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Sometimes modern college football gives me a feeling of frustration. Sure, I admit that the country is full of backs who can do the hundred in 9.6 and of tackles strong enough to block out a Volkswagen. Today's teams with their regiment-size squads could probably blast the daylights out of those of the 1910s, '20s and '30s.
But to this oldtime fan—and it may be merely a sign of approaching old age—today's heroes don't seem as heroic as the earlier ones: the Granges and Gipps, the Thorpes and Brickleys, the Cagles and Slagles, the McMillins and the Booths. And I think the trouble is the modern players seldom have the identity of the famous older-timers.
Go to a game today and what happens? Halfway through the first period there's a time out, and seven or eight new players—or maybe an entirely new team—swarm onto the field and report, one by one, to the Official in Charge of Keeping Mass Substitutions Honest. To me they resemble nothing as much as a group of returning American tourists on Pier 44, trying to get through customs in a hurry.
It's true that they've got great big legible numbers on their jerseys, and that I first watched football before players displayed such digits. Thus, you can argue that today's players are easier to identify. I cheerfully go along with the proposition that all a modern fan has to do is look at his program to determine that No. 23 is Doakes. And I'm equally willing to grant that modern spectators can read as well as those of an earlier day. Educational standards are constantly rising, aren't they? Or are they?
But let's not get sidetracked. The trouble is that when Doakes comes into the game he is also accompanied by Flannagan, Brikes, Petrucci, Cadwalleder, Donewski, Sykes, I. Miller and J. Miller (no relation). It takes a lot of time to run all those numbers down, and by the time the fan is set to find out how Doakes (his favorite) is about to perform he discovers that Doakes has been supplanted by Spillany on a wild-card substitution because it is now fourth down with 11 yards to go, and Spillany is the punting specialist.
Well, my first hero had no number, and if he didn't play the entire game he didn't miss by more than a few minutes. His name was Charley Brickley, and he still stands out as a great dropkicker and place-kicker. But the reason Brickley played the entire game—or practically all—was that he was also a powerful running fullback and a savage tackler.
Brickley played for Harvard in the first college game I ever saw, Harvard's 15-5 victory over Yale in 1913, and he was as undisputably a hero as a hero can be. Harvard was undefeated that year—it was named national champion, in fact—but there were some who maintained that the team was inclined to be a lazy one. If its attack bogged down in scoring territory it could always call on Charley to come through with a three-pointer and then rely on its strong defense to protect whatever lead it had secured. In this memorable game it did so five times, and all its 15 points were gained by what sports-writers of the time delighted in calling Brickley's educated toe.
I can still see him. His fame as a kicker was already secure. When that burly figure retreated to a safe distance from the scrimmage line and held out his hands for the snap from center, everyone in the Harvard Stadium, including the small boy that I was then, knew unmistakably that the man who stood there, poised and confident, was the Harvard All-America back, Charley Brickley. Then the oval blunt-pointed ball came into his hands, he lowered it and pointed it toward the sod, that famous toe swung forward, the ball arced high and true, and his team had three more points in the bank.
No, Brickley wore no number, but you could tell who he was and where he was. And you could identify other players, too. They stayed in the game long enough so that you got familiar with them. Numbering, I maintain, often defeats its own purpose. Back then you had to make a concentrated effort to identify your hero—by his build, his way of running or walking, some mannerism, or by his facial expression. And when you once knew him you never forgot him.
Even in Brickley's time helmets were here to stay, but as late as the '20s there were a few nonconformists who had no truck with them, helmets not being mandatory equipment as they are today. Such a one was Halfback Benny Boynton of Williams, and Benny didn't have a huge shock of hair to protect him as did many of the shaggy players of the 1880s and '90s. In fact, he was on the baldish side, and it was easy to see that gleaming pate when Benny was on the field.