The religion of football
Football lends itself perfectly to Evangelical tendencies.
- University of Alabama professor Dr. Culpepper Clark
Football started out as rugby, and in the late 19th Century became popularized under the "American rules" at East Coast colleges like Rutgers, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The game was so violent that deaths piled up. The government had to enforce rules to make it safer.
After World War I, football became a very popular sport. Previously, it had been relegated to the Ivy League crowd, but it became all the rage across the country. Doughboys who started college in their 20s took to the game in order to get their aggressions out. The first great post-war team was the University of California Golden Bears, known as the "Wonder Teams."
Notre Dame University, a tiny Catholic school in South Bend, Indiana, put their name on the map in 1913 when their end, Knute Rockne, devised a new play called the forward pass, which was used to defeat the mighty Army Cadets.
While large stadiums were being built around the country, Notre Dame Stadium would not be completed until 1930. In the 1920s, Notre Dame began to travel the nation, taking on a barnstorming quality. Now the head coach, Knute Rockne made a smart marketing decision, which was to play games in large cosmopolitan cities in the East, the West and the Midwest; places where Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics lived and would love to see "their" team up close. Fans flocked to their games, taking to the team as their own. They became known as "Subway Alumni." The Irish traveled to New York, where the "Four Horsemen of Notre Dame" defeated Army at Yankee Stadium under what fabled sportswriter Grantland Rice called "a blue, gray October sky." They went to California and beat Stanford in Pasadena's Rose Bowl in 1925. In 1926 they beat the University of Southern California Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. These games drew enormous crowds.
Southern California and Notre Dame decided to make it a yearly rivalry. In 1927 and 1929, USC traveled to Chicago, where they lost thrillers to Notre Dame in front of crowds that reached 120,000 at Soldier Field.
In the Midwest, University of Illinois running back Harold "Red" Grange thrilled capacity crowds with his exploits. His nickname was the "Galloping Ghost." He was signed to play professionally in the new National Football League, and drew capacity crowds to games in Chicago's Soldier Field, thus ensuring the success of the NFL. It was Grange who gave the young National Football League just the push they needed.
College football in the 1920s grew into big business and a cultural phenomenon. Eastern football gave way to the West, but national arguments sprung up over who was the best? Who deserved to win the national championship? Who was the best individual player?
In 1936, the Associated Press began their poll to determine "whose number one?" That same year the Heisman Trophy was awarded to "the best player in college football." Tremendous regional pride and excitement was attached to these honors; to natural rivalries, geographic and otherwise. Bowl games pitted champions from one part of America against the best team from other regions.
Catholics, particularly the Irish, who at one time were a highly discriminated-against minority, can attribute their assimilation in large part to Notre Dame's success. The unglamorous Midwest, with its harsh winters and farm landscapes, found pride in the success of the Michigan Wolverines, the Ohio State Buckeyes, the Illinois Fighting Illini. The city of Los Angeles grew into greatness in unison with its two great football teams, USC and UCLA.
The last vestiges of Civil War animosity were swept away by wars and college football. Soldiers from the South and the North mixed in the military during World Wars I and II. It was in these kinds of environments where they would engage in friendly debate over who was better: Alabama or Penn State? Tennessee or Pittsburgh?
The American South has always been a passionate place, a place where, as University of Alabama communications dean Dr. Culpepper Clark says, "the blood runs hot." It is a region of the country that has taken to football with a particular fervor over and above the rest of the nation. The South is the Bible Belt, a land of Christian believers, churchgoing folk, black and white.
"Football," says Dr. Clark, "lends itself perfectly to Evangelical tendencies."
"Football is religion in the South, right there with huntin' and fishin'," says Mississippi State football coach Sylvester Croom, the same Tuscaloosa Sylvester Croom who thought Joe Namath looked like "a cool jazz singer."
The country mindset of the rural South has always looked for manly challenges. Its denizens have met those challenges in war and in the hunt. Tales of Confederate battles have long inspired the Southern psyche; Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg, Stonewall Jackson in the middle of the fray; Lee's Army on the march.
