A hundred summers ago, at a beach on the shores of Lake Erie, two men played a game of catch. They were seasonal employees from a nearby amusement park and students at a small Catholic college in Indiana, and they did this often, at least when one of them -- a Norwegian kid from Chicago named Rockne -- wasn't in the grill room romancing his future wife. It was an oddball notion then, this idea of actively throwing a football for pleasure; it was peculiar enough that others on the beach would observe with fascination as these dudes in swimsuits hurled a prolate spheroid at each other, executing simple out patterns and curls and streaks, learning to pull in this awkward object with their fingers rather than letting it crash into their chests.
This was the summer of 1913, and football was a game associated more with dense, gravity-bound violence than with aerial finesse, a game so marred by the specter of severe injury and accidental death that Teddy Roosevelt himself had stepped in to lead a summit on its survival. This was the summer of 1913, and the forward pass had been legal for nearly a decade in the aftermath of Roosevelt's intervention, and no one had really figured out what to do with it yet. And then one afternoon that fall, during a game against Army, two men from Notre Dame exposed the possibilities.
There is a tremendous pile of Hollywood hokum inherent to the Knute Rockne mythology -- it may be said that no single piece of propaganda aided the ongoing romanticism of the amateur ideal quite like Ronald Reagan's portrayal of the Gipper in "Knute Rockne: All American" -- but this much is true: Notre Dame's win over Army in 1913 really did begin to alter the popular perception of college football. The Irish, led by quarterback Gus Dorais (the other guy on that beach), completed 14 of 17 passes that day, and Rockne caught a first-quarter touchdown pass after faking a limp to fool a defender, and Notre Dame won 35-13, proving, wrote author Murray Sperber, "that the forward pass could spread out the defense, allowing a more varied attack." The East Coast media swooned, and the legend blew up to the point that, even now, Rockne is often credited as the inventor of the forward pass, even though Knute Rockne the coach -- like a generation of coaches who came after -- felt that the forward pass was an unnecessary risk.
Two kids screwing around on a beach in July, a century ago: This was the moment when college football evolved from its rugby-addled British pre-history into a unique American modernity.
Which brings me, of course, to Johnny Manziel.
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Forget, for a moment, the alleged autograph signings and the brushes with celebrity and the courtside seats and the post-adolescent petulance in the face of an overwhelming swell of fame. Forget, for a moment, the overwrought discussions about whether Johnny Manziel is somehow comparable to the civil-rights heroes of yore, or the explorations of whether his inherent rebelliousness may have somehow been amplified by his cockfighting lineage. Forget about all that and just watch Johnny Football do this against Alabama:
I was there that day, sitting several miles above the action in the press box, watched over by creepy portraits of Bear Bryant, and so I didn't quite grasp the subtle magic of that play at first. I didn't hear Verne Lundquist pronounce the play dead, and then literally gasp into his microphone as Manziel kept it alive, and then spit out an "Oh my … gracious" after Manziel hurled a pass across his compact body for a touchdown, because an "Oh my goodness" would have felt far too pedestrian for an earth-shaking moment like this one. I didn't hear Gary Danielson mutter an numb little "yup," and I didn't realize that Manziel nearly dropped the ball in that mid-play scrum until I watched the replay a second time.
And yet even in real time, without the media filter, I came to recognize at least two things in that moment: The first was that Texas A&M was probably going to defeat Alabama on its home field, merely by spreading the field and stretching every play to its limit. The second was that college football may have just reached a critical evolutionary tipping point.
* * *
It began one winter in Southern California at the end of 1960s, with a high-school football coach watching a high-school basketball game. It began, according to Bart Wright's upcoming book "Football Revolution," with a man named Jack Neumeier watching an undersized center catch a pass in the paint, and thinking to himself, "This is like us in football -- overmatched." So Neumeier began drawing up plays, studying the vagaries of run-and-shoot offense and inventing something entirely his own, something known as the "spread," something that would eventually splinter in a dozen different directions and sift through myriad coaching trees once Neumeier put it in the hands of a quarterback named John Elway.
