T he following is an excerpt from Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games by Michael Weinreb. Copyright © 2014 by Michael Weinreb. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Preorder your copy here.
One of the most breathtaking displays of human physicality I have ever witnessed took place well after midnight, Eastern Standard Time, on a November night in 2005. I was at home, watching a college football game between the University of Southern California and Fresno State, and a USC running back named Reggie Bush cradled a handoff in the backfield, broke through the left side of the offensive line, and careened toward daylight. He sprinted twenty-five yards, angling toward the sideline, and then he ran out of room, and instead of giving up and stepping out of bounds, or angling back toward the field and a violent point of contact, Reggie Bush just stopped.
For a split second, Bush appeared to actively deliberate what direction to take next; it was almost as if he’d mustered the power to stop time, like a character in a Twilight Zone episode. And in that instant, with the football in his right hand, he somehow feigned a behind-the-back pass to himself, thereby freezing the three defenders directly in front of him. Then he cut across the field, outrunning every single person on it until he reached the end zone. He pointed a finger toward the sky, and the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum shook, and Reggie Bush wound up with 513 all-purpose yards, and USC won the game, and three weeks later Bush was awarded the Heisman Trophy as the sport’s player of the year.
I still think those eleven seconds comprise one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed on a football field. It’s probably my favorite single play of all time that didn’t involve any sort of pre-meditated emotional allegiance. I didn’t really care if USC won or lost; I had no strong personal feelings about the Trojans’ dynastic run in the mid-2000s, one way or another. But then Bush went ahead and reversed the time-space continuum, and it was so absurd that I stood and shouted and woke up my wife and probably half of my apartment building. I’m pretty sure I texted a friend of mine with nothing but a string of exclamation points, and then he texted me back with an even longer string of exclamation points, and then I rewound my DVR and watched it six more times.1 It was the signature highlight of a career that would never be quite that amazing again.
That season marked the absolute peak of Bush’s career. He was drafted with the second pick by the New Orleans Saints; he would eventually be stripped of his Heisman Trophy and retroactively cost USC a national championship for allegedly taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts from sports agents. (According to the NCAA record books, that run against Fresno never actually happened. According to the Heisman Trophy Trust, there is no official winner of the 2005 award.) As I write this, he is preparing to play for his third NFL team, and while he is a serviceable (and occasionally very good) NFL player, it seems pretty clear that he will never be as good a professional running back as he was a college running back, because he was the greatest college running back of his generation.
By certain standards, Reggie Bush’s career is a bust. And this will bother certain people more than it bothers me.
My first favorite college football player was Todd Blackledge, the quarterback for Penn State’s 1982 national championship team. Blackledge was from Canton, Ohio, the son of an NFL coach, six-foot-three, 225 pounds, a classic pocket passer with a strong arm and an unshakable aura and a wisp of a mustache. During his senior year, he led Penn State to a comeback win over Nebraska by driving the length of the field for a touchdown in seventy-four seconds. In the Sugar Bowl against Georgia, he threw a picturesque bomb along the sideline to a diving Gregg Garrity for the game-winning touchdown. That Penn State squad was the first national title team ever to gain more passing yards than rushing yards, belying the inherently conservative philosophy of their coach, Joe Paterno. Blackledge was versatile enough, and poised enough, that he altered the thinking of a coach who had been bred, like most midcentury football coaches, to believe that the forward pass was an unnecessary risk.
Todd Blackledge was, by all accounts, a solid citizen—he was the volunteer Big Brother to a kid on my Little League team, which boosted that kid’s social status tenfold—and he seemed like he would have, at worst, a solid professional football career. He was drafted in the summer of ’83 with the seventh overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs, and in any other year Blackledge might have succeeded or failed on his own terms, but 1983 happened to be the Year of the Quarterback, and while Blackledge was drafted behind John Elway, he was also drafted ahead of two quarterbacks (Dan Marino and Jim Kelly) who would make the Pro Football Hall of Fame and two quarterbacks (Ken O’Brien and Tony Eason) who would have solid, if unspectacular, professional careers. Blackledge lasted five seasons, threw more interceptions than touchdown passes, retired, and became a low-key color commentator who may be best known for his appetite.2
“I was surprised I was the second guy picked, I really was,” he said in a recent ESPN documentary about the ’83 draft. “I did consider myself to be a winner.”
All of this was beyond his control. Blackledge was great, and he was a winner, and then, largely due to outside circumstances, he was (comparatively) not great at all, and he was (comparatively) not a winner. He was a prototypical college player, and an incompatible professional player; he was, by virtue of his graduation date, an all-time NFL draft bust. And this bothers certain people more than it bothers me.