Nothing outside battle has more perfectly fit that psyche than football, a game of field generalship, real estate captured, charges stemmed by courageous stands, and forms of "espionage" like the red dog blitz or the called audible.
The casual observer of high school football in the South may be struck by the realization that herein lies the reason America wins its wars. There is no place in the world that quite matches military pageantry like the big prep contest, with its marching bands, John Phillip Souza music; young gladiators pumped to the extreme edge of "Testosterone City," with pretty cheering girls waiting to show their appreciation once they return from battle.
Perhaps the reason for all of this is the Civil War, which created in Dixie the ultimate form of inferiority complex. The menfolk had "failed" to protect their homes, their women, their children; their very way of life.
Botched Reconstruction created isolation. With few checks and balances from the North, which had distanced itself from its old enemy, and with the hopes of the nation turned to the shining future that lay out West, the Old South was alienated. Poor blacks were caught in the maelstrom of 100 years of recrimination.
With nobody seemingly paying much attention, Southerners - white and black - took to football as their pastime. It became a rallying point for communities, a social event, something to take their minds off of grinding poverty, racism, and that inferiority gnawing at the soul of a proud region which once produced Presidents, Constitutional drafters, great statesmen.
Football was the focus of family get-togethers, politics, business meetings and religious gatherings. Everything was centered around it. In the off-season, it was the main point of discussion.
The Florida-Georgia game became known as the "world's largest outdoor cocktail party." The Alabama-Auburn game turned into a blood feud of Hatfield-McCoy intensity. Football in Texas had emotional overtones on a par with the Battle of the Alamo.
But what football really did, more than anything else, was to give Southerners something to be proud of. The Civil War and their racial crimes ground into their collective conscience that unmistakable sense of inferiority. Football was that one thing they did as well as anybody. Nobody embodied it better than the Alabama Crimson Tide, and nobody exemplified the excellence they loved better than Paul "Bear" Bryant.
Alabama burst on the American grid scene with consecutive national titles in 1925-26. Just the sound of the phrase had a ring that seemed to echo with the sort of pride that once rang out of the mouths of soldiers at Bull Run and Shiloh.
In the 1930s, 'Bama again stood tall when their All-American end Don Hutson led them to the pinnacle. On the other side of the field stood the Tide's "other" end, Bear Bryant. When Hutson went on to star for the Green Bay Packers, the entire state of Alabama "starred" for the Packers.
After World War II, the South and Alabama football experienced down times. Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier brought to light the obvious discrimination still happening in the South. Blacks playing in the minor leagues throughout the region, or in Spring Training settings in Florida and Georgia, told tales of racial woe which found their way increasingly into Northern newspapers.
California teams such as St. Mary's and the University of San Francisco found themselves disinvited from Southern football games such as the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl because they had black players.
President Harry Truman de-segregated the Army, but black soldiers, some of whom were World War II or Korean vets, were shamefully discriminated against in Southern hotels and restaurants. The Brown vs. Board of Education decision infuriated Southerners, because it represented the hated concept of Northerners (read: the federal government) coming to their land and telling them how to live. Television invaded their sheltered world, creating the colossus of public opinion marshaled against them, as in us vs. them.
Enter Bear Bryant.
In 1961, when Bryant's Crimson Tide won the first of his four legitimate national championships (the 1964 and 1973 "national championships" are asterisked by bowl losses), the effect of this cannot be fully understood outside the region. Notre Dame collected their national championships like a scholar collects straight A's. Southern Cal cheered their titles and moved on. Ohio State and Michigan asked in frustration why they could not do it more often.
But at the University of Alabama, a state and a region saw this as a validation, a mandate for their way of life. It was something they did better than anybody. It was excellence personified; the gruff, mumbling ol' Bear, with his whisky slur and his hound's tooth hat - by gum, he was every bit as good as Bud Wilkinson, Woody Hayes or Red Sanders. Nobody was better. The Tide was robbed of the 1966 number one ranking when the "Catholic vote" awarded once-tied Notre Dame with a tainted title over unbeaten, untied Alabama. 'Bama's segregated status was a factor with voters that struck in their craw, too, but the classy Bear refused to complain about the slight.
