It was inevitable, I guess. After all, how many little girls beg for a football helmet for their fourth birthday? And how many of them tell the coach of their ninth-grade intramural flag-football team to play me or trade me? "You're a young lady," my mother used to say, shaking her head. "Honestly, sometimes I think you forget that."
What did she expect? I grew up in Packer country when Bart Starr could do no wrong and Vince Lombardi was always right. Every July I made a pilgrimage to Green Bay with my father to watch the Packers practice. Every fall I'd tuck myself inside a stadium bag and brave the cold to watch the green and gold.
"You're your father's daughter," my mother would say as we went out the door with our binoculars dangling from the shoulders of our ski jackets. "Sometimes I think you sit in those below-zero temperatures just to get out of cleaning your room."
So when I called home one winter afternoon during my junior year at Stanford, bubbling over with my exciting news, my parents weren't the least bit surprised to hear me say, "I'm taking a course called Theory and Technique of Football."
My father was elated at the thought of my studying with Bill Walsh, then the Stanford head coach, now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. It wasn't a thought to elate my mother, of course.
"Walsh is an offensive genius," my dad said.
"I'll be learning from the best," I agreed. "He made Ken Anderson. He turned San Diego into a real power...."
"But, Jill," my mother said, "do you realize that with the exorbitant tuition at Stanford, classes are worth $45 an hour? What ever happened to calculus or chemistry? You always liked French. How about a French class? Why don't you take something taught by a Nobel Prizewinner?"
'Football isn't for young ladies' seemed to be the underlying, familiar message.
Soon after, under the guidance of my professors—that is, football coaches like Doug Single, Norb Hecker, Dennis Green and Walsh—I doodled X's and O's for an entire quarter. I was enraptured by the intricacies of draw plays, flex defenses, post patterns, hooks and curls, 3-4's, 4-3's, nickel D's, and I's and T's. Twice a week we watched films, backward and forward—Hold it! Stop that play! See Guy Benjamin throw the ball. See James Lofton catch it.
I became fascinated with line play. I'd close my eyes and try to imagine what it felt like to be hit by Gordy King, a 6'6", 265-pound offensive tackle, although I probably didn't even come close. I marveled at the sixth sense of defensive backs. They always seemed to float to the ball.
My grades arrived in the mail while I was home in Wisconsin during spring break. Theory and Technique of Football: A plus. "Well," my mother said, now resigned to the fact that if I was going to be on her team I'd be wearing jeans and a faded jersey, not nylons and high heels, "at least it will bring up your grade-point."
But it wasn't until the 1980 football season, four years later, when I was assigned to cover the University of Wisconsin football team for The Milwaukee Sentinel, that the class really paid off. After the Badgers lost 35-0 to UCLA, I pointed out in my story that the Wisconsin defensive players had jumped on the Bruins' backs, tackling above the waist. "You can't stop anybody unless you aim at their center of gravity," I wrote. "That's one of the basics."
And when the Badgers lost to Indiana 24-0, I figured out why the Hoosiers had eaten Wisconsin alive. "The Badgers' offensive line gave away the plays," I wrote. "On pass plays, the UW linemen sat back on their heels and dropped their rear ends to enable them to stand up and protect the quarterback more quickly. On running plays, the offensive linemen leaned forward to enable them to fire out right away." The Indiana defense agreed with me and, after viewing the films, the Badger coaches did too.
"My daughter the football coach," my mother started saying. I think she was actually beginning to like the idea.
But my biggest satisfaction came the next week when Bill Dudley, Wisconsin's offensive coordinator, cornered me in a hotel lobby the night before the 1-4 Badgers were to play Michigan State. The coaches had discovered I'd taken the football class after I'd asked them some questions about the blocking in the offensive line. They didn't expect questions like that from most sports-writers, much less a young woman. Dudley had a desperate look on his face. The Badgers badly needed a stronger attack.
"Listen," he said, "I heard you took a football class from Walsh at Stanford. Last year we took a trip to the West Coast to learn more about passing offenses. We went to a number of schools that shared their strategies with us. The only school that wouldn't let us look at its films was Stanford. Let me see the notes from your class. C'mon. Tell me everything you know about Walsh's offense. How does he do it?"
I laughed. And for the next three hours, he tried to wheedle information about Stanford's complex passing offense out of me. We talked X's and O's. We kicked around football trivia—"Let me tell you a great Woody Hayes story," Dudley said. And, "You want to know the inside scoop on Gerry Faust and Moeller High in Cincinnati?" And we exchanged thoughts on the psychology of coaching.
I never showed him my notes or divulged the specifics of the Stanford play-book, but the experience made me glad I hadn't chosen the path of a young lady and instead had enrolled in Theory and Technique of Football. It has turned out to be one of the best and most useful classes I ever took at Stanford.