There was no single moment when the NFL eclipsed college football in popularity. It just kind of happened, the way many other (more significant) cultural changes took hold in America in the middle of the twentieth century. The closest thing to a watershed is probably the iconic 1958 Colts-Giants championship game, which ended with Alan Ameche’s end-zone dive, but that predated the arrival of Pete Rozelle and the innovative television deals that brought professional football to the masses.
Up until then, though, pro football was a secondary pursuit. The college game was the only football that existed until the 1920s, and because it was intimately tied to the sentimental experience of college itself, it came across as a purer enterprise. Professional sports (with the exception of baseball, which was already shrouded in myth) were seamier; professional football often did not pay well enough or offer enough luster to lure the highest-profile players in the college game. And so you did your four years, you became a campus legend, and then you found a job at a local rubber company (like Jay Berwanger, the first Heisman Trophy winner, in 1935, who turned down the Bears’ offer of a $13,500 salary) or you became a history teacher (Larry Kelley, Yale, winner of the 1936 Heisman) or an FBI agent (Davey O’Brien, TCU, winner of the 1938 Heisman, who actually did play two years in the NFL, led the league in several categories, and then retired and was assigned to a bureau field office in Missouri). “Pro football has never been able to sell itself completely to the fans who are so wild over the collegiate version of the sport,” wrote Sport magazine in 1952. “Many people stubbornly insist upon regarding football as a rah-rah game which isn’t the same when you take away the rah-rah.”
Sixty years later, the NFL has so eclipsed every other sport in popularity that it seems unfair to compare it to anything else in America, let alone another sport. And yet people still do it, because it is only natural to do it, because college and pro are so obviously intertwined, because one leads to the next and because ideas trickle up from one to the other and because very often the best players in one do not prove to be the best players in the other. There are those who peak early and those who bloom late; there are behemoths from small schools who don’t break out until they are placed into the backfield of the New York Giants, and there are high-profile skill-position players who never advance off the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars. And because of this, there is a sense, among certain hard-core NFL fans, that college football is a trifle, a ground for training and experiment, a quaint rah-rah Saturday ritual that serves as a mere prelude to the real thing on Sunday afternoons.
And in a way, these people are being closed-minded and prejudicial. And in a way, they’re completely right. And this bothers me more than it bothers certain people.
The genesis of reality-based football video games dates back to the 1980s, to the lineage of Tecmo Bowl and Super Tecmo Bowl, to Nintendo and Sega and on into the PlayStation/Xbox era, which is when I discovered the title that I’ve probably spent more hours playing than I have doing any single thing that’s not directly related to my ongoing survival as a human being.
It began in the early 2000s, when my roommate brought home a PlayStation from his job. (I’m unsure how a writer for a music magazine managed to finagle a complimentary PlayStation, except that it was the early 2000s, and publicists are sometimes very desperate.) We were children of the Nintendo era; at first, we didn’t know what to do with this advanced machine, other than stare at the controllers and express concern that they had “too many buttons.” But then we realized that, every summer, EA Sports manufactured a hyperrealistic NCAA Football video game, with electronic avatars based on real-life college players (even though the makers of the game could not admit that these avatars were based on actual humans, since those actual humans were amateur athletes who could not be compensated for the use of their likenesses). And other than meeting our wives and witnessing terrorist attacks, this was, for us, the most meaningful moment in our thirties.
We have played every iteration of The Game since then, and we shall play it in whatever iteration exists in the future, if it exists at all. (As I write this, lawsuits have put The Game on hold, after accusing The Game’s makers of profiting off the likenesses of the college students who were unable to share in the profits themselves; it was kind of a slam-dunk case, since The Game is revered for its “accurate” ratings of players, and since the most The Game would do to disguise its attempts to co-opt realism was randomly turn, say, a white kicker into a black dude with dreadlocks.)3 We have played The Game in person, and we have played The Game online. We have had long and in-depth and embarrassingly personal discussions about how The Game serves as a metaphor for our wants and our needs and our subconscious desires. We have evoked The Game as a metaphor when facing the major decisions of our adulthood; we have turned to our spouses for advice about The Game in the midst of long losing streaks.
The Game, of course, is wildly popular outside of our respective households. The Game is one of EA Sports’ bestsellers, but it pales in comparison to EA’s bestselling sports game of all, which is John Madden’s NFL football simulacrum, which is essentially the same game, except it is based on National Football League teams (and the players receive a cut of the profits).
Except here’s what we’ve found: It isn’t the same game.
