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"Now a guy you're playing against today might be your teammate tomorrow," says Carson. "I think it's definitely had an impact."
Gabriel sees more of a marketing angle. The postgame lovefests, he says, give today's players extra camera time (without the face-obscuring helmet, of course) to show an aspect of their personality not always visible during the game.
"I think it's an extension of the coverage nowadays," Gabriel says. "It's almost as though this is another way for you to be seen, rather than just getting into the locker room and getting things done. To me, I think that [postgame fraternizing] is just an extension of all the exposure and the PR the players are getting today."
Whether today's players aren't as angry toward their opponents as their older counterparts were, as veterans like Carson and Gabriel imply, is debatable. But they certainly aren't as angry after the game is over. Consider the Giants' final home game of the 1999 season. New York had a game against Minnesota with playoff implications: win and, for all intents and purposes, they were in. Yet following a 34-17 stinker of a loss, with their postseason hopes all but dashed, there were several Giants players hugging, laughing, and praying with their Viking opponents.
"Well, just because we lost, we're not going to be like 'Fuck you,' " says New York offensive lineman Roman Oben, who chatted with Vikings' defensive tackle Tony Williams, whom he played against in college and blocked during the game.
More so than ever, the modern player demonstrates that congeniality does not necessarily have an inverse relationship to performance. "I think there's that fear," observes Zaichkowsky, "And it might be true in some cases. That there are some people who, once they get to know somebody, they treat them just a little bit differentlyin a softer kind of waybut if it's an unknown person they treat them as the enemy. But some of the people who I identify as really competitive people, they don't much care. They can do it."
Not that postgame fraternizing began in the '90s. Jack Ham, a linebacker on Pittsburgh's vaunted "Steel Curtain" defenses of the '70s, recalls several incidents when he and fellow Steeler linebacker Jack Lambert "had a few beers with guys we played against after the game." Once, following a 1982 playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium, he and Lambert met Jack Rudnay, the starting center for their opponentthe Kansas City Chiefsafter the game was over. The difference is the players did their socializing in private"I think we sat in the sauna," Ham notesrather than on the field.
"But we talked to other guys on other teams if we knew them," says Ham, who works as a football commentator for CBS radio in addition to running a business in Pittsburgh. "I don't really see anything wrong with it."
So what do players talk about with guys they just spent the past three hours trying to, metaphorically speaking, decapitate? Well, just about anything but the game, players say. Most players who gather after the game usually know each other from college, having either played with or against each other in school. Others are former teammates separated by free agency. Still more know each other because they share the same agents or endorsement deals. Usually, players ask about families or off-season plans.
There's also the prayer circle, a relatively new addition to the postgame ritual. Traditionally, football teams have always had a moment of prayer in the locker room prior to the game. Now players from opposing sides frequently hold hands and pray after the game is over, often at or near the center of the field. Many of the athletes who participate in the prayer circles are members of one of two organizationsthe Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), which started in the '50s, and Athletes in Action (AIA), which started in the '70s. Membership in these organizations, and others like them, has grown in recent years. Both the FCA and AIA encourage members to openly express their faith, and the on-field prayer is merely an outcropping of that. While most old-school players say they admire the expression of religious faith, they would prefer the observances took place in private, somewhere off the field and away from the camera.
"I'm a Catholic but I don't think that you need to have 20 or 30 guys kneeling at the 50-yard line," says Gabriel. "To me, that doesn't have anything to do with playing the game. I think that's showing off."
Linebacker Scott Gaylon, who joined in a postgame prayer circle following the Giants-Vikings game, says, however, that he doesn't think the shared spiritual moment impacts the way players approach the game. He also says he and others involved aren't trying to make any political or religious statements. "The game is important, but it's nothing personal," he explains. "When it's over, we all come together and thank God for the gift he has given usthe ability to play this game. That's all."
Indeed, today's players say that the football-as-war mentality stops at the press box. "All that stuff is hype from the media," says veteran Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn. "The thing is, the media and a lot of people try to put this as more than just a game. During a game, you're out there competing. After the game, we don't hate anybody who plays on another team. It's just a fact when you're playing a game, you have to do things to try to win. And after the game, it's over with."