- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"We teach our boys to spear and gore," Woody told a group of sports-writers this fall. "We want them to plant that helmet right under a guy's chin. A boy who blocks with his head down gets hurt. I want them to stick that mask right in the opponent's neck."
However, Hayes is against shivering. "There's nothing worse than forearm blows to the head," he said. Woody is particularly irked by the practice because of a broken jaw suffered by his best offensive end, Bob Middleton, in Ohio State's game with UCLA in October. "He got it from a blow on the head," Hayes said. "I know the officials can't always see these things, but some day a boy is going to die from one of those flagrant blows, and there's going to be real trouble. It could even be manslaughter, if somebody wanted to press charges." (Irv Wisniewski, assistant coach at Delaware, says of the forearm smash: "Pro scouts watching a college game can't understand how the players get away with it.")
Coaches and athletic directors are critical of other practices, too. Biggie Munn of Michigan State dislikes piling on. "I cringe every time I see half a dozen linemen crashing clown on some little, back," he says. And Clyde Smith of Arizona State complains, "Players are grabbing face masks and slamming the helmet back against the neck."
Despite such concern, there is no unanimity of opinion. For instance, Jess Neely, veteran head coach at Rice, disagrees with Hayes on certain aspects of spearing and goring ("The only reason a player sticks his helmet in another boy's face," says Neely, "is to intimidate or injure him"). But, on the other hand, he sees nothing wrong with a player driving his helmet into another man's midriff. And George Nash, assistant coach at Minnesota, says, "The head block has pretty well taken the place of the shoulder block, and I can't see anything particularly wrong with it."
Yet a report in the June 9, 1962 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association says, "Head-on blocking and tackling are dangerous football tactics and should be eliminated. No head protection of any kind is adequate to prevent injuries from occurring when these two tactics are employed." In other words, the man goring or spearing is liable to hurt himself as well as his opponent. These, and blatantly illegal tactics like grabbing an opponent's face mask, contribute to serious injuries. Neurosurgeon Richard Schneider of Michigan analyzed the 18 football fatalities that occurred in 1959 and discovered that 14 of them were the result of head and spinal injuries. "A football player is in great danger any time his head is thrown forcibly backwards by a blow," Dr. Schneider reported. In New England, a high school trainer said, "Whiplash neck injuries have become almost commonplace. It may be a 15-yard penalty for illegal use of the hands if the player is caught, but that doesn't make it up to the kid with the wry neck."
Blame for the increasing incidence of injuries has often been placed on modern equipment, such as the face guard and the rock-hard plastic helmet that have come into universal use in the last decade. But medical research indicates that the face guard and the helmet actually have helped to prevent an even greater number of injuries. Knocked-out teeth, jaw fractures, broken noses and other facial injuries have been substantially reduced, primarily because of the face guards, and the American Medical Association has approved the plastic helmet.
Blame has also been put on officials, who have been charged with being lax and permissive. Mike Lude, coach at Colorado State, grants that the highspeed, fast-charging game played nowadays makes it difficult for an official to see and call all infractions of the rules, but he adds, "Even so, failure to call unnecessary roughness leaves the kids with the impression that officials condone it." One referee conceded that the game had gotten out of control. "The blame is 50% ours, but it's 50% the coaches", too," he argued. "Coaches are forever harassing officials with demands not to slow down the game with penalties. Officials really ought to ignore the coaches, but they're afraid they'll be blacklisted if they antagonize them."
Despite these attempts to indict the officiating or the equipment, it is increasingly evident that the responsibility for football's roughness and football's injuries lies in football's tactics and, therefore, on football's coaches. Ernie McCoy, athletic director at Penn State and chairman of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's committee on injuries and safety, said recently, "From all the reports I get gang-tackling, helmet spearing and similar tactics are still on the rise. The tactics have come from the coaches, and they are the ones who will have to take the blame. Last spring I read one athletic journal that actually taught the use of these tactics. It even had X's marking the spot on the opponent that the boy should hit." Jack Curtice, head coach at Stanford, feels much the same way. "This is a matter for coaches," he says. "We've got to clean up this thing ourselves. You can't blame the kids as much as their instructors."
And, of course, last Saturday's Georgia Tech-Alabama game bore out that theory. Paul Bryant is famed as a teacher of rough, hard football, of football that doesn't break the rules but which stretches them to the legal limit. Bryant has written that football is a contest of "outmeaning" the other guy and physically whipping him down into defeat. But Bryant, who is proud of his reputation as a teacher of football, has become sensitive about the increasing criticism directed at him and at the style of play he has done so much to popularize. He was acutely aware that his Alabama team would be under close and critical observation in the Georgia Tech game (indeed, there were 26 photographers on the field Saturday, the most anyone has ever seen at a Southeastern Conference game). It is obvious that he wanted his team to play hard football against Georgia Tech, but equally obvious that he wanted to win both cleanly and spectacularly. Well, he lost, but the loss was clean and it was spectacular, and it should bring more credit to Paul Bryant as a man—and as a coach—than all his victories. Bryant may not feet that way after he has reflected on the ruin of his undefeated season.—and Alabama may be hard-nosed or hard-helmeted again a week from Saturday when it meets old rival Auburn—but perhaps Old Bear will be big enough to appreciate himself and what he has done. And perhaps other coaches will follow his lead, remembering that football is properly a game of skill rather than of savagery.