Webfoots Win It All

By Michael LeCompte

Like so much of modern sport the Division I men’s basketball Championship has simple, humble roots. March Madness wasn’t always even angry, long before the month-long festival of athletics, advertising, and a distracted American workforce that we know today, it was a quick ten day tournament.

Following the 1938-39 regular season schools from the east and midwest were pitted against the best in the west in an eight team, single elimination tournament.

The University of Oregon Webfoots (their official name at the time, although they were often referred to by the nickname “Ducks”) won the Pacific Coast Championship with a 26-5 record and were one of four teams that comprised the western half of the inaugural bracket.

Oregon played an up-tempo, fast-break game that was somewhat revolutionary at the time, overwhelming opponents with their speed and size. Center Urgel “Slim” Wintermute stood 6’8″ and forward Laddie Gale was 6’4″ On their run to the title the tandem became known as “Tall Firs.”

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Oregon won its first two tournament games and then overmatched and outran Ohio State 46-33 for the first National Championship.

Gale went on to serve in WWII and then played for the Detroit Eagles of the National Basketball League (the precursor of the NBA) in the late 1940’s.

Wintermute was Gale’s teammate in Detroit for a few years and mysteriously vanished in 1977 while yachting. (His yacht was found, but he never was).

Oregon is again in basketball’s postseason tournament, but aside from that everything has changed since that first Championship in 1939. The tournament field is 8 times its original size, the student-athlete moniker has been reversed, and players at powerhouse programs dream of the NBA, rather than real-life careers.

It’s enough to make one pine for a simpler time. When a team of “Tall Firs” could win it all. When March wasn’t quite so mad.

The Dean of American Sports Writing

By Michael LeCompte

Long before live twenty-four hour sports coverage on TV, games were broadcast over the radio and sports writing was almost its own literary genre. In an era when fans couldn’t watch games on demand it was up to sports writers to transport their audience to the ball game with their words. The undisputed master of this athletic storytelling was Grantland Rice.

Born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1880, Rice attended Vanderbilt University. A rather unremarkable athlete he nonetheless managed to play baseball and football while earning a degree in “Classics” in 1901.

In 1914 he began writing his Sportlight column for the New York Tribune. His pieces-elegantly written combinations of homespun wisdom and athletic heroics-were widely read and well-regarded.

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Rice’s sports writing career was put on hold during World War I when he was deployed to Europe. While oversees he entrusted his entire personal worth (about $75,000) to the care of a friend only to return home and realize he was broke. Rice shrugged off the economic setback, reasoning that he “shouldn’t have set such temptation before a friend.”

Unfazed by his economic troubles Rice embarked on what is perhaps the greatest sports writing career ever. In 1924 he gained living legend status thanks to his literary, biblical description of Notre Dame’s backfield after he watched them run roughshod over Army at the Polo Grounds.

“Outlined against a blue-gray October sky the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as famine, pestilence, destruction, and death. These are only aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden…”

That introduction to his article and the publicity photo of four football players on horseback that it spawned are now considered to be classic pieces of American sports writing.

In 1930 Rice’s New York Tribune column gained national syndication, carrying his heroic and inspirational brand of sports commentary across the country. From 1924-1954 he also narrated the sports segment for Paramount Newsreels.

Rice also authored many sports-themed poems full of sport-as-life metaphors and heroic athletes standing tall against the opponent of life that remain readable for sports fans today. (Alumnus Football is definitely worth a read)

Although he died in 1954 and his artistic, flowery style of sports writing is largely unpracticed Rice’s legacy as the “Dean of American Sports Writers” continues to be celebrated through the several scholarships and college football awards given annually in his honor.

Hope Springs Eternal

By Michael LeCompte

Major League pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training compounds throughout the southern half of the country this week. Spring training is a seasonal rite as true as the warming of the air or the first flowers peeking out of the cold earth. These southern baseball pilgrimages have a long and storied history, dating back to the early years of the professional game. Back then most teams were located in industrial northern cities and took the opportunity to escape to the south, avoiding the meteorological cruelty of late-winter. However, the very first spring training was also undertaken with the aid of some infamous political connections.

The New York Mutuals baseball club fielded a team from 1857-1876 and were charter members of both the first professional league and later-in their last year of existence-the original National League.

Named for the Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 in Brooklyn, many of the Mutuals were also volunteer firemen and city officials. Therefore, it is not surprising that the city council readily approved putting up $1,500 to send the team to New Orleans for some late-winter training in 1869.

