Football rulesthe republic--from NFL grudge matches to colossal college rivalries, from 32Division I-A bowl games to 16-team small-college playoff brackets. Across thenation teenagers are desperately trying to reach the next round of the statehigh school playoffs, while eight-year-olds are getting their first taste ofplaying for a national championship, at the Pop Warner Super Bowl, in Orlando.Most who strap on helmets and settle into three-point stances aren't doing itfor money or fame. They're in it for the camaraderie, the satisfaction thatcomes from a well-executed assignment and because, quite simply, it's fun toknock the snot out of somebody.
Thanksgiving isan excuse for Everyman to get out and draw up plays in the dirt in so-calledTurkey Bowls. For the last 20 years the Sherowski family of West Rutland, Vt.,has gathered for a game of touch. Play doesn't always start at the same timeeach year, but it always ends, and a winner is declared, with the noontimetolling of the bells at nearby St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church.
Ask not for whomthe bell tolls, baseball fans. Yes, the national pastime is timeless andpastoral, but football is cathartic. An NFL team plays one tenth as many gamesas a major league club, meaning there's 10 times more at stake at kickoff thanwhen the ump yells, "Play ball!" The tension is ratcheted higher stillin a 12-game college season, when a single loss more than likely dooms a team'schance to play for the national title.
Football is aunifying force as well--and we're not just talking about how the Super Bowlbagged a 41.6 TV rating last February (the highest-rated World Series game thisyear? an 11.6). On Sept. 25 the New Orleans Saints returned to the LouisianaSuperdome, which 13 months earlier had come to symbolize the horrific damagewrought by Hurricane Katrina and the government's botched response to it.Before the game, wideout Joe Horn spoke for many of his Saints teammates whenhe predicted that he would cry running onto the field for player introductions.After Bono and Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong rocked the house with aninspired version of The Saints Are Coming, the team delivered a belated reliefpackage, beating the Atlanta Falcons by 20 points to get to 3--0 for the firsttime since 2002.
Such emotion notonly fuels the violence on the field but can also take over a game. Theintensity builds over the course of a week, and there is no outlet for it untilkickoff, when all hell breaks loose. Not so on the diamond. Even when baseballplayers brawl, their hearts aren't in it.
The game washistory. Michigan was dispatched, Carmen Ohio sung, the Big Ten trophy bestowedupon the victors. Wading through the pandemonium on the field of Ohio State'sstadium was a bespectacled 50-year-old who was too busy embracing Buckeyes todry his own tears. The man was Ted Ginn Sr., the football coach at GlenvilleHigh in Cleveland. For many fans, football is a pleasant diversion, an escapefrom the routine of their lives. For Ginn and his players, football is anescape in a more literal sense--from one of the toughest neighborhoods in thecity.
Twenty-oneplayers from last year's Glenville squad earned college scholarships. Sevenformer Tarblooders dot the Ohio State roster this season, including Ted GinnJr., a junior flanker who caught eight passes for 104 yards and a touchdown inthat Nov. 18 victory over Michigan, and senior quarterback Troy Smith, who willthank his high school coach, among others, in his Heisman acceptance speech onDec. 9.
"People askme, 'What's the key?'" Ginn Sr. said after the crowd had thinned. "Itell them there's no magic dust. It's just having the love, passion andunderstanding for these kids. And look what can happen."
David Baker, the53-year-old commissioner of the Arena Football League, is a fixture at USCpractices. His son Sam is a three-year starter at left tackle for the Trojans,who steamrollered Notre Dame in the Coliseum last Saturday night (page 54). Inthe week before the game the elder Baker received an e-mail from a former USCplayer who recalled a speech made in the 1970s by fiery Trojans assistant coachMarv Goux.
Addressing histeam at Notre Dame Stadium the day before a game against the Fighting Irish,Goux wandered around the field, inspecting the turf, looking for a spot andshouting, "Where is it?" Finally he stopped, pointed to the grass andannounced tearfully, "This is the spot. This is where they got me. I wasclipped from behind right here."
Goux ordered theentire team to gather round. "Now listen to me," he said. "NotreDame ended my dream as a [USC] player. They ended it right here where we standtogether. I'll never be able to forget it or change it. I can, however, bring afootball team here every other year with the best players the world has everseen. A football team that is a great big family, whose only living, breathingdesire is to be allowed by God one more opportunity to hit a Notre Damefootball player as hard as humanly possible. Tomorrow we wake as one. Tomorrowwe take the body. Tomorrow we are devastating, play after play, every man untilthe final whistle. If I see any man look up at the scoreboard, I'll kill him.To hell with the score--we came here for more than that. Tomorrow we take aprogram's heart and tear it to pieces with our bare hands."
Does any othersport provoke such an oration?
On the eve ofUSC's opener at Arkansas this fall, Trojans strength coach Chris Carlislecalled the team together on the turf at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadiumand delivered a brief history lesson. After setting the scene for the Battle ofAgincourt in Shakespeare's Henry V, he recited the king's speech to hissoldiers: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...." While theBard's iambic pentameter may not have inflamed the team to the extent that,say, a Snoop Dogg visit might have, it must have provided some inspiration. USCbeat Arkansas 50--14.
While playingfootball for seven years, then writing about it for 23, I've heardwell-intentioned coaches refer to the sport as war--which, of course, isridiculous. As exobiology professor Alan Zapalac of fictitious Logos Collegepoints out in Don DeLillo's End Zone, "Warfare is warfare. We don't needsubstitutes because we've got the real thing." No one is more acutely awareof this than American soldiers overseas. For them, football is a reminder ofhome, a touchstone.
