In a peculiar reflection of our nation’s current economic woes, the Indianapolis Colts of the National Football League gave their star quarterback, Peyton Manning, a five-year, $90 million contract extension. The move clearly hampered the Colts’ ability to sign other players, weakening their roster. Then disaster struck. Manning was forced to undergo neck surgery and was out for the season. Like a shareholder who had voted a mind-boggling compensation package for a corporate CEO who failed to deliver, the owners of the Colts looked on in abject horror as the Colts swan-dived to the bottom of the league. Helpless and ruined, there was nothing they could do. They still had to pay him, even as the Colts struggled and lost.
Football has always reflected America.
Grinding Doggedly Along – The Birth of American Football
In the beginning there was rugby, a hard-bitten English game in which an oblong ball was moved forward by a slow surge of collective brute strength. In the 1880’s Yale University coach Walter Camp added unique innovations to Americanize the game. He stopped calling it rugby. He started calling it football.
In the new American version the players would not just grind doggedly along. There would be opportunities, with proper planning, to move ahead in leaps and bounds. Camp instituted a system of four downs, the points system (awarding 6 points for a score), and the snap back from center, giving the ball carrier a brief moment to strategize. Also, there would be an opportunity to get rewarded – monetarily. In 1892 the first player was paid, inaugurating the professional game.
How I Drive Tracy Nuts
By 1903 a professional league had been formed around teams from Ohio located in modest working class towns like Akron, Massillon, Youngstown and Canton. Canton was a powerhouse in the early Ohio League and was instrumental in forming the American Professional Football Association, the forerunner of the NFL. More than a hundred years later I was headed there with my buddy Tracy. We were going to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Tracy and I are good friends, but we argue frequently. I think I drive him nuts sometimes.
He accuses me of making sweeping generalizations and being overly pessimistic. I will admit to a certain flare for the dramatic, but when it comes to being pessimistic, I claim the same tired refuge of all confirmed pessimists: I am only being realistic.
Cue Tracy groaning.
“Go this way,” I tell him, but he’s so miffed he misses the exit for Columbus.
“Go back,” I say.
He tells me he intends to in a tone meant to communicate that I should shut up now.
I watch as the towers of downtown Columbus wheel around behind us as we descend the ramp. We are going to Canton—eventually. But first we have business in Columbus, football business. We are going to watch a game.
Ohio State University in Columbus is mad for football. Few would dispute it. They have won the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship seven times, the third most in college football. They boast a proud tradition dating back to 1890, and they lead the nation in attendance.
Yet in the past year Ohio State has been the target of NCAA investigations into allegations surrounding former coach Jim Tressel who was accused of covering up illegal player compensation schemes. He was fired and several players were suspended.
Ranked number one in 2010, the Buckeyes fell out of the top 25 for the first time in seven years. As Tracy and I headed toward the stadium, the team was desperately in need of redemption. They needed to prove themselves. After an episode of financial hanky-panky, they needed a reason to believe. Not unlike the country itself.
The 6th ranked Wisconsin Badgers were coming to town. The hometown Buckeyes were 7 point underdogs. To the wizards in Vegas who analyze such things, the Buckeyes were a long shot at best. When I don’t have a dog in the hunt, I tend to back the underdog, so I was happy to throw my support behind the Buckeyes, but I was not naive. “They haven’t got a chance,” I told Tracy. “Wisconsin is going to clean their clocks.”
“You don’t know everything,” he bristled.
I bit my tongue.
How to Really Experience America
My old college pal Cary arranged the tickets for us. Together with Cary, we headed down to High Street, a strip of bars and restaurants bordering the University. A full-fledged tailgate party was underway.
I have, on occasion, been asked by foreign visitors what they should see to truly experience America. I have never hesitated to answer: a tailgate party. In theory, a tailgate party consists of opening a car trunk and making an instant and elaborate picnic near the bumper, usually in a parking lot and next to hundreds of other such impromptu picnics, resulting in a gigantic party, all in preparation for a football game. When game time comes, the picnic is quickly folded up and packed away, and the party moves enmasse into the stadium for three hours of roaring fanaticism.
At Ohio State the term is used more loosely to apply to outdoor parties of any kind. The result is no less effective. Enthusiasts in costumes mingle with the
general tide of those in colors and jerseys to laugh, hoot and egg each other on. Copious quantities of alcohol are consumed. Burgers, sausages and ribs are wolfed down. Opposing teams are dismissed with scorn.
Inside the stadium, Tracy and I wore scarlet and gray, declaring ourselves members of the tribe, so we could immerse ourselves in the experience and see what would come of it. For that night, at least, we were hardcore Buckeye fans.
