Almost four decades after it was published, North Dallas Forty remains the best novel ever written about American football.
Its author, Pete Gent, drew on his experience as a player with the Dallas Cowboys, but his real genius came in recognising the ascension of football as "America's game" just at a time when the very ethos it represented was being called into question.
In the 1960s, television propelled the National Football League into sporting pre-eminence in America. Society was changing and, sparked by the success of baseball pitcher Jim Bouton's warts-and-all-memoir Ball Four, sportsmen were revealing feet of clay just as TV brought their public closer to them. It was a time of serious protest against war and inequality, and football's violence, military ethos, and enforced conformity seemed to many to epitomise the worst aspects of America.
In North Dallas Forty, which was published in 1973, Gent combined America's and football's hypocrisies in one moving novel, in which he exposed the way players used alcohol and drugs to cope with both the near-constant pain and injuries the game inflicted, and the emotional toll of knowing that they were commodities to be traded or discarded when their usefulness was over. His fictional team, the North Dallas Bulls, were recognisably the Dallas Cowboys who styled themselves "America's team", and his protagonist, Phil Elliott, was recognisably Gent.
In the 1979 film, Elliott was played by Nick Nolte, wearing the same single-bar helmet Gent wore. The film opens with a bravura sequence where Elliott soaks his aches while flashing back to each play that caused them. The singer Mac Davis played a quarterback based on Don Meredith, while the coach, modelled after Tom Landry, was played with sanctimonious relish by GD Spradlin, who specialised in such authority figures. Elliott is the rebel who loves the game but won't conform, but the film's best line is reserved for huge John Matuszak, a real NFL player, who screams at a critical coach: "When we call it a game, you call it a business, and when we call it a business, you call it a game." That typified Gent and Phil Elliott, despising the business but too much in love with the game to quit.
Pete Gent grew up in Bangor, Michigan, where he played football but starred in basketball, leading his school to an unlikely state championship in 1960. He starred in basketball at Michigan State University, graduating in 1964 with honours in communications, and was drafted by the Baltimore Bullets. Not liking his NBA prospects, and learning that the Cowboys were offering $500 to attend an open try-out, he went to Texas, where his pass-catching hands so impressed the coaches he was signed.
The Cowboys started out stocked with others' cast-offs, and believed they could mould talent to their systems. With the Olympic sprinter Bob Hayes their other wide receiver, attracting opponents' attentions deep, Gent caught shorter passes from Meredith, usually in heavy traffic, which led to frequent injuries, most of which, like Phil Elliott, he played through. But when Dallas traded for Lance Rentzel, Gent was moved to a blocking role, then released.
Gent tried sportscasting and disc jockeying before writing his novel. He wrote the screenplay with director Ted Kotcheff and producer Frank Yablans, with whom he feuded just as viciously as Phil Elliott did with his coach. His other novels included The Franchise (1983), North Dallas After Forty (1989), and Conquering Heroes (1994) set amid corruption in college basketball. The best of his later books is The Last Magic Summer (1996), about reconnecting with his son, distanced by divorce, while coaching his youth baseball team. Gent moved back to Bangor in 1990, and died there from pulmonary illness.
George Peter Davis Gent, American footballer and writer: born Bangor, Michigan 23 August 1942; married (one son, one daughter); died Bangor 30 September 2011.
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