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A Very Singular Way To Play
Rick Telander
September 20, 1982
The single wing may be virtually extinct, but thanks to Keith Piper it's still alive—and running and passing—at Denison
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September 20, 1982

A Very Singular Way To Play

The single wing may be virtually extinct, but thanks to Keith Piper it's still alive—and running and passing—at Denison

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Finks should know. As a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers he was the last NFL tailback to take a snap in the single wing. "It was the final game of the 1951 season, at Washington, and we'd already hung on to the single wing longer than anybody else," he says. "I was primarily a defensive back, but because our first two tailbacks were hurt, I played both ways the second half. We won the game, but a few days later our coach, John Michelosen, was fired. The next season our new coach, Joe Bach, put in the T. I don't think any of us players were sad to see the single wing go. We recognized that it was a thing of the past. But honestly, I'm not convinced that it couldn't be successful in the pros right now."

Finks points out that the formation would force NFL defenses, now geared primarily to stop the pass, to change personnel. "You sure as hell couldn't stop a bona fide single-wing running game with three or four down linemen, linebackers weighing 215 pounds and cornerbacks weighing 180," he says. "You'd need a minimum of five or six men on the line of scrimmage to take on the double teams, and in the secondary you'd need bigger, stronger men who could tackle."

Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry recalls that during his playing days for the New York Giants, he and all his teammates dreaded facing the Steelers' single wing. "Before we went to Pittsburgh we'd put on every pad we could find to keep from getting beat up," he says. But, adds Landry, the pounding went both ways. "Gosh, those tailbacks took a beating," he says. "They never lasted very long."

Indeed, it's probably the vulnerability of the single-wing tailback, a rare bird who must be as good at passing as running, that has been most responsible for the demise of the formation. Dick Kazmaier was a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback for Princeton in 1951, and he says he knew upon graduation that he had become an anachronism. "I was 5'11" and between 170 and 175 pounds, and off the field I looked pretty much like everybody else," he says. "Players didn't wear face masks then, they tackled differently, and the only injuries I got in college were a sprained ankle and a broken nose. Everybody was much closer in size and skill when I played. Now, though, you have players who seem to have been bred to play just one position, who develop muscles just for that use. I don't know how a tailback could survive today."

Still, the effects of the single wing linger. The pro-spread and shotgun formations are descended from the formation. When the Kansas City Chiefs wing their biggest receiver off the tight end and run the power off-tackle play, they're stealing from the single-wing playbook. Landry has even considered snapping the ball directly to Tony Dorsett, which would make Dorsett the equivalent of a single-wing fullback, but feels the timing of the exchange would make it too risky. "About the only thing the single wing would be good for in the pros is occasional short-yardage plays," says Landry.

Those few fanatics who still care deeply about the single wing and think it's good for more than just a few plays, all seem to have found one another, communicating through a sort of brotherhood of the formation. They have book exchanges, debates and an occasional film fest, at which aficionados gather to drink beer and watch single-wing footage until no one is left awake. Piper has heard from most of these people. One of them, Edward Racely, a 52-year-old contractor in Atherton, Calif. and perhaps Piper's most prolific pen pal, has built an addition onto his house to hold his single-wing memorabilia. "What can I say?" says Racely. "I think I would have been happier in the flapper era."

On fall Saturdays, single-wing devotees and the merely curious come from miles around to watch Piper's strange little football team. They sit on the hill above Denison's stadium, look out over the green, chalked gridiron and drink a few rounds from the past. Piper is thankful for the attention, but he's working on something more substantial than attracting nostalgia fans. "I'm not that good with words," he says, "but I'm writing down everything I can think of that has to do with the single wing, and it's going to be made into a book. I feel a responsibility." His jaw set, the big old coach shrugs. "I mean, if I croaked tomorrow, who's going to tell people how it was?"

Hey Rock, listen to this, from the Saturday Evening Post of Oct. 24, 1931: "Pop never was more spectacular. He opened the ball game with spins, double and triple passes until he had the lay spectators dizzy; not one in a thousand could follow the ball." Strong stuff, huh?...The truth isn't bragging, Rock.... All right, no righting.

So what do you want to do for Piper? What if you and me and Stagg and some of the other boys used our influence and made the fellow's book a best seller?...Well, yeah, maybe it would go to his head, and he'd turn to the veer or the I. What if we made Denison Division III national champs?...Hmm, I don't know. I think he'd survive.... Well, what do you suggest?

Have the trees in the forest grow even taller to make up for the hackberry? Say, that's not such a bad idea. Really. It's subtle and it won't upset anybody. I'm sorry for arguing with you earlier, Rock. No matter what people say, you've got a good heart. If you ever need anything, just let me know.... You bet. Say hi to the Gipper. So long, buddy.

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