Sometimes modern college football gives me a feeling of frustration. Sure, I admit that the country is full of backs who can do the hundred in 9.6 and of tackles strong enough to block out a Volkswagen. Today's teams with their regiment-size squads could probably blast the daylights out of those of the 1910s, '20s and '30s.
But to this oldtime fan—and it may be merely a sign of approaching old age—today's heroes don't seem as heroic as the earlier ones: the Granges and Gipps, the Thorpes and Brickleys, the Cagles and Slagles, the McMillins and the Booths. And I think the trouble is the modern players seldom have the identity of the famous older-timers.
Go to a game today and what happens? Halfway through the first period there's a time out, and seven or eight new players—or maybe an entirely new team—swarm onto the field and report, one by one, to the Official in Charge of Keeping Mass Substitutions Honest. To me they resemble nothing as much as a group of returning American tourists on Pier 44, trying to get through customs in a hurry.
It's true that they've got great big legible numbers on their jerseys, and that I first watched football before players displayed such digits. Thus, you can argue that today's players are easier to identify. I cheerfully go along with the proposition that all a modern fan has to do is look at his program to determine that No. 23 is Doakes. And I'm equally willing to grant that modern spectators can read as well as those of an earlier day. Educational standards are constantly rising, aren't they? Or are they?
October 29, 1962
But let's not get sidetracked. The trouble is that when Doakes comes into the game he is also accompanied by Flannagan, Brikes, Petrucci, Cadwalleder, Donewski, Sykes, I. Miller and J. Miller (no relation). It takes a lot of time to run all those numbers down, and by the time the fan is set to find out how Doakes (his favorite) is about to perform he discovers that Doakes has been supplanted by Spillany on a wild-card substitution because it is now fourth down with 11 yards to go, and Spillany is the punting specialist.
Well, my first hero had no number, and if he didn't play the entire game he didn't miss by more than a few minutes. His name was Charley Brickley, and he still stands out as a great dropkicker and place-kicker. But the reason Brickley played the entire game—or practically all—was that he was also a powerful running fullback and a savage tackler.
Brickley played for Harvard in the first college game I ever saw, Harvard's 15-5 victory over Yale in 1913, and he was as undisputably a hero as a hero can be. Harvard was undefeated that year—it was named national champion, in fact—but there were some who maintained that the team was inclined to be a lazy one. If its attack bogged down in scoring territory it could always call on Charley to come through with a three-pointer and then rely on its strong defense to protect whatever lead it had secured. In this memorable game it did so five times, and all its 15 points were gained by what sports-writers of the time delighted in calling Brickley's educated toe.
I can still see him. His fame as a kicker was already secure. When that burly figure retreated to a safe distance from the scrimmage line and held out his hands for the snap from center, everyone in the Harvard Stadium, including the small boy that I was then, knew unmistakably that the man who stood there, poised and confident, was the Harvard All-America back, Charley Brickley. Then the oval blunt-pointed ball came into his hands, he lowered it and pointed it toward the sod, that famous toe swung forward, the ball arced high and true, and his team had three more points in the bank.
No, Brickley wore no number, but you could tell who he was and where he was. And you could identify other players, too. They stayed in the game long enough so that you got familiar with them. Numbering, I maintain, often defeats its own purpose. Back then you had to make a concentrated effort to identify your hero—by his build, his way of running or walking, some mannerism, or by his facial expression. And when you once knew him you never forgot him.
Even in Brickley's time helmets were here to stay, but as late as the '20s there were a few nonconformists who had no truck with them, helmets not being mandatory equipment as they are today. Such a one was Halfback Benny Boynton of Williams, and Benny didn't have a huge shock of hair to protect him as did many of the shaggy players of the 1880s and '90s. In fact, he was on the baldish side, and it was easy to see that gleaming pate when Benny was on the field.
He was a hard and elusive runner and tackier, and on the day I saw him perform he seemed to be in on every play. He needed no number—and no public address system—to make clear his presence on the gridiron. Opposing rooters, as well as his own, thrilled to his courage and skill, and there are many fans of that era who will tell you that Benny Boynton would have been a first-team All-America if he had played on a big-time college team.
In 1921 Centre College of Kentucky scored its famous 6-0 upset over Harvard to hand the Crimson its first defeat since 1916. It was Bo McMillin who made the celebrated touchdown run, and no one who saw him that day will ever forget it. But somehow another Centre player—James Roberts—stands out more clearly in my memory. He was a big end, appropriately nicknamed Red, and, like Boynton, he felt that a helmet cramped his style.
