SI Vault
Geoffrey Norman
September 03, 1990
You think college football players can't be rocket scientists? They can at the brainpower schools that play in Division III
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September 03, 1990

Smart Ball

You think college football players can't be rocket scientists? They can at the brainpower schools that play in Division III

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One of Smith's other assistants, Dick Yule, is part owner of Who's On First, a celebrated bar near Fenway Park. Another, Mike Herman, is in the computer business. None of the assistants did very much yelling at practice. "That doesn't work with these kids," Smith said. "They motivate themselves."

That, however, does not make coaching any easier. Smith's players grasp concepts readily and don't have any trouble with the playbook. It is the simplest book they'll see all year. But their bodies cannot always do what their minds so clearly visualize. "We spend a lot of time on fundamentals," Smith said. "A lot of time."

As the practice ran on, this was evident. Hang around a major college practice field and you will see players doing hard things almost effortlessly. Here they labored, and there was no blinding speed. No "gifted" athletes. But you could not help thinking how much it would do for the reputation of college football if those gifted athletes at major schools tried as hard in the classroom as these gifted students tried at football practice.

In the contact drills the sound of impact was loud and oddly pleasant in the late summer air. The players might not be big, but they hit. One linebacker, Rick Bullesbach, an architecture student, caught a forearm under his face mask and suffered a broken nose. He came out until the bleeding stopped.

Another linebacker, Darcy Prather, one of the few blacks on the team, stood a running back up with a shoulder to his midsection. You could hear the pop for a hundred yards.

"Way to stick him, way to stick him," the other players shouted.

Prather, who was honorable mention Division III All-America the last two years, comes from Hazelwood, Mo., weighs about 185 and studies electrical engineering, which is the essential stat at an institution like MIT. He listens attentively when he is asked a question and then responds quietly and articulately. You can't help thinking, What a great kid. When Prather is asked if he has ever felt pressure at MIT to get out of football, he says, "Not from any of my professors, no."

From anyone?

"Well, actually, yes. But not from anyone here. When I go home and see people and they find out I'm still playing football, they say, 'Man you've got to be crazy, getting an education like that and wasting your time on football.' "

This is the implicit reservation about football at MIT, about gifted students playing football anywhere—that it is a waste of time. The planted axiom is obvious: Only dumb guys, or guys who are getting paid something, would bother.

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