The nonpareil Merriwell, a creation of one Gilbert Patten, who wrote under the name of Burt L. Standish, performed feats of athletic wonder for 17 consecutive years in the Tip Top Library, a series of weekly dime novels that were published from 1896 to 1913. As amazing as Frank was—why aren't kids ever named Frank anymore?—Merriwell had a lot of help because Standish had him play for Yale, the perennial pigskin steamroller in the days of yore.
Dowling, too, was in good company. He is convinced that the team he captained in 1968 could have held its own against any college team in the nation for at least a half, and could only then have been worn down by sheer force of numbers. "We had a lot of really good players, a couple Parade high school All-Americas," he says. "And we had one of the two or three best athletes in the whole country."
Dowling is not referring to himself. He is referring to Hill. "Cal was the only player I ever had who could have started at all 22 positions," Carmen Cozza, the Yale coach then and now, says. In fact, one of the reasons Hill chose Yale was that he wanted to play quarterback—and then with Dowling he never got the chance.
"Quite frankly that was a burr, and it stayed with me for a long time," says Hill, now 41, who is a vice-president of the Baltimore Orioles.
Long before the Dallas Cowboys surprised the rest of the NFL by drafting Hill in the first round in 1969, there wasn't anybody around New Haven who wouldn't casually acknowledge that Hill was the better player. It was just that Dowling only moonlighted as a player, when he got time off from being a legend. When the "dynamic duo" were juniors, the Yalie Daily ran companion profiles, HILL: MORE THAN STATS was the admiring, if rather prosaic, headline for the one. And for the other? GOD PLAYS QUARTERBACK FOR YALE.
The attention focused on Dowling might seem, then, to have been racially motivated—Hill is black—and surely there was something in that; but nobody, Hill included, seems to think that was the primary reason. A study made in 1973 of the Dowling phenomenon by two Yale undergraduates, Christie Bader and J.D. Smeallie, scrutinized Dowling and his exploits as a prize example of American folklore and concluded that while it helped that he was a member of the white race, it meant much more that he simply played the "conspicuous" position of quarterback and was possessor of the perfect personality for an American legend.
Says Hill: "If there was one thing that eased the bitterness of not being the quarterback, it was Brian. When you consider what was going on around him, you couldn't ask for a more super person." The two became good friends, roomed together on the road and still stay in close touch.
Dowling possessed that wonderful Sergeant York admixture of personal self-effacement and professional cockiness. Even now, when a foolish person remarks that the whole experience must have been quite a "fairy tale," Dowling doesn't blink. "No, not really," he says directly. "You've got to understand that I expected to win. After all, I'd won all the games I'd finished since seventh grade."
Dowling was knocked out of virtually his entire sophomore season with a knee injury and then missed three games his junior year with a fracture of his right wrist that was supposed to keep him out for six. When Dowling broke his wrist, he told Cozza (and actually meant it): "That's O.K., Coach, I can throw with my left."