Super Bowl roots hark back to farm fields of Britain

It's been said that, come the Super Bowl, US football fans exhibit a near religious enthusiasm for the game.

So what else is new? You should see the Welsh and the New Zealanders when they strive for football supremacy (the rugby kind) at Cardiff Arms Park.

Perhaps there's a reason for this fervor; perhaps it is in the partly religious, wholly superstitious origin of the two games.

It all began in medieval times when English farmers hit on an idea to boost harvests. Obviously, in a land where a travel poster featuring the sun might be considered questionable advertising, the sun was held in very high regard. So these farmers bound a few sheaves of hay into a ball to symbolize the sun and kicked it around their fields. The sun, flattered by all this attention, presumably shone a little bit harder the following season.

Kicking the sun around this way became so popular that pretty soon folks who had nothing to do with agriculture joined in, and, wouldn't you know, the original purpose was soon forgotten. It became a sport: Football, or soccer as it is called here in the United States.

Back in the days when the English were honing their military skills on the playing fields of their more well-endowed schools, a young man at Rugby named William Webb Ellis picked up a ball during a soccer game and ran with it in his hands.

He should have known better, of course, but it seemed like such a fun thing to do that his peers at Rugby devised a new game that still bears the name of their school to this day. They also turned the ball into an oval, the better to carry it.

Late last century rugby crossed the Atlantic. But Americans, being Americans, couldn't leave well enough alone and pretty soon they began bending the rules as dramatically as Bill Ellis had done.

They replaced rugby's scrum - a sort of free-for-all wrestling match in which both sides strove for possession - with a set line of scrimmage. From then on possession of the ball became much more important in the American game simply because you couldn't get it back again without going to an inordinant amount of trouble. They also slimmed the ball down somewhat so it could be more readily thrown with one hand.

The big change came with the introduction of the forward pass into the American game. A nice touch, that, but it cut way back on the use of the lateral pass (rugby is filled with laterals) and that's a pity.

At this stage the Rugby-football relationships might be said to have changed from half-brother to first cousin. But be assured, the relationship does exist. Up until the '30s, rugby's drop kick was still an accepted part of US football, and, according to the rule book, it is still an accepted way to score. And in both games the idea is to run with ball, securely tucked beneath the arm, over the opposition's goal line.

The football term ''touchdown'' indicates the rugby connection. To score in rugby the ball must be touched down behind the goal line. To throw it down, as exultant pass receivers frequently do in professional football, would be to throw away the points.

Having been raised on rugby and having learned to appreciate football after moving to the US, I see aspects of each game that might profitably be adopted by the other.

For one thing, football could adopt a rugby-type kick for extra points following a touchdown. It would take place in a line directly back from the point where the player crossed the goal line. In other words, a touchdown between the uprights becomes the ideal. Score in the corner and the extra point kick takes place from the sideline.

When introduced to football, rugby players always ask why the ball carrier is given all the praise while his blockers get almost none. There's perhaps a touch of envy in this observation. No ball handler gets that kind of protection in rugby. Even accidental interference is penalized, so the only way to help the ball carrier is to be ready to take a lateral when he can go no farther.

So far I haven't been able to sell the ''no interference'' concept to US football any more than I have been able to sell the forward pass to British rugby. Guess I'll have to give up the idea.

Meanwhile, I've been wrestling with a chilling thought: What if England's climate had been as dry as, say, California's? Those medieval farmers would have sought to placate something other than the sun.

Would today's Super Bowl then have been some kind of water polo game?

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