to my sample assignment as a model.
- You are welcome to write more than two paragraphs, as I did, but be sure that the first two paragraphs comply with the directions outlined in the assignment.
- Approach your writing as a process. My model did not begin with what is now the first sentence. Instead, it began this way: “Designed for two-to-four players, the board game Scrabble begins with each player randomly drawing a letter tile from an opaque bag. The player whose letter is closest to the beginning of the alphabet is designated the first player.” My first draft fulfilled the basic requirement of the first paragraph, but I was doubtful that it would hold the reader’s interest. I asked myself where else I might begin, and it occurred to me that I could begin with the debate about the origins of the game.
Preparing to Submit Your You’ve-Got-to . . . Assignment
- Review the assignment file, and look to the guidelines as a checklist.
- Reread the notes on revising and editing in my January 27 blog post.
- Remember that you will submit your assignment to Moodle as a Word document, not a PDF, and you will not post it to your blog. A Word file template is posted in Moodle for you.
- If you would like for someone to review your assignment before you submit it, the Center for Academic Engagement offers a variety of resources, which are outlined on pages four and five of the course syllabus.
Lewis, Michael. The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. 2006. W. W. Norton, 2009.