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To those of us who study and follow college football as closely as we do our plunging stocks and who devote a great many hours to genuflecting before its shrines—Bear Bryant's drawl, for instance, or John McKay's wit—the first 100 years seemed to speed by as quickly as Orenthal James Simpson on hut, hut, hut, 23 blast, or whatever that thing was he did off tackle so often. One day some young men from Princeton and Rutgers played Jab the Belly, Knee the Groin, and then the whole mosaic of the game unfolded wondrously like a card section spelling out Granny Rice: here came Pudge Heffelgrange, Amos Alonzo Baugh, Pestilence, Famine, Death and Rockne, Slingin' Sammy Nevers, the Seven Blocks of Seats, Fireball Frankie Harmon, Mr. Sideways and Mr. Backwards, Win One for the Gifford, Indian Doak Thorpe, all of those marvelous coaching names: Pop, Jock, Dutch, Red, Tiny, Moose, Biff and Biggie, all inventing Old 83, the Flea Flopper, and finally like a breath of fire and a streak of flame outlined against a dull-gray October scedule, General George (Blood and Guts) MacHayes and his Buckeyes win again.
It seems impossible that we would have had none of this had it not been for those inventive men from Princeton and Rutgers, 25 on a side, who removed their waistcoats back on Nov. 6, 1869 and fell into a heap; that without their efforts Texas would be meeting Arkansas this Dec. 6 on the new AstroTurf of Fayetteville, Ark. in a televised debate to see who's No. 1 in English Lit 341; that Walter Camp might have been the Father of American Crew; that the annual Army-Navy spectacle might now alternate between lacrosse fields at West Point and Annapolis; and that the Crimson Tide would roll, tide, roll largely during Southeastern Conference triangular track meets.
Unthinkable. If no one else had, Notre Dame would surely have invented football later on, and this would then be the 58th anniversary of Knute Rockne's first fingertip catch on a wobbler from Gus Dorais.
Of course, it took more minds than just those of Princeton and Rutgers to develop college football into the slightly paranoid religion it has become: a game watched by paying millions who worship a galloping goose one season and fire his jolly old coach the next. Harvard and Yale had much to do with its early sophistication. Without them we might never have had the scoring we know, the snapback, 11 men to a side or picnics by station wagon. Notre Dame gave us the true intersectional schedule and introduced the enormous dividends of winning. A group of Californians gave us the bowl game. A man from St. Louis devised the forward pass, and the South-west made it a major weapon. The Deep South thought up frantic defense, and the Midwest originated the brute. It was also the Midwest that dragged the game out of the East, forcing Walter Camp to acknowledge All-Americas west of the Statue of Liberty. If Bear Bryant actually originated effort, Bud Wilkinson invented speed and magic. Recruiting is older than Frank Leahy; it is as old as Pudge Heffelfinger and Germany Schulz. And in 100 years nobody has figured out a way to beat the team that has the studs, if the studs feel like exerting themselves on Saturday afternoons.
There is a saying today that pro football has become the national game, one insinuation being that baseball no longer is and another being that college football is no more than a farm system. But, before this can be a fact, the pros must answer some questions. Such as: What pro player caused more excitement and received more publicity over the past two seasons than a collegian named O.J.? Before him, what pro player got more national attention than Roger Staubach at Navy? Ernie Davis at Syracuse? Billy Cannon at LSU? Howard Cassady at Ohio State? If there are so many coaching geniuses in the pros, why is Vince Lombardi the only one who ever wins? How many pro clubs would like to draw the repetitious crowds of Ohio State, Notre Dame, USC, Texas, LSU, Michigan State, Georgia Tech, Alabama, Arkansas and many others? As it happened in 1967 and 1968, how could USC out-draw the L.A. Rams, when both had winning teams? Pick a regular-season pro game that can out-Nielsen a poll bowl, even if it isn't Notre Dame vs. USC? Why does Ohio State get its 81,000 at home whether its quarterback can throw a pass in the air or in the dirt?
What may actually be true is that football, college and pro, has become the national game, each variety enhancing the other's prestige. But it is also true that the colleges could do without the pros, as they did for years. Pro football is beautiful, to be sure—the avid fan likes all phases of his game—but the pros only sell the bomb and the mystique of the double Z-out, while the college game, armed with its vast head start in tradition, has both of these plus more triple options and monster rovers than the fan (or the writer) will ever comprehend, not to forget so many other things: the raccoon coat, the pregame party, the post-game party, the halftime, girls, cheerleaders, fight songs, homecoming, All-Americas, the effigy, the bowls, who's No. 1, pursuit, the button-down shirt and all of those years of lore, all of those breaths of fire and streaks of flame galloping through the swollen heart of Clyde (Old) Grad, season ticket holder No. 46,567, his lovely wife Mavis, an ex-twirler, and his son, Bubba, who'll start at fullback this year for Super-Suburb High.
College football endures and prospers with legend. The stars never die, and hundreds of games live on. Classics, they are called. Those who saw them still hear the thunder of USC-UCLA in 1967, of Notre Dame-Michigan State in 1966, of Army-Notre Dame in 1946, of Minnesota-Michigan in 1940, of Pitt-Fordham in 1937, of TCU-SMU in 1935 and of as many Army-Navys, Texas-Arkansas and Alabama-Tennessees as you care to count. Old 77 is still delivering ice for the Illini. Old 98 is still cruising down the sidelines for the Wolverines. Billy Cannon is still returning that punt against Ole Miss on a Halloween Night in Baton Rouge. They're still totaling up the magazine covers that Doak Walker made at SMU. It took a lot of Morley Drurys to make O.J. the noblest Trojan. Harry Stuhldreher begat Frank Carideo who begat Angelo Bertelli who begat Johnny Lujack who begat Ralph Guglielmi who begat Paul Hornung who begat Terry Hanratty at Notre Dame. At Texas the Longhorns try to "dance every dance" like Tommy Nobis did. And Joe Namath was wearing white shoes and blowing it in for six at Alabama long before he ever found his way to Broadway.
We can estimate that more than 2½ million men have played college football in a century and that about 1,500 have been immortal, which is to say All-America. At least as many immortals were overlooked for All-America, no doubt because they didn't wear their socks high or have a colorful nickname or work for a publicity-minded coach or have a Granny Rice writing poems about them. How could a halfback be a breath of fire and a streak of flame playing for, say, Southwestern Louisiana, for example? And yet Chris Cagle became something akin to that when he went on to Army for four more years of college ball back in the 1920s when you could do that sort of thing.
With so many greats, near-greats, semi-greats and would-have-beens handed down to us through the years, it would not seem likely that any select group of them—11, say—could have been better than all the rest at their positions as collegians. And yet some were. Although coaches like to say you can't compare athletes of different eras because size, speed, technique and emphasis change, in a way you can. Desire and instinct do not change, nor does that strange, inspired ability an athlete can possess that will lift his team above itself.
Thus, there have been those players who combined these traits to win consistently against big-time competition, which is of no small importance in measuring greatness, who sparkled all the more when they were thrust into stardom, who literally seemed to relish the dramatic situation and most often conquered it. By all that we know of college football's history and what we believe to be true of legend, and from all that we have seen and heard, the men depicted on the foregoing pages were the truest immortals of the first 100 years. Call it an All-Century team if you like.