This excerpt appears in Mike Tanier's "A Good Walkthrough Spoiled: The Best of Mike Tanier at Football Outsiders." This is from the 2007 essay "Walkin the Walk," about the origins of the sports cliche "swagger."
Read Bill Littlefield's interview with Tanier here.
Walkin The Walk
The word “swagger” derives from the Middle English word "swag," a word probably adopted from old Norse. A swag was a heavy sack. Swag eventually came to mean the contents of the sack, which was often stolen plunder. A swagger was a man who carried such a sack: a wanderer at best, a cutthroat at worst. By the 16th century, the word applied not to the individual, but to the way he walked.
But it's a torturous route from Scandinavian sack to ubiquitous sports metaphor. In 1886, The Sporting News reported that boxing champ John L. Sullivan walked with a swagger as he boarded a train after a victory in Denver. The word isn't found again in The Sports Bible until 1920. It is used in the modern sense when comparing baseball greats Rogers Hornsby and George Sisler on April 20, 1922. "Hornsby takes precedence over Sisler because there's more swagger and go and knack for putting it over in his than Sisler's work and ways." Author William B. Hanna was clearly a pioneer in evaluating players based on vague intangibles.
Still, the word was rarely used then the way it is used now. Indianapolis Indians pitcher Danny Boone was described as having the "swagger of a champion" in 1927, but it's the only time the word was used in The Sporting News that year. Apparently, Babe Ruth and the Yankees didn't swagger. And if they didn't, nobody did, except maybe this Danny Boone character.
My journey into the history of manly strides was not fruitless: it became clear through research that cowboys, or cowboy actors at least, swaggered.
Perfect. John Wayne was not only the king of the cowboy actors, but he was also a football player. All I had to do was study The Duke's gait, determine which NFL players walked like Wayne, pick them to win the Super Bowl, and bask in the accolades of my readers and peers.
An all-night session watching Rio Bravo, The Quiet Man, Hondo, and other films proved to be a revelation. Wayne was bow-legged, and he walked with a little bit of a limp. He always appeared to be suffering from saddle sores, whether on the lonesome prairie or in the Pacific Theater.
This is how champions walk: like they are injured and suffering from some itchy "masculine discomfort?" After reviewing game film, I determined that Joe Namath and Brett Favre walked a lot like Wayne. No help at all: both were champions long ago, and Favre has allegedly lost his swagger recently.
The Wayne exercise did help me differentiate between swagger and strut. That's a key point: swagger wins games, strut loses them. When's the last time you've heard of a team strutting onto the field and kicking some tail? Peacocks, Mummers, and shapely ladies strut. Winners do something else entirely. John Wayne clearly never strutted, though I saw him jig once.
Old rock videos are as useful as old cowboy movies in settling the stagger/strut question. It's easy to see: guitarists swagger; lead singers strut. (Bassists wander. Drummers sit). If you want to walk like a winner, study Keith Richards over Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page over Robert Plant, lots of Elvis Presley, absolutely no Joe Cocker.
Still, what does Deion Sanders do? That's clearly a strut: one with Super Bowl rings. And what about players who saunter, shuffle, stroll, meander, amble, sidle, or skip? Is the door to the Super Bowl locked to all of them?