In Austin, Texas, November 9th, 1963, the number one Texas Longhorns played the highly regarded Baylor Bears in a game that most believed would settle the race for the (now-defunct) Southwest Conference championship, and even affect the national championship. Texas scored in the third quarter to go up 7 – 0, and there the score remained, until, late in the game, Baylor’s quarterback Don Trull, one of the country’s premier passers, lofted a bomb to the end zone to flanker Larry Elkins, his favorite target. It appeared a perfectly thrown ball, with Elkins set to cradle it in stride at the goal line. Except for one problem: Texas’s safety Duke Carlisle leaped, as it seemed, from nowhere to intercept the pass at the last moment—or, to be precise, with twenty-nine seconds to go.
Concussions in football, notably in the NFL, are in the news. A new film, simply titled, “Concussion,” which stars Will Smith in the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian and forensics expert, links football with a degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). As Katie Couric’s site in Yahoo! declares, the NFL does not want you to see this film.
The controversy swirling around head injury in football is really not new. Coaches and players have complained about it for years, certainly as early as Roger Staubach’s multiple concussions that changed tackling rules, and this year, notoriously, with the suicide death of Adrian Robinson who suffered from CTE.
How does Duke Carlisle’s interception in 1963 figure in to this controversy? In one way only: Carlisle did, indeed, play safety at that climactic moment in Baylor’s final drive, but he was also Texas’s starting quarterback.
With the CTE scandal boiling, critics of the way the game is played have spoken of various reforms of the rules that might check the tendency for horrendous, life-ruining injury, especially head injury. Joe Paterno, before his fall from grace, suggested doing away with the facemask; others have pointed the finger at the plastic helmet. No answer is liable to be perfect, but for me it’s a return to single-platoon football, the game that was fading from the scene in 1963, even as quarterback Duke Carlisle intercepted quarterback Don Trull.
Two-platoon football, football as we know it, truly dawned during World War II due to the number of athletes who went overseas, but it disappeared from the college game between 1953 and 1965, re-emerging when the free substitution rule went into effect. As for the pros, free substitution has been used since 1950 allowing the two-platoon system to blossom.
The result has been what we all recognize today: highly specialized players who are dedicated to one position on either offense or defense. These are people who are expected to go all out for part of a game. If the offense stays on the field for, ideally, half the game, the defense can rest half the game and vice versa. This has led to bigger, more skilled players, position-by-position, but at the cost of overall athleticism.
That athleticism is sorely missed. Take another example from the college lore, Rollie Stichweh, Army’s quarterback from 1962 to 1964. An excellent runner and passer, he also played defensive back; in one of his most storied games, he recovered the onside kick to Navy that almost led to an upset of the Roger Staubach-led Midshipmen that year. (The clock ran out on Army for the go-ahead touchdown on Navy’s two-yard line.)
Those of us who recall the era saw not just gifted passers or receivers, but great athletes, such as Rollie Stichweh. No denying we also saw smaller players. The monstrous characters we see on TV each week (or for some, each night of the week) simply couldn’t carry the weight for an hour-long game—or approach each play ignorant of the necessity to conserve energy.
Did players get injured in the single-platoon days? Of course, they did. The fatigue that comes from playing an entire game increases the opportunities for all sorts of injuries from sprained ankles to broken collarbones. But the question here is whether a tackle or linebacker who knows he cannot expect a five or ten minute rest each quarter hurl himself 100% on each play for the purpose of demolishing his opponents—or the destruction of himself through a series of concussions. I suspect the answer is obvious.
Single-platoon football did not cultivate, as today’s sport does, players of a size appropriate to one particular position; physical specialization might decrease endurance and agility. And, alas, people today love their hulking stars. Nonetheless, a game with smaller, faster, and more broadly talented players—players less likely to permanently damage their opponents—would take spectators into a new world of football that, given time, might be as exciting.
I don’t kid myself into believing that that change will occur. But wouldn’t the end of these truly life-destroying injuries, head injuries foremost among them, make for a better game for all of us? Who knows? The sight of a quarterback intercepting a pass or recovering an onside kick might provide a new set of thrills for those who don’t remember when such feats were common.