At this point in the year a recent type of autumnal trauma begins to descend on several hundred thousand American males and a few tens of thousands of their ladies. To this hard core of professional football fans Sunday becomes a day of double devotion, the latter part of it dedicated to the rites of the game they worship.
Pro football has weaned a new kind of fanatic, a student of the sport who is as loyal to his cause as the Old Grad or the Notre Dame subway alumnus but filled with an added fervor. On Sunday afternoons he sits at the shrine of the big bruisers who represent the virtues he likes to attribute to his own enclave: strength, grace and violence when aroused. In adversity the men of San Francisco or Baltimore somehow rise in righteousness and smite the malevolent forces from, say, Chicago or Pittsburgh, and the home team feels much better for it.
These considerations aside, pro football is also the great American game raised to such a peak of perfection that only the smallest shadings in physical and technical superiority separate the best from the worst of the 12 teams in the National Football League. The players themselves are pretty much of a pattern. An offensive center weighs 220 to 240 pounds, stands well over six feet and might occasionally get the jump on a gazelle. A tackle will be a bit heftier, and proportionately slower. A fullback runs like a sprinter and should press the scales beyond 200 pounds. In fact, if a man weighs less than 200, he had better have extraordinary speed and finesse at any position or take up another occupation. This is a contest reserved largely for giants, and nothing pleases the fan like watching his own giants give a lesson in manners and skill to the enemy's.
The coming of age of pro football as a major spectator sport is a recent development. As SI's Herman Hickman, himself a sometime pro, pointed out in these pages just before the All-Star Game in August, "There was a time, not too far distant, when professional football was simply semipro." Throughout most of the 1930s the best of the collegians were about on a par with the pros, as the statistics of the All-Star Game will verify. Then—around the late '30s—the pros began to catch the fancy of the fans. The turnstiles whirred and money came in.
By the time the World War was over, pro football was enough of an attraction to set the promoters squabbling for franchises and players. A rival league sprang up to muscle in on the old NFL, which was beginning to see blue skies for the first time since it was formed in 1921. Fandom was growing rapidly enough, but the confusion of too many teams in too many leagues was eliminating the profits. Peace came in 1950 when the rival All-America Conference merged with the NFL, leaving two divisions of six teams each (a 13th team soon folded).
So the Age of Pro Football as we know it is just entering its sixth year. Yet it has reached the stage where the passions of its fans in the cities where it has its strongest grip—Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles—seem to reach an ardor equatable only in terms of warfare. In last year's game between the Los Angeles Rams and the San Francisco 49ers, a series in which the rivalry of these two California cities can at last come to physical grips, scarcely a vacant spot was evident in the 105,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum, and casualties ran high. Two first-string 49er linemen left the field on stretchers, disabled for the entire season. Bob Carey, the Rams' great pass receiver, had his leg broken and won't play again until 1957. In the presence of these misfortunes, the fans of each persuasion seemed to say (as the enemy fell): "That'll teach 'em to play rough with our boys."
There is more, much more to the game of pro football, however, than bashing and bruising. In fact, the serious injuries are seldom purposeful. They come from the fact that a collision between two behemoths traveling at top speed—and you can't play pro ball unless you can move that big bulk—is often going to produce a bigger crash than the human frame is designed for. The game is played with a pace and precision that no collegians could ever achieve, even at colleges where football practice has precedence over the classroom.
It is the coaches that spell the big difference among the league's twelve carefully chosen, finely conditioned squads. It has been argued with considerable merit that you could put Paul Brown of the Cleveland Browns or Buddy Parker of the Detroit Lions in charge of any of the tail-end clubs, and within a space of weeks or months they would have the team at the top. It might take a bit longer, but the general theory is valid. Pro football is even more a coach's game than the college version. It is the coach who scouts and chooses the new players each year during the winter draft, and it is his judicious balancing of personnel rather than the presence of a few outstanding football celebrities that marks the successful squad.
Paul Brown, who helped organize the Cleveland Browns in 1946 and has coached them through the most impressive record of any pro team during the past nine years, immediately understood the importance of balance and has gradually taught it to his colleagues. Certainly Brown has had his stars—Otto Graham, the quarterback of them all; Marion Motley and Maurice Bassett, the pulverizing fullbacks; Lou Groza, the mammoth tackle whose place kicks are a league legend—but these names are mainly for the headlines, and they were never there before Brown created them. They might not be there at all, in fact, if Brown hadn't discovered the secret of blending them with a score or more of faceless fellows who make the Brown machine purr like a Rolls-Royce and for the same reason. When functioning properly every detail is a piece of perfection in itself, hand-tooled by the coach.
In 1952 the NFL turned to television to find new friends, and unlike their brothers in baseball the owners have found it an unmixed blessing. Last year's play-off between Detroit and Cleveland attracted 30 million viewers on 187 stations, and this year the weekly games should come near to blanketing the potential television audience. As the pros face 1955, they figure to again swell the average attendance (30,821 per game in 1954) while teaching a host of new friends on the airwaves the thrill and suspense of imminent violence on the playing field.