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A Mathis Fan's Notes

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In 1968, Harper & Row published A Fan's Notes, the first book by writer Frederick Exley. A "fictional memoir" that plays it fast and loose with the distinctions between fiction and biography (a line I believe is better off blurred anyway) it is one of the best works of late 20th century American literature. If you haven't read it yet, you should.

It's a funny, sprawling, angry, lusty, and disturbing story. Exley writes from the perspective of a character named Frederick Exley, native of a small town in upstate New York whose youth is lived in the shadow of his charismatic, domineering, local legend of an alcoholic father. He grows up, leaves home, staggers from this career to that, gets drunk a lot and institutionalized twice. His marriage fails and his friendships falter; he sinks into several morasses of pure piteousness. Whatever his faults, this Exley is also intelligent, impassioned and literary-minded; perhaps that is why he fits so awkwardly into American life ca. 1950s-60s (and beyond?)

Throughout the book, his drive to find his way and meaning in life is matched by his fierce hunger for recognition - the recognition that comes from writing Great Literature. Only he hasn't written Great Literature, or much of any literature yet - he's only thought about it, wanted it, felt born to it. A typical conceit of fairly bookish, ambitious, slightly pretentious middle-class boys, I would be lying if I said that it had never resonated somewhere inside me. Another binding theme of the story is that of sports - especially Exley's fanaticism for the New York Football Giants, but even more particularly, the figure of Frank Gifford (yes, Kathie Lee's septuagenarian squeeze).

From his days spent studying at USC (where Gifford happened to be the Golden Boy star athlete at the same time) to his years spent in NYC, where he faithfully goes out to the Polo Grounds to watch the Giants play (the descriptions of Exley spending fall weekends in the stands with a motley crew of vulgar, beery brothers-in-arms brings to mind the best parts of being a diehard sports fan) Frank Gifford functions as a sort of parallel figure, only on a higher plane. He is what Exley imagines he should be, if only he could be as effortlessly talented, handsome, charming and famous. And then all his failings - the alcoholism, the dissatisfaction in love and in art - would be negated. Life would be good. Exley transfers a lot onto Gifford, and one might imagine there would be a counter-feeling of hate for him, an anxious, jealous anticipation of seeing him reveal his feet of clay. If only Exley could meet Gifford once, the reader thinks, he'd discover what a arrogant prick he really is and the whole facade would shatter. But no - we discover that they did meet by chance once, at a campus diner, and it was Exley who was the prick, Gifford the relaxed, unassuming one.

"When he looked at me, I smiled - a hard, mocking, so-you're-the-big-shit? smile. What I expected him to do, I can't imagine - say, "what's your trouble, buddy?" or what - but what he did do was the least of my expectations. He only looked quizzically at me for a moment, as though he were having difficulty placing me; then he smiled a most ingratiating smile, gave me a most amiable hello, and walked out the door, followed by his buddies who were saying in unison, "Hey, Frank, what'll we do now?"

Now, as much as I love sports - all sports - I have a hard time picking favorites. I don't fan for many teams, never having picked a favorite team in basketball, football or baseball. I just never felt it for any one team - Metro is definitely an anomaly. And there's no individual in any sport who I've taken on as my hero, my idol, who meant more to me than a team, much less a sport. Maybe when I was young there was a little bit of that, as kids do. But as an adult, I think it's a little weird to relate to a potential peer that way, much less someone ten years younger than you. That said, I have felt a deep and somewhat personal affinity for Clint Mathis.

You see, over the past five or six years, Mathis has been as close as I've ever gotten to a Giff.

There are a handful of personal similarities on or near the surface. No, no mohawk, no southern accent, and only one of my ACLs has been reconstructed. But yours truly and Clint are less than two months apart in age, about the same height, more or less the same build, and if you saw pictures of me with the hair closely-cropped and the beard growing in, there's a faint likeness there. It's no separated at birth thing, but a little more pronounced than my resemblance to, say, Brian Ching.