One year, my roommate4 received a free copy of Madden in exchange for subscribing to a sports magazine. We tried it, and it was very much like The Game, but it was also subtly and fundamentally different. And because these sports games are now so deeply grounded in realism, Madden felt different in the exact way, at least to us, that college football feels less potent than professional football. Madden was more structured, more plodding; Madden had less variety and more straight-ahead plunges. Madden felt far less irreverent, far less replete with possibility, than The Game did. Madden is for hyperactive perfectionists, just like the NFL; The Game is for sentimental nostalgists who still believe in the flukish potential of the double reverse and the triple option. Madden felt far more like work,5 which is a measure of how tangible and ultrarealistic sports games have become, but which also explains why my roommate and I never wound up playing it again.
On the fourth evening of January in 2006, Reggie Bush and the USC Trojans played the Texas Longhorns in the Rose Bowl for the national championship, and what transpired might be one of the greatest pure college football games in the history of the sport. USC had won thirty-four consecutive games6 under cheerful spiritualist Pete Carroll, an NFL flameout who seemed determined to defy the draconian stereotype of the college football coach. Carroll opened his practices to the media; Carroll was jolly and upbeat and a total laid-back dude, and, according to a magazine article by the writer J. R. Moehringer, Carroll spent his nights trying to broker peace among gang members in South Central. His Trojans were a reflection of the SoCal ethos: They were glamorous and likable and startlingly talented (and ultimately entwined with corrupt influences). Led by Bush and heartthrob quarterback Matt Leinart and a burly backup running back named LenDale White, the Trojans’ offense was almost an NFL offense as it was.
And on the other sideline: Texas, led by a quarterback named Vince Young, a gregarious junior from a rough neighborhood in Houston who may have been, up to that point, one of the five greatest pure athletes ever to play the position. “The two most explosive players in college football,” color analyst Dan Fouts called Young and Bush during the pregame. In the midst of a single pedestrian run, he compared Bush to both Walter Payton and Barry Sanders; when Bush tumbled head-over-heels into the end zone while tiptoeing along the sideline for a key touchdown, play-by-play man Keith Jackson mentioned that he’d passed Reggie Bush in a hallway earlier in the week and done nothing but uttered the word “Wow.” When Young rolled to his left, nearly fell down, then cut back to his right to run for a touchdown that cut the USC lead to 38–33 with four minutes to play, Fouts said, “I tell you, Keith, I’ve never seen anybody like him in my life.”
The game hinged on a fourth down and short, and White was stuffed by the Texas defense, and then Young led his team downfield, and on a fourth-and-five at the USC nine-yard-line with twenty-six seconds to play, Young scrambled to his right, charged toward the end zone, scored the game-winning touchdown, and vanished into a phalanx of photographers and sideline dwellers. It was, without question, the highlight of Vince Young’s young life. Afterward, his professional career would spiral downward in a series of strange and tawdry incidents involving bouts of depression and photos of him standing shirtless in nightclubs.
To watch the 2006 Rose Bowl now is to realize that college football is its own unique entity. To watch the 2006 Rose Bowl is to understand that there are certain incompatibilities between college football and professional football that will never be fully understood, no matter how much money is poured into the science of scouting. Reggie Bush’s NFL career has been okay, and Matt Leinart has become a backup quarterback who might be more famous as the guy who dated a reality television star. LenDale White packed on the pounds—one especially cruel NFL general manager, upon seeing White shirtless at the combine, claimed that he “needed a bra”—and flamed out of the league, and, as I write this, Vince Young is unable to hold down a position as a backup.
All the stars of the greatest national championship game of the twenty-first century have essentially been failures as professionals. And this only makes me love college football more.
I realize how college football must look from the outside. I realize that if alien replicants ever parachuted into, say, Birmingham, Alabama, for the Auburn-Alabama Iron Bowl game, they would see all these clans shaped by geography and family history and, occasionally, by pure chance,7 and they would see that all of this is embedded in supposed institutions of higher learning. They would see that these players are not professionals, but that they are treated as professionals, other than the fact that they do not explicitly get paid. They would witness an unabashed reverence for man-children who are not the best at what they do, but may someday be among the best, or may someday fade into obscurity as car dealers and construction managers and FBI agents. What can college sports possess, these replicants would wonder, that the professionals do not? Why not just spend the other half of the weekend watching a more polished brand of football? Isn’t this like spending seventeen dollars to watch a student film at an IMAX theater, or spending $27.95 on an unpublished novel written by an MFA student instead of a hardcover copy of The Corrections? How can anyone possibly argue that an inherently inferior product is somehow superior?
The reflexive rejoinder to this is to focus on the pageantry, on the atmosphere, on the tradition, on everything that surrounds the game rather than the game itself. And this is part of it; there is a sense of place inherent to college football that isn’t the same in the pros.8 College football happens, mostly, in small towns where nothing else is happening. There are live mascots and tailgates and the energy of thirty thousand undergraduates fueled by bladders of four-dollar vodka. The best professional football crowd, currently in Seattle, is equivalent to the sixth- or seventh-best Southeastern Conference crowd. Nobody watches, say, a Falcons-Panthers game for the atmosphere. They watch it for the occupational expertise.
