Walter camp, yale 1880, captain and coach of many great Bulldog elevens, is credited with having invented the All-America. What a wonderful thing. The beau ideal of the breed was Frank Merriwell, who was, of course, a Yale man. Merriwell happened to be fictional, but then that's the point of All-Americas, isn't it? If they were merely real, they would just be class presidents or prelaw students: basic Yalies. The last All-America was Brian Dowling, Yale '69. It has been 20 years since Elis watched him dance between the sideline stripes.
Today, though, Yale—which was to football what Egypt was to civilization—is relegated to something called Onedubbelay, and what were All-Americas are called draft choices and what was America is called a market.
Frank Shorter, the Olympic marathon champion of 1972, and also Class of '69, says that for years he and his classmates have understood that "we were an anachronistic class."
"They entered the old Yale, the last gasp," says Bart Giamatti, the president of baseball's National League, who was a professor of English at Yale then, before being named president of the university in 1978. "They entered the same Yale I had"—Giamatti is Yale '60—"but they left campus under completely different assumptions than the ones they'd arrived with. It was the extension of a time that was gone...only nobody knew it was gone at that time."
Dowling arrived at a place that was rapidly changing, but even before he got there he was being compared to Frank Merriwell—whom he'd never heard of. At that time, 1965, young Brian had never been defeated in a football game, America had never been defeated in a war, and it was naturally assumed that All-Americas, like Detroit's chromed finest, would roll off the assembly line forever. What Yalie ever really believed the song that went: "We are poor little lambs who have lost our way/Baa, baa, baa...."?
It's funny, but the America that Dowling lived in then, the one we all inhabited when he began at Yale, is now regularly referred to as Norman Rockwell's America, as if the whole country had been nothing but a quaintly romantic painting. By contrast, the United States is now inevitably drawn, jaded, in thin strokes. The last All-America himself lives on in the comic strip Doonesbury, which is rendered by Garry Trudeau. Yale '70. Dowling is the character B.D., who always wears a football helmet. God have mercy on such as we./Baa, baa, baa. Harvard 29-Yale 29.
What was so extraordinary about Dowling and his teammates was that somehow they managed to make football important (and even dear) at the very time American colleges were changing forever, when students were marching in the street and sleeping in. the dean's office. It was all the more amazing that this devotion to middle-American frivolity should happen in an elitist, Ivy League institution. But it did. "At a time when an understanding gap has frequently separated alumni from students, football has provided a bridge of common interest," the Yale Alumni Magazine editorialized, gratefully, in 1968. Hawks and doves could lie down together in the Yale Bowl.
"I should have known someone like you would be calling," Dowling said the other day. "I should have remembered—exactly 20 years. The last time anybody like you called was in '78-10 years." There wasn't any irony in his voice. But then Dowling does not appear to be the sort of fellow who traffics in irony...or facetiousness, hyperbole or aging, either. He looks as if he could glide right into the Yale Bowl now, dodge a couple of Dartmouths and chuck a wobbly one to Calvin Hill in the end zone. At 41 Dowling still has that pigeon-toed gait so common to many fine athletes, and all the boyish aspects: hair not quite in place; blue-green eyes that glint; grins and shrugs. If your mother met him, no matter how old Brian Dowling happened to be, she would say, "My, what a nice boy."
For a living, Dowling runs the Ivy Satellite Network, which specializes in closed-circuit telecasts of traditional games between smaller colleges that organized TV doesn't want to mess with. In this pursuit he dresses in button-down shirt, rep tie, blazer, preppy slacks and loafers. He lives in Fairfield County, Conn., with his daughter, Haley, age 2, and his wife, Betsy, who never knew him when he was at Yale and who gets a little irked at having to tell people that, no, just because she is Brian J. Dowling's wife in exurban Connecticut doesn't mean she is B.D.'s inamorata, Boopsie, in Doonesbury.
Dowling shrugs. "My wife still feels that I've never taken enough advantage of it," he says. Then he grins. He's clearly not going to. Ever. At Yale, when he was the last All-America, after he had had his wrist broken and his nose broken in quick succession, he told his music teacher—who didn't know the football eleven from the local chapter of SDS—"I walked into a door." Later, when she found out who her accident-prone student really was, she apologized for her ignorance. "Hey, it's O.K.," Brian said. "Your bit's music."