Bryant was up there with any coach in the history of college football, whether that coach be Knute Rockne, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Frank Leahy, Bud Wilkinson, Woody Hayes, John McKay, Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, or Joe Paterno. His record proves it: He retired the all-time winningest coach in history.
The effect of this kind of American excellence emanating from and representing Alabama cannot be compared to many other things in this country when it comes to the issue of pride. Bryant indeed did "walk on water" in Coke ads. As George Wallace acutely understood, by the mid-1960s had Bryant run for Governor, he would have won.
"Auburn people would have voted for him just to get him to quit coaching," said Crimson Tide quarterback Scott Hunter.
In Bryant and 'Bama there stood, in the mid-to-late 1960s, a conundrum. On the one hand, he reached the pinnacle of his profession and led his program to that pinnacle using all white football players. This had the disturbing effect of reinforcing the racist concept, not unlike Hitler's vision of the Aryan superman, of a physically, mentally superior white athlete, possibly indigenous only to the ruggedly individualistic world of the American South.
The flip side of that very conundrum was unseen. It existed in the mind of the sly fox they called Bear. It consisted in the fact that the coach knew the concept of the superior white football player was a myth; that myth had very little time before it exploded; and when it did, he needed to have some answers.
Bear Bryant was planning to come up with those very answers. The result would be a seminal moment of change in American history.
Other Voices: Dave Brown
Dave Brown was a lineman at USC on the 1970 team. Like Manfred Moore and Charle Young, he was and remains a very spiritual man who led in a quiet way, despite not being a superstar athlete. He was good enough to play in the now-defunct World Football League and has dedicated his life to teaching and coaching. He currently teaches history and coaches football at San Clemente (California) High School.
I became a Christian when I was 17 years old. One night, sitting in my room, I gave my life to Jesus Christ. I always thought I was philosophical and anti-God; but I realized—I knew—I needed to make a change in my life. I went to USC in 1968 as a freshman. It wasn’t easy; I was not a big star. In high school, we’re all big stars; but at USC, I was just one of the guys, not penciled in as a starter. Not starting, many times I felt like giving it up, but my mom used to advise me that nobody in my family had ever graduated from college, so I hung in there to honor my mom, and I’m glad I did.
That Alabama game was my first game—not as a team leader, but God was good to me. . . . I was wide-eyed, a rookie getting off the plane. I’d never, ever even been to the South; this was the first time I ever traveled. But I was up on current events, I knew about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King. They greet us with the Million-Dollar Band, and I’d never seen anything like that in my life. People were surrounding us, and it was a real big deal that Southern Cal had come to play Alabama. My eyes were wide, and I was thinking, This is amazing. I just didn’t realize that people felt that highly of football in the South. In Southern California, it’s different.
Bill Holland, an African-American from Los Angeles High School and a super guy, he was hanging with me most of this time. I remember distinctly seeing this one place, it looked like an old factory or warehouse, with dilapidated buildings. I looked out there, and I said, “That’s amazing.” All these black high school students were doing band drills in the yard. This school looks horrible, and Holland just says, “This is the way it is here.”
Segregation du jour, that’s the way it was. Integration was not really happening yet. As the bus rolled down the road, . . . [I] saw the marked difference in socio-economics of each neighborhood, and all the while I’m thinking, This is amazing. It was shocking.
Later, standing in the hotel with Bill, he takes me to a wing of the lobby, and this little kid comes by asking for autographs. We’ve all got USC blazers on; this is the Holiday Inn, Birmingham. This little kid mixed into the group. He’s maybe five or six, and he turns to his mother and says, “Gee, Mommy, they sure have a lot of n—s on that team.”
I turned to Bill, and I asked him, “Hey, how are you holding up?”
He says, “Yeah, you know, I face that in L.A. That’s typical.”
