The thing that stimulates a conviction, that really makes it breathe, is that there is always some latterly intelligent friend saying something, or somebody doing something, to inspire an argument. I happen to be dedicated—not just for the purpose of this article, but unconditionally dedicated—to the persuasion that college football is a better game than professional football. Better esthetically, because there is more art and imagination to it, better technically, because it is better coached, more entertaining, certainly more inspiring, more meaningful, more colorful, more—oh, but what is the use of rushing the argument through in the first paragraph?
This faith was rekindled recently by two events of little importance to anybody but a convinced man. First, a college coach from the Midwest was lulling a group of us into a conversational torpor telling of his team's prospects over lunch at an Italian restaurant—somewhere in Pennsylvania, if you must have it pinpointed—when I became aware, as one hears a doorbell ringing in his sleep, that what he was saying was that he had put in "a lot of pro-style" stuff. Wait a minute, I thought, mentally snapping to attention. What do you mean: pro style? Volleyball, wrestling and a 4-3 defense? Is that what you are putting in? What on God's earth for? There was a despairing in my stomach. It was not from hunger, though we had not yet been served. Had my college friend embraced the heresy that pro is synonymous with perfection, that the professional game is the ne plus ultra of the elite and his, the college game, that of the proletariat? Did he not realize that his attempt to copy the professionals and their highly efficient, calisthenic pitch-and-catch was demeaning? I would have interrupted immediately but at that moment was taken with the more basic urge to filch the anchovy from his antipasto, so I let him ramble on, not wanting to divert his attention.
A few days later came the second temblor. In an account of a pro game on the West Coast I read that George Mira, the San Francisco quarterback, had thrown his helmet down in anger during a game with Cleveland. Mira was frustrated because his receivers were dropping his passes. The receivers were frustrated because Mira threw the ball too hard. The receivers had complained of this to the correspondent (I get a picture of this big, hulking professional football player, hands out in supplication in the dressing room: "Gee whiz, guys, it hurts when Georgie hits me in the hands with the ball").
That was not the part that got me, though, because Mira used to drill the ball when he played at the University of Miami, too, and Andy Gustafson, the Miami coach, did the only logical thing—he found ends who could catch Mira's passes and who would be grateful for that extra step on the defense that a sharply thrown ball allows. The part that really got me was that the correspondent assured his readers that at least Mira was learning to stay in the pocket. Not completing many passes and not gaining many yards, but Staying in the Pocket. It read like a chapter in a book on the clich�s of pro football. "Chapter 12: Stay in the Pocket. Subtitle: You Can't Get to Heaven with a Scrambling Quarterback." (Pro coaches do not remake every player they hire, they just give the illusion of trying.)
Well, George Mira was a great quarterback before he went to the 49ers for professional refinement, a great, scrambling quarterback, the most exciting I have ever seen, with an arm equal to that of Babe Parilli when Parilli was at Kentucky, and the thing about Mira was that he could run as well as pass. In short, he was the complete quarterback. If the 49ers wanted somebody to pose back there, somebody with the form and the agility of the Statue of Liberty, more in the mold of the classic pro quarterback, they should have traded for Ed Brown or Dick Wood or George Blanda. Those boys know how to stand still in a disintegrating pocket and take their medicine.
A few nights later, not having satisfied my itch for postulating the case, I made my feelings known to a lawyer friend at a dinner party in Wilton, Conn. I knew him to be a passionate New York Giant fan—he had had a traumatic experience when the Fordham Rams gave up intercollegiate football—and as such a hardened clich� addict.
For example, he is all the time low-rating the American Football League by insisting it is still five years away from equality with the NFL. My usual rejoinder (I offer this because it also serves to undercut the notion that there is a large proficiency gap between the colleges and the pros) is that the football player who has played three years in high school and four years in college has already reached maturity, or is not far from it. As a parallel: the baseball player who has not had at least one trial with a major league club by the time he is 22 or 23 probably never will. Many football players become jaded even before they are college seniors—college coaches call it "senioritis," and it is a malady that has struck down many a fine team—and never again play as well as they did when they were younger.
Some evidence of the maturity of the good college player is the College All-Star game. The collegians have won over the NFL championship team more times than seem possible when you consider they work together only two or three weeks prior to the game and are up against a unit—the best in pro football—that has been hand-tooled over a period of years. The collegians have won three of the past 11 games; eight of those games were very close, and it is likely that had Otto Graham, the All-Star coach, known more about his personnel before the second half (he did not discover John Huarte until then) he would have beaten the Browns last month.
To further illustrate the powers of youth: four rookies made the Pro bowl starting lineups last year. In other years great college quarterbacks like Sammy Baugh and Bob Waterfield led pro teams to world championships in their rookie seasons. Last year the Minnesota Vikings, without a player over 26 in their starting offensive lineup, with a team that had less professional experience than seven of the eight AFL teams, and a scrambling quarterback ( Fran Tarkenton) to boot, finished tied for second in the NFL's Western Division.
"How can you say such a thing?" my lawyer friend shouted. I knew he would get emotional, so I had steered him into the foyer away from the other guests. He has a shrill courtroom voice. My argument—I had also told him of my two recent experiences—he reasoned correctly, was a feeble one if it depended on a college coach's admission that he was switching to a pro-style offense and my own personal, unreasonable high regard for scrambling quarterbacks. What was wrong with my eyesight, anyway? Hadn't I seen Y. A. Tittle's spiraling touchdown passes winning for the New York Giants over and over on Sunday afternoons at Yankee Stadium? What greater excitement, what greater proficiency than that? Good Old Y. A. And Del Shofner and Gifford and Webster. Was I not aware that a record six million people went to see the pros play last year, and that millions more watched on television? The pros must be doing something right, he said.