Published in Esquire magazine in 1941, this remains one of Shaw’s most famous and enduring short stories. A seemingly simple tale of a 1920s college football player who cannot adjust to everyday life out of the limelight, nor to the Great Depression and the professional and marital havoc it creates, “The Eighty-Yard Run” contains subtleties and depths that remain underappreciated. Shaw, often dismissed as a popular novelist, has yet to receive his critical due even for his best work, including this story.
This story is told in a circular fashion, beginning and ending at the same spot and time: Christian Darling, at age 35, walking alone in the stadium where, 15 years earlier, he had made an 80-yard run in practice, a run that launched him into (temporary) football stardom and into the arms of his girlfriend, Louise Tucker. This narrative form mirrors the story’s dominant theme—namely, Christian’s inability to grow or mature, remaining stuck in the same midwestern collegiate track, while Louise becomes a smart, successful, and sophisticated New York City woman. He is trapped in a circle of arrested development, while Louise experiences rapid linear progression. Why?
The reader gets an answer of sorts at the end when Christian reflects that “he had practiced the wrong thing, perhaps” (11). As do many idolized and insulated star athletes, Christian made no provisions for the future, living in the immediate world of sense and ego satisfaction; this is artfully revealed in the description of how Christian luxuriates in the physical details of his run and in the shower and dressing afterward, as well as in the reports of his serial sexual conquests. Christian, as does the sports-obsessed culture he inhabits, never anticipates the time when the stadium lights go out; he is convinced he will always be an “important figure,” as Louise says to him during the college years. But of course it is a mirage: Even Diederich, the genuine football star who supplanted Christian, has no future after his neck is broken in a professional football game. Christian—whose second-rung adult life is foreshadowed by his being reduced to a mere blocker who “open[s] up holes for Diederich”—is similarly helpless. He, as do so many athletes, “practiced” for a game rather than for real life (Giles 22–23).
And that reality, in the form of the 1929 crash and the subsequent depression years, has in effect broken his neck; he is left to half-survive in a brace of his own egocentricity and poor education, his own pathetic dreamworld of former athletic stardom. Here, the character of Cathal Flaherty is instructive: He is a similarly tough, manly fi gure, his nose broken from earlier struggles as if he were a former athlete, yet because he is also intellectually vibrant, he is able to shine in the real adult world of work, art, and conversation (and have women on his arms). People like him, Louise, and the people they talk to and about at parties are now the “important figures,” while Christian stands voiceless in their midst or finds someone to talk football with in the corner.
Christian’s circular stagnation, if not deterioration, is contrasted by Louise’s growth into womanhood, symbolized by her chic hat and the fact that it is only in this later stage of the story that her last name is revealed: She has now earned full-named woman status, rather than clinging, adoring girlfriend status. The story, then, not only has a circular form but also a crossing X pattern, with the two principals exchanging positions—Christian sliding from the top left to the bottom right, Louise ascending from the bottom left to the upper right. By the end, Louise is the “man of the house,” who pays the bills, has the responsible and demanding job, not to mention affairs (clear revenge for, and reversal of, his philandering days), while Christian humbly and dumbly abides. Louise’s habit of calling him “Baby” illustrates this repositioning: That word, as does the chic hat, infuriates Christian for reasons he cannot quite articulate. He has become infantilized if not emasculated, a condition also perhaps foreshadowed by the repeated use of the adjective girlish to describe the way he runs (Reynolds).
In another one of the many deft touches in this story, Christian finally gets a decent job toward the end but as a sales representative for a line of clothing designed to create a collegiate look. He is hired not only because of his former repute of being in the same backfield with Diederich, but also because he is a man “who as soon as you look at him, you say, ‘There’s a university man’ ” (10). That capsulizes Christian’s failing: He is all appearances. He practiced only the superficial things of athletic ability and good collegiate looks, things that will not endure and will not counter the brutal realties of aging and economic dislocation. He is a “university man,” not an adult man (Shnayerson 113).
Recreating his 80-yard run at the end of the story, he finds himself gasping and sweating, even though “his condition was fine and the run hadn’t winded him” (12). Clearly, it is the realization of having practiced the wrong thing—and recognition that the bright fresh hopes of that fine fall day 15 years earlier are forever gone—that is painfully squeezing his chest and strangling his neck.
Shaw believed that this story, which was his favorite, had larger implications as well. “It’s an allegory,” he said, “a symbol for America, because it begins in the boom times of the 1920s when Americans thought they were sitting on top of the world and nothing would ever stop them, and then the plunge into the Depression, and the drab coming to the realization of what the Depression meant. I used the symbol of the athlete who in the 1920s had this great day. The one great day—in practice, even—and then the long decline into his own private depression which coincided with the Depression of the United States” (qtd. in Shnayerson 113).
Giles, James R. Irwin Shaw: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1991.
Reynolds, Fred. “Irwin Shaw’s ‘The Eighty-Yard Run.’ ” Explicator 49, no. 2 (Winter 1991): 121–124.
Shaw, Irwin. “The Eighty-Yard Run.” In Short Stories: Five Decades. New York: Delacorte Press, 1978.
Shnayerson, Michael. Irwin Shaw: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1989.