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Herman Hickman
May 28, 1956
Some gridiron dreams burgeon while others fade at spring practice—where coaches separate the men from the boys
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May 28, 1956

Men From The Boys

Some gridiron dreams burgeon while others fade at spring practice—where coaches separate the men from the boys

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Football teams are made in the spring. On hundreds of sodden fields young hopefuls in tattered and colorless uniforms have been engaged in the time-honored practice of "knocking heads." For 20 sessions—all the NCAA permits—the men have been given a series of violent, body-bruising workouts, which coaches favor only in the spring. This is in contrast to fall practice, where stars must be protected from injury.

Coaches can tell little about their freshman crop during the fall. Quite a number of outstanding stars of doubtful academic proficiency never even go oat for football in their first fall. The head coaches, supported by the deans, are only interested in varsity careers. Most head coaches don't want "winning" frosh teams, for obvious reasons. True, there was a coach down South who kept his job for 15 years, although his varsity teams were singularly unsuccessful, by always having a winning freshman team. Each winter on the banquet circuit he would say, "Well, gentlemen, we didn't win many this year, but we had a great undefeated freshman team last fall. We'll git 'em next year." This worked until one evening an irreverent old alumnus arose to protest, "Mr. Coach, this is all mighty fine about what you're going to have next fall, but I'd like to live to see the damn day when we're gonna have next year's team this year."

Fall practice is mostly aimed at polishing, perfecting and preparing for next Saturday's opponent. Spring practice is less important to the veterans, although at this time the coaches try to remedy old weaknesses noted in the preceding campaign. But to the rising sophomores the spring trials are vital. On these fields so many high school stars with bulging scrapbooks wane and wilt. The high-scoring halfback from Poly Prep unexpectedly shows a tendency to squat at the hole when menacingly confronted by an upper-class backer-up, while the 230-pound tackle, who was an irresistible bull-in-a-china-shop at his local high, suddenly becomes Mary's little lamb when he squares off against players of equal size. These things are not revealed in statistics—they are the intangibles concretized by the pitiless spring.

Possibly the prime objective of the coaching staff in the spring is (euphemistically speaking) to establish the "intestinal fortitude" of each candidate. To a lesser extent this period is also used to experiment with new plays and formations and to try out players at different positions. For instance, a big freshman fullback might not have the quickness to play in the varsity backfield and yet be a tremendous defensive linebacker. He will be moved more than likely to a center or guard position. There might be a fast moving tackle, who is perhaps a little light and springy for an interior line post. He will be placed at end. Spring is the time for experiments with plays and personnel which can be costly if saved for September.

My friend Douglas Clyde (Peahead) Walker, who worked with me at Yale and is now the coach of the Montreal Alouettes, had the darndest spring drill that I've ever seen. He called it his lion-one drill, and it was just that. He would line up an entire offensive team and just put one man on defense. They would block him right, left, straight ahead and mouse-trap him. Of course, only the men assigned on the regular plays to block him were supposed to do the actual blocking. But it just didn't work out that way: five or six men would hit him on every play. And all the time Peahead was exhorting him to "make the tackle." He would give each lineman from end to end about 10 minutes apiece of this drill. "You know," he drawled, "after a couple of weeks of this it's not hard to tell who your football players are." Facetiously, one day he told me how he selected his backs and linemen: "I just take about 50 of them down to the woods next to the practice field. I blow my whistle and tell them to come out on the other side as fast as they can. If they dodge the trees on their way through, they're backs. If they just run over them and knock them down, then those are my linemen."

There is no soft way to become a football player. Football is blocking and tackling, and it can't be taught on the blackboard. Behind all the glamour of crowded stands, with the bands playing and flags flying on a fall Saturday afternoon, are hours of physical contact on the practice field. It's drill, drill, drill, drill and sometimes drudgery. It's getting knocked down and knocking some one down.


On the coast. Ronnie Knox at UCLA was playing handball and thrust his throwing hand through a wire-encased window. But he was back for the last few sessions of the UCLAns' late spring practice. Across town at USC the blockbusting fullback C. R. Roberts was making life generally miserable for opponents.

California's fullback Jerry Drew, barring the injury bugaboo, could be the most explosive back on the Coast this fall. And John Brodie, Stanford's All-America quarterback candidate, could put the Indians in the Rose Bowl with his pinpoint passing. He threw three touchdown passes in a spring scrimmage. Watch Dick Bass at College of the Pacific.

New Coach Darrell Royal is attempting to rebuild strife-torn Washington with a get-tough policy, and apparently has a free hand. "Don't Gripe—Transfer" is his platform. "People tell me," he grins, "that they are behind me—win or tie." Luther (Hit and Run) Carr, a sensational freshman halfback, is being tried at the vital split-T quarterback position. He is an erratic passer but can run like the wind. If Carr makes the grade the Huskies could very well field the first all-Negro back-field at a major college, along with Credell Green, Jimmy Jones and Bobby Herring. Another new coach, Jim Sutherland, is drilling at Washington State, where Jack Fanning, an all-round athlete from Rogers High School, Spokane is the sophomore to watch.

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