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I've been playing football more than half my life. It goes without saying that I love the game. And it is mostly because I do love football?playing it, watching it, knowing what a wonderful influence it can be in the lives of young boys and men?that I feel strongly the time has come to speak out about some of the things that are happening to the game, things that seem to me to threaten its very existence. The worst of them can be summed up in one sentence: Football is getting too vicious.
Vicious is a strong word, but it's the best one I can think of to describe what I mean. And I can assure you that this is not just my opinion. A lot of coaches, officials and spectators of professional, college and high school football share it with me, and I think most players will agree. They know from bitter experience that they have to play a much more cautious game than ever before.
'GET THE BIG GUY'
I've tried to analyze what is happening in football, and I guess in the end it comes down to one thing: there's an increasing practice of trying to win the game by injuring the opponent's star players?their infallible place kicker, their best passer, their most spectacular runner, their exceptional pass receiver. And this isn't only in professional football. It's just as true of the college and high school game.
Once it starts, dirty football?there's no other word for it?can turn a game into a free-for-all. A player piles on after the tackle, smashes his knees into the back of a man already down. Opposing players, see their star carried from the field. The next play, they retaliate. And there's no stopping it. Men who have never played dirty football in their lives get mad enough to do almost anything. That's not football. It's mayhem.
I'm not suggesting that deliberately-foul football is new. It isn't. But it has been increasing in recent years at a rate that worries a lot of people who love the game. My personal opinion is that the widespread use of the T formation since the early '40s is at least partly responsible.
Now, I realize I made my reputation as a T quarterback and that the offense has been a tremendous boon to the game. But the T brought with it a new kind of line blocking?the brush-block?and it's the brush-block that has led to a lot of easily hidden dirty work. The block is used where a lineman must check an opponent for a few seconds and then get downfield fast for another assignment. The lineman hits his man low, with his elbows wide and his hands in at the chest. But instead of driving his opponent out of the play, he raises him out of a charging position by letting his own arms and shoulders slide upward along his body. The whole thing takes only a second or two, and the finished block leaves both men standing almost erect.
WHEN A BRUSH IS A BANG
And that's where the trouble starts. It's a simple thing to follow through and let the fists, arms or elbows smash upward into the defensive man's face. Even if you want to play clean football, it's hard to keep your hands in close to your chest when you're brush-blocking. It's an almost natural movement to let them move out away from you as you rise. And for officials it is just about impossible to detect when the arms, fists or elbows are used illegally unless they watch a single block from beginning to end?something they rarely have time to do.
But brush-blocking and its abuse is only one symptom of what ails football. With it has come a growing use of fists, arms and elbows, mostly aimed at the face, the one unprotected part of a football player's body. It was an elbow that opened up my own lip and cheek in our 1953 game with the San Francisco 49ers. That blow made a deep gash that took 15 stitches to close.