The Eternal Football Question
In 1906 the Intercollegiate Athletic Association, the forerunner of the NCAA, put through a new rule designed to reduce the amount of injuries in football. It proved to be revolutionary. The forward pass, although it was not fully utilized until years later, was the single most important rule change in American football and what distinguished it from rugby forever.
But in the present day the Buckeyes were employing little of it. Much to Tracy’s chagrin they were mostly running the ball, grinding out 2 or 3 yards per play and relying heavily on their surprisingly deft and mobile quarterback, a kid named Braxton Miller, to earn first downs and keep the ball moving.
“At some point they’re going to have to start throwing,” Tracy said in a tone that suggested groaning and cranium-squeezing were just around the corner.
“Why should they?” I asked. “They’re controlling time of possession and moving the ball. That’s what they intend to do.”
He gave me a dubious look, one that wondered, as so many have done throughout the years, whether modern football games can be won that way.
It’s a good question. In all likelihood, that’s what the Colts were wondering when Peyton Manning was sidelined. How can we win if we don’t throw? But the history of the game tells a different story.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame
At the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio it becomes clear, as you circle the rotunda beneath the football-shaped dome and examine the story of the game, that long after the forward pass was legalized, teams opted instead to grind out yardage on the ground, carrying the ball forward and plowing into opposing linemen with brute force.
“Smash mouth football,” as former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka deemed it, much like the hard working immigrants who labored in the factories so they could claw their way up to into the middle class.
It wasn’t until 1913 that Knute Rockne, the head coach of Notre Dame, fully utilized the forward pass, scorching opposing defenses and inspiring a whole new brand of football, one that looked for every opportunity to throw. By the 1960’s when the country was at its summit economically, the envy of the world, throwing the football became the name of the game in the NFL.
The rotunda area of the Hall of Fame is the original portion of the building, dating back to 1963, when it was built. Seen from the outside, it looks every bit its age, all tiles, stucco and masonry. The bronze statue of Jim Thorpe in the entry hall surrounded by a 60’s style spiral ramp leading up to the second floor screams Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
When you ascend to the exhibits, things don’t get much better. Crude department store mannequins outfitted in vintage uniforms stand in for football greats. Fuzzy, dated monitors play scratchy audio of historic plays.
But just when you think you are in for a football-centric version of Wall Drug Store, you are startled by the Hall of Fame Gallery, where more than 300 bronze busts are tastefully arranged on Lucite shelves against marble backgrounds. Interactive exhibits play highlights of each player’s achievements and give accounts of his history and influence on the game. It’s really very well done.
Among the players honored in the Hall are five former Ohio State players, including Bill Willis, who after graduating in 1945 had a hard time finding a job in the NFL, which had not drafted a black player since 1933. So Willis joined the rival American Football League and made a name for himself as defensive guard on the Cleveland Browns. When the Browns were absorbed into the NFL, Willis became one of the first African-American players to play in the league. His appearance coincided with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. The NFL was right in step with the times.
In the present day, race was not much of an issue on the field at Ohio Stadium where Wisconsin’s frustration was mounting. By the middle of the third quarter the Buckeyes owned a 17-7 advantage over the heavily favored Badgers. The Buckeye’s defense had stifled the Wisconsin offense, a division leading offense that had come into the game averaging 47.4 points and 512 yards.
As the fans chanted O-H-I-O and made the shapes of the letters with their arms, Tracy remarked that Ohio State looked like they had the right formula to beat the Badgers.
“It isn’t in the bag yet,” I said. “This is college football, and Wisconsin is number six for a reason.”
Tracy gave me a sidelong look, then leaped to his feet and struck both his fists into the air yelling, “Let’s go!”
Cirque de Soleil on a Gridiron
In the Moments, Memories and Momentos Gallery at the Pro Football Hall of Fame they have a behind-the-scenes video of coaches and players egging each other on with the words, “Let’s go!” After ten or so such exhortations, one weary player is heard to say, “Where are we going? We’re already here. Let’s just play.” It got the biggest laugh of the day from the assembled viewers.
The Hall of Fame has dozens of such video galleries, covering everything from historic games to crucial advancements. One area is set aside for rival leagues. Over the decades other professional leagues have cropped up to challenge the NFL and most have faded away, but one was so formidable that the NFL had no choice but to bring it into the fold.
The American Football League (AFL) ran from 1960 to 1969 and fielded 10 teams. When it merged with the NFL in 1970 those teams were formed into the AFC, while the former NFL teams became the NFC. Today the two conferences make up the NFL.
The net affect of having two conferences consisting of 32 teams is that the cream of the available talent is absorbed into the league, leaving little left over for rival leagues. Watching the NFL today is a little like watching Cirque de Soleil. Mistakes are few and the talent level is off the charts.
In college football, on the other hand, there are 119 teams, so the talent pool is dissipated. The net affect is a game that’s much more prone to errors and miscues, which, in a perverse way, is a good thing, making for games like the one we were watching, where anything can happen.
