What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called The Jeff Goldblum Blog-A-Thon hosted by ReelWeegieMidget Reviews and Emma K Wall Explains It All. I’ve done a ton of blog-a-thons with ReelWeegie. In fact we will co-hosting one together in November; you can see the details of that and all the other events in which I’m participating at my blog-a-thons page. On the other hand, this is the first time I’ve worked with Emma K Wall; this will be her first exposure to my non-sense.
To see the work of all the contributors to this blog-a-thon, just click here:
“The Right Stuff” starts in 1947 at Muroc Army Air Field in California (now Edwards Air Force Base). This is where test pilots are in an effort to break the sound barrier. After a civilian pilot demands $150,000 to do it, war hero Captain Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard) is given the chance to fly the Bell X-1 into history. The night before while on a horseback ride with his wife Glennis (played by Barbara Hershey), Yeager breaks his ribs by hitting a tree. The injury leaves him unable to secure the hatch on the X-1. Knowing that if his injury is discovered, he will not be allowed to fly the mission. To that end, Yeager confides in friend and fellow pilot Jack Ridley (played by Levon Helm), Ridley cuts off part of a broom handle so Yeager can use it as a lever to seal the hatch. It works and Yeager beats “demon in the sky” by becoming the first person to fly at super-sonic speed.
By 1953, Edwards Air Force Base still attracts the best test pilots, but now there’s a new game afoot. Once the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is announced two recruiters (played by Harry Shearer and Jeff Goldblum) show up looking for America’s first astronauts. After the original candidates were selected, they were subjected to a grueling series of tests, then the final seven were selected for the Mercury program.
Early in the process, it is revealed that Yeager was not considered because he lacked a college degree. Eventually, the final seven are John Glenn of the United States Marine Corps, Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, and Scott Carpenter of the United States Navy, and Gordon Cooper, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, and Donald “Deke” Slayton of the United States Air Force.
What puts a sense of urgency into the “space race” was the 1957 launch of the Soviet satellite “Sputnik.” American politicians and military leaders demand that NASA defeat the Soviets in the new battle for space. The battle pitches back and forth, and the sense of urgency goes up again on April 12, 1961 with the launch of Vostok 1, the rocket which took Yuri Gagarin to being the first man in space.
This galvanizes the Mercury seven to match and surpass the Russians, despite the fact they have had a series of colossal failures with their rockets. Once that host of problems is solved, Alan Shepard became the first American to reach space on a 15-minute sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961. The next flight piloted by Gus Grissom suffers a problem when the capsule hatch blew open after the splash-down. The capsule quickly filled with water and sank. Grissom escaped with his life, but many blamed him for the accident; saying he panicked and blew the hatch prematurely.
On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit. Although the test pilots back at Edwards Air Force Base mock the Mercury program for sending “spam in a can” into space, they recognize that they are no longer the fastest men on Earth. While several of them are critical of Grissom saying that “he screwed the pooch,” Yeager defends him stating, “…it takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission, especially one that’s on TV. Ol’ Gus…he did OK.” It’s very clear that nobody in the room has the guts to challenge Yeager’s opinion.
However, the realization of not being the fastest man on earth anymore prompts Yeager to take the new Lockheed NF-104A “Starfighter” attempting to set a new altitude record at the edge of space. But he loses control of his sleek new rocket-plane and is badly burned in a high-speed ejection.
The Mercury program and the story of this film concludes on May 15, 1963, when Gordon Cooper became the last man to fly into space alone. As his Redstone rocket climbs into the heavens, a voice-over announces “…on that day, he went higher, farther, and faster than any other American. For a brief moment, “Gordo” Cooper became the greatest pilot anyone had ever seen.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
I’m a child of the space program. My dad was a missileman in the U.S. Air Force, then he moved to Space Systems. One of my earliest memories is watching the moon landing in 1969. I had the privilege of being at Edwards Air Force Base when they test flew the first space shuttle Enterprise. One of my prized possessions is a plaque signed by John Young and Robert Crippen, the first two Space Shuttle astronauts; Young was also one of only three men who flew to the moon twice.
Having said that, “The Right Stuff” is one of my favorite movies ever; call me biased if you will, but for my money this is the best movie made in the 1980s. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched “The Right Stuff,” but when I revisited it for this blog-a-thon, I realized this movie drips with comparisons to something else which is one of my absolute favorites; college football. We just marked the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and college football season is only days away, which makes this the perfect time to explore the connections between college football and this film.
1) John “Mr. Clean Marine” Glenn and Tim Tebow
“Mr. Clean Marine” was the definition of the All-American boy. He’s the guy fathers want their daughters to bring home; girls all want to date him and boys all want to be like him. John Glenn was one of those people that had an aura around him, from early on in life you knew he was destined for great things. You can say all the same things about Tim Tebow. This is a guy has been in the public eye in this country for close to 15 years and has still managed to maintain his squeaky clean image. Miraculously, Glenn did the same after he retired from NASA and spent a quarter-century as a United States Senator.
Not only that, but Glenn was one of the greatest aviators this country ever produced, much like Tebow was one of the greatest quarterback to ever play the college game. But neither Glenn or Tebow ever hit the peak of their original professions. John Glenn never went to the moon, and Tebow traded in the gridiron for the minor-league baseball diamond.
2) Gus Grissom and “Blaming the Kicker”
Three of the Apollo astronauts were alumni of Purdue University. There was Neil Armstrong (the first man to walk on the moon), Gene Cernan (the last man to walk on the moon), and one of the original Mercury seven, Virgil I.”Gus” Grissom. Since I live literally in the shadow of Purdue, these guys are major figures in the local folklore. The lobby of a local restaurant is a de facto museum to the space program, and Grissom Air Force Base is only a few minutes from my front door.
