In praise of the prolate spheroid
Childhood is often spent playing sports and games, adulthood reflecting on the experience. Pursuing the latter pastime recently brought me to a new appreciation of what I have concluded is the greatest single piece of equipment in sports: the football.
Before I explain why this is, consider the following anecdote about an exasperated college football coach. Frustrated by his team's embarrassing first-half performance, he decided to review the basics.
Holding up a ball he began his locker-room oration. "Gentlemen, this is a football."
To which a player replied, "Not so fast, coach."
Not so fast, indeed. Let's not overlook the object that makes the game of football so special, namely the pebble-grained ball that is punted, passed, kicked, hidden, lateraled, caught, carried, and sometimes fumbled.
When it's jarred loose we are reminded that the football may be symmetrical, but it is far from spherical. The unusual shape, known as a prolate spheroid, means that this ball bounces with more maddening unpredictability than any other in sports.
Rugby and Australian Rules Football have elongated, more roundish balls. Golf has a dimpled ball and tennis a fuzzy one. Only football, though, has a ball that one minute is a Mexican jumping bean and the next a picture of aerodynamic beauty.
In fact, it is the ball's flight properties that drew me to the game as a boy and continue to intrigue me.
If there's a more aesthetically pleasing sight in sports than a soaring punt or a gracefully arched pass, I haven't seen it.
Baseball has its impressive home runs and golf its incredibly long drives. These are awe- inspiring for the distance traveled, but an airborne football has so much more character. If the spin isn't tight, the ball flutters and wobbles. But when a skilled player produces a tight spiral, you recognize it instantly and admire the results.
We can thank the shape of the ball for this and relish the fascinating history behind it.
The ball used during the first collegiate football game in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers was a round soccer-type ball, making "football" a more logical name then than it is today.
By the mid-1870s, a rugby ball had become the ball of choice, but it wasn't until 1911 that the rules specified use of a prolate spheroid. This was important in introducing the forward pass to the game. (See below.)
Oddly, the dimensions weren't nailed down until 1934. Before that, they varied, with some balls being short and stubby, and others slimmer and longer.
All this, of course, was of no consequence when I attended my first game in the 1950s, as a baby boomer growing up in Indiana. After watching Evansville College play, my family stopped at a drugstore on the way home to buy my brother and me our first football, a cheap rubber model.
A day later I attempted to punt it in our apartment. A lamp was badly cracked, but a love affair with the football had begun.
I never became a good punter. Nevertheless, I managed one super punt as a teenager - long, high, and a perfect spiral - while practicing by myself one day. Even with nobody around, it felt terrific. Just one breakthrough like that was wonderful enough, something to keep for life.
Throwing a football, I discovered early on, was my thing. It took a little while before I was able to throw a nice spiral, maybe partly because small hands can't grip enough of the ball. When the technique does fall in place, though, it's a lot like learning to ride a bike. You suddenly, instinctively, have the touch, and it never leaves you.
At about this time, we got what I considered our first real football, a top-quality leather Spalding that was in another league from what my friends had. I came to treasure that ball (something that never occurred with any baseball or basketball I ever owned). A good football is a significant investment, and I was pretty protective of what became the game ball for our sandlot Quarterback Club games.
The ball wasn't to get wet, since water isn't good for cowhide (not pigskin, as is commonly believed). And no one was to pass or kick the ball in the street, lest it be scuffed. My generally friendly demeanor could develop a few fissures if that happened.
As I studied it, I came to realize that drawing even a profile of a football was difficult, with its pointed, but slightly rounded ends and its gently curved contours. This artistic elusiveness added to its charm.
Looking back, my appreciation of the football was rewarded. For while I was just an average athlete who managed to earn a football letter only in my senior year of high school, I excelled at throwing long passes. On the baseball diamond, I could also throw pop flies to impressive heights. But it was my ability to heave a football 50 yards or more that seemed to turn the most heads and occasionally earn the respect of older, better athletes.
There was no sweeter feeling than to overthrow a stunned receiver who had slowed down, thinking he was out of range.
Ironically, the only time I felt I really had much of an audience for showing off this talent was during a freshman game, when I was a backup quarterback. The game was played under the lights at the varsity stadium. I never got in the game, which was probably a good thing, because I'd exhausted myself throwing deep pass after deep pass during warmups.
I went on to finish my high school career playing end and linebacker, catching a few touchdown tosses along the way.
There would be no more showcases for my well-arched bombs, except in weekend pickup games. It didn't much matter, though, because my friendship with the football, a wondrous boyhood companion, has never been broken.
In this, the centennial year of airplane flight, I suggest that fans momentarily look past football's collisions to what really defines the game - the ball itself. It's a beaut, especially aloft!
When it comes to storied stadiums, 100-year-old Harvard Stadium is head and shoulder pads above any other. It's one of only three football facilities in America to be named National Historic Landmarks, and it's the oldest of them - the Yale Bowl having been built in 1915 and the Rose Bowl in 1922.
Since Ivy League games today are overshadowed by big-time, football-playing schools, few fans pay much attention to what happens in the horseshoe-shaped stadium in Allston, Mass. It remains a classic football destination, however. The design, with its upper colonnade, was inspired by Greek and Roman architecture. The setting is ideal, a short walk from the main Harvard campus in Cambridge, Mass., at a graceful bend in the Charles River. And the history of the place and its impact on football are unmatched.
Harvard Stadium not only was the world's first massive reinforced- concrete structure and the largest intercollegiate facility of its day, it also influenced how the game was played.
About the time the stadium opened, football's image as a violent sport had even President Theodore Roosevelt (a Harvard grad) calling for reform. Eventually two rival commit-tees presented suggestions. One group wanted to spread out players on the field by legalizing the forward pass. The other, led by venerable Yale coach Walter Camp, a strong proponent of the running game, advocated widening the field by 40 feet to accomplish the same thing.
The latter suggestion was out of the question for Harvard, which had a new state-of-the art stadium that couldn't accommodate a wider field. So passing was ushered into the rules, and the rest is history.
Harvard opened the stadium Nov. 14, 1903, in a match against Dartmouth. The most memorable game played there to date, though, was Harvard's 29-29 'win' over Yale in 1968. In a battle of unbeaten teams, Yale appeared to have won the game, but squandered a 16-point lead in the final 42 seconds. Both teams finished with 8-0-1 records.