- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 27, 2009

Why all the hullabaloo about a punt kerplunking off a giant TV screen in Dallas - in a preseason game, no less? Somehow, you figure, the NFL will survive this minor miscalculation by Jerry Jones in his attempt to build the Stadium To End All Stadiums. Somehow, you figure, the Cowboys’ boss will raise the screen, lower the field, untie the punters’ shoelaces or deflate the ball so it won’t reach such altitudes - and the issue will disappear.

It’s become a story, I suspect, mostly because the league prides itself on doing things just right, on planning for any eventuality, on anticipating every conceivable problem. And then Jones, in his bigger-is-better Texas way, goes a little overboard on the size of screens hanging above the field, and the Titans’ punter gets one blocked… by Mitsubishi.

Seriously, though, if something this inconsequential can become such a hot topic, well, it just shows how far the NFL has progressed. I mean, in pro football’s youth, stadium glitches were as common as broken noses. Well, almost.

Take Wrigley Field, where the Bears played until the ‘70s. Behind one end zone - directly behind it - was an ivy-covered brick wall; behind the other end zone was a baseball dugout. Neither was a very soft landing place.

One day in 1938, Chicago’s Dick Plasman, a husky receiver, dived for an overthrown pass and ran smack into the wall. This wouldn’t have been so bad if he weren’t the last NFL player to play without a helmet. The collision knocked him cuckoo and left him with an ugly cut stretching across the top of his head. But that was Wrigley for you. If the Bears didn’t get you, the wall behind the south end zone would.

As for the dugout end of the field, Colts wideout Jimmy Orr once described it thusly: “You didn’t have a full end zone. It was only 8 1/2 yards [deep]. If you went down in the dugout and looked at the chalk line, you’d see it had a zigzag in it at the corner of the dugout.”

The Bears weren’t the only club in the early days with a shorter-than-regulation field. In Cleveland, one of the end zones at League Park was a mere six yards deep. If a team had to punt from deep in its own end and needed more room to get the kick off, the ball would be moved farther away from the goal line.

Then there was the Cycledrome, a stadium built for bicycle races that served as the home of the 1928 NFL champs, the Providence Steam Roller. Talk about cozy. A banked, four-lane track ran around the field and chopped five yards off the corners of one end zone. (In other words, if Dwight Clark had tried to make The Catch in Providence, he might have come down out of bounds.)

According to Pearce Johnson, Providence’s assistant general manager, “There was only one locker room, and it was very small. After all, it was built for bicycle people, and they only had four on the track at one time. The players took their turns going inside and changing. There were only two showers and a limited amount of hot water, so the first ones in were the lucky ones.

“There was no opponent’s locker room. They’d dress at their hotel, and then we’d bus them to the field.”

NFL lore is full of such tales - of having to play uphill for one half at Yankee Stadium and downhill for the other because the outfield was sloped for drainage; of San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium featuring two sets of goal posts, one on the goal line for pro games and one at the back of the end zone for college games; of unusual happenings on baseball infields - especially when the pitcher’s mound hadn’t been removed.

Joe Perry, the Hall of Fame running back, once told me of the time he was met by an opponent at the top of one of those mounds and how “my helmet went one way, I went another and the ball went another. I got jacked up.”

The point I’m trying to make is that pro football’s history, architectural and otherwise, is the history of imperfection - and of succeeding, gloriously, despite of it. So what’s the big deal, really, about having to “do-over” a punt in an exhibition game?

Let’s face it, Jerry Jones, king of the Cowboys, was going to have his hanging TV screens just as surely as Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, was going to have his hanging gardens. Some things can’t be helped.



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