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Playmaker

It was the first exhibition game of the 1986 NFL season, and few football games are more insignificant than the first exhibition of the year. Team starters may play for a drive or two before letting the scrubs come on to scramble for jobs, but the veterans typically take it slow as they ease into the long season.

Dieter Brock was quarterbacking the Los Angeles Rams. A former all-star in the Canadian Football League, he was trying to rebound from a schizophrenic performance the previous year with the Rams, one that saw him become the first quarterback to win his first seven NFL starts. Then he began to sputter.

It was late in the first quarter. Most NFL defenses wouldn't be blitzing at that point in such a meaningless game, but Jerry Glanville was coaching the Houston Oilers, and if a Glanville defense was on the field, it was blitzing. And if they were blitzing, they were doing so with a ferocity and aggressiveness that left many opponents crying foul.

Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll said at the time that the Oilers' tactics -- spearing opponents with their helmets, never passing up a cheap shot -- were "worse than anything I saw in the Steelers-Raiders rivalry of the '70s….There are players on [the Oilers] who are trying to do something with hits that are meant to end players' careers."

One of the chief offenders was safety Bo Eason, who played with a feral intensity on every down. He was blitzing on a play and saw Brock get caught by several Oilers. Before the whistle blew, Eason went airborne into that pile. Defenders couldn't hit a quarterback in the head without drawing a flag, so Eason went low. Nobody ever admits going for an opponent's knees, but somehow Eason's helmet rammed into the immobilized Brock at that critical point in his legs.

"You go airborne so that if the whistle blows, you can't stop," Eason says as he recalls that long-ago day. "I remember the referee, Ben Dreith, just going nuts, yelling at me, 'That's not an illegal play, but that is just absolute bullshit!' He was screaming. But that's the only way I knew how to play. I never thought about injuries."

Brock never played another down in the NFL. Eason, if he thought about it at all at the time, just looked at it as another notch on the gun of the Oilers' intimidating "House of Pain" defense.

But now, as he turns 40, Eason is doing a lot of thinking about the way he played the game, the physical and psychic scars he left on himself and others. And he's doing his penance in the most public way possible: writing and starring in a soul-baring one-man play that exposes an empty life in which he somehow thought he could win his parents' love by being the dirtiest footballer around.

Eason is shocked at what he's discovered about himself through the past two years of putting together Runt of the Litter. His family is even more shocked: Bo's golden-child older brother, Tony, a Super Bowl quarterback who's intensely private, has seen the play twice; he can't believe his little brother is bringing such emotions into the open. Bo's father and mother have read the script, but refuse to attend a performance to see their son talk about his mom's alcoholism and his dad's abusive ways.

Bo Eason wishes his family understood him better, now that he's "becoming his own man," as he puts it. But he says he realizes that he'll have to take this trip without them.

"You have to go through it and become an independent man and risk the loss of your family, the loss of being one of the sons in this family," he says. "But I'm the one who decided to separate and do this thing. I had to decide whether I wanted to do it, and deal with it, or be stuck at being that nine-year-old who's still trying to impress my parents."

Eason was the last child born to "Chas" and Marilyn Eason in the tiny Northern California town of Walnut Grove. Four sisters came first, then Tony, and a year and a half later, Bo.

Chas was a hardworking Korean War vet who lost a brother in Vietnam that no one much talked about. No one talked much of anything in the Eason household unless it was football.

"It's not that my parents forced me to play," Eason says. "It's just that I saw how important it was to them. I never saw anything else that was that important to them."

When Bo or Tony played Little League or youth football, his parents would come to cheer -- and the harder Bo played, the harder they cheered. In the play, Bo's character (named Jack Henry; Tony's character is Charlie) talks of coming up to bat at his first Little League game and being stunned to see that his father has actually left work to watch.  

"Hey, Charlie, it's Dad -- in the daytime," Jack says to his brother. "Did you see his eyes? Did you see the way he looked at us? He said we were the best in there."

Almost always, it was Tony Eason who was "the best in there." Tony was gifted in athletics like few are, breezing through a highlight-reel high school career, getting recruited by dozens of big-name colleges before settling on Illinois. He got drafted in the first round by the New England Patriots, one of the storied "Class of '83" quarterbacks that included Dan Marino, John Elway, Jim Kelly and Ken O'Brien, the New York Jets QB who had been a college roommate of Bo's.

For Bo, things came tougher. No college recruiters showed an interest, so he played for the local school, the University of California at Davis. He outworked everybody on the team, and the Oilers took him in the second round of the 1984 draft.

He played three seasons at free safety for the Oilers; he and Keith Bostic were "Batman and Robin" in the hard-hitting secondary. But knee injuries started to pile up, and after a brief stint with the 49ers, Eason was out of the league at the age of 27.

