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'The Throwback Special' Tackles Middle-Age Manhood


Football fans of a certain age can still recall with horror a particular moment during a "Monday Night Football" game in 1985. Washington quarterback Joe Theismann ran a play called the flea flicker, and it left him wide open to the hard-charging linebacker of the New York Giants, Lawrence Taylor.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And it was Lawrence Taylor who slammed Theismann to the ground at the 42-yard line. The blitz was on. That's not necessarily a good play to have called. And quickly, Lawrence Taylor is up saying Theismann is hurt.

MARTIN: Yeah. Theismann was really hurt. His right leg snapped in two. His football career ended that night. This moment frozen in sports history is at the heart of a new novel by Chris Bachelder. It's called "The Throwback Special," and it's a surprisingly funny and poignant story about a group of friends who reunite every year to re-enact that play and then reflect on their middle-aged lives in the process. Chris Bachelder joins us from member station WVXU in Cincinnati.

Chris, welcome to the program.

CHRIS BACHELDER: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: When did you first see this football play happen? Were you old enough to have watched it when it actually occurred (laughter)?

BACHELDER: Yes, I was. I was 14, I think, in 1985.


BACHELDER: And those games were on at 9, and I usually watched at least the first half and this happened early in the second quarter, so I saw it.

MARTIN: So I hadn't seen it. And so I had to go watch it, you know, in preparation for having this conversation with you. And I don't know if it was just the clip I found on YouTube, but the - at the first look at it, just the camera angle, didn't show it. You know, you just see Lawrence Taylor, L.T., like, holding his helmet, and clearly, he's upset and something bad has transpired. And then they're, like, let's go to the reverse angle cam and then they play it again. This is horrible.

BACHELDER: It's awful, and I'm sorry to introduce you to it. But it's - yeah, it's just awful.

MARTIN: So this clearly stayed with you for many years. How in the world did you come up with this conceit to use this event as the fulcrum around which to build a novel about these guys?

BACHELDER: You know, it was a kind of slow and gradual process. I think I originally thought the power was in the play itself. And there's plenty of power there, but the kind of literary power or energy that I was feeling had to do more with that play plus time - plus 25 or 30 years. So when you bring nostalgia into the mix - when you bring a sort of middle-aged man into the mix, reflecting on the play, you have two times existing together. The play was my context, not my subject.

MARTIN: These guys - these characters in your book help us set the scene. Every year they get together in his hotel - it's the same hotel every year?


MARTIN: They bring their own football gear. How do they decide who gets to play what character in this re-enactment?

BACHELDER: Yeah. So they gather for a weekend every November around the date of the anniversary and - in a two-and-a-half star chain hotel. And they spend a weekend, and they have very complicated rituals and traditions. And there's a lottery system with Ping-Pong balls with their names on them in which they draw - when your name is drawn, you get to choose which player you are, but there are complicated subrules.

MARTIN: All kinds of rules. You can't be - you can't have the main role two years in a row? Tell me what the rules are.

BACHELDER: I think so - I (laughter).

MARTIN: You can't remember.

BACHELDER: Of course I can't.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

BACHELDER: They're very complicated, these men's rules. But you - I do know the last person to draw is automatically Theismann, so you don't get to choose to be Theismann.


BACHELDER: And Lawrence Taylor is generally chosen among the first, whether the man wants to be Lawrence Taylor or not. He feels sort of a pressure, I think, to be the hero - or the antihero of the drama.

MARTIN: Who are they? They all seem to have some kind of low-grade disappointment in their lives when they come together. Or is it just bringing them all together brings that out in their conversation? Tell me a little bit about where they're at in their lives.

BACHELDER: Yeah. I think they're just men of a certain age, probably mid-40s, and they've reached a point in their lives when they see what their lives are going to become for better or worse. And I think they've also reached a point where they understand they don't have as much control over their lives as they thought. I think if the play means anything, one of the things it means is that - is the awful contingency and chaos and the sort of dark, catastrophic potential underneath our plans. So I think the men take a certain pleasure - and this might be a religious impulse in some sense - but they take a certain pleasure in perfecting and controlling this play, the very meaning of which is that you can't control, right, or perfect anything. And in that way, they're - it's sort of primitively religious, I think.

MARTIN: It seems that some of their angst - for some of them - comes from parenting. One dad is worried that his young daughter - I think it was - took a fall and he wasn't worried enough about her because he kind of thought she deserved it maybe. Another guy is a bit freaked out because he fantasizes about the adult female characters in the children's books he reads to his kids.


BACHELDER: You're making this sound more disturbing somehow.

MARTIN: I know, but there's something real about these things that they share with one another. This is a sacred place where they might not be able to divulge this stuff in their regular life. But they get together in this two-star hotel room under the auspices of reliving these rituals and all of a sudden, these men get to just be human.

BACHELDER: Right. And I would think sacred's a great word. There is something sacred about the gathering at the risk of making it sound too grand. I think the men have to fool themselves. They're not going to say - let's all get together, you know. They're not going to say - let's have a spa weekend, or let's have a time to talk together (laughter). So they, in a sense, have fooled themselves. They're coming for the play, they think. But then the thing that they're really doing is, as you say, sharing confidences, sharing anxieties, sharing disappointments and fears.


BACHELDER: But it's almost as if they don't quite know the real reasons why they do this.

MARTIN: What happens to these guys when they go home from this gathering every year? How does this change them, do you think, in their regular lives?

BACHELDER: I think they look forward to it. But I think when they go home, it's back to their normal lives. And I think, to some extent, they don't understand their own contentment. I don't think that their lives are that horrible. They're just coming to terms with what it means to come into middle age.

MARTIN: Just life - you're telling me this is just about all of us kind of just growing up.

BACHELDER: (Laughter) Yeah, you know, I mean, the idea of making a plan - a play - and having the play go wrong is really analogous to parenting, to writing (laughter), to a lot of the things we do.

MARTIN: Chris Bachelder - his new novel is called "The Throwback Special."

Chris, thanks so much for talking with us.

BACHELDER: Thanks. It was really a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.