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A Football Odyssey

In which the writer, accompanied by Artist Franklin McMahon, travels from Baton Rouge to Norman to Ann Arbor in 48 hours to watch three big college games and recapture his youth

Time is at its crudest when it diminishes remembered things. Only memory adds stature to the past, for nothing seen again is ever so formidable. But how easily deceived we are by the mirror of the mind.

In memory, the school building is a medieval fortress, with labyrinthine corridors and enormous rooms presided over by impatient giantesses. For those of us who in childhood moved from town to town and school to school—doomed forever, we feared, to dwell in the special limbo reserved for "the new kid"—a first day in school was the stuff of recurrent nightmares. Familiarity soon shrinks classmates, even teachers, to size, but the school, scene of so many embarrassments, triumphs and disasters, remains in memory a gigantic place, an Elsinore on dark days, a Camelot on bright ones. Seen today, however, the school building is absurdly small, scarcely more than a large house, a sad, gray place occupied by tiny strangers.

The hometown undergoes an even more curious metamorphosis. In fact, it will have grown larger. There will be newer and taller buildings, sprawling shopping centers, rambling subdivisions, broader streets, even suburbs. But it will never be as big as it once was when its three-story buildings reached to the heavens, towering above the heads of children.

Much the same transformation takes place within ourselves: outwardly, we are larger, but there has been shrinkage inside. Our possibilities become limited, our vision narrowed, our imaginations, once boundless, restricted by the barriers of harsh reality. It is not only the world that grows smaller with each passing day; so do we.

Reflections such as these may be triggered by the most trivial of happenings, the least consequential of encounters. Mine came after a football weekend, a "Big Game" odyssey that took me to Louisiana, Oklahoma and Michigan. The cities, the stadiums, the people were all strange to me, but the circumstances were hauntingly familiar, for there was a time when football games and football stadiums seemed so much bigger. Of course, they are big. A good-sized stadium can accommodate the population of a small city; its value, once measured in thousands of dollars, now can exceed a hundred million. And yet, stadiums, too, have undergone the melancholy process of diminution.

Each of us in his time has his own stadium. Mine was the University of California Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Seating nearly 80,000, it is certainly no smaller now than it was three decades ago or even when it was completed in 1923 as a monument to the soldiers of World War I. But it can never be for me what it was when I first entered it as a nine-year-old, marching with mock solemnity in the traffic boy platoon toward the section reserved for our gang in the south end zone. To me, then, it seemed to be the biggest thing I had ever seen. Never had so many people been assembled in one place; never had so many voices been raised at once; never had I been made to feel so small. The Cal players, who were then as, regrettably, they are now, of quite ordinary proportions, seemed Brobdingnagian. It was, you will note, "Cal" then, never "Berkeley," as it has become today. To the children of that Berkeley long ago, there was but one real university, and that was the one up on the hill. Oh yes, that and something called Stanford.

The Cal Marching Band would rehearse Saturday mornings, then march quick-step to the giant stadium, trailed by us town boys, captives of those uniformed pied pipers. We sprinted to the campus at the first drumbeat, a sound fully as exciting as the final school bell in May. Since we either sneaked in or entered for free in the traffic boy brigade, we never paid for a game. And we rarely missed one. There was but one day of the week—Saturday. Though I would move from Berkeley several times as a boy, those golden Saturdays would stay with me forever. It was all so big.

I cannot say precisely when it was that I lost interest in college football. It was certainly not while I was an undergraduate—a "Cal man" at last—and not immediately after I returned to the Bay Area from military service. No, I would say my interest simply eroded. As a very young man, I had decided to put aside childish things in the false belief that abandoning the past gave certain entry into the promising future. College football seemed to me then a mindless activity pursued only by schoolchildren and incurable Old Blues who were incapable of severing the academic umbilical cord. I was still a football fan, but my team now was the San Francisco 49ers. Berkeley was behind me. That door was closed. You can't go home again.

Then time played another trick. As I grew older and the distance lengthened between the undergraduate me and the supposed man of affairs, I felt a compulsion to close the gap, to rediscover what I had been, to look again at a past that could not be abandoned. I was no longer a stranger in the big stadium on the hill.

