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Why college football is
the best sport in the land

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"White ... punks ... on ... dope!"

Stanford Band
The Stanford band has played the background music for many a great college football game.
After having assumed some strange formation on the field, the red-jacketed and scruffy band members froze and screamed this out proudly. It made me smile then -- and does still, to this day.

Halftime of the annual game between Stanford and USC. This one was at Palo Alto, on the Farm, in Stanford Stadium. When? 1980. John Elway was a sophomore Qube -- a young man playing the young man's game.

College Football. Afterward nobody was going to ask how it felt never to have won the Super Bowl. No one was going to want to shoot a beer commercial and ask him to ad lib. If you wanted an ad lib, chase him in the pocket. His father, Jack, was still alive. His future wife, Janet, was a nice, athletic co-ed he wanted to impress. He had class.

And right now all he had to do to help all of this along was give it his all, what they call the "Old College Try," and throw a forward pass on a line over the head of that big, fast guy back there, the USC safety. Ronnie Lott. Lott was also All-America, and playing it about halfway -- he was 40 yards downfield already, which is halfway against John Elway.

Kenny Margerum was behind Lott by now, just running a take-off, a shake, a streak, a go, a fly ... running off into the distance, as if late for a plane up the 101 at SFO. Way out of the play. An obvious decoy. Or so it looked at first.

Look harder.

Surely no human being could throw the ball over a young Ronnie Lott's head to that speck way off there.

Only Elway did it. Seventy yards in the air, on a clothesline that whistled. A tracer. A beam of flipping light. Complete? Complete! Did you see that! That's why they call ... him ... Mis-ter Touch-down.

John Elway
Years before "The Drive," John Elway's brilliant arm was on display at Stanford.
Yeah, I was there. Up in the press box, sitting next to one of the Hoover daughters, a nice co-ed named Shawn.

The Stanford Band -- the self-appointed, self-described, hugely entertaining "White Punks On Dope" -- lively upped themselves in the stands, playing music. People cheered this magnificent play, slapped their foreheads, then their flasks, and returned to being sociable. The smell of roasting meat hung in the air.

College Football. Priceless. Little did I know, two years later, across the Bay in Berkeley, a play would occur to make that one forgettable. It happened in the Big Game. What's the Big Game over where you come from? In Berkeley, it's Cal vs. Stanford, for a memento called The Axe. One favored cheer at Cal was (and probably still is):

    "Give 'em the Axe, the Axe, the Axe
    Give 'em the Axe, the Axe, the Axe
    Give 'em the Axe, Give 'em the Axe
    Give 'em the Axe, where?

    Right in the neck, the neck, the neck
    Right in the neck, the neck, the neck
    Right in the neck, Right in the neck
    Right in the neck THERE!

Ah, yes. Innocent. Who needs rap lyrics to have good clean fun?

On that day two years later, after John Elway had performed another miracle, leading Stanford to the apparent winning field goal, with only enough time left on the clock to kick off, Cal coach Joe Kapp made a great fist, that being probably one of the best things he did as a coach and as a player, and then sent his kickoff receiving team out there to kill 'em.

Meanwhile, the "White Punks On Dope" began piling out of the stands, ready to do their rendition of "Louie, Louie," no doubt. They never made it. They made history instead. While they were marching haphazardly across the field, the ball was lateralled from Cal Bear to Cal Bear -- six in all -- finally winding up in the hands of the immortal Kevin Moen, who just about ran over a red-jacketed Stanford trombone player to complete one of the most priceless plays in college football history. Cal had beaten the Elways.

By then, I was at another college town at another fall classic, another once-in-a-lifetime college football game, where ... well, we'll get to it. Take a deep breath first ... feel ... remember ... what it is to live.

***** ***** *****

Oklahoma, OU, Boomer Sooner. They won the mythical college football national championship last New Year's time, 2001, by beating Florida State in the Orange Bowl. As they won, I thought about how John Elway had upset Barry Switzer's Sooners his senior year. Thought about going to Norman to meet the manchild running back a year after that. Marcus Dupree. Probably had little to do at Oklahoma except run the football, which, at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds, he did well.

Barry Switzer
Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer was a combination ridge-runner bootlegger's boy and charismatic Roman senator.
I asked Barry Switzer if he was taking heat for abandoning the Wishbone offense which had been so successful for OU, for the I-formation, which would assure Marcus Dupree of more options when he ran the ball. Barry Switzer, combination ridge-runner bootlegger's boy and charismatic Roman senator, put his arm up on my shoulder and said, "It ain't the alignment. It's the alignee."