Moreover, Clint plays, when he deigns to, more or less in the same style I do (I still do play quite a bit, and pretty decently.) That, and the fact that I'm about ten times the player I was when I was twenty, are rueful reminders that I was just a couple years too old to have MLS to look up to, that I focused on being a serious player too late - but there is room for that kind of player in the game, and I ought to have been it, if only... I have speed but not too much, some skill but not tons. I do have to say I'm a tad more slim and trim than the Clint we've seen over the past few years, and probably more ready to run box-to-box for 90 minutes. Invariably I'm that withdrawn forward, that exchanger-of-flicks, slider-of-clever-through-balls and walloper-of-twenty-three-yarders, playing within myself in the same way that Clint does nowadays. Perhaps too much - no more daring, lightning-fast 50 yard sprints with the ball. It was very shortly after he made his return from his 2001 ACL injury that I remarked to friends how much Clint seemed to be playing like another great in MLS - Hristo Stoichkov. The problem was that Stoichkov was then 38 years old.

When the story of modern American soccer is written, Clint's going to go down as a talent squandered. Given the flashes of genius he displayed over a very brief period, they'll probably call him the greatest talent to be most rudely squandered.

Is that word, "squandered," harsh?
After all, Mathis was key to the US qualification for WC 2002, and he brilliantly saved our ass against Korea. As this terrific post argues, he was one unfortunate twist away from really, truly putting MLS, Metro and himself on the map in NYC in a major way. It was so close to happening in 2000. And all that aside, he's made a lot of money. He's made the cover of SI. He punked out a Bundesliga coach - how many guys can say that?

Yeah, "squandered" fits.

But we've all squandered things.
Mathis's first run and career peak with Metro neatly coincides with my time living on the edge of New York City. I was fairly fresh out of college, out on my own and thinking of certain big things ahead. Among them, some Exley-ish visions. Big things didn't happen for me there. At least, not the big things I imagined would just fall into place, and not right away. It took about eight steps backwards to move ten steps ahead, and in a totally different direction altogether. If you asked me in 2000 if I could imagine myself here, doing this, I would have laughed. Or been dumbstruck. And I've got a hunch that the same might go for Clint Mathis.

It isn't necessarily a tragic thing, the way things turn out.

I bristle at any mention of "Clint Mathis, the American Gazza." It's lazy and inaccurate; say what you will, but Clint's head has always been screwed on a lot tighter than Gascoigne's. The shock return of Fowler to Liverpool is a better, if not perfect, comparison here today. Not knowing the guy outside of press reports and hearsay, not having spoken to him beyond a few moments at a team event that lasted as long as Exley and Gifford in that diner, I've never thought of Clint Mathis as some uncontrollable addict with problems requiring intensive treatment. A little different, sure. Undisciplined, yes. But another way of saying that is, Mathis appears to enjoy life (and cigarettes, Bud Light, and Doritos are all enjoyable parts of life, believe you me) as much as he did score goals. You may not want that on your team. But I'll be the last one to run people down for not absolutely maximizing their abilities, least of all someone whose peaks and valleys kind of track mine, as long as I'm putting myself in that same box.

The saving grace is that my chosen fields don't wash "talents" up on the rocks by the age of 30. By most soccer standards, the re-acquisition of Mathis is a nonsense move. He's looked like a spent force for years now, since for those of us who remember so fondly what that "force" was like. Founding a lot of hope on a nice playoff performance is a lot like thinking an unproven coach has what it takes based on three or four decent performances as late season fill-in, and casting your lot with him (and no, I'm not talking about Bob Bradley here, but rather, Mo Johnston.) If the best argument you can make is that he comes cheap and its worth a shot, well hell, I come even cheaper. More realistically, there's got to be better value for money, even if the money being talked about isn't much.

Ives blogged that Claudio drove the move, being friends with Clint. That's a nice story, I guess. John Ellinger was the "only coach he'd come back from Germany to play for," too.
Bruce may think he can unlock Mathis's mind and resurrect his career, but I can only imagine that's Bruce way overestimating his own abilities. Otherwise, opinions on the trade run hot and cold.

Yet I really don't care if it's a sensible move. This is the first thing this organization had done since March, 2006 which makes me even the least little bit happy. Nostalgia's a funny old thing, innit?

I say that, and still I can't help but hope for the best and expect the worst. We all remember the way Giff finished up.

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