As predicted Wisconsin came roaring back. With Ohio State up 26-14 in the fourth quarter, even I was beginning to think the Buckeyes had the game in hand. But then Wisconsin replied with a 17 yard pass to the end zone, making the score 26-21.
The fans, who had been delirious only moments before, fell silent. The mood turned gloomy. Moments later, Wisconsin struck again with a 44-yard pass that hit the receiver in stride, resulting in another touchdown, followed by a 2-point conversion. Just like that Wisconsin was up 29-26. The mood was funereal.
All night long Buckeye quarterback Braxton Miller had been controlling the tempo by grinding out yardage on the ground, passing for only 49 yards. But now with less than a minute left, he had no choice but to start throwing the ball if Ohio State was going to have any chance at all. Unfortunately, Wisconsin knew only too well what the Buckeyes had to do, and they had the Buckeye receivers blanketed. It was going to take a miracle for Ohio State to pull this one out.
A Seven Nation Army Couldn’t Hold Them Back
The Miracle Finishes film at the Pro Football Hall of Fame covers stunning last minute upsets, from “The Miracle at the Meadowlands” to the “Immaculate Reception”. Along with the Super Bowl Theater, and the Interactive Gallery, where you can loll around on sofas and play Madden NFL 12, just like at home, it’s one of the most popular attractions at the Hall.
Taken altogether, the Pro Football Hall of Fame was better than I expected. Although it looks dated from the outside, with the exception of its original wing, it’s up-to-date and engaging. What’s more, it’s about to embark on an expansion to be completed by the summer of 2013. When that’s done, it should be extraordinary.
Back at Ohio Stadium something extraordinary was going to have to happen if Ohio Stadium was going to pull this one out. The 100,000 fans who had been giddily belting
out the opening strains of Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes only moments before were glumly watching the field now. Then, with 20 seconds left, Braxton Miller took the snap and rolled out looking for a receiver.
Back on the interstate after the game, Tracy and I discussed the economy. Tracy was of the opinion that we would eventually find our way out of our doldrums and return to our former glory.
“Not gonna happen,” I said. “The one percent have gamed the system to their advantage. They can privatize their gains and socialize their losses. They can screw up badly and put the responsibility on us. They can get away with just about any crime, then turn around and blame the victims, strip us of our bargaining rights, take away our social security. But they never have to pay. In a free market economy there has to be accountability. Otherwise the system doesn’t work – can’t work.”
That struck him as too pessimistic. “We’ll work it out,” he said, “eventually.”
“Only if there’s a game changer,” I said. “Something out of the blue. Something that wakes people up and makes them take notice .”
Trouble in Happy Valley
A week after the game the good people of Ohio stood up and voted NO on a ballot measure that would have stripped public union workers of their collective bargaining rights, delivering a stinging rebuke to Ohio’s Republican governor, who preferred to extend tax breaks to the rich, hoping for a little more of that special largesse we’ve been enjoying from trickle down economics.
On the same day a story broke that Penn State Football assistant head coach Jerry Sandusky had been raping young boys in the team’s locker room for decades. The immediate reaction was to defend venerable head coach Joe Paterno from any negative fall out.
Joe Paterno was an institution at Penn State. He was considered above reproach. And when some in the media began pointing out that his lack of accountability for what had happened during his watch was at best irresponsible, at worst criminal, his defenders rioted. Joe Paterno had made Penn State great. He could not be questioned. He could not be held accountable, no matter what the crime.
Nonsense, said a groundswell of people who had the good sense to realize that the cover up of child rape easily trumped grid iron success, no matter what the track record. Wealth and success did not absolve him of accountability. Paterno got fired.
It was a bolt out of the blue.
A Wild Football Weekend
Braxton Miller stepped nimbly back to avoid the oncoming rush. He dodged to the right. He dodged to the left. He anxiously scanned the field for a receiver. He was flushed from the pocket and scampered for the sideline. Then, as he ran, he reared back and threw, an awkward, off-balance throw, a wing and a prayer.
The ball sailed high into the air, a long, lazy rainbow, intended, it seemed, for no one. It plummeted toward the end zone and came to rest in the hands of an unguarded Ohio State receiver.
The ref’s arms shot up. The clock ran out. Touchdown!
Ohio State had won! The crowd went mad, laughing and cheering. Fans poured onto the field. We danced around, cheering and high-fiving. It was an extraordinary come back. A glorious victory. A bolt out of the blue.
Football has always reflected America.
Video Tour of Pro Football Hall of Fame
Image Credits: All images by Malcolm Logan, except for image of Joe Paterno, which is in the Public Domain; Vintage football programs and image of early game were taken at the Pro Football Hall of Fame