College Football. Catch it. If you can. A few months after OU won the 2000 national title, the City of Muskogee, Oklahoma, authorized the removal of "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, from the Muskogee secondary schools. The civic authorities, ever ones to shift blame for such idiotic acts off themselves, said they acted because the book tended to "offend the black students," who, it appears, aren't expected to be able to read worth a damn, but had better not drop a ball or miss a tackle for OU.

If black students -- more specifically, their guardians -- aren't offended by intercollegiate athletics, how is "To Kill A Mockingbird" going to hurt?

Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do, and die. Could be the motto of College Football.

Better to sing its praises now, while the singing is good. Surprisingly, we come to sing the praises of the encompassing realm of College Football; to say it is the Granddaddy of them all, sports-wise.

The lure of it is this: It is played by the perpetually young -- no grizzled, jaded, holdout veterans in college ball. They usually turn pro for that. But in college football, there is no mailing it in, no grumbling for a trade. The young give their all on every single play, because they are willing, because they can. There's never a bad game on the schedule, because each game is, of itself, a tradition; they play each play as if it will be their last. Young men, who are not kicking in a salary drive or who need a fire lit under them by the media or Dallas Green, who aren't in the walk year of a deal. Young men, as yet unscarred by life. Pure.

It's the fall game. Claims its share of fall guys. Devaughn Darling. Eraste Autin. Rashidi Wheeler.

It's a plantation, but it's my plantation. Our plantation, and really, when you get right down to it, no better national reflection can be found on any sporting field anywhere than on fall Saturday afternoons across America. That's where we all get to be young and loyal and true and selfless and loved and perfect, for once, and only once, as we are to learn later, to our eternal regret.

The cheerleaders, the band, the fanatical crowds ... they all combine to make college football so special.
But we always go back, in our memory, or in fact, and see ourselves in the blushing faces in the stands, in the bands, on the pep and cheerleading squads, and on the grid.

Damn. Doesn't matter what state you visit in the fall, there are the legends, the myths of college football, big, small, famous, infamous. Even in Lee's banned book, what's the first thing the narrator tells us? Her brother, Jem, had broken his elbow playing football, no doubt dreaming of playing for the home state 11, the Crimson Tide of Alabama, which was still all-white when Harper Lee wrote her book.

***** ***** *****

The names of them, from the history of college football, are familiar, magical and attaching and simple and complex. They can represent us in all ways, good ways, great ways, ways we will always remember, ways we'd like to forget. Pride and humility and nobility.

Condredge Holloway. Nile Kinnick. Joe Don Looney. Roy Riegels. Clint Frank. Frankie Albert. Johnny Majors. Tom Harmon. Bucky Pope. Walter Eckersall. Willie Galimore. Rocket. Major. Snake -- two of them. Juice.

  College football is played by the perpetually young -- no grizzled, jaded, holdout veterans in college ball. They usually turn pro for that. But in college football, there is no mailing it in, no grumbling for a trade. The young give their all on every single play, because they are willing, because they can. There's never a bad game on the schedule, because each game is, of itself, a tradition; they play each play as if it will be their last.  

You name 'em, I know 'em, met 'em, or hooked 'em up. If you live, you end up knowing 'em too, or at least you end up knowing somebody who plays in their spot. Because there's somebody, maybe a lot of somebodies, who played college football right in your family.

Once I went to see a running back named Lorenzo White, up at the University of Maine, years ago. The Black Bears were playing a little football, had imported Lorenzo from more southerly climes. The pregame tailgating was the best at Maine -- big three- and four-pound lobbies, and fresh sweet corn on the cob.

Went to Annapolis to meet a Midshipman named Napoleon McCallum, who was raised by Ohio farmers who were the black versions of Ma and Pa Kent, who then sent him off to the Academy. Had a shambling, rolling gait, but always seemed to be shambling downfield. Tacklers bounced off him like he was Superman.

Met the Tyler Rose, Earl Campbell, so unstoppable he took away the bitternesweetness of some of those Longhorn fans who still remember fondly the 1969 Texas team, the last all-white team to win the national championship, and how they beat Arkansas with Nixon at the game, trying to shore up his image.

Never met The Doaker. Met folks from Texas. Doak Walker changed their lives.

I didn't have to go see Paul Hofer, from Ole Miss. Played against him in high school. Good college running back, Hofer. Deuce McAllister just broke some of his records. Paul? Fast white boy, once.