All afternoon the flaming-haired Roberts stood out like a beacon light as he wrecked Harvard plays and mowed down prospective tacklers—including those who vainly tried to halt McMillin on that dash to the goal line. His exploits made as much of an impression on All-America selector Walter Camp as they did on the spectators in the Harvard Stadium. Two years previous McMillin had been selected on the first-string All-America team, but in 1921 the colorful Roberts made it where McMillin failed.
But even the conformists who wore helmets were easier to recognize than the armor-plated warriors of today. The old leather helmet left a good portion of the face exposed, but the modern outsize contraption protrudes so far that the wearer appears to be peering out of a cave. He is hidden in a black shadow except on those rare instances when the sunlight hits him directly. And now, just to make the fan's task all the harder, we have the protruding face guard. In fact a football buff's only chance to discover whether the hero has a Roman nose, freckles, kind eyes or a jutting jaw is to stay home in front of his television set and hope the camera pans in a Zoomar close-up of him.
In the 1930s helmets had evolved only a little way toward their present Brobdingnagian size but virtually all squads were then numbering their players. However, I can assure you that there was one who could have ripped his number off and presented it to his girl friend, so easy was he to spot on a football field. He was Yale's Albie Booth, affectionately known to the sportswriters and Old Elis as the Mighty Atom or Little Boy Blue. This 144-pounder's midget size made him as much of a standout as did his jackrabbit elusiveness and his fierce will to win.
I saw Booth perform in a number of roles. In his sophomore year against Harvard he had been slightly injured in a previous game and was not in the starting lineup. But, as was so often the case, he was called in when Yale got a scoring opportunity.
I can see that dramatic entrance as though it were yesterday. It was a bitter cold November day and the field had previously been cleared of snow. Yale called for a time out and onto the field came Booth, wrapped in blankets, parka and God knows what else and accompanied by a Yale assistant manager. There then followed what must have been the longest unpeeling act on record as the Yales cheered and the Harvards hooted. Finally Albie stood stripped down to fighting trim—as though everyone in the place hadn't known who he was before his number was revealed—and the manager trotted off the field with the bedding.
It would be dramatic to relate that Booth then proceeded to score an electrifying touchdown—but it would be contrary to the facts. In one of football's more ironic anticlimaxes he attempted to kick a field goal on his first play and it was blocked. Harvard recovered and marched up the field for what turned out to be the deciding touchdown. Albie was, in a sense, a goat in this game, but he was still to remain in the spotlight.
Receiving the second half kickoff he came within an ace of running through the entire Crimson team, being collared by the last opponent in his path, Lineman Bill Ticknor, who just managed to grab him by the back of the jersey. The material held, Booth went down, and the threat was ended. And here is another difference between the old and the new game. Had Albie been wearing the modern easy-tear "breakaway" jersey he unquestionably would have scored, Yale would have won the game, and he would have been considered its undisputed hero.
Well, it's likely that the heroes of those days were no more individualistic off the field than today's players, but out there on the turf I still maintain their individuality and identity stood out more clearly. And how about the goalposts, come to think of it? Back in the old days a fan got familiar with his own. He saw them week after week and noted, as the season progressed, that they could stand a new coat of paint. Today, of course, many of them end up as kindling wood. My memories go back to the days of the snake dance when rooters of the winning team serpentined down the field behind their band, marched through the goalposts and tossed their hats over the crossbar—often ending with someone else's.
I was in on that change. In 1923, on a quagmire of a field, another memorable Yale hero, Ducky Pond, grabbed a Harvard fumble and sloshed some 70 yards to a touchdown. And Yale's captain, Bill Mallory, managed to kick two miraculous field goals through that raging torrent.
The gloom was thick enough for Harvard rooters but it became still thicker when the game ended and the joyous Yale students charged en masse at Harvard's sacred goalposts and started to demolish them. No one on the Harvard side was prepared for the innovation—obviously planned in advance by the Yales—but the Cambridge undergraduates weren't slow to react in defense of their lumber and football's first goalpost donnybrook was soon in full swing. One time I started to figure out how much total energy has been used up in goalpost demolition and fighting since that day, but, being a lazy man, I gave up.
I don't say I'm wasting away to a shadow from pining for the good old days when college athletic departments didn't have to spring for new goalposts every week, but I certainly enjoyed them. I can still see Charley Brickley kicking those field goals with mechanical precision, or the flaming thatch of Red Roberts as he wreaks destruction on no-longer-mighty Harvard. And there is little Albie Booth in those blankets—and, again, running like a wraith. I'll settle for that.
And come to think of it, I really should stop complaining about the anonymity of so many current-day players. After all, I haven't yet picked up a sports page and read, "43 of State took a hand-off from 31 and, with the help of a crashing key block by 65, galloped all the way to the 18-yard line where he was finally collared by 88 of Tech."
That'll be the day.