That opened my eyes. I come from a white community in L.A. and I’d not realized that before. I’m 20 years old, and this is my education.
We played well against an all white team, and they were not what we expected. They had no team speed, and it was not a very good game, to be honest with you.
On his faith. My Christian influence on that [‘70] team was, I’m not a leader at that point. People knew it about me, and I tried to act like it. Guys were older and did not hold those values, so I was not mainstream; but God was faithful to me, because by 1972 we had a really good core of men on that team, guys with good values, a lot of Christians. Sam Cunningham was a Christian. We Christians started fellowships when we were seniors. We said, “We’re going to give our season to the Lord,” to honor Him with our team.
I didn’t know how good we’d be. My sophomore and junior years we’d not played well. My senior year we played at Arkansas and were not supposed to win that game. We were tied at the half. We won that game, 31–10, and they were number one going in.
I went over to Coach McKay, who was often unapproachable. Sometimes we feared him. I said to him that we always pray before games, so I asked if he will let us pray after the game. So that night we prayed and were thankful. The team took off and went 12–0; it was the most fantastic team ever. I coached 26 years in high school and junior college, and I’ve never seen a team like that. I’ve never seen such camaraderie and unity.
That year was from God. Others would just say it was a great team, but as a coach I know you’ve gotta have more than just great talent, you need to overachieve; and that’s what God’s granted you. That team had it.
I got involved in Athletes in Action and the FCA. I lifted weights with a guy who was with Athletes in Action in the late ‘60s, so I invited him to come to our team in ‘72. McKay said he wouldn’t mind if the guy puts on a demonstration, as long as it’s voluntary. . . . We had a good time up there; a lot of guys prayed and accepted Christ that day—a lot of guys, maybe 80 percent.
On his teammates. John Papadakis was a real fiery guy, a good athlete in high school and at USC. He was charismatic; he was a guy we looked to on the team. He was always doing something off the wall, always trying to get people to play better. He was a leader defensively on the team. I came in as a freshman and he was a better athlete than me; he never had to red-shirt. He was a good guy to have. I can’t remember all the things he said quite right, but he always had a Greek saying; he was always “acting Greek.” . . . We would discuss Christ. He didn’t get involved that much, but he was a Christian and we would have discussions about God. I think he was Greek Orthodox. I wouldn’t characterize him as a person who got really involved in that fellowship, which kind of took off after he was gone.
Sam Cunningham is a super guy, a really humble, very friendly man, sensitive to others. He was really team oriented. He could have gone to another program with great statistics instead of being a blocking fullback, not carry much more than seven, eight times games a game. In another program he’d have carried 20 times a game, but he just wanted to win. He started coming to AIA and Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He’s very moral. I rarely heard him swear.
On integration. 35 years later, their football game down there [in Alabama] was supposedly integrated. They had a few blacks in school, but from what I understand, some of those students that had entered the school years before didn’t stay too long. Segregation legally ended, but it was de facto; it had lasted much longer. We even see patterns of it to this day. Today we see a black community, a Latino community, a white community, sometimes blacks even self-segregating, which is sad. We just have to keep making it better every generation.
I never thought that much about it, to be honest with you. At USC we had whites, blacks, a few Jews, Latinos; I never thought about it. Here we played an all white team, which was strange in college. I’m thinking as I looked at Alabama, How do these guys think they can compete like that? This game’s gonna pass ‘em by. The next year they had an outside linebacker named John Mitchell, who was black, and a defensive end who was black; and they won that game. They realized integrating was their way out.
On USC’s progress. As far as our program getting back to where we had been, our tipping point was the Notre Dame game in 1971. We started our fellowship around that time, and we got serious. We were a big underdog back there and we beat ‘em 28–14. We never lost to them at USC after that.
I thanked God that I listened to my mom and had opportunity. I played in the World League in 1974–75 before it went defunct. I tried to play in the NFL, but I was a six-foot off center. So I got my teaching credentials, started education at 28, and pretty much always was involved in coaching. God’s called me to do it.