It is perhaps the essence of college football, then, that for so many of its followers it should represent a journey through time nearly lost. The past can never truly be recaptured, only sought. The pieces will always be too small to fit old conceptions.

But the college game does at least offer an illusion of youth. The drums beat again. The stadiums seem smaller, the players are too young, but the experience of time renewed persists. The boys follow the band again....

As I have suggested, mine was no ordinary college football weekend; traveling helter-skelter across the midlands, I saw in person, not on the television screen, three games in 48 hours, each of which determined a conference championship. The six teams involved were all ranked in the Top 10 nationally. Their combined record was a remarkable 53 wins, two ties and a single loss. Four of the six were undefeated and untied entering these climactic games. And since each of these match-ups was "a traditional," feelings ran extraordinarily high in the communities where they were played. The fans I met along the way were not the people I once knew. But they shared in common the search. And what could it possibly matter that they were not entirely certain what it was they were looking for?


Ben and Wellington, two round-faced, bespectacled middle-aged men, a bit plump, a bit tired but dead game, sit at the curve of the bar near the pool in Baton Rouge's Bellemont Motor Hotel. They are removed by only a few feet from the bar's main action, which happens to be an animated conversation involving two former Alabama players, Johnny Musso and Steve Bisceglia, several 'Bama assistant coaches and some other in-group types. They are served by a plump blonde bartendress who in the pale light behind the bar looks more attractive than she probably is. There is much laughter, much reminiscing, some flirting.

Ben and Wellington are at the periphery of the inner circle; indeed, they might as well be in Tuscaloosa for all the notice paid them by the others. They return this inattention with affection, laughing loudly at the eavesdropped anecdotes, joining in from a safe distance, talking scarcely at all to each other. The pleasures they gain from this evening will be vicarious.

"Drove seven hours getting here for the Big One tomorrow," says Wellington during a slight lull in the main conversation.

"Welly and I never miss a 'Bama game," says Ben.

The stars of the evening are now joking about Musso's new career in Canadian professional football. "Get my friend here a Canadian Club," Bisceglia instructs the bartendress. "That's all they let him drink now."

Ben and Welly chuckle at this one, nodding at each other conspiratorially. They knew Bisceglia had a reputation for wit. He was obviously under way now.

A group of tall, broad-shouldered young men, four blacks, one white, obviously football players, step tentatively into the bar, eyes straining against the darkness. One of them, the white youth, spots the coaches and quickly ushers the others out.

"Now, what d'ya make of that," one of the assistant coaches remarks, chuckling good-old-boy style. "A white boy from Macon, Ga. leadin' four blacks into a bar. Times do change."

Ben and Wellington agree that times sure do.

Unlike Musso's, Bisceglia's football career ended at Alabama. He now works for his father in the Bisceglia Brothers Wine Co. in Madera, Calif. The Bisceglia wines, he advises his confreres at the bar, are unequaled for quality, particularly the whites.

"Might I suggest our Imperial Chateau D'Or," he says in the manner of a wine steward. "It so happens that I have a bottle in the glove compartment of my car. If you gentlemen will wait just a moment, I'll go get some. Glasses all round, my dear."

Ben and Wellington nudge each other, smiling at Bisceglia's effrontery. They hurriedly quaff their Scotches in anticipation of the elixir from the California valley. Sharing a glass of wine with these men-in-the-know could open a crack in the conversation through which they might slither. In the darkness their round faces fairly glitter.

Bisceglia returns laughing triumphantly and with a flourish pours wine all round. Or nearly all round.

Ben and Wellington, still happy, still dead game, order two more Scotches. On the rocks.

The game-day party at Bill and Jane LeBlanc's sprawling. Southwest-ranch-style house in the Old Goodwood section of Baton Rouge has the feel, despite the landlocked surroundings, of a bon voyage celebration. There is, in fact, a vessel anchored in the LeBlanc driveway—a Blue Bird Wanderlodge mobile home—and the dozen or more of us who will be her passengers are toasting our impending departure in the LeBlancs' lavish bar.

The nautical analogy is not inappropriate, for the Wanderlodge is a species of terrestrial yacht. She and scores of sister craft will dock outside Louisiana State's Tiger Stadium this day in berths reserved for them in the parking lot. And like yacht club toffs, the mobile home skippers will hobnob in the docking area, chattering not only about LSU football but about the various idiosyncrasies of their vehicles.