That's why Maj.Fenton Moore, a supply and purchasing officer in the Ohio National Guard,taught a football-officiating course while stationed northeast of Baghdad lastsummer. A Columbus native with 20 years of experience as a high school andcollege zebra, Moore certified several fellow guardsmen, who then put their newskills to work by officiating soldiers' flag football games on an unmarked dirtfield.
And that's whyCapt. Timothy Jacobsen, commander of Golf Troop 10th Cavalry, brought afootball to Iraq from Fort Hood, Texas. After taking over one of SaddamHussein's palaces in April 2003, according to an account in The Dallas MorningNews, Jacobsen told his men, "We're not going to damage anything. We're notgoing to tear the place up. We're just going to go down there, take a look atthe palace, throw the ball around and then leave."
So they did.
This is personal,but so is football. My father, J. Austin Murphy Jr., graduated in 1951 fromColgate, where he twice lettered as an end. (He played both ways.) That sameyear, bored by his job peddling sporting goods and prompted by a poster indowntown Indianapolis that read, you're not good enough to be a marine, heenlisted. Ten months later 2nd Lieutenant Murphy found himself on an outpostnear Panmunjom, Korea. He came back with a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. Heknew war from football.
Six years ago Iwas working on a book about the Division III football program at St. John's inCollegeville, Minn., led by John Gagliardi, who has since surpassed EddieRobinson as the winningest coach in NCAA history. The Johnnies were headed toPella, Iowa, for a second-round playoff game against Central. When my fatherheard I was going, he proposed meeting me there. He flew from Boston, I flewfrom San Francisco, and we met in the heartland.
I don't remembermuch about the game--the Johnnies won a slugfest--but I do remember how well mydad got along with Gagliardi. And that frigid day in Pella remains one of myfavorites, which had everything to do with the company I kept. My father and Ishare the same name but not the same politics. That said, we get along verywell. Our bond is stout--never so stout, it seems, as when we are side by sidewatching a football game.
SI.COM: See more on America's love affair withfootball in a photo gallery narrated by Austin Murphy at SI.com/photo.
SOME PROS could learn a thing or two about protectingthe ball from this youngster with the San Dieguito Pop Warner club inEncinitas, Calif. In its 77th season Pop Warner boasts 400,000 participants(ranging in age from five to 16) in its football and cheerleading programs,with associations in 42 states and six foreign countries, including Japan andRussia. The lessons players learn at this level carry through the rest of theircareers. Indeed, the NFL Players Association estimates that as many as 70% ofits current members first strapped on pads in Pop Warner.
SI.COM: For an expanded Pop Warner photo gallery, goto SI.com/photo.
THE GLORY OF IT ALL
HIGH SCHOOL football is about much more than the game;it's about what's going on around the players as well. The more than onemillion teenagers who suit up are supported by, among others, cheerleaders,band members and multitudes of volunteers who work tirelessly behind thescenes. A member of the spirit squad from Avondale (Ariz.) Agua Fria Highcelebrated the Owls' 55--20 win over Lake Havasu High. Agua Fria (12--0), whichhas won six state titles since 1948, will play Scottsdale Saguaro this Fridayin the semifinals of the Arizona Class 4A Division I playoffs.
SI.COM: For an expanded high school photo gallery, goto SI.com/highschool.
VARIATIONS ON A THEME
INTRAMURALS ARE serious business. The NationalIntramural-Recreational Sports Association sponsors programs at more than 650campuses, as well as at military installations, correctional facilities andpublic parks. Last month, with the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel asa backdrop, players prepared for the NIRSA Mid-Atlantic Regional flag footballchampionship.
SI.COM: For an expanded flag football photo gallery,go to SI.com/photo.
LOWER DIVISION programs get a fraction of theattention lavished on the 119 Division I-A teams, but players like Montanaguard Colin Dow, who gave a young fan a big hand after the Grizzlies beatMontana State in a Division I-AA grudge match, make up the bulk of the collegefootball population. Nearly 600 teams and more than 50,000 athletes compete inDivisions I-AA, II and III of the NCAA, or in the NAIA.
ON TOP OF THE WORLD
WHEN THEY were friends and teammates growing up inCleveland, Troy Smith (10) and Ted Ginn Jr. dreamed of moments like this. TheOhio State stars reveled in their team's 42--39 victory over No. 2 Michigan, awin that capped a perfect regular season for the top-ranked school in the land.Next stop for Smith, Ginn and the Buckeyes: Glendale, Ariz., for the BCSnational title game, on Jan. 8.
SI.COM: For an expanded rivalry photo gallery, go toSI.com/collegefootball.
TONY ROMO threw his first pass in an NFLregular-season game on Oct. 15. Now, after leading the Dallas Cowboys to fourvictories in five starts, the 26-year-old quarterback is conjuring memories ofRoger Staubach and Troy Aikman. A fourth-year free agent out of Division I-AAEastern Illinois, Romo leads the league in passer rating, and on Thanksgivinghe threw for a club-record-tying five touchdowns in a rout of the Bucs.
SI.COM: For an expanded NFL photo gallery, go toSI.com/NFL.
IN HARM'S WAY
LIFE IN a war zone offers few opportunities forrecreation. Even in Iraq, however, Thanksgiving was a day for football, andU.S. soldiers stationed there were determined to get their fill. Many troopsgathered around TV sets to watch satellite feeds of NFL games played back home,while others celebrated the holiday by competing in flag football games. Twomembers of the Tripods warmed up for the Turkey Bowl at Base Blackhawk, but the'Pods proved to be no match for the Roughriders, who won 20--0.
Samuel White (77) and Brayland Howard (67) helped lead the South Central Tigersof Orlando to the mid-Florida Division II title in the Pop Warner Junior Peeweedivision.