But there’s more to it than that, and I think it goes back to Todd Blackledge and Reggie Bush and Vince Young and hundreds of others like them, great college players with inherent weaknesses in their game. I think there’s something beautiful about college football’s imperfection, about the notion that the players themselves are works in progress, that they fall victim to corruption and excess, and sometimes they party with too much vigor (like a lot of us did in college),9 that they do cocky things and they do stupid things and they sometimes lose games they have no right to lose because they are too full of themselves to take their opponent seriously. They have weird throwing motions, and they run awkwardly, and they drop wide-open passes, and they fall in love with fake dead girlfriends; they are raw and young and they only have to get one foot inbounds instead of two and they give speeches that would sound idiotic in an actual workplace, but because this is college, and because that intangible spirit still persists, they become folk heroes.
I’m reluctant to even bring up Tim Tebow, but I’m not sure if I can write an essay about what college football means without mentioning Tim Tebow. And I know that Tebow is beloved for many reasons (largely among Christians and graduates of the University of Florida and Fox News anchors), and I know that he’s hated for even more reasons (his open proselytizing and his ESPN-fueled overexposure foremost among them), but there may be no better example of a pure college football player in the modern era than Tebow, and I wonder if this gave professional football fans a reason to dislike him even more than they already did.
In 2008, after his Florida Gators suffered an early-season loss to Ole Miss, Tebow delivered an unbelievably earnest forty-second poetic soliloquy, with tears in his eyes, that ended with the promise “You will never see a team play harder than we will the rest of the season.” Then he got up, blessed the room, and walked away.
Four months later, Florida won the national championship. And this is how Tebow became a messianic presence at Florida, and this is why, when he emerged into the NFL, with his inaccurate arm and his staunch beliefs and his virginal persona, people presumed 1) this shit couldn’t possibly be real, and 2) this kind of jingoistic absurdity might work in college, but it couldn’t possibly work in the NFL, because the NFL is the real world. And so when Tebow started to win games as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, and then won a playoff game, a raging anger built, and I think at least a small measure of this anger was based on the fact that the NFL is meant to be a reflection of the American workplace, a hard and unforgiving meritocracy that regresses toward the mean, and college football is a reflection of college, a place where we are marooned somewhere between childhood and the real world, a place where enthusiasm and emotion are very real parts of the game itself and are sometimes enough to overcome a flaw in one’s throwing mechanics. And Tim Tebow, who was a marginal NFL talent with a collegiate persona, fit into one paradigm and did not fit into the other.
As an NFL quarterback, Tim Tebow was not destined to succeed. But does this make him a failure as a football player? At Florida, Tim Tebow is still a demigod; at Florida, they engraved a plaque with the words from his postgame speech, titled it The Promise, and hung it like a gospel.
I don’t want to make it seem like I hate the NFL, because I don’t. I enjoy it immensely; I just don’t enjoy it in the same way I enjoy college football. I like it when the NFL embraces college football concepts like the spread offense, but I prefer watching the way those concepts are stretched and manipulated more in the college game, because it offers greater possibility. And I recognize that it’s probably easier to be a professional football fan, because while it is more brutal and mercenary than the college game, these players are choosing football as a profession, and they are being paid handsomely to risk their future ability to walk straight and think straight.
I am not naïve about the future of college football. I know the system is on the verge of change. I know that, within the next decade, college football will almost certainly veer further in the direction of professionalism. I know the pressure is building to dismantle the model of amateurism, and I know that amateurism is exploitative and cruel and inherently hypocritical, and the rationalist part of my brain is happy about this. I know amateurism is unfair, and I know it defies logic, and I know that it fosters corruption and that it works as a boondoggle for some cartoonishly self-absorbed people, like bowl chairmen and university presidents and Gary Danielson. I know that college football cannot continue to exist in its current form, that it has to evolve or it will become a regionalistic relic.
But I think what we’re all afraid of—I think what makes otherwise intelligent and informed people hesitate at the thought of the NCAA opening the floodgates to free-market opportunities for its players—is that it will alter the fundamental character of college football. Because even if it is inherently the same, we want it to feel different. Because we don’t want our relationships to players to seem commoditized, even if we know that they really are. Because we don’t want it to seem like work, even if it is. Because we want it to be flawed and unpredictable. Because, at heart, the reason we prefer college football to the pros is that we are sentimental nostalgists, wishing we could retreat back to the time when we felt like maybe we had the potential to be great, too.