"Damn generator hasn't worked all week...."

"Here, Bill, let me have a look-see. Same thing happened to my Winnebago...."

LeBlanc, LSU, class of 1940, is a balding, long-faced Baton Rouge businessman of many trades—real estate development, contracting, plumbing—who, though unfailingly courteous, betrays certain xenophobic suspicions during the football season. There is always the dark possibility, however remote, that some auslander may not regard LSU football as the ultimate art form.

"Ah wasn't too sure about you at fust...but ah think we'll get along just tine from now on. Glad you're interested in the Tigahs...."

LeBlanc's reverence for his alma mater is untainted by logic, reason or maturity. Louisiana State in the '30s seemed wholly the creation of Huey Long, the state's demagogic governor and United States Senator. The Kingfish, as he was not always affectionately known, pumped state funds into the campus coffers, personally ruled on administrators, even faculty members, led the Tiger band at halftime and freely proffered unwanted counsel to the various football coaches he helped hire and fire. Long saw LSU as the country-cousin antagonist of the city-slick, snobbish private school, Tulane. LSU was Long's baby; for the Cajuns from the bayous it represented freedom from poverty. The country youths who got their education at LSU in this time remain eternally grateful. Their devotion to the Old School is unshakable; a Yalie's allegiance to Eli is, by comparison, tenuous, even frivolous.

LeBlanc's home is a reflection of his own fidelity. A nearly life-size plywood replica of the LSU Tiger, festooned with crepe streamers of purple and gold, hangs above and to the right of the living room fireplace. A stuffed tiger doll, also nearly life-size, stands guard before the couch. On the bar there is a photograph of Mike III, the official team mascot, who growls portentously before each home game. Near Mike there is a cartoon of an LSU tiger suckling at the teats of an Arkansas Razorback. A ceramic tiger lurks in the grass alongside the swimming pool in the backyard. And in the LeBlanc bathrooms, guests scrub with bars of soap on which have been carved tiny, grinning tigers. It is impossible to wash one's hands of the imagery.

Crews LeBlanc, Bill's 23-year-old son, is at the helm of the Wanderlodge, and brother Doug, 21, is on the public-address microphone as the football party clambers aboard, plastic glasses in hand. Recorded broadcasts of great moments in the history of LSU football are played on the speaker system. Memories are warmed by hysterical accounts of Billy Cannon's game-winning 89-yard punt return against Mississippi in 1959 or of Bert Jones' last-second touchdown pass also against Ole Miss in 1972. The passengers cheer again these epochal achievements.

Doug LeBlanc interrupts the nostalgic broadcast. "As is traditional on these occasions," he announces as the Wanderlodge bounces off the driveway onto the shaded street, "we will begin our trip with a prayer. Today's prayer will be rendered by United States Senator J. Bennett Johnston Jr. Senator Johnston...."

The Senator, a Democrat, rises unsteadily to his feet as the big mobile home lurches down the street.

First off, he suggests, the Lord should see to it that the Wanderlodge safely negotiates the journey to the stadium parking lot. Once the game begins, He should do everything in His power to protect players on both sides from serious injury. Finally, and for this Johnston disqualifies himself as an objective beseecher, He should assure that, in the inevitable victory, the LSU fans and players behave as "good winners." Amen.

"The bar," says Doug, regaining the microphone, "is now officially open."

We are a cheerful, if diverse, company of travelers, united presumably by our allegiance to LSU football. Young and old alike, we will root fervently for the Tigers. The Southern young are surprisingly friendly with and respectful of their elders. They chat with them as enlisted men permitted a fling in the Officers' Club. And they seem much less likely to fly the family coop than their contemporaries in the rebellious North. The LeBlanc boys obviously respect their father as the captain of his ship, the Wanderlodge.

"Ah'd like you to meet a friend of mahn," LeBlanc says, introducing a round, pink man with hair the color of twilight. "This is Dr. F. P. Bordelon. The F. P. stands for 'full of penicillin.' "

"That's right," Dr. Bordelon says, acknowledging the introduction. "Ah'm a G.P., general practitioner. Ah give mah patients penicillin. If they're allergic to it, ah recommend another physician."

