One of my favorite movies is Any Given Sunday, an excessive Oliver Stone production (maybe that’s redundant) about the excesses of pro football — and maybe, America itself.
Yeah, I’m given to liking football, but mostly, it’s a fun flick to watch because Stone crams a lot of words in Al Pacino’s mouth, and nobody spews others’ thoughts like Pacino. I’m out of order? You’re out of order!
Anyway, in the climactic locker room scene, Pacino — coach Tony D’Amato — is talking about the game to his collection of meatheads. But he’s really talking about life; his and ours.
“You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football,” he tells his team, the Miami Sharks. “Because in either game — life or football — the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half-step too late or too early, and you don’t make it. One half-second too slow or too fast, and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.”
I thought about that the other day after talking to John-Paul Hodnett, a guy who eight years ago found his entire professional career would turn on a patch of rocks in a remote area near Tijeras.
Hodnett, then just beginning his work on a master’s degree at Northern Arizona University, had come to Albuquerque for a conference about “paleontology, nerdy things,” and was spending part of his day at Kinney Brick Quarry, which had long been a site where fossils — remnants of New Mexico’s days as an ocean — could be found.
“I thought it’d be great to find a fish; they’d found ferns and fish scales there,” Hodnett says, recalling the moment. “But then about a half-hour before we had to leave, I saw something and got out my pocket knife.”
Hodnett’s blade poked one of the biggest discoveries in recent New Mexico history.
Hodnett found the remains of a — the — Godzilla Shark, a 6½-foot killer that before becoming almost perfectly mummified in shale, had ruled the seas about 300 million years ago.
The discovery on that May day in 2013 got all kinds of new attention last week when Hodnett and his team of fellow researchers renamed the Godzilla Shark Dracopristis hoffmanorum, a scientific way of saying “Dragon Shark Found on Property Owned by the Hoffman Family.”
The new name flashed all around the internet in seconds, and allowed Hodnett — now a full-time paleontologist and program coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission’s Dinosaur Park — to relive those moments when everything changed in a few seconds.
Granted, there was much work to be done in the intervening years, as scientists carefully cleaned and CT-scanned and studied the fossil, confirming its rarity. A 6½-foot shark doesn’t seem like much by today’s Discovery Channel standards, but in its time likely was the scourge of New Mexico — a place located on what then was the Earth’s equator and covered almost completely by water, says Spencer Lucas, curator of paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.
“Normally, all you’d get is teeth,” Lucas says, noting sharks’ skeletal systems are made almost completely of cartilage, not bone. “I’ve been a paleontologist for 40 years, and it’s the first of these I’ve ever seen. … For New Mexico, it’s totally unique. This is a totally new type of shark.”
Dracopristis, with its 12 rows of teeth and vise-grip jaws, also had a pair of 2½-foot fin spines on his back. With this as the protagonist, maybe Spielberg ought to think about another Jaws movie. Stone could write it.
Hodnett, now 39, says he didn’t understand the full impact at the moment of discovery. He thought he’d maybe found a reptile or amphibian, which in itself would’ve been a nice get for a wannabe paleontologist. But when Tom Suazo, the former fossil preparator at the museum of natural history, came into the room with a huge grin, he knew something else was up.
“That was a game-changing specimen for my career,” Hodnett acknowledges. “I was just a student, just getting started. … Here I have a complete shark. It helped me, got me a chance to finish my master’s degree. I got to work at a site in Montana; they have complete sharks there, and I was able to learn more about what I had.
“It just expanded things for me.”
Hodnett excitedly talks about other opportunities Dracopristis has brought — field work in Kentucky that offers all kinds of mysteries: “lots of strange creatures, fantastic to work on, and one of those is a big discovery; stay tuned” — he could never have imagined in the New Mexico sun when he was just walking around looking at rocks.
“It’s not something [you put on] a business card,” he says. “But it’s opened the doors to bigger projects.”
And there it is: You just never know in life. On a football field or a 300 million-year-old ocean-turned-desert, everything can change. Inch by inch.