And when I wrote a book that certainly seemed on the face of it to be more problematic than "To Kill A Mockingbird" -- "Why Black People Tend to Shout" -- who do you think came to see me at a reading, waded right through a small crowd of black people who had showed up to see what was in that book, since they won't interpret it right themselves? Who's that, big and bold? Paul Hofer! Hey, Paul. College football kills fear.

***** ***** *****

Well, first, do we care about college football? Yes, we do. Then why do we care. Why do we revere an essentially stupid, violent game so much?

Well, it's not all the pomp and circumstance, youth and pulchrtudinous young girls in formful sweaters and skirts, alcohol and red meat. Although, clearly, that would be enough. But also, college football comes upon us when we first get out from under the thumbs of our parents and care-givers and other jailers; out in the world, and on our own.

Jim Thorpe
Before he was an Olympic hero, Jim Thorpe (20) was a college football star.
So it was our game, when we were young ducks on the pond. The best years of our lives. Rooting for the old school 11.

I'll give your some names here. No matter what their accomplishments, when you think about them, you've thought about college football. What did it do for them? Did it give them the grace to withstand the horrors and pressure of being an adult in the years that follow college? Maybe. Maybe not. Didn't seem to help Juice. But maybe Juice is, like, a special case or something. Although don't know where he'd get that idea from.

Pro football could never be as grand as college football, even though it takes its allure from the same base. It allows that same collegial pride to develop in perfect strangers who never set foot on a college campus. An entire metropolitan area becomes Alma Mater, and almost everyone therein roots and bets and lives and dies with the old professional 11. But the sad part is, when you think of old pro football players, you think of Jim Otto, clanking around on aluminum cans, or Johnny Unitas, feeling around with a useless hand, or Juice. You don't think of young people, unscarred and pure ...

You don't think Jim Thorpe, at age 18.

You don't think of Paul Robeson, at age 19

You don't think of Red Grange, at age 20.

You know them as college football players, even though Thorpe was as accomplished as an American athlete can be. In fact, he might still be the finest pure athlete that the wilds of America has yet produced. Fitting, somehow, that he'd be a true native. Able to play big-league baseball as an outfielder for John McGraw's New York Giants; winner of decathalon/pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics; the ability to play pro football and dominate that sport with relative ease -- and yet, his most amazing feat was no doubt leading 16 of his fellows from little Carlisle Institute to victory over the U. S. Army Military Academy, the Best Team Ever, with its roster culled from thousands, the Black Knights of the Hudson ...

"Fight on, brave Army team ... dah-dah-dah-dah-DAH--dah-dah-dah--dah ..."

The impossible is best brought off by the likes of a Jim Thorpe. There were no Jim Thorpes at Cumberland College a few years earlier, in the 1900s, when it lost to John Heisman's Georgia Tech, 222-0. But those young men played college football, too, just as surely as did the Miracle from Carlisle.

The boys from Cumberland didn't play very well, particularly, at least not on that day -- but they participated. So they're part of it all, too. And that's the beauty of it. Check the little type, the agate, in you paper on the Sunday morning after the first weekend of college football. Check South. West. Midwest. East. All those games, each representing hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, existences that will be shaped by these games.

Knute Rockne
When you think college football, you think Knute Rockne at Notre Dame.
Robeson. Incredible. Walter Camp called him the best football player he'd ever seen. Robeson went up and down the line for Rutgers, playing end, only dark man on the squad. Never gave a thought to becoming a pro. All-American, for real. Got a law degree from Columbia, practiced law for a minute, got bored stiff by that, acted in films, plays, sang high opera, did Othello, made records, studied languages, sang folk songs in flawless Welsh and Mandarin Chinese, then, after all that, was called un-American by a little runt named McCarthy who had seen too many Edward G. Robinson movies and, it is probably safe to assume, didn't play college football, or even like it.

If Senator McCarthy had tied one on, ran up in the grandstands, cheered himself hoarse, kissed a pretty co-ed, known what it was to have lived, or at least tried, he would've been a lot less tense about everything else and -- well, who knows, then?

Robeson or Ty Cobb? Who would you rather have dinner with? Or, who would you rather have beside you in a fight, in a dark alley surrounded by four attackers who mean to do you serious bodily harm? Robeson, or Cobb? Well, I know, Cobb would have a pistol with him, but suppose he didn't? Suppose a forgotten mixture of pride, humility and nobility was required? Who would you pick then? I know who I'd pick.

