Special to Page 2
As word spread on Tuesday of Donovan McNabb's physical distress toward the end of Super Bowl XXXIX -- in particular, center Hank Fraley saying McNabb was about to be sick to his stomach on the field and in the huddle as the Eagles trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter -- it was hard not to see McNabb's ailment as an almost seminal moment in human behavior ... a moment prefigured by a very-much-of-its-era movie from nearly three decades ago.
The year: 1978.
The film: "An Unmarried Woman."
The moment: When Michael Murphy tells his wife, Jill Clayburgh, that he's in love with another woman.
They're on a city sidewalk in New York. Clayburgh is shocked, devastated, bereft. And so she bursts into ... public vomiting?
Yes, she does. She has to. Why?
Because she couldn't cry.
Because especially given the proto-feminist ethic of the era in general and this film in particular, crying would have been too traditionally gender-based ... too emotionally insufficient to the moment ... and too damn weak. So how else to convey deep emotion?
Throwing up, that's how.
And that's just what Clayburgh does, into a garbage can.
From that moment on, vomiting became a kind of cinematic code for the most profound emotion (while in different contexts retaining its power to gross out, of course). It's what characters onscreen did when things were just too horrible to contemplate or deal with.
Eventually, it entered the lexicon of day-to-day life. How often do you hear people react to unexpected bad news by saying they threw up in their mouths? (OK, maybe not that often. But people on sitcoms say it a lot, don't they?)
In sports, however, vomiting has a different meaning. It suggests initial nerves or anticipation -- Bill Russell was said to vomit before games -- or the pure and unadulterated exhaustion of the hopelessly-out-of-shape, especially under the guidance of a ruthless coach during football training camp wind sprints. When Drew Pearson vomited with the camera still on him after he ran a post pattern on "Monday Night Football," Frank Gifford sympathetically noted that he had "taken ill."
McNabb's fourth-quarter distress -- a repeat performance, according to Fraley, of a similar ailment two years ago against Jacksonville -- may have been a fascinating combination of all three: nerves ... exhaustion ... and, yes, Clayburgh-ian anguish -- in this case, that the game was slipping away.
Some might regard this moment of McNabb's as a sign of weakness. I see a trend.
In recent years, male athletes weeping in defeat haven't been confined to the Little League World Series. From Wade Boggs in the '86 Red Sox dugout to William Avery after Duke's defeat in the 1999 NCAA Tournament, the tears of men have been as much a part of the aftermath of big games as the trophy presentation and the coach interviews.
But now? It's no longer enough. Crying is for "American Idol" contestants.
Like Clayburgh in 1978, it's time for crestfallen male athletes to show they truly care, that the agony of defeat truly hurts, that leaving it all out on the field means ... leaving it all out on the field.