Academics had never played a big part in his life, being just another thing that he had to get through in order to get on the football field ("Growing up, I read stuff like Crackerjack Halfback and Lefty Plays First"). But Eason says he always had an urge to act, even taking some basic drama courses in college.

Most former athletes who try acting head to Hollywood, hit a few still-fresh contacts and get roles in movies where things explode in slow motion. Eason took things more seriously.

He went home to rehab his knee and acted in some children's theater productions, including the not-so-groundbreaking role of Elfis Presley in The Shoemaker and the Elves. And then he headed for New York.

With some money left from his NFL career, and the league's equivalent of workers' compensation for his injuries, Eason was able to take acting classes, attend plays, and sit and talk theater with his fellow hopefuls without waiting tables. When the classes took a summer break, he found his way into a Los Angeles acting class taught by the celebrated Roy London.

"Roy was dying of AIDS; he knew it, but we didn't," says Eason. "He was teaching every day like it would be his last….He was very passionate -- I've seen him kick people out of class if he thought they weren't doing enough."

Eason's classmates included Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone, Michelle Pfeiffer and Geena Davis.

He got a few parts, in movies like Volcano and Miami Rhapsody, in TV shows like Baywatch and ER, in series pilots that looked promising but weren't picked up.

Frustrated, he began to write a part for himself, a play of two football-playing brothers trading monologues in the adjoining locker rooms before opposing each other on the gridiron.

He soon simplified the concept to a single player, alone in a locker room, a safety preparing to play a crucial game against a team quarterbacked by his brother.

In longhand, on legal pads, the words flew out. "When I was writing, it was a very subconscious thing," he says. "At some points I look at the original and it doesn't even look like my handwriting -- I'm like, 'Did I write that?' I didn't set out to write with any agenda; I was just throwing up on the page."

He heard of an acting class taught by Larry Moss, who has coached his own roster of stars and has since gone on to direct the acclaimed one-woman off-Broadway play The Syringa Tree. Moss encouraged his students to write autobiographical set pieces and perform them as a training exercise.

Eason did the first ten or 15 minutes of Runt of the Litter, a scene where Jack Henry talks of catching 1,000 balls every day for the last 20 years; of injuries so bad his mom had to carry him into the bathroom as a grown man and wipe his ass; of his belief -- and acceptance as a completely natural thing -- that his parents would be rooting for his brother in the upcoming game.

At the end, Eason looked up expectantly. "I thought I had written the greatest feel-good story of all time," he says. "Larry just had this look on his face, and he said, 'That is pathetic -- that's the most tragic thing I've ever seen in my life.' "  

Moss has never been the world's biggest football fan, but he is an enthusiastic supporter of analysis of long-buried family issues. Rehearsals with him often resemble therapy sessions as much as they do drama. He recognized at once, he says, that there was something deeper in Runt of the Litter than just another sports story.

"It just shocked me," Moss says. "I mean, I'm sitting there looking at him, and all those scars on his knees are real, and I couldn't believe that he was walking, much less talking and acting. It was a miracle of survival, but that is the way of all runts."

Eason, his actress wife, Dawn, and Moss began 18 months of rehearsals, rewriting and talking about the meaning behind Eason's written words. Where once Eason had been pushed and goaded by coaches he was trying desperately to please, now it was Moss who was forcing things out of him.

"I've always loved having mentors," Eason says.

Moss attacked the psychological implications of Eason's script.

"The metaphor could be football, or it could be architecture, or tennis or anything," says Moss. "The content of the play is the price that a child pays for being the narcissistic extension of a parent, and how they cannot have love unless they mirror the parent….The play is just a wail of pain, it's 'Please, someone, see me.' "

Moss says he's not anti-football, but notes pointedly that 18 high school athletes died playing football last year. (It's actually 16, a still-surprising number, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.)

"It's terrifying -- these children are sacrificial lambs for destructive, dysfunctional parents who use sports in place of giving love," he says.

For 18 months Eason spent three hours a day dredging up the past. Moss would encourage all kinds of exercises to push the process along.

"The play is very physical, and there were times when I would have these pains in my shoulder," Eason says. "Larry would stop everything and have me concentrate on that pain, and somehow, inevitably, it came out as anger at my dad. Larry would just encourage me, saying, 'Be brave, keep going.' I was willing to go there and do it. It was cathartic. I feel brand-new."

But it wasn't easy. "At one rehearsal he just had to stop -- he went numb, he began to cry, these convulsions came out of him," Moss says. "Dawn went up and held him for what seemed like a half-hour, and all he did was sob, remembering the pain of his knees, and of his parents."

When Eason and especially Moss get talking about Runt of the Litter, the discussion can get New Agey enough that a listener can wait for the inevitable mention of someone's inner child. (Luckily, the cliché never makes an appearance.)