All these decades later, the central complaint about the spread offense is pretty much the same as the central complaint about the forward pass a century ago: It feels cheap and emasculating. (Just last season, as spread tactics began to trickle up into the NFL, 49ers running back Frank Gore admitted he didn't think this was "real football.") It pushes the game out into space rather than relying on gladiatorial ground combat. It is an equalizer for undersized teams with built-in recruiting disadvantages; it is as much the measure of a man's wiles as it is the measure of his ability to toss a blocking sled. Walter Camp, the closest thing football has to a founding father, believed the forward pass would corrupt a sport that had been founded on 19th-century ideals of masculinity, on what Teddy Roosevelt had referred to as the "strenuous life." Mostly, Camp was cranky because it didn't fit the nature of the squad he'd cobbled together at Yale. A century later, in the midst of a complaint about the very offense that Manziel used to defeat his Alabama team, Nick Saban asked, "Is this what we want football to be?"
The problem is not that Saban asked the question. It's actually a good question. But the game evolves organically, as it passes through the years and filters through the minds of men who are paid to find ways to win games against opponents like Alabama. The question is not just about what we want football to be; the question is about how we adjust to what football becomes.
* * *
College football is at such a critical juncture on so many levels that it's almost impossible to imagine what it might look like -- or whether it will even exist, outside of certain geographic pockets -- 25 years from now. I grew up with it, and I recognize its inherent hypocrisy, and I still enjoy it more purely and completely than I enjoy almost anything. I don't want it to die. I don't want it to fall victim to corruption and/or violence; I don't want it to wither in a courtroom due to the failures of impotent bureaucrats. I want it to find a rational path beyond this point of crisis. I want it to evolve.
And this brings me back to Johnny Manziel, and to that balletic schoolyard improvisation against Alabama, and to the amphetaminic offense that Texas A&M imported to the Southeastern Conference. A year ago, upon the Aggies' entry into the SEC, coach Kevin Sumlin had to endure a series of patronizing questions at the conference's media day about whether such a cute little ruse of a strategy could work in a conference that exists on a higher plane than any conference in the history of conferences.
But Manziel moved us past all of that condescension. The moment Manziel threw that pass, the modern spread ceased to be a gimmick. It was, officially and undeniably, a progression.
There are important questions to be asked here about the safety implications of the hurry-up iteration of the spread. That those questions come from defensive-minded coaches -- like Saban and humorless Biff Tannen impersonator Bret Bielema --who would prefer to strangle the hurry-up in its infancy is both understandable and ultimately unimportant. We need more studies beyond the anecdotal (some of which seem to show that "fast football" may actually be safer, at least in terms of the number of injuries). We need to know how to best allow football to survive before we can fully comprehend where it might go next. We know it has to change; we just don't really know how yet. But I think there's a legitimate discussion to be had about whether stretching the game to its edges might be a way to a) continue to minimize the talent gap between haves and have-nots, and b) limit the jarring contact that nearly killed football in the previous century, and threatens to marginalize it now.
A few years ago, a dual-quarterback high-school offense called the A-11 was pushed by a couple of publicity-savvy high-school coaches in California. Itwas, admittedly, too much of a goofball trend to catch on widely (especially since it exploited a loophole in the rules regarding a specific formation), but those coaches insist that it nearly eliminated major injuries. They may not have gotten the details entirely right, but they were riding the same evolutionary wave that carried Johnny Manziel to the Heisman Trophy, and the same evolutionary wave inspired by Dorais-to-Rockne a century ago. You vary things, you spread them out, you find ways to compete against superior talent. You innovate.
I mean, I imagine the 1892 Harvard Crimson -- innovators of the bloodthirsty formation known as the Flying Wedge -- would probably find Frank Gore's perception of "real football" to be soft and toothless. I imagine their perception of what football should be was rather different from even Nick Saban's terrifying perception of what football should be (not to mention those guys had to construct their oatmeal cream pies by hand). College football changes slowly, but it changes because it has to. It changes because if it didn't, it would have ceased to exist long ago.