Dr. Bordelon is attired for the game in a purple jacket, purple and gold tie, yellow shirt and flannel slacks that, when hiked up, reveal purple and gold socks with LSU embroidered on them in gold. His underwear, he discreetly implies, is similarly adorned.

"Ah'm just a red-headed Cajun," he says proudly. "And don't call me fat. Ah'm not fat. Ah'm just too short for my width."

He is standing outside the Wanderlodge now amid the pregame hubbub. The stadium rises like a doge's palace in the setting sun. This will be a twilight game. It is warm, in the high 60s, and Dr. Bordelon's forehead is moist.

"Ah tell ya, ah owe this place an awful lot. Ah tell mah own children ah don't care where they go to school as long as it's LSU. Going to these games is a little like going home again. Football may be a lil' different heah in the South. It's a fashion show, a parade, all those parties, these won'ful people. In the North, it may just be a game. Heah, it's a way of life."

Tiger Stadium is known in the South as "Death Valley," no reflection, certainly, on its playing surface, which, far from being an arid wasteland, is a lush green lawn of unartificial, real live grass. The sobriquet refers instead to the grisly fate that awaits even the best teams to visit an arena housing patrons so fiercely partisan. Visitors to this Death Valley succumb not to thirst but to earache, for it is THE NOISE that ultimately does them in. Just as Los Angeles baseball fans once applauded themselves for showing up in such great numbers, thereby shattering all existing attendance records, so do Tiger fans raise their voices in tribute to THE NOISE they can make of an evening.

The stadium is acoustically perfect for cacophony. Its seats, which are close to the sidelines, rise sharply above the field so that even a hiccup from the 40th row resounds in the huddle like the report of an artillery piece. And when 68,000 Tiger zealots scream in unison, the effect on even the most placid of quarterbacks is unsettling.

The sound of a thousand rock concerts attends the arrival of the first Tiger player. By the time the entire team has been trotted out, Lindbergh has been feted at Le Bourget, V-J day has been acclaimed in Times Square and Judy Garland has sung Over the Rainhow in a comeback appearance at the Palace.

But on this night, Alabama will play with such calculated ferocity that by the final gun THE NOISE has dwindled to a groan. Alabama is LSU's superior in everything, including dress. The Tigers, for whatever reasons of austerity or defective laundry facilities, appear in soiled tear-away jerseys that are mostly torn-away even before the game. With bare midriffs, they resemble so many down-at-the-heels Seventh Avenue streetwalkers. Alabama is crisp and neat in red and white. They subdue the tatterdemalion opposition with minimal exertion.

The alliterative headline the following morning in the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate reads: BEAR'S BAMANS BURST BENGALS' BUBBLE.

Noise notwithstanding.


From the air, sighted through a thin mauve haze above the flat gray plains, the University of Oklahoma's Owen Field in Norman looks like nothing more than a large bowl of tomato soup. Oklahoma will play its traditional opponent, the University of Nebraska, this day, and though the official colors of the two schools are not identical—Oklahoma is crimson and cream, Nebraska scarlet and cream—in the stadium they are, with only minor gradations in shading, all red.

On the field, Oklahoma wears red jerseys, red helmets and white pants; Nebraska has white helmets, white jerseys and red pants. Supporters of both teams wear red hats, red sweaters, red corsages, red bandannas, even red socks. They wave red bandannas and shake red pompons. And since temperatures are in the 70s and the air is still and moist and spirits are high, they are mostly red-faced.

A large red bus is parked outside the stadium entrance on which, painted boldly in white, is this message: THOUGH YOUR SINS ARE SCARLET, THEY BE WHITE AS SNOW.

For Oklahoma the inscription is apt, even prophetic. Damned by the NCAA for illegal recruiting and declared ineligible, therefore, for postseason games, the scarlet Sooners will soon beat hell out of untainted Nebraska, ON TO THE PROBATION BOWL proclaims a red banner held aloft.

It is a dull and, yes, colorless conquest. There is no noise in quiet Norman, save for that in the stadium, and by LSU aural criteria, there is none there. The game is over almost before it begins. The sinners' triumph is merciless, swift and convincing.

