American Football

As a young boy I started playing the game of baseball at a very early age.  I loved playing the game, and I learned to swing a bat with considerable efficiency.  My fielding skills left much to be desired.  All through my pre-teen and teen years I played the game frequently.  Usually it was the sandlot variety since wartime travel restrictions prevented me from trying out for an organized team.  As an adult, I gradually lost interest in baseball.  I have not attended a game in many years, and I almost never watch it on television. 

As I entered my teen years, I was introduced to football. Again, my play was always the sandlot variety, but I enjoyed it thoroughly and thought myself an effective runner.  Again, because of wartime travel restrictions and distance from school, I was unable to try out for our high-school team.   Later, I grew to love the game as a spectator sport.  It has all the excitement of a military contest without the fatalities.  The lines are clearly drawn, the combatants have their own distinctive uniforms, each team has a general (coach), combat leader (quarterback), and highly developed tactics (the playbook). Each team is capable of attacking on the ground or through the air, and the players must be highly skilled and disciplined to achieve success.

Our college football games at Chapel Hill were truly exciting. They were played in Kenan Stadium, that magnificent cow pasture in the woods that was so beautifully described by Andy Griffith in a humorous monolog entitled “What it was was football.” My first three years at Carolina we had an exciting All-American tailback named Charlie Justice along with some other superb players.  Many of these men were World War II veterans.  The 1947 and 1948 teams were especially powerful, and I saw some excellent football contests.  The one I enjoyed most was when we destroyed a highly ranked Texas team in September 1948. We ended that year ranked as one of the top teams in the land.

Carl Snavely was the coach when I was at North Carolina, and he was one of the very few college coaches still employing the single-wing formation.  Most teams had converted to the T or split-T.  Since we used the single-wing, the tailback had to be truly all-purpose.  Charlie Justice had to run, pass, and punt, and he did these all things extremely well.  Of course, his best moments were as a runner.

It is interesting to reflect on how much college football has evolved since the 1940s.  The change in player sizes is particularly notable.  Charlie Justice was 5’10” and about 165 lbs.  Our fullback was about 210. The average college lineman was about 220 lbs, The really big ones topped out at about 250-260, and they usually did not move too fast. Today the college players are huge.  Average weights among linemen are 300 lbs. and more, and running backs are frequently in the 220-245 range.  And all the players are fast.  Even the 300 lb. lineman can move with speed and agility.

The other notable difference in college football between the 1940s and now is the emergence of black athletes.  There were no blacks in major college football in 1947.  Now they predominate. Except at the quarterback position, blacks greatly outnumber whites in all the so-called skill positions (running backs, ends, defensive backs).

College football has become a semi-professional activity.  A large, highly-paid staff is employed to recruit, develop, and train the best players that can be attracted to a school.  Although they are not paid in money; in other ways the players are like medieval mercenaries, loyal to the school that recruits them, pays their scholarships, and treats them as heroes.  The chief strategist is the coach, and he receives a salary and other emoluments far in excess of the governor or any other public employee of the state (except possibly the basketball coach).

I still enjoy watching college football games, especially those involving my few favorite teams.  I like the panoply, the enthusiasm, the strategy, and the skill of the players.  Unfortunately, my own college team has not done so well in recent years.  Nevertheless, hope springs eternal.  Wait until next year.

I also enjoy professional football.  The skill level is certainly higher, and the players are absolutely amazing.  Overall, however, I prefer the college game.    


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