There was Rockne, too, with that catchy Scandinavian name, calling up the Norse Gods of Odin and Thor; then with him being at Notre Dame and all, with a fight song even more blood-stirring than Army's, or Michigan's "Hail To The Victors Valiant" -- "Shake down the thunder from the sky," indeed, son of Thor, leader of Catholic masses, little luck of the Irish thrown in. Tough for the Chicago Bears to match that.

Even the Bears and their Papa, George Halas, owed their living, their life itself, to college football. Oh, yeah. What, you didn't know? That was all Red Grange, right there.

Red Grange
Pro football came of age by selling the popularity of college legend Red Grange.
Grange, the ultimate running back of his time and maybe all time, the star of da pipple's imaginings, since there was no NFL, since there was no TV, so on Sunday all you had was what the local college 11 had done on Saturday, church, and then, "Didja hear what the Galloping Ghost did?" It was Grange -- think of it -- who got an agent, cut a deal with Papa Bear to barnstorm with the Chicago Bears, and then singlehandedly brought out more than 60,000 in New York City to watch him play "pro ball." All those people, they didn't come out to see "pro football." Not at first.

They came out to see the Wheaton Iceman, the Galloping One, Red Grange of the Fightin' Illini. Period.

The Great Runner led to the Eternal Search for the Great Runner. Nobody could be compared to Grange, until Brown at Syracuse, Lenny Moore at Penn State, Hornung at Notre Dame. Later it was Hornung who sat with the True Next Galloping One, the Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers, and marveled, "There's not three backs in the history of football that cut like this, Gale." Like ... Grange.

Hornung wasn't bad himself. He got Jim Brown's Heisman Trophy, and would probably tell Jim that, and also tell him he ain't giving it up, either. Hornung became equally famous as a Green Bay Packer; Brown was probably more famous as a Cleveland Brown, and one of "The Dirty Dozen," among other things, but ask them what gave them their spark, what let them know, what gave them the confidence to succeed, to keep getting up after they had been knocked down, and they'd both tell you about some college football field somewhere.

Maybe Brown would say at the Cotton Bowl, his senior year, where he put on a performance that knocked the eyes out of Curt Gowdy, among others. Hornung would talk about the gloaming that cloaks Notre Dame Stadium.

Paul Hornung
Paul Hornung was great ... but he did steal Jim Brown's Heisman Trophy.
And then Walter Payton. Sweet Jesus. Saw him in a game rush for 150 yards, complete two passes, one for a touchdown, pancake block a dude in pass protection, catch two passes, including a 50-yard TD on a screen, punt, return punts (they never kicked it to him, preferring to go out of bounds), return kickoffs, and kick off himself, as well as kick six extra points perfectly.

Sweetness was at Jackson State then. When he was drafted by the Chcago Bears and someone asked me what I thought of him, I said, "Well, if Archie Griffin won the Hieisman Trophy, they must should have given Walter Payton the Nobel Prize."

Archie Griffin, two-time Heisman winner. Shows you the power that Woody Hayes once wielded. Archie Griffin was a good college football back -- for a small, relatively slow guy. No Brockington, no Eddie George. Certainly no Paul Warfield. Certainly no Robert Smith. Kirk Herbstreit, how can Ohio State not have won more?

***** ***** *****

Everything about college football is mythical, not just its national championship. It's the myth that drives the car, sells the soap, tears up the eyes, lumps in the throat, from Harvard-Yale to Grambling-FAMU ...

"Eckie, Eckie, break your neckie, Eckersall ...!"

"No, Eddie, no! No, Eddie, no! Not it Talla-Hassee! Not in Talla-Hassee!"

Johnny Rodgers, running like a sidewinder, at Nebraska in '71, in that unforgettable mythical national championship game between No. 1 and No. 2. Just as good, Greg Pruitt, out of that Oklahoma 'Bone, played in that game.

Johnny Rodgers
Johnny Rodgers' performance for Nebraska in "The Game of the Century" is unforgettable.
It was Greg Pruitt who later told me that, sure, Herschel Walker was a specimen, who broke the tradition of the USC tailback all by himself by spurning the Trojans for his home state Georgia Bulldogs. "Great body," Pruitt said. "But no magic." His lack of cutback ability didn't stop Walker from putting Georgia on his back, taking it to a mythical national title in '81.

Joe Washington, at OU, Tony Dorsett at Pitt, Marcus Allen, John-Boy Riggins at Kansas ... Johnny Musso from Alabama, Barry Sanders at Oklahoma State. Grangeian.

