The days of iron men & wooden ships?

I played college football in the mid 1960’s at Fresno State College. My goal from the time I was 12 years old was to play college football. It was a long shot as I did not even start on my high school team until I was a senior. I was a late developer having started high school at 13.5 years old, so in essence I was always a year behind my class. I made it; I was captain of the freshman team. We were terrible with only 23 players, so I played 58 minutes a game at offensive center and defensive tackle. I was about 190 pounds. Spring practice 1965 I made the varsity and earned a $50 dollar a semester scholarship. I bulked up to 220 pounds. I was the third string center starting in the fall. My goal was to make the traveling squad to play University of Hawaii the last game of the year over Thanksgiving break. I made it, got to go to Hawaii and fly in a plane for the first time. I was the youngest on the team. Many of the other players were in their mid-twenties and had been in the service and played two years of JC ball. They rented cars and went out drinking while I went for walks on the beach.

After the season our coach resigned to take a job as an assistant at USC, so we had a new Coach Daryl Rogers, a Fresno State grad who was a complete asshole. He was a Bear Bryant wannabe. He wanted everybody to lose weight and be fast, here I had spent two years trying to bulk up now I had to lose weight. We had no organized off season program. I lifted with the track guys and started on a journey that continues today of learning about conditioning, speed development and strength training. At one point the head coach tried to discourage me from lifting weight because I would get tight and slow. I was an overwhelming 193 getting my ass kicked every day. I was second string center that year and did not play a minute in a game. I forgot to mention that in my sophomore year I got to play in one game for four minutes in a 56 – 0 route of Washburn University.

After the 1966 season I figured out, given the offense we were running, that if I ever wanted to play, I would have to change positions. So, I went to the head coach and asked to switch to guard. At guard there was a lot of trapping and pulling so my size would not be a disadvantage and my speed had also begun to develop so I could use that as an asset. In spring practice, much to the surprise of all the coaches except for the new offensive line who actually coached me to be better by teaching me my position. There was no screaming at me and calling me a pussy, I graded out as the top offensive lineman. I earned a $350 semester scholarship and a starting position at guard. Unfortunately, on the last pay of the spring game I threw a block downfield and hit my head on the knee of a defensive back and got a severe stinger. It had happened before, but never like this. I lost feeling in my hand for three-days and could not sleep for a week. The rest of the spring and summer I worked on it. I religiously did neck exercises. When we started fall practice, two practices a day in 100 plus heat I held my starting position, but I knew I was not 100%. The day before our first game against Santa Clara, someone swung a blocking bag and hit me in the side of the head and my arm went numb. I didn’t say anything, I started the game and played awful. I was taken out at halftime. We lost the game. I went to practice on Monday, had a terrible practice after being ripped in the film session and being demoted to second string. The next day I went into a coach’s meeting and quit. That was the end of my football career. I would be lying if I said I did not look back. I made up my mind I would have nothing to do with football in any way shape or form, although I did reluctantly coach on?e? season of junior high school football, not an especially enjoyable experience.

Looking back here are some things that I learned. Football is a brutal violent sport that is not fun in any way shape or form. I learned about racism firsthand. The black players were treated very differently. They lived in a different part of town. Our line coach Bob Burgess was an alcoholic redneck racist and he did nothing to hide it. The N word was an integral part of his vocabulary. If you were injured, you got shots and played. Our team doctors nickname was needles Knutsen, he would shoot you up anywhere anytime including in the locker room at halftime. You were encouraged to take mickey classes to stay eligible. I was yelled at one day when after almost three hours of practice I asked to leave practice because I had a midterm in a night class. The coach asked me if there to get an education or play football. I answered to get an education. I was labeled an intellectual after that (also because I read my assignments before practice while waiting an hour every day to be taped). I was labeled soft and a pussy because I would not do the stupid illegal stuff the redneck line coach taught us. Then and there is where I formulated my philosophy of metal toughness. To me it was being mentally strong and being able to perform under pressure, not screaming and yelling and frothing at the mouth. Football is, at least the way we were taught, was not a game that formed friendships and camaraderie. It was brutal competition every day. We wore full pads every day and hit live every day. In preseason practice my junior year we actually had three practices a day in pads. The morning practice was 93 degrees and the other two practices were 100 degrees plus. We had one water break ?each practice. Looking back, it was a miracle that no one died of heat stroke. Concussions – that is another story. Looking back, there were at least three practices I cannot remember. Everyone just laughed, ah you got you?r? bell rung. No such a thing as helmet fit. I learned that good coaching can make a difference. The new line coach who came in was a teacher, he related to me as a human being. What a breath of fresh air. He called me by name instead of you pussy. He was also the tennis coach. Next year he won the only NCAA championship Fresno State has ever won.

So, it was a time of iron men and wooden ships. It was macho to be cruel, racist and misogynistic – that was and is the culture of the game. I am hoping that a benefit of Covid 19 pandemic is that there will be a pause button on football at all levels and there will be a total reexamination of the sport and its surrounding culture. I realize I am writing through the lens of my personal experience but hopefully it will stimulate some thought and discussion. The days of iron men and wooden ships should be a thing of the past.

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