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College football taught this ex-player lasting lessons

Recently my College football contemporaries from Northwestern University—class of 1971—got together for a reunion at a resort in Wisconsin. We have been doing it for several summers now. It is stag only, and we do it mainly to swill beer, check hairlines and tell lies. But it also reaffirms the bond that links us.

Like war buddies or members of a touring dance ensemble, we know each other in ways that our parents, wives and children never can. Invariably, at intervals amid the belching, the lying, the photo-swapping, there will be meaningful pauses when suddenly no one is saying anything and we all are recalling old days and private images about how, exactly, we were shaped by this game.

Usually, I spend my autumns writing about pro football, but this season I'll be covering college football, and it is with some trepidation I reenter this environment that I left as a participant at age 21. I am worried about the state of NCAA football, about ethics and hypocrisy in the game, about athletes who may be good players but are rotten people. I don't worry about these things with the NFL; the NFL is a business and its players are businessmen. Period.

The passage of time has convinced me that playing big-time college ball was, for me, a good thing. My reunions have convinced me that the same is true for the other guys, my chums. And if there are players out there now for whom the college game is working, well, I hope I find them.

For me, the biggest plus of college football was—and is—the camaraderie. Men don't get many chances to bond these days, not without disclaimers, anyway. But guys who have staggered in lockstep through four years of ladder drills on summer practice fields are, quite simply, kin.

Then there is the humor. The deadly intensity of big-time football lends itself to truly foolish steam-blowing. You wear so much crap to play the game—I remember my uniform weighed more than 20 pounds after some hot practices—that the mere removal of all the gear can make you giddy to the point of being deranged. Postpractice "butt-slides" across our tiled shower floor at Dyche Stadium were funnier than a Bill Murray routine.

Another thing that delighted me was the fact that I was earning my keep. I was on full scholarship to play football, which meant that my participation in the sport was worth a lot of money. I was a pro, a working man. Far from being soiled by this, I felt elevated by it. My parents didn't have to give me a dime.

I think also of the transcendent qualities of the sport, which pushed me to places I didn't know I could go. To this day I have done nothing as hard as what I did in football practices at NU, and I have attempted nothing as risky as things I tried in games. I have written two books, both of which were hideous ordeals, but whenever I got stuck all I had to do was remember the day I threw my skinny defensive back's body time and again into the path of Southern Cal's burly pulling guards. That made writing seem easy.

I learned the power of discipline and persistence. You ordinarily don't know about that as a kid, but in college football I had it hammered into me constantly that what you do day after day after day will pay off—eventually. I still don't like discipline, but it has earned me my house, my car, and yes, I suppose, even my wife. Ask her. She knows I didn't give up.

Then there is teamwork, the old clichè. What is better than many people working as a unit? What sport requires more people to work as one than football? We almost beat a vastly superior Ohio State team, working as one. We kicked the living daylights out of Illinois, 48-0, working as one. A team in sync is a wonder to behold. In college football I sensed for the first time that maybe that is how God meant us to be.

And last, I remember the arena, the stage. Everyone should have the chance, just once, to do something in front of 80,000 people. The noise in the big games filters into your helmet, growing and growing, until it's so big that it's more like a swift warm river carrying you along. You don't feel tired in the big games. It's only afterward, in the silence, that you realize how beautifully high you were.

You will notice that I haven't mentioned school pride as one of the pluses. When I was a player I didn't care a fig about my school or my fellow students when I was on the field. I cared only about my teammates. Always.

Also, I haven't mentioned coaches. I had one or two I cared about deeply. But I remember the coach who told a teammate, "Your mother's a coward, your father's a coward, you're a coward and you'll always be a coward." I still wonder what good that coach thought he was doing.

It should be fun for me this fall out there on the old trail. Lots of dèjà vu. Maybe too much. If anybody sees me strapping on a helmet, please, just nail me with a blindside.