Fried chicken on a quilt and bourbon in a fruit jar. Bonfires piled as high as cranes can lift the debris. Girls on parade. As the leaves turn and fall, so do the aspirations of a team and a territory. And as the scent of pregame charcoal cooking rises over the old quadrangle, so does the spirit of an upset. The messages painted on signs hanging from the dormitories are clear: win or die; we're number one and three-fourths; the Heisman Trophy limps. As college football once more prepares to reach out for the simplicities of the soul, it may be worth considering that this game—the Saturday game—will always be the thing to keep the world from ever getting too sophisticated. And perhaps there's nothing wrong with that.
Last autumn Artist Ken Dallison visited campuses across the country in an effort to capture the special madness of a college fool ball weekend. One of his stops was in Norman, where he was on hand for that very biggest of big games, undefeated Oklahoma against undefeated Nebraska—the Battle for No. 1 (opposite). The results of Dallison's travels can be seen on the next eight pages. Then Dan Jenkins, who has covered the sport for half his life, explains what college football means to him and why the game is as necessary as blood to his well-being.
...AT NORMAN AND COLUMBUS,
SOUTH BEND AND BATON ROUGE,
AT PALO ALTO,
BOULDER AND ITHACA
...IS ONE LONG NEW YEAR'S EVE
In this time and age, it is all too easy to say that college football is so much wasted energy. That surely there are larger problems afoot than the solution to the Wishbone T. That if the enthusiasm of a thousand baton twirlers could be put into the poverty program, or against the evil of drugs, the planet would be a better place. And that neither the pregame brunch nor the postgame chug-a-lug makes any contribution to a lasting peace.
Happily, however, college football endures. For three months in autumn, at least, the mind can turn to the giddy pursuits of a special rivalry, a conference championship, a thirst for some monumental pride in geography. What one sees and hears is what there is. The scoreboard has very few hidden meanings, and only a scant number of the passes that are dropped will become a part of the lingering nostalgia.
The fans of college football form a happy cult, a society of millions who find their pace quickened and their minds more alert in the fall. For most, even the outrageous arguments over zones and triple options, over polls and bowls, over Bear Bryants and Darrell Royals are sheer fun.
Among so many other things, our game is this:
A delegate rising at a national political convention to say, "The state of Nebraska, as proud of its ticket as it is of its No. 1 football team, proudly casts all 24 of its ballots, for the next vice-president of...."
Trucks, campers, station wagons and sedans pulling onto the LSU campus as early as Friday afternoon, there to begin a marathon barbecue and outdoor cocktail party. Already, the eerie chant of "Go, Tigers" is ringing through Baton Rouge.
Another Texas-Arkansas sellout for mother, country, sliced beef and sooey pig. Darrell will pace and lick his fingers and Frank Broyles' shirttail will come out. "If Frank's shirttail don't come out, the game ain't started yet." Seats have been gone for months, and outside the stadium a lonely student carries a placard: IF NO ONE GIVES ME A TICKET, I'LL KILL MYSELF.
Who's the real Big Red? Is it Oklahoma, Alabama, Arkansas or Nebraska? If it rains in Lincoln, the merchants will sell ponchos—all red. In Arkansas, the baby pigs wear red sweaters. Oklahomans drive red jalopies, but so do Nebraskans. In terms of funny hats, vests, jackets and ladies' suits, Nebraska wins. A whole state becomes a spray of red.
Dawgs go forth. Georgia Bulldogs. Up to the train trestle above Sanford Stadium in Athens, 5,000 strong, some of them getting there by 8 a.m. on game day. Beneath the trestle, a full view of the playing field, inside the "hedges." And free. The tradition is as old as the stadium, and once, on a Saturday, a Dawg was asked how long he'd been entrenched, waiting for Auburn. "I been here about two pints," he said.
Indian summer on Strawberry Hill, above California's Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. A thousand bodies are strewn across the slope, sleeping, drinking, getting married, ignoring the action below. Some are even clothed. Some even glance, occasionally, at the game, using binoculars to distinguish the players. But most of them don't bother. Why? As one explained it, "I don't think we ever win that often anymore. Or do we?"
The stadium Knute Rockne built in South Bend. A ghost for every brick. Crammed and raucous, tense and frenzied to bury another visitor. The gold helmets pour from the tunnel and something explodes. Lightning flashes from the helmets to the larger dome itself, blazing over the sycamores. And then that old familiar song, "Cheer, cheer, for old..." They're actually singing it, that song. Again. What, indeed, would the sport be without it?
Big Ten innocence. Land of the greatcoat and parka. Towering old edifices for multitudes who still see a Grange or a Harmon down there as smokestacks rise in the distance through the gray chill of another Saturday. It didn't all begin out there in the Midwest, but there the sport was surely ordained.
And all those strange, hidden towns which do, on a given day in a given year, become the focus of a nation's attention: Fayetteville, Stillwater, College Station, Boulder, Oxford, Tuscaloosa, Norman, Lincoln, Lubbock, Ann Arbor, Palo Alto, Austin, Chapel Hill. And Baton Rouge. And Athens. And South Bend. And the rest. As the jaded writers say, take away Boulder and the Big Eight goes heads up with the Southeast on towns.
For all of this obsession, bordering on religion, borrowing from more than 100 years of lore, it's the players themselves who matter the most. Who make the game. To many of us among the afflicted millions, the football player is the best athlete to know and spend time with. He learns more about personal pride, teamwork, dedication, determination and sacrifice than any other athlete. And by the very nature of the physical and mental game he plays, it only stands to reason that he must know more about the joys of winning and the agonies of defeat than any other men of games.
In my own unreason on the subject, I bow to no one. Give me, any old time, the 14th consecutive fumbled punt in the mud between, say, Clarion State and Lock Haven State, or the 47th incomplete pass between Baylor and SMU. rather than Babe Ruth pointing to the center-field fence.
So stirs the mind; so hastens the step. Autumn comes and I require a stadium fix for the next dozen Saturdays. Somewhere. Anywhere.