Despite all that, Gus Grissom is the classic “hard luck” guy in the history of the space program. In the movie, he’s the guy who…rightly or wrongly… got blamed for losing his Mercury capsule at sea. He was also supposed to be the first man to walk on the moon, because Apollo program flight director Deke Slayton was one of the original seven Mercury astronauts, along with Grissom. Slayton believed that the first man on the moon should me one the original seven, and by this time there were only three left; Grissom, Alan Shepard (more on him later), and “Gordo” Cooper, who had fallen into disfavor at NASA. But in 1967, the entire crew of Apollo I (Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee) were killed in a fire during a training exercise.
None of the things that happened were really Grissom’s fault, but you can tell he’s a scapegoat in this movie. That makes him just like a kicker who misses a potentially game-winning field goal. Everybody will blame him for the loss; they almost never blame the star receiver who dropped a sure-fire touchdown pass three plays before.
3) The “Head of the Program” = The “Friend of the Program”
A theme throughout this film is the importance of funding and publicity, almost nobody is more in tune with that than the “Head of the Program” (played by Jon P. Ryan). This is exemplified in the scene where Annie Glenn (played by Mary Jo Deschael), who being self-conscious about her speech impediment refuses to allow Vice-President Lyndon Johnson (played by Donald Moffat) in her house, knowing full well that will mean an appearance on live television. Once John Glenn says he backs her and not to let the Vice-President in the house; the “Head of the Program” makes it clear he cares more about the publicity than the wishes of Annie Glenn.
This is the dirty little not-so-secret about college football. It’s all about money…which is why you can easily be a “Friend of the Program” as long as you bring a suitably-sized check.
One of my favorite podcasts is called Crime In Sports; it’s exactly what the title advertises. In short, two guys explore the tale of some famous and not-so-famous athletes who have run afoul of the law. The reason I mention it is one of the hallmarks of this podcast is the “silver-haired, middle-aged white guy.” This is a usually either a coach or a booster who always pretends to want to “help,” but is on fact only looking out for their own interests and really couldn’t give a fuck about anything other than that. “The “Head of the Program” is about as “silver-haired, middle-aged white guy” as you can get.
4) The “Guy Who Doesn’t Fit The Profile”
Initially, the first-time viewer of this film will wonder why Chuck Yeager, who was universally regarded as one of the greatest pilots of his time, was not a candidate for the original Mercury astronaut program. Then they discover that some pointy-headed bureaucrats formed a profile into which their original seven astronauts would all fit. Even though his prowess as a pilot was beyond question, Yeager was not included as he was not a college graduate.
Oddly enough, Purdue University prides itself as the “Cradle of Quarterbacks” largely because it’s produced two Hall-of-Famers in Len Dawson and Bob Griese, and a bunch of guys in the “Hall of Pretty Damn Good,” like Gary Danielson, Jim Everett, and Kyle Orton. But when head coach Joe Tiller came to West Lafayette in the late 1990s, he brought with him this kid from Texas who ended up being one of the greatest quarterbacks ever. The reason why Tiller was able to bring this kind of talent to a school which was firmly in the back-waters of college football at the time was pretty simple.
Nobody else wanted him.
When his career is over, Drew Brees will be considered as one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time; in my book, he’s already there. But the reason why Joe Tiller could recruit him was there was no other big-time college football program showed any interest in Brees is because he was too short.
Recruiters have this idea that quarterbacks are all 6’4″, 240 pounds and have an elephant rifle bolted to the shoulder. Despite not having any of those, Brees belongs on any list of all-time greats; there have been 11 times in which an NFL quarterback has thrown for 5,000 yards…Brees has five of them.
5) The Recruiters
Here’s where we get to Jeff Goldblum…and Harry Shearer, whose role is to recruit the original seven Mercury astronauts. Like most recruiters, they really didn’t have an idea exactly what they were looking for until somebody in charge told them. The scene where they have the film reels of various candidates like surfers and circus performers exemplifies, until President Eisenhower emphatically states he wants the first astronauts to come from the ranks of test pilots.
When looking for football players, it’s easy to spot “bigger, stronger, faster,” but there comes a point when Goldblum and Shearer found themselves asking the question this movie poses…what exactly is “the right stuff?”
6) The “Hall of Fame” Stuff
While we may never know exactly what is “the right stuff,” there a guy in this movie who has “Hall of Fame” stuff. Keep your eyes peeled for “Gonzalez;” you can’t miss this mountain of a man in the scene when Alan Shepard gets a barium enema. “Gonzalez” is a six-and-half foot behemoth of an orderly who doesn’t appreciate Shepard’s “Jose Jimenez” impersonation. In reality, “Gonzalez” was played by Anthony Munoz, who is one of the greatest offensive linemen to ever play the game.
7) A sand trap that’s literally out of this world
OK, so I’ll admit this one isn’t about college football, but it sure as hell is about another sport I love. As a recovering golf addict, I can tell you for a fact that Alan Shepard was married to a “golf widow.” Guys who have wives who feel like golf is a rival for their husband’s attention are the same guys who sneak in rounds of golf without their wife’s knowledge. The dead give-away is in all the steps Shepard took to get in some small-ball in the one place where knew his wife wouldn’t be. Not only did he have a club specially-made for the moon, he then had to smuggle it and some balls into the lunar lander. He then had to get his two fellow astronauts to keep this on the “down-low,” and to cap it all off, he had to have the balls to do it on world-wide television.
Neil Armstrong may have been the first man to walk on the moon, but when Alan Shepard became the first man to tee-off on the moon, he became a hero to every golf-aholic who ever played in the rain, begged for a 5:45 a.m. tee time, or had his clubs given away by his “golf widow.”
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