Edgerrin James at Miami? Boy with all that gold in his mouth? What he did to UCLA! Marshall Faulk at San Diego State ... on and on and on ...

And some new young runner is gearing up right now to take our breath away.

We don't know who he is yet, but we will know him soon.

***** ***** *****

Two college football runners I knew before I even went to college. One was Jesse Wilburn. They had to cut him out of his jersey, after an Orange Blossom Classic Game against FAMU. Like an uncle to me. Told me stuff I still use. Skimpy with the praise. So when you got it, it felt good.

The other one's name was Lightning Jim Carter.

Edgerrin James
Remember what Edgerrin James did to UCLA in his last season at Miami?
See, Sandy Stephens had been a Minnesota Golden Gopher QB. I liked him. Kinda wanted to go up there, but being a receiver and a defensive back at the beginning of the '70s, plus being black, and being in Tennessee, and being only a buck seventy dead wet, my options were somewhat limited.

I guess so were Lightning Jim Carter's. That's why he was there, a white guy, young too, only a couple years out of college, coaching at all-black Melrose High School -- football powerhouse. High school football is college football, only more of it. The same good, which makes it worth it. The same bad, which makes it ... us.

Oklahoma was running 'Bone. Tennessee had one black player coming in -- "We got our one." The SEC was just about all white back then. Thirty years ago.

Tennessee's one was a receiver named Lester McClain. Couldn't outrun me, but the Vols weren't bringing him in to run. He was there to block. They were looking for the next Johnny Majors. And, far as I know, they still are.

Much later on, they settled for Jamal Lewis, but seemed like he was always busted up ... that's another story.

The Juice had broken off that 64-yard-run against UCLA, and the trumpets had blared Conquest, and fully six dudes I went to high school with swore by USC. But first we had to play the year. Then we might integrate something. First we'd play. The playing was already integrated. Everybody's blood was as red as mine, I learned. I didn't learn it in biology class.

  That's the beauty of it. Check the little type, the agate, in you paper on the Sunday morning after the first weekend of college football. Check South. West. Midwest. East. All those games, each representing hundreds, perhaps thousands of lives, existences that will be shaped by these games.  

We had two white coaches, assistants. One of them was surprised by the fact that we went 9-1-1 during our senior fall of '69, and was bitterly disappointed by it. Later, as Melrose won state championship after state championship, it made more sense to him, probably. He didn't coach that much. Sat and waited for us to fold. Heard him say something to someone -- a woman -- who picked him up: "Nigger ball."

My friend, the starting tailback in our I formation -- thank you, USC coach John McKay -- my college roommate, James Fitzpatrick, looked at me and, hurt to the quick, said, "Yeah, well it all be Nigger Ball one day."

Coach Lighting Jim Carter had no such language problems. He coached. We listened. Especially after we found out he had been a breakaway cutback running back from Carson-Newman College. Before that, we thought his East Tennessee mountain twang was amusing. He just saw us as the kids playing ball. Not a bad bone in his body. He laughed at us, and at himself most of all.

Carried around a newspaper clipping to show he had scored on not one but two 70-yard runs against David Lipscomb College, or Austin Peay, or Lenoir Rhyne, or somebody like that. "I don't know what's wrong with Geechie," he said one day, speaking of our second and third string tailbacks, "but Earl, he just ain't fast!" He was an honest man and a fair coach.

And yet, it was not Lightning Jim Carter but the other assistant who cried at our athletic banquet, when it was announced that 15 seniors from Melrose would be going on to college, all on college football scholarships, which was probably the only way the vast majority of these particular 15 black boys would have gone on to college. The "bad" white assistant coach started crying out of nowhere while giving his brief remarks.

Marshall Faulk
Before he lit up NFL defenses, Marshall Faulk was posting huge numbers at San Diego State.
Lightning Jim patted him on the back and comforted him, but looked perplexed. Why he crying? By then, he had seen us prepare, perform, sweat and bleed, die in August 8-to-5 practice before living so well that fall, only to lose 6-0 to Paul Hofer's Christian Brothers in a bloody engagement. He knew by then we could hold our own, anywhere, anytime.

After being with us all year, he could see we were just boys, human, even in his eyes. He cried maybe because he realized that somebody in his family had been lying to him, and up until that point he had done nothing but pass the lie along.

"You guys," he said later, his eyes red. "You guys -- any college would be glad to have you."

I still wonder until this day if he was right.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."

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