By Michael Granberry
The first time I went to England was 1981. I had booked a 14-hour flight from LAX on Freddie Laker Airways. The company went bankrupt in 1982, and well, I’m not surprised. I remember being scrunched in a middle seat between two ginormous dudes — one of whom was uncontrollably flatulent — and soon resorted to scarfing potato chips and tuna fish from the limp brown bag I’d brought on board. It is, however, a minor miracle I made it at all, considering what I’d done the night before.
I was at Dallas Cowboys training camp, visiting an old college buddy. He was at the time a Cowboys beat writer for a Dallas newspaper. And, well, he was a drinker. He cajoled me into going out and having, in his words, “just a few” the night before my first-ever sojourn across the pond. Against any semblance of sanity in my yet-to-be-formed frontal lobe, I said yes. And within minutes, “just a few” was a bunch.
My defense? I was, in the summer of 1981, a wee lad of 29 and didn’t know any better. By the time we schlepped back to the Cowboys’ prison-like quarters at Cal Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks, Calif., we were, well, you know, blitzed, to use a football term. So, my friend got the bright idea to have “a nightcap” by going to the practice field and working out on the blocking sleds before going beddy-bye. Problem was, the padding for the sleds had been stored away for the night by the Cowboys’ equipment crew. So, what we were hitting, over and over, was raw metal. Even so, I followed along, like the stupid idiot I was in the summer of ’81.
“Ready, set, HUT!” my friend bellowed, with Lombardi-like glee, his beery chant piercing the dank night air. In the windows above, I could see Cowboys players peering out the windows, their faces expressing a collective annoyance, wondering what in the hell the ruckus was. They, after all, would have to be up early the next morning.
“BAM!” my friend proclaimed, as we both struck the jagged metal, our bare shoulders providing the only protection our fragile bodies could muster against the stupidity we were inflicting on them.
Minutes later, I succumbed to a deep sleep, not yet feeling the ravishing pain yet to come. By the time I awoke, it was there. Was it ever there! Despite my agony, I wedged my damaged torso into my absurdly cramped seat on Freddie Laker, wondering if I could possibly endure a 14-hour marathon from L.A. to London, stuck between a Farter and a Fatso, feeling as though I needed to scream every three minutes. By the time we limped into Heathrow, in what was easily the longest 14 hours of my life, I was in more pain than I thought any one knucklehead could endure. Somehow, I stumbled outside and summoned a cab. I all but barked at the cabbie, demanding he take me to a hospital as fast as his Cockney wheels could get me there.
Within minutes, I was nursing my pain in a grim-looking hospital, whose idea of décor put the “D” in Dickensian. Within minutes, they whisked me to a room, albeit a pitiless, cold room, where they commanded me to wait for the doctor. Soon, a peach-fuzzy chap showed up looking eerily like Harry Potter — though Harry Potter had not been invented yet.
“You have a separated shoulder,” he announced after a short but suitably thorough examination. “I will put your arm in a sling and prescribe painkillers that should have you feeling much better quite soon. May I ask, though, how did you do this?”
I debated whether or not to tell him, then decided, oh, what the heck, I have a return ticket. I can always return to the warm blanket of America, the one that tolerates idiots. I explained that I had been striking the unpadded blocking sleds at Dallas Cowboys training camp over and over the night before, and the reason I did that was, I had been drinking for hours with my friend, who by the way is now in prison, having been sent there (again) for numerous DWI violations. I will note, however, that my friend went on to have a remarkable writing career. He is the author of 10 books, two of which became best-sellers, one of which will soon become a major motion picture. And he, by the way, suffered no injury whatsoever from our drink-induced shenanigans.
“You what?” my Hunter Thompson wannabe of a pal said later, laughing uproariously. “Nope, I was fine.”
Of course, he was. But I digress.
The Harry Potter lookalike simply stared at me quizzically for what seemed like forever, then muttered, “Yes, well, you should feel better soon,” and with an ever-so-slight British grin added coyly: “I would, however, not recommend hitting another unpadded blocking sled, presuming you can even find one in Britain.” He might as well have added, “Stupid American.” But he was nice enough not to.
“How much do I owe you?” I asked, nervously.
“You mean payment? Oh, you owe us nothing. We have national health coverage. Your treatment is free.”
To use an American phrase, is that a great country or what?!?
Sure enough, I felt remarkably better within hours, igniting a love affair with Britain that has lingered for decades. I call my strange experience and the feeling of longing it engendered “The Catch.” And ironically, that’s how the Cowboys’ 1981 season ended, after my blocking-sled debacle: Dwight Clark caught a game-winning touchdown pass from Joe Montana in the closing seconds of the NFC Championship Game that came to be known as The Catch, thus ending the Cowboys’ playoff hopes on a bleak January day in 1982.
Bleak for me and the Cowboys, that is. The San Francisco 49ers are still hoisting beers over their shining moment from the ’81 season.
I, however, am enjoying a different kind of catch. Mine has returned me to Britain, London in particular, multiple times, albeit on better flights than Freddie Laker. I returned there in 2008 to preview the King Tut exhibition and ended up staying in a place a friend recommended called Portobello Gold, on Portobello Road in the magical neighborhood of Notting Hill. It was a lovely, quaint, crackling pub with eight rooms above it that I soon fell in love with (as did President Bill Clinton, who showed up there in the last month of his presidency). Owned by a delightful chap named Mike Bell, Portobello Gold stayed open long enough for me to indulge myself with as many exquisite visits as my family and I could squeeze in. All good things come to an end, and sure enough, Mike closed it a couple of years ago.
My visits to the Gold allowed me the most blissful accommodations while roaming London with my stunning wife, seeing some of the best theater the world has to offer. My favorites were God of Carnage with legendary actor Ralph Fiennes and Grief, a scintillating world premiere written and directed by Mike Leigh and starring the incomparable Lesley Manville.
I need to go back. The last time I went to London was 2014, when I flew across the pond from my home in suburban Dallas to see the Cowboys whip up on the Jacksonville Jaguars. That, too, was a lovely visit. And not once did I pummel a blocking sled.
Michael Granberry is the arts writer for The Dallas Morning News. He has also worked for the Los Angeles Times (from 1978 to 1997) and once worked as a sports editor in Alaska, where he covered such things as the Iditarod and the Eskimo Olympics. And during the Watergate summer of 1973, he interned at The Washington Post with some dude named George Rede.
Editor’s note: I’ve been blessed to call Mike a friend for 46 years now. He was a standout in the Post intern class of ’73, and not just because of his precocious talent. He was pretty hard to miss with a shock of red hair and a Texas twang. He was a groomsman at our wedding and he remains one of my favorite people on the planet. Even if he is a Cowboys fan.
Tomorrow: Alana Cox | Let’s talk about breastfeeding