SI Vault
Sal Tas
November 22, 1954
A Dutch visitor whose only previous acquaintance with football was Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' tells about the Ohio-Northwestern game
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November 22, 1954

A Football Letter We Get

A Dutch visitor whose only previous acquaintance with football was Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman' tells about the Ohio-Northwestern game

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After it was all over, I wasn't quite clear as to whether I had seen a game, a battle or a rehearsal for a musical revue. It starts out gaily: the spectators come from all directions. Their cheeks are red from the wind, they carry shiny cushions under their arms and they all wear the good-looking, ready-made clothing that I already know from the ads in American magazines.

The band has marched on and marched off again, like a ballet of wooden soldiers from an old-fashioned operetta. In the meantime an ominous note has appeared on both sides of the field. It looks like the supporters of two warring medieval orders of knighthood. On one side they wear gray helmets and red capes, on the other white helmets and blue capes. Each group clusters together in a menacing attitude. Somewhat alarmed, I ask my neighbor what this means. "Oh, those are only the substitutes." He shrugs.

There have now appeared on each side of the field frenetically active bands of young people—five in creamy white on one side, six in scarlet on the other. My neighbor, a patient man, again enlightens me: "Those are the cheerleaders." The whites, from Northwestern, go through figures as complicated as those of a quadrille; the Ohio State boys stick to very simple formations but execute them with such overpowering zeal that the effect would be spellbinding if it weren't also comical. In the meantime, the five from Evans-ton have found reinforcement in a whole ballet of girls. Every time the game slacks off, they bounce up and shake their white and purple plumes in the rhythm of a hula-hula dance. All this produces much cheering from the stands, especially from the students, who form a sort of yelling square in the middle of the stadium. When the score is 7-6 and Ohio has to kick, the red cheerleaders throw themselves to their knees and start a sort of belly gymnastics that quite unexpectedly reminds me of a mosque in Marrakech where I once saw a lot of Arabs go through their morning prayer. All in all, cheer-leading is a fascinating business to a European not used to organized applause. It is a sort of mixture of athletic training, jazz ballet and community prayer.

The players, with shiny, lacquered, spherelike heads above monstrous menacing shoulders, first make the impression of frightening, strange creatures, escaped from science fiction. Only later, when by repetition I get to know the movements, do they become human.

In those hurtling maneuvers there is a manifestation of brute human force that may give the machinebound American a feeling of liberation. And in that lightning swiftness that perpetually gets smothered in grass, there is an elementary beauty. It took at least 10 playing minutes before I caught on to the rules—the last time I had seen the game was when Harold Lloyd played "The Freshman"—but it took the game only a few seconds to thrill me.

After a while I begin to discover nuances, even if massive ones. Obviously this is also a game of fake movements, and from the varying noises of anxious or amused astonishment emitted by the crowd it is clear that at times the fans are even more fooled than the players. Even when a man is hurled to the ground, it doesn't necessarily mean anything. Just now, after the umpire's whistle, one is extricating himself with the utmost difficulty from the streamlined giants on top of him and limping off the field. Turns out he never even had the ball.


"Now he's a hero," sneers a man behind me. "Sloppy technique," agrees his neighbor. This sounds like home. Apparently fans the world over have the same tendency for understating the praise and overstating the blame. Like the irritation of a lover who cannot bear to see the object of his love fail and expects her skill to be as absolute as his enthusiasm. The result in each case is strikingly unreasonable.

"Hold on to that ball," somebody is shouting in a tone of deep injury. Another fan approaches the problem from the other side: "Go after that ball," he yells, "you can't play without it!" Suddenly a Northwestern end runs free, but when the ball is thrown to him he lets it bounce off his chest. A fifty-thousandfold sigh, oooo-H-oooo rises from the crowd. The two Os are distinctly separated by an H; the first one is of disappointment, the second one of disapproval. That, too, is international.

It was 7-0. It became 7-7. It ends 7-14. At the end signal, a gang of Ohio students rushes down for an attack on the goal. The only result is a crossbar, carried around the field at a jog trot. The band has now marched on, but between their stiff ranks winds a wild polonaise of young people with the red flags of Ohio. Nobody objects and I get the impression that not a few North-westerners, fired by the happy spirit of a home-coming celebration, would have loved to join the polonaise.