But Runt is not a self-absorbed whine. Not only is it pretty funny at times, but it leaves out anything that could be accused of being psychobabble. At times it overreaches, but the production, now premiering at Houston's Stages Repertory Theatre, keeps its feet on the ground and lets the audience make its own interpretations.

It also offers some insight into what it takes to play in the NFL.

There's Jack Henry pulling on the pads, feeling the power they give him. "This uniform is a permission slip to indulge in your darkest side," he says. "Everything turns upside down and backwards. You're no longer a member of society. When you knock someone's teeth out, you get a pat on the back. We get taped, numbed, masked, costumed -- you feel like you can hide out there, like you can do anything and get away with it, like it's not really you.

"But that's not true. This thing actually reveals you. You come face-to-face with your own evil. Violence as the final barrier to know oneself. The question is, Will you follow through with it? If you can't, stand aside."

Sipping coffee in the Stages lobby, the affable Eason hardly seems capable of such malice. But, he says, he was a different man then. "It's hard to be well adjusted and be a professional football player. It's hard to be present in yourself -- you can't feel pain, you can't be sensitive to booing, you can't have feelings," he says.

Eason knows he and the Oilers had a reputation for cheap shots. "It seems strange to me now. I ask myself, 'Am I a dirty football player?' No, I'm not, but I was. I used to be great at being whatever someone wanted me to be."  

In Jack Henry's world, nothing gets in the way of victory or abusing your opponent. For him, the real NFL players are the scrappers, not the future Hall of Famers.

"If you're popular and you play for a long time, you get inducted into the Hall of Fame," Jack says in the play. "First of all, 'great player' and 'popularity' don't belong in the same sentence. And if you can play a long time, you're not playing every snap on fire. And they call those guys 'smart players' because they learn to slow down and preserve their bodies….I love 'em; they have great memories. I count on it. I use it against them. I feast on these little fuckers. They remember what it felt like the last time I torpedoed their rib cage."

The violence that Jack Henry revels in was born, of course, in his youth, in his family, in his need for attention. Runt of the Litter explores all that, and in doing so it has changed forever how Bo Eason and the rest of his family see one another.

The play is as much about the relationship between Bo and his hero brother as it is about their parents. Tony Eason was as ambivalent about football as Bo was fanatical.

"He's not a cocky guy at all," Bo says of his brother. "He told me once, just matter-of-fact and not bragging, he just said that he had picked up a football once when he was three years old and he threw it better than anybody he had ever seen. 'But it just doesn't mean much to me,' he said."

In the play, Jack has his dad wake him up at 5 a.m. each day for solo drills. When he wants to sleep late for once, his father says, "See your brother over there? He's sleeping. He can afford to sleep, he's gifted. He's not like us. You and me, we've got to keep moving, partner."

Tony Eason was excoriated in New England. He led the Patriots to the Super Bowl after the 1985 season, but the Pats were demolished by the Chicago Bears. Eason was pulled from the game in the first half. Afterward, Bears linebacker Mike Singletary said he thought the QB had been scared.

"My brother was never scared in his life on a football field," Bo says.

Tony was waived and picked up by the New York Jets, but he refused to report to the team unless officials guaranteed they wouldn't cut quarterback Ken O'Brien, a lifelong friend of the Eason brothers'.

He missed one game and was docked almost $70,000 in pay before getting the guarantee and reporting. When the Jets cut him later over a contract dispute, he retired rather than hang on. All in all, it was the career of someone who could take or leave the dream of playing in the NFL.

In Runt, the 13-year-old version of Tony finally promises to take football seriously only to help his brother.

"He didn't like football, he liked me," Bo says. "I've asked him that -- whether he played only for my sake -- and he won't admit it. He'll just shrug his shoulders and go, 'Ahh, I don't think about it.' He's not the reflecting type."

Tony Eason lives the good life in the tiny town he grew up in. He doesn't talk to reporters, regardless of whether it's for a feel-good piece on his old Super Bowl team or about his brother's play.

"I've tried to talk to him about reporters asking about the play, and he's my brother, but it's his choice," Bo says. "Sometimes it's frustrating. I'd like him to be more involved in my life and what I'm doing."

But Tony has seen the play, twice. He's sat through the climax, when Jack sends his brother to the hospital with a vicious hit.

A friend of Bo's has been filming a "Making Of" video, and he captured Tony's reaction after he first saw one of the preview performances. For several long minutes, say those who've seen the film, the two brothers wordlessly embrace each other in the dressing room.

"We were just totally crying, both just bawling," Bo says. "I just collapsed in his arms and he held me."

For Tony, Bo says, "It was the first time he ever saw how I saw things. He never thought I was the runt, the one who had to do everything through sheer will."

