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On New Year’s weekend, and in the coming weeks, many millions of happy Americans will gather in super-sized stadiums and in front of brilliant television sets to witness the decisive annual football contests.
This is as it should be — for football exemplifies the greatness of America better than any other sport. It is our true national game.
Tackle football is so specifically American they don’t even play it at the Olympics, where the U.S. baseball team failed to qualify the last time around and an Argentine basketball team embarrassed U.S. professionals.
To be sure, the general concept of football is neither modern nor peculiarly American. It is, instead, our inventive adaptation and exquisite execution of this primal form of competition that marks it as our own. There is some evidence the successive nations that played lead blocker for Western civilization also punched open holes for new and better forms of football.
Parke H. Davis, a pioneering collegiate coach and rulemaker, wrote an early history of the sport (“Football — The American Intercollegiate Game”) in 1911. He glimpsed football’s earliest antecedent in Isaiah 22: “He will turn and toss thee like a ball.”
Later, Davis reports, the Ancient Greeks played “harpaston,” in which two teams competed on a rectangular field, “the object being to drive the ball by passing, kicking or carrying across the opposite goal-line.”
The Romans embraced the game. But when Caesar Augustus took the throne a few decades before the birth of Christ, says Davis, he found too much “gentleness” in it “for Roman youths destined to be centurions and commanders of legions.” He commissioned a “philosopher” to craft tougher rules.
The writer Julius Pollux penned a description of the Roman game as played in the second century: “At the two ends of the field, behind the line where the players are stationed, are two other lines, beyond which these two bands endeavor to carry the ball, a feat that cannot be accomplished without pushing one another backward and forward.”
In the 1554 season, in Renaissance Italy, the prince of Mantua led a team against Florence, where members of the Medici clan took the field.
By the mid-19th century, the British had refined football into competing versions, one founded at Rugby School, another which came to be known as soccer. But these were intramural sports in Britain. It was on Nov. 6, 1869, that students from Princeton and Rutgers met in New Brunswick, N.J., for what Davis says was “the first intercollegiate football game, not only in America, but in the world.”
That game was more like soccer than the sport USC and Texas will play next week. But the college boys who became the Founding Fathers of American football were never satisfied with the rules as they were. Just like the great capitalists who built America’s industrial might in that era, they approached their project with entrepreneurial zeal. They kept re-inventing the game to make it a better fit for our national character, sometimes adjusting it to make it safer, but always insisting it demand ingenuity and courage from those who played it.
When Walter Camp of Yale convinced the fledgling intercollegiate rules committee in 1880 to abandon rugby-type continuous play and start individual plays with a center snapping the ball (originally by foot) back to a quarterback, the American game turned its back forever on its European forebears. There have since been 125 years of unending innovation, ranging from the forward pass to the instant replay.
But the ultimate greatness of tackle football is not found in the impact America has had on the game, but in the impact the game has had on America.
A survey by the National Foundation of State High School Associations shows about 1 million U.S. high school boys played football in 2004. That surely included not only some of the tallest boys and fastest boys — and the ones who could, in springtime, accurately guide a narrow metal tube into a small, round ball — but also those destined to be punters, or offensive guards or only play on special teams.
Football is often cited as a true meritocracy, which it certainly is. But what American boys learn playing our national game is that it doesn’t necessarily grant its greatest rewards to those with the greatest natural talent. Victories, they discover, are more often won with creativity, courage and perseverance than size, speed and brute strength.
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