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He was a hard and elusive runner and tackier, and on the day I saw him perform he seemed to be in on every play. He needed no number—and no public address system—to make clear his presence on the gridiron. Opposing rooters, as well as his own, thrilled to his courage and skill, and there are many fans of that era who will tell you that Benny Boynton would have been a first-team All-America if he had played on a big-time college team.
In 1921 Centre College of Kentucky scored its famous 6-0 upset over Harvard to hand the Crimson its first defeat since 1916. It was Bo McMillin who made the celebrated touchdown run, and no one who saw him that day will ever forget it. But somehow another Centre player—James Roberts—stands out more clearly in my memory. He was a big end, appropriately nicknamed Red, and, like Boynton, he felt that a helmet cramped his style.
All afternoon the flaming-haired Roberts stood out like a beacon light as he wrecked Harvard plays and mowed down prospective tacklers—including those who vainly tried to halt McMillin on that dash to the goal line. His exploits made as much of an impression on All-America selector Walter Camp as they did on the spectators in the Harvard Stadium. Two years previous McMillin had been selected on the first-string All-America team, but in 1921 the colorful Roberts made it where McMillin failed.
But even the conformists who wore helmets were easier to recognize than the armor-plated warriors of today. The old leather helmet left a good portion of the face exposed, but the modern outsize contraption protrudes so far that the wearer appears to be peering out of a cave. He is hidden in a black shadow except on those rare instances when the sunlight hits him directly. And now, just to make the fan's task all the harder, we have the protruding face guard. In fact a football buff's only chance to discover whether the hero has a Roman nose, freckles, kind eyes or a jutting jaw is to stay home in front of his television set and hope the camera pans in a Zoomar close-up of him.
In the 1930s helmets had evolved only a little way toward their present Brobdingnagian size but virtually all squads were then numbering their players. However, I can assure you that there was one who could have ripped his number off and presented it to his girl friend, so easy was he to spot on a football field. He was Yale's Albie Booth, affectionately known to the sportswriters and Old Elis as the Mighty Atom or Little Boy Blue. This 144-pounder's midget size made him as much of a standout as did his jackrabbit elusiveness and his fierce will to win.
I saw Booth perform in a number of roles. In his sophomore year against Harvard he had been slightly injured in a previous game and was not in the starting lineup. But, as was so often the case, he was called in when Yale got a scoring opportunity.
I can see that dramatic entrance as though it were yesterday. It was a bitter cold November day and the field had previously been cleared of snow. Yale called for a time out and onto the field came Booth, wrapped in blankets, parka and God knows what else and accompanied by a Yale assistant manager. There then followed what must have been the longest unpeeling act on record as the Yales cheered and the Harvards hooted. Finally Albie stood stripped down to fighting trim—as though everyone in the place hadn't known who he was before his number was revealed—and the manager trotted off the field with the bedding.
It would be dramatic to relate that Booth then proceeded to score an electrifying touchdown—but it would be contrary to the facts. In one of football's more ironic anticlimaxes he attempted to kick a field goal on his first play and it was blocked. Harvard recovered and marched up the field for what turned out to be the deciding touchdown. Albie was, in a sense, a goat in this game, but he was still to remain in the spotlight.
Receiving the second half kickoff he came within an ace of running through the entire Crimson team, being collared by the last opponent in his path, Lineman Bill Ticknor, who just managed to grab him by the back of the jersey. The material held, Booth went down, and the threat was ended. And here is another difference between the old and the new game. Had Albie been wearing the modern easy-tear "breakaway" jersey he unquestionably would have scored, Yale would have won the game, and he would have been considered its undisputed hero.
Well, it's likely that the heroes of those days were no more individualistic off the field than today's players, but out there on the turf I still maintain their individuality and identity stood out more clearly. And how about the goalposts, come to think of it? Back in the old days a fan got familiar with his own. He saw them week after week and noted, as the season progressed, that they could stand a new coat of paint. Today, of course, many of them end up as kindling wood. My memories go back to the days of the snake dance when rooters of the winning team serpentined down the field behind their band, marched through the goalposts and tossed their hats over the crossbar—often ending with someone else's.