In years past, it was Tony who sometimes baffled his family with his seeming indifference toward football. Now, it's Bo who is not acting as expected.  

"For years, I couldn't figure my brother out, and now he can't figure me out," Bo says. "He's supportive in a way, he's come to the play, but I think he's questioning whether he ever really knew me, even though we were always close."

The other relationship that's been deeply affected by Runt, of course, is the one between Bo and his parents. Bo sent them a script, and they've told him that they have read it.

"I think they were impressed with the skill it took to write it, but their generation was not taught to look at these kinds of things," Bo says. "I've invited them to the play, and I've tried to tell them a lot of it is sensationalized -- you have to put 20 years in an hour and 20 minutes. But what I show my father saying in the play, those are all his own words. I think he meant well and wanted to help. But I don't think anyone helped him when he was young."

Moss says he doesn't believe Bo's parents are pleased, but thinks they should be happy with the play. "They should see it and then sit down and talk about it."

Bo still sees his parents occasionally, and they generally talk about anything but the play.

"I love my parents, but there's been a process of separation for the last couple of years," he says. "I just can't keep being that little Bo who's always scrapping for everything and who's all will."

Any family -- especially one that guards its privacy as passionately as the Easons -- might be mortified to see their darkest secrets up on a stage for the entertainment of strangers. Bo says he had to accept that some of them might be hurt.

"I didn't ask permission -- I couldn't, or then I would be back in the same boat I always had been," he says. "I just sent them all the script, and they can choose on their own whether or not to see it."

An earlier version of the script that Bo's father saw ended with a speech that laid it all out. (It was pruned, in fact, because it was a little too direct.)

"I'm your boy," Jack Henry says to his father. "I'm like you. You killed people over there in Korea, and you lost your brother, just like me. Our brothers aren't like us. They don't have the stomach for this fight. He shouldn't even be out here. He knew to stay clear of my path."

Maybe it's not surprising that the Eason family Thanksgivings don't revolve around Runt of the Litter.

These are great days for Bo and Dawn Eason. Runt has gotten rave reviews from Houston critics, and serious movie offers are under discussion.

Castle Rock wants to make the film, working with Frank Darabont of The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption. They've already "taken meetings," as the saying goes.

"I've never been called by an agent, and now all the big ones who wouldn't deal with me in the past are calling and wanting to set up meetings," Bo says. "My agent and manager dumped me a year and a half ago because I didn't want to do anything but this play."

He and Dawn fly to L.A. early this month to try to settle on an agent. Dawn also hopes to have some sort of producing role in any film made of the play.

"She's put aside her acting career because she believes in this so much," Bo says.

Dawn definitely has the take-charge personality needed to succeed in Hollywood, constantly working the phones to try to get more publicity. "We need people to know this is a play about family and not just about football," she says as she talks of handing out flyers at sports bars and society luncheons.

She's also supported Bo in a more concrete way: The bulk of their income in the past year has been her earnings from a DiGiornio Pizza commercial. (She's the scantily clad, blindfolded girlfriend in the 9 1/2 Weeks spoof who freaks when she thinks her boyfriend sneaked a delivery boy into the room.)

Dawn also was the one who first called Rob Bundy, the artistic director at Stages, with the idea of having the world premiere of Runt in Houston.

"She said she was married to Bo Eason, a former Oiler, and he had written a one-man show, and were we interested in renting them space so they could put it on," Bundy says. "I get a lot of calls like that, from people wanting to put on one-man shows. And I thought of a former Houston Oiler safety-turned-playwright, and I thought it was a recipe for disaster."  

He took them seriously when she told him the director working with them was Moss. "That made me go, 'Hmm. Larry Moss. That's not chopped liver. If they have his imprimatur on it, there must be something going on,' " he says.

"I was also quite astonished -- I thought it would be a vanity piece, but it is exactly not," he says of the script. "The next test was, 'Can this jock move?' They sent a video of his performance, and he is an actor. He's not self-conscious in his movements. There's a fluidity about him."

Stages had a dark theater handy, so Runt opened February 16. Bundy too has heard talk of a movie, and of taking the production off-Broadway, and doesn't disparage it. Of course, Hollywood is a town of movie deals that never come to fruition, and companies and directors whose attention span lasts only until the next trend comes along.

Bo Eason is too optimistic a person to admit that, but even if the Hollywood thing never comes about, his life has been changed by this play.

"For the first time, I feel like I'm a man with my own voice," he says. "I've always been indoctrinated, by coaches, or parents, or friends -- 'You're this; do this.' It's not until now that I'm really finding out what I am. Who knew I could write this thing?"

Certainly not his family. And maybe someday, the father and mother who make up so much of the play, who attended almost every sporting event he ever participated in, will actually see what he's brought to his new arena.


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