Other Voices: Manfred Moore
African-American Manfred Moore was a great Trojan on the football field and remains one to this day off the field. He is soft-spoken, erudite, and articulates in the manner of a college professor. Manfred choked up recalling the profound influence John McKay had in keeping him steered on the right path. Manfred, who has remained active in the USC Alumni Club, is a very spiritual man.
On his teammates and coaches. Wilbur Jackson was my teammate. He was a great guy. He was a running back, and I was a fullback. He started; he was quiet but tough, and he could run the ball fast. In 1976, the league added Tampa Bay, and John McKay picked me up.
We lost every single game, so somebody asked him, “How do you feel about your team’s execution?”
“I think that’s a good idea,” he replied.
Sam Cunningham was a guy with integrity—a big, brute of a guy, yet soft-spoken, very aware of people’s opinions and situations. He knew people had different issues. He’s wise.
One thing was Rod McNeill, Edesel Garrison, Charle Young, Sam Cunningham, and Manfred Moore got together, and we called ourselves the Big Five. . . . It wasn’t about ego, but we hung together; we supported each other. I knew alumni groups, and I’d introduce those guys to the groups for speaking in the off-season, and we’d get perks, clothes or whatever. We took care of each other.
Marv Goux was a brute, a tough guy; but if he respected you, he’d talk to you like a human being. If not, he’d let you know you need to get tougher to do your job. He was all about business on the field all the time with his players. He was a short guy, and linemen are big guys; but he’d grab you by the jersey, point at what direction to go, and man, if you did what he said you got good results.
John Papadakis, he was upper class. I was a red-shirt. You didn’t want to go up against him, to block him. I was on the “goon squad”; you had to be heads-up always, and he’d get around the defensive end and chase you down, hard. He was intimidating on and off the field.
On John McKay. John McKay affected my life in a profound manner. When I was a freshman, I got married to a Caucasian lady. She was my high school sweetheart, a cheerleader. We had a son. He’d recruited me with a scholarship, but now we had to come face to face with issues that in those days were not so cut and dried. He could have rescinded the scholarship, cut me off; and he could have had a legitimate excuse that my getting married and having a son would distract me from school and football. Instead, John McKay said, “He [my son] doesn’t make any difference.” He helped with married student housing; he was a man of his word, yes sir. I love my son. I took him to classes; I took him to practice. McKay saw I had a son. He could have said, “Don’t bring a kid around here . . . don’t bring him to class.” Instead, John McKay, at the end of practice, told my little son Jason to come over and line up at halfback. He handed him the ball for him to “run” for a “touchdown.” He was only four years old. John showed that love and affection, so now with tears in my eyes if I can show him love and affection by telling you this story, then that’s what I’m gonna do.
The next year we lost to the Ohio State Buckeyes [in the 1974 Rose Bowl]. Coach McKay was disappointed and must have had a lot on his mind; but when the press spoke to him, this is what he told them: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll make certain Manfred Moore gets drafted into pro football.”
Maybe sometimes he didn’t relate well to people, but he was honorable and bright. He called me Manny; they all started calling me Manny. My experience with him—he gave me a scholarship and got me into pro football. Under him I was voted most inspirational and most improved. This is directly attributed to Coach McKay’s influence.
But wait, there’s more. At Tampa Bay, we’re 0–14. The worst team in the league. He needed to make roster space and had to trade me. He could have traded me anywhere in the league. Where does he send me? He sent me to the Oakland Raiders, the year we won the Super Bowl in 1976. My hometown <he was originally from Richmond>—the best team in the world. I won an L.A. City championship at San Fernando High, a national championship at USC in 1972, and a world championship at Oakland in 1976. McKay affected my life with an impact I’ll feel forever. That’s some of the things McKay affected.
So, remembering John McKay . . . it was just another reminder that God puts people on your path that help you achieve your goal and purpose, in this life. They may not have talked or behaved like angels (on or off the field), but they were a blessing on the way to fulfilling our purpose in this life—to know God and to make Him known!
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism