Having coached kid’s soccer myself, it’s certainly easy for people like me to wonder why a sport Americans call “football” in fact makes so such fun of punters and kickers, the only people who normally apply their feet to the ball. It’s one of those crazy, ironic, American things, (as George Carlson once noted) like our constant driving on the parkway and parking in the driveway. But, wait, it almost makes sense historically.
Sports camp, training camp, kitsch-camp, Walter Camp…, it’s still rock and roll to me.
“Oh for crying out Bud Grant,” you may well be saying to yourself, “what does Walter Camp have to do with the Minnesota Vikings and the 21st century NFL?”
Unknown to many among us, Walter Camp, a guy born before the Civil War (or the War of Northern Aggression for those so-inclined) and living in Connecticut, is the father of American football.
The history of the game actually goes back to the 1880’s, when American colleges typically played association football (aka “soccer”). Harvard and Yale, however, decided to match and distinguish themselves in rugby, a game in which the funny ball is not a sphere, and that game started with mass kicking fights called scrums.
Walter Camp was the Yale player/coach/businessman who started changing the rules from those of rugby, and (in essence) invented the American game. One of the big changes he made to the rules was the institution of the “snap” to start each play from scrimmage.
Unlike in a rugby scrum, American football involves having one team in “possession of the ball.” Contrary to the tossing of pucks into icy circles or calling for jump balls when we can’t make heads or tails out of what happened, the officials of American football determine who was in last possession of the pigskin. Controlling the ball is a stronger part of the American game.
The rules of a “snap” and a set of downs radically transformed the nature of the American game from the parent sport of rugby. While the ball is still funny-shaped and still takes some odd bounces--the random factor (which is exciting for fans but quite fickle, emphasizing “dumb luck” moments), the concept underlying American football is that the offense is given a window in which to scheme and strategize over how to advance the ball toward the goal line, while the defense must stop them in order to reverse possession.
The game of football, American style, is more like chess than tiddlywinks. With malice aforethought, we endeavor to persevere and hoodwink.
As kids, we are attracted to sports because of the spontaneous excitement. Only later do we commonly realize what practices are all about.
In the 1950’s sports coaches were usually World War II vets, indoctrinated with “before-the-bomb” military-style thoughts. My junior high basketball coach thought himself Douglas McArthur, fully equipped with shades, pipe, and demeanor. Practice, I learned, was not about learning cool stuff like dribbling between your legs, it was about running through the dimly-lit school basement, until hell freezes over. There are not enough balls available for everyone, so everyone must run without one! This is basketball??? You get so tired that you begin to wonder where the janitor is. Even his ugly face would break the monotony. The only wisdom from the coach that was communicated to us was his coming out of his office to yell like a drill sergeant, “Keep running, or else!”
Was he insane? (Probably, but that’s not my point here.) When we started playing against others, the truth became as self-evident as the Declaration of Independence: If you have no legs left at the end of the game, your opponents will fast-break you straight into oblivion; hence, running in the school basement is basketball, whether you like it or not.
Similarly, football has its fourth quarter, the era in which the final gun sounds and some will live and their foes will die in the win column.
“Are you ready? Are you ready for this?” the cheerleaders gasp aloud in unison.
Sure, someone realized later on that spin would stabilize throwing this odd-shaped bladder and the game took on a whole new direction, but let's remind ourselves that history is not over yet.
Without an off-season in 2011, and with no two-a-day pads practices allowed per the CBA, endurance will be more of a factor in the NFL. The kick-off rule changes will enhance safety while robbing us of some of those fire-in-a-bottle moments of sudden miracles and change. You’ll have to play football the more the old fashioned way: You’ll have to earn it.
Thank you, Walter Camp. The virtues of American football shine like a beacon for us. Let’s hog the ball and run out the clock, or as Gordon Gekko said in the movies, greed is good.
That’s why I like what I see so far from Bill Musgrave. He’s not holding up a playbook designed for the gods of Mount Olympus and hoping our fine players will attain powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. He’s going to incorporate the considerable in-house talents of the Minnesota Vikings and kick the snot out of the enemy before they realize the modern face of the game has tipped slightly in a new direction.
We’ve got the football, and you don’t!
Skol, Vikings, let’s go!