First, an admission: I’m campaign-weary and have been working on a mini-book about football, so I thought you’d enjoy a break from politics with some lore cribbed from the book.
The working title is: “War By Other Means: College Football.” My (ahem) “unusual” approach to the subject comes through in the opening paragraph, in which I refer to:
“The cultural dynamo of college football, the only sport that taps into the martial spirit, evokes the fervor of a religious faith, whose schemes date back to Hannibal, and some of whose themes are drawn from military history and Shakespeare’s tragedies.”
Notre Dame’s central role in the early stages of the game’s development came after the sport was nearly abolished in 1905 when 18 undergraduates died from football injuries.
President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard became the leading advocate of a movement to abolish the sport. The idea was attracting support. For instance, The New York Times editorialized against “Two Curable Evils,” lynching and football.
Eliot may have succeeded but for the fact that the “first fan” was in the White House: Teddy Roosevelt, our most muscular president, who proclaimed the game “Bully!” The president in 1906 convened a meeting in the White House with presidents of the three big Ivy universities, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and included Walter Camp, the leading figure in the formative years of the game.
Roosevelt told them: “Football is on trial. Because I believe in the game, I want to do all I can to save it.” He acknowledged that real and permanent changes would have to be made. One of those changes was outlawing the flying wedge, whose leading human spear point in collision with the receiving team would be literally bone-crushing — and harkened back to the disciplined charge of Roman legions.
Another rules change was legalizing the forward pass.
The perfection and popularity of the forward pass can be traced to an Ohio beach where a Notre Dame left end named Knute Rockne was lifeguard. He and his roommate, All-American quarterback Gus Dorais, spent the summer creating a forward pass tandem.
That summer’s games of pass and catch between roommates was put to effective use in the fall. Irish Coach Jesse Harper used the newly minted tandem on Nov. 1, 1913, against heavily favored Army.
The threat of deep passes, Dorais-to-Rockne, kept Army from crowding the line of scrimmage. Dorais was 12 of 14 passing for 243 yards, and an uncertain, confused Army team went down 35-14.
When Rockne became coach, he used the famous “win one for the Gipper” halftime speech to motivate the Irish to defeat Army again. (For a full account, read the book.) He compiled a record of 105-12 in 13 years until he died in a plane crash at 43.
If football is the moral equivalent of war, then one of the greatest locker-room speeches of all time was Henry V’s speech to his men before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415:
“We few, we happy few/ we band of brothers/ For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother/ And gentlemen in England, now a-bed/ Shall think themselves accursed they were not here/ And hold their manhoods cheap whilst any speaks/ That fought with us.”
Even Rockne’s great winning successors, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian, would have to admit that Prince Hal’s locker-room speech in the 15th century was a classic of the genre.
A pall of mediocrity had fallen over the Irish in the past 20 years until 47-year-old Brian Kelly was hired last year from Cincinnati after a 12-0 season with the Bearcats. His Notre Dame team this year is undefeated and ranked No. 5.
Coach Kelly’s success raises the possibility that the Alabama-Notre Dame rivalry might be renewed with the Tide striving to improve on its disappointing 1-5 record against the Fighting Irish.
Now that a storied team from the past is competing for its ninth national title, the Tide, surfing on its recent successes, could nonchalantly answer over its shoulder, “We’re going for number 15; catch us if you can.”
And so it goes in the worshipful realm of the gridiron’s civil religion.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.