For a rivalry of such consequence, the contest stirs few emotions. The student newspaper, The Oklahoma Daily, plays the 10th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination on Page One; the "Battle of the Big Reds" is merely an inside feature. There is no inspirational march music at halftime. Instead, this period is dedicated to the oeuvre of composer-conductor Henry Mancini, who, neatly turned out in sports coat, slacks and porkpie hat, acknowledges the tribute in person. He mounts a stepladder and, teetering precariously there, bows, hat in hand, to his admirers.

The "Boy Scout Stretcher Team" is also applauded this day, though the dreary encounter on the field excites no one to collapse and the stretcher-bearers' role is superfluous. There is also an announcement on the public-address system that the Oklahoma basketball team will play "Yugoslavia" later in the week. Will the Serbo-Croats fare better than the Cornhuskers? The Yugoslavia Reds?

After the game, what seems to be the vast majority of the 60,000 fans assembles at O'Connell's Irish Pub for pitchers of 3.2 beer. The red-jacketed, red-eyed crowd spills out of the roomy pub into the parking lot. Inside, the décor is singularly un-Gaelic. Elk, moose and buffalo trophies stare morosely out from the walls. In one room, films of old Floyd Patterson fights are shown. Floyd Patterson? Can that brooding old pugilist mean anything to this generation? And yet there he is, a lithe, quick figure, the face all apology as he bangs the setups comatose. Students and young alumni watch the combat listlessly.

O'Connell's is crowded, but, like the stadium before it, strangely silent. "We are the best football team in the country," says Larry Killebrew, a young radiologist from Oklahoma City. "But we can't prove it."

It is a sage observation, explaining all. Each Oklahoma victory is a measure of revenge on those who passed judgment on the school, but since winning leads nowhere, it is essentially meaningless. This will be a year of waiting until next year.

"Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow...."


In the distance, as the motley procession advances on the stadium through the cold mist, you can hear THE SONG:

"Hail! to the victors valiant
Hail! to the conquering heroes,
Hail! Hail! to Michigan...."

It will be played endlessly, for this is the 75th anniversary of its composition, a fight song to end all fight songs, composed in the flush of victory on a train ride back from Chicago.

"Hail! Hail! to Michigan...."

Despite a heavy chill, the dampness and the dense traffic, the multitudes plodding toward the gigantic stadium in Ann Arbor are in high good humor, exchanging japes in their traffic-choked cars, flourishing fanciful signs—SAVE FUEL, BURN WOODY—and singing, singing, singing. They are dressed against the cold and drizzle as if for a masquerade ball. Four men in identical yellow plastic trousers wade through the mud of the golf course near the stadium. They are like Ingmar Bergman creations, ghostly clowns dancing in the mist.

This is clearly football weather, meaning bad. In Baton Rouge and Norman it had been unseasonably warm. Here there is the threat of snow or freezing rain. The stadium rises spectrally in the distance, so massive that not even time can reduce it to mortal proportions. It is nearly as large as when I first saw it 25 years before. Actually, then it had fewer seats. A record crowd of 105,223 will watch this game between two undefeated teams playing for the championship of the Big Ten and the privilege of defending the conference's honor in the Rose Bowl. From the field, the rim of the stadium is lost in the gray skies.

Time does not move swiftly in the Big Ten. Everything seems as it once was. The teams play foot-slogging antediluvian football with line plunges, stout defense and little or no passing. There is a certain majesty to this stubborn resistance to change.

The Michigan Marching Band, playing its Big Game, tootles with such dogged vigor that even the players feel compelled to call for silence as the game itself, a match between dinosaurs, begins. THE SONG is cut short in mid-chorus.

"Hail! to the vic...."

From the Michigan sidelines, Woody Hayes, the totalitarian Ohio State coach, appears in the mist as a glowering eminence grise, pacing restlessly before his bench, snarling at officials. Michigan's Bo Schembechler, a Hayes protégé, is nearly as adept as his master at referee-baiting. He is regarded coldly and without rancor by the objects of his relentless wrath.

The Michigan players on the bench watch dejectedly as Ohio State's Archie Griffin, a rapier of a runner, perforates their defense. When Griffin is finally brought to ground, the Wolverines attack him savagely. Safety Dave Brown chases him through most of the long afternoon, upsetting him when he can with body blocks, necktie tackles and desperate snatches at his clothing. Brown stands panting over the fallen Griffin, his expression betraying the certain fear that he will rise again. Griffin will accumulate 163 yards on 30 carries despite the best efforts of Brown and his fellow defenders.

