The Haslett Interview, by Joseph Conrad

Haslett has that thousand-yard stare of a man who has seen too much, and the curiously drawn mouth of a man who cannot talk about what he has seen. It's his job to keep the suffering inside, so that it doesn't hurt the rest of us. I picture this interview taking place in a dark shanty in Singapore, surrounded by shadowy nameless refugees of human failure.

Billy Devaney arrives in a sparkling white suit, no one knows how he has found Haslett but he has, and he's determined to bring the full light of judicial inquiry against him. But he sees some shred of humanity in Haslett's eyes, and decides to spare him the shame of the light of day, so he sits town to join Haslett in his den of hiding. However, Billy won't spare him the sharpness of his questions, and by the end they hurt almost as much to ask as to answer.

"Why did the Rams lose their last ten games?"

Haslett knows that this question was coming, but it is not the one he is running from. He looks up from his tankard of dark ale.

"We did a terrible job, all of us, the players and the coaches the same. But you're wrong about the losing. We didn't lose em all like that, all at once.

"The losing wasn't just one kind of losing. There's so many ways to lose in this game, and we nearly hit them all. Trying to coach up this team was like trying to hold a parachute up off the ground all by yourself. No matter if we got one corner up in the air, another would come collapsing down, and there was no use in getting mad because it was just its nature to fall.

"By the end of it, we damn near had it turned the right way. We were winning the battles on the field. We had our quarterback and his linemen awake and breathing God's air like a normal human being -- you don't know how much work that was all by itself, turning these corpses, these gutless boneless bags of shit and piss, back into players. And we had games that we'd won. We're winning these games, the turnovers, the scoreboard, we're winning 'em. Sure we ain't playing Ray Nietzche's Packers or nuthin but we're playing like an honest-to-goddamned football team and winning these last few games. Seattle. Frisco. Atlanna. The last one a playoff team..."

Haslett drains his tankard, and looks morosely into the bottom of it for several long seconds, then looks up again, focusing on the shiny new ribbon on the front of Devaney's uniform, signaling his promotion to the admiral's position of the St. Louis franchise. He turns and spits, but somehow doesn't convey disrespect in the gesture. He continues in a low guttural whisper.

"The last one a playoff team. But it was just foolish pride. It's nothing to win three quarters of a football game. It's nothing to look like a football team. That fourth quarter is the fiery hell that a man has to walk through head-up or get his soul burnt alive. And the secret.... the secret of the matter is that you can't do it alone. No man can, but each and every one of our lily-lovin sons a bitches would forget their fellows and try to win the goddamned game by themselves. A sorry bunch of free-lancing dandies we were in those final minutes."

Devaney picks up the thread, and asks:

"After that, how do you feel you can be successful as the team's head coach?"

Haslett's gaze burns a hole through Devaney's chest for a moment, then looks up with a dull gloss over his eyes. "I might be the only man who could. But who's sayin' I would want to?"

At this point, the matronly barmaid brings over a new ale for the coach, and gives Devaney a short questioning look. "Just a sparkling water, if you please, madam." She shrugs diffidently and walks away.

Devaney turns back to Haslett, his voice cold and clear, as he tries to clarify the testimony.

"So, many of the games featured a lopsided score by half-time, but down the stretch the Rams were blowing leads. How do you explain this?"

Haslett sneers, and says bitterly, "Look, I got one player who thinks he's goddamned Superman, John Wayne and John Shaft all rolled up into one. And the rest of my team believe him. When he's playing like a bat out of hell, these cheap followers suddenly gets some wind in their sails, you follow? But when it turns out that this guy gets a ding in his iron suit, he sits out four weeks in his fortress of damned solitude and the rest of the team gives up faster than the French in dubya-dubya-two.

"It wasn't their fault. Ain't a one of them has as much backbone as a snail. We tried whipping them like dogs, cursing them like whores, we even tried, god help us, some 'positive imagery.' " With this, he spits in disgust.

"None of it worked until Superman in gold tights got back on the field, and then we started playing those close ones that you saw. Buncha sheep, that's all. And the ones who actually have a sack ain't got the brains God gave a flea."

"Richie Incognito," says Devaney, knowingly.

Haslett nods his head slowly, then gestures across the table to an abandoned corner of the dimlit room, where a fish-fleshed heap of a man lies sprawled in his own filth, with what looks like a freshly tattooed obscenity on his forehead.

"I've never had an albatross of a player like that man there," he says, between long swallows. "I'd sooner marry my only daughter to the Devil himself, or to that coward Aaron Brooks even, than spend another minute trying to coach up that heap."

At the mention of the star-crossed former Saints quarterback, one of the stone-faced lumps at the bar looks up sharply, with shoulders hunched and a baleful glare, giving Devaney a shiver of horror. A blink later and the lump is contemplating his drink again and the white-suited admiral has to shake himself. Realizing that he sits surrounded by failure and misery, Devaney has to check the impulse at the animal center of his brain to turn heel and run as fast as he can.

"What players do you see as problems, or simply as unable to play at this level?"

"Look, all of 'em to a man can play some football, exceptin' some of the old men like Glover and Chavous. And that Bulger who might wake up 50 years old one of these days, who knows if he's got another season in him.

"All of 'em can play, and there's only a few out-and-out 'problems.' But ain't one of them takes a hit and got the spine necessary to sit up and ask for one more."

Haslett stands abruptly, shoving the table edge into Devaney's midsection as he arches toward him, and plants one raw-boned hand on the table and the other square in Devaney's chest. Each stares unblinking into the other man's face, then Haslett growls plaintively.

"If you want a coach, I... I'll be your coach. Just... just bring me some iron to work with."

He punctuates the statement with a slight head tilt and a pained smile, then straightens himself slowly. Turning toward the back stair, Haslett continues muttering into the shadows, "A man can't build what has no iron to build with..."