The Michigan quarterback, Dennis Franklin, is the eye of the hurricane in this stormy game. His brown face is impassive, his mood detached. But with slightly more than two minutes left to play, he lies motionless in the Michigan backfield after completing a short rollout pass. He is helped off the field with the score tied. He clutches his right shoulder but his face is vacant of either suffering or disappointment. He has a broken collarbone, a bad break for him and his school, for though Michigan has tied the conference champion, the Big Ten athletic directors will later vote to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl rather than permit a team without a starting quarterback to play the Pacific Eight winners. They cannot risk a fifth consecutive loss to the West Coast.

The game ends inconclusively. There is no elation on either bench, although Michigan supporters seem confident that the Rose Bowl will be theirs. Had not Ohio State gone and lost the year before? Is it not someone else's turn?

The band is on the field before the players are off it. False hopes are betrayed with the playing of California, Here I Come. Then, as the rooters raise their umbrellas in triumph, the band swings passionately into THE SONG:

"Hail! to the victors valiant,
Hail! to the conquering heroes,
Hail! Hail! to Michigan, the champions of the West...."
It is to be a swan song.

The postgame celebrants in the American Legion Hall a block from Michigan Stadium are hardly collegiate. They are men and women of middle years and working-class apparel. They are loud, even boisterous, and in a singing mood. THE SONG comes to them from a venerable jukebox in the cavernous barroom. Recorded by Jan Garber and his orchestra, it is A-1 on the old box.

Two men, both probably in their late 50s, one wearing a raincoat, the other a mackinaw, are watching the USC-UCLA game on one of the television sets above the bar. The telecast followed by about half an hour the end of the Ohio State-Michigan game. These men raced to the hall as quickly as they could in order to get good field position at the bar, for it is assumed the USC-UCLA winner will be Michigan's opponent in the Rose Bowl. The two grizzled viewers do, however, deplore Michigan's inability to gain more than a tie from the Buckeye game. They are inclined to place the blame for this oversight on Franklin, considered by most of the experts to be, with Griffin, the star of the game. Mackinaw and Raincoat do not see it that way. Franklin, they agree, should not be playing quarterback for the simple reason that he is black and, in their view, blacks never make good quarterbacks.

"You don't see any of them in the NFL," says Mackinaw.

"That's right," says Raincoat. "No spooks there."

UCLA's quarterbacks, though indisputably white, are having notably less success with USC than Franklin had with the Buckeyes. The two viewers are quick to observe that one of the frustrated signal-callers is Mark Harmon, son of the immortal Tommy, the Michigan football hero of more than three decades ago.

"Saw Tommy play right here many, many times," says Mackinaw, as, with consummate timing, A-1 is played on the jukebox. "Now there was a football player. Don't see his kind anymore."

"How come," inquires Raincoat, "he let his kid go to school out West?"

"Just look," replies Mackinaw, gesturing toward the screen. "It's obvious. He wasn't good enough to play here."

"Hail! Hail! to Michigan...."

Harmon? Tommy Harmon? Old 98! Why, he played in my stadium the year I discovered it. Scored four touchdowns against Cal, long runs on three of them. The Cal defense had so much trouble with him that Bud Brennan, a bald real estate salesman, much in his cups that day, staggered out of his seat on the west side of the stadium and, topcoat flailing in the wind, set off after Harmon, who was running, as usual, in the clear. Harmon gently placed a hand on Brennan's bald pate as the realtor lunged for him at the goal line. "What in hell are you doing here?" the All-America halfback asked. Brennan, winded now, managed to mutter an obscenity before the campus police arrived to haul him off. It was a memorable occasion.

Yes, memorable. That's it. A chance remark by two not very likable strangers in a town almost completely foreign to me had initiated a predictable response. College football is a continuum, just as any truly valuable sport is. Everything changes, nothing changes. Harmon fils recalls Harmon père. The past, despite the increasing distance we put between it and ourselves, is never far away.

Is this what so many of us find in college football? Do we see something there, if only indistinctly, that survives despite time's powers of diminution?