One member of the Mutuals board of trustees, though, didn’t feel that the city council’s offer was generous enough, so one Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy put up $7,500 of his own money to ensure that the team received the best accommodations and training facilities in New Orleans.

The Mutuals returned to New Orleans every spring for the remainder of their existence and while they struggled to attract talented players and to cover operating expenses (they often had to cut western train trips and occasionally even entire seasons short) a tradition of going south to prepare for the upcoming season was born.

Throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s many teams travelled to New Orleans, Arkansas, and by the turn of the century, Florida. According to legend (which is an accepted, if not always reliable source for matters of baseball), Cap Anson, a player-manager of the Chicago White Stockings is considered the “father of spring training.”

Supposedly over the course of the long, cold Chicago winter of 1885 Anson grew concerned after repeatedly seeing one of his starting pitchers out of shape and frequenting the same bar as himself. Soon after the entire White Stockings organization found itself in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The location allowed the team to prepare for the season, while also utilizing the medicinal purposes of the hot springs.

While Hot Springs, Arkansas is now known as the “birthplace of spring training,” teams continued to train throughout Florida and then California, and ultimately, in Arizona after World War II.

As a pleasure trip, whether for medical reasons, or for putting a team together, spring training has endured, just like the game of baseball itself. Every year in late February hope springs eternal in baseball camps across the south as teams prep for the season ahead and dream of October baseball.

Does Peyton Manning Need Super Bowl 50?

By Michael LeCompte

Of all the storylines leading up to Super Bowl 50 the most compelling is the matchup between the two starting quarterbacks. One aged, the other young. One an established star, the other still ascending. One subdued, the other unabashedly flamboyant on the field. Manning and Newton’s contrasting styles and careers beg the question: Who Needs Super Bowl 50 More?

The Super Bowl is a life-changing, career-defining game. Winners carry the title of Super Bowl Champion with them forever. The fame, fans, and money are nice, but the point of professional football is to win. Every player dreams of hoisting the Lombardi trophy on Super Sunday.

Newton is young, brash, and love him or hate him-good. At 6’5″ and 250 pounds he is an exceptional athlete and his dual-threat style is clearly the future of the NFL. Young, mobile quarterbacks have now started the last four Super Bowls (Kaepernik, Wilson-twice, and Newton).

If Newton and Carolina win the Super Bowl, even at 26, it would define his career. It wouldn’t matter if the Panthers ever made the playoffs again with him under center. He would be a Super Bowl Champion and fans would only remember his electric play.

Conversely, Manning is already a Super Bowl Champion and the best quarterback to ever pick up a football (at least statistically where the record book might as well be called “The Book of Manning”). As good as he’s been, though, Manning is playing in his fourth Super Bowl, but with only one ring to show for it.

Is that one piece of gaudy jewelry enough, or is the legacy of the greatest ever tainted by his struggles in the Super Bowl?

At 39 Manning is the oldest starting quarterback in Super Bowl history (yet another record). He’s leading his second franchise and fourth head coach into the big game. At times this season he’s looked like a tired, frustrated old man, yet here he is, hanging on-chasing one more ring.

If Manning struggles yet again in the Super Bowl (a distinct possibility against the Panther’s ferocious defense), then it probably does taint his legacy. The career statistics can’t be argued with, but if it is indeed all about the rings, then Manning needs another.

With a win on Sunday Manning can legitimately take his place alongside Montana and Brady (greats with multiple rings), however, another Super Bowl hiccup leaves him in the Brees and Marino category (great stats, but only one ring and no rings, respectively).

Football games are often a matter of who, or of which team wants it more. Super Bowl 50 might very well be a case of which quarterback needs it more, though. A ring would legitimize Newton’s young career and go a long way towards helping the casual fan overlook his immature antics. For Manning, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy would cement his for now complicated legacy.

Electric Glory

By Michael LeCompte

In 1947 Norman Sas, the owner of Tudor Metal Products and Games, designed a football field to fit over the electric motor from one of his company’s car racing games and electric football-one of the most beloved sports board games of all time was born.

The game consisted of a metal field, plastic players, and a small electric motor. It was simple yet modern, just like the game of football itself, and it hit the toy market just as the NFL was coming into its own as a league. In 1967, the year of the first Super Bowl, Tudor games signed an exclusive licensing agreement with the NFL. The popularity of electric football skyrocketed as young fans could now control the very players they watched on TV every Sunday.

To this day former NFL coach Mike Holmgren insists that an electric football game from his childhood is the greatest Christmas gift he has ever received. Thousands of kids across America doubtlessly shared that sentiment until they turned their electric football sets on and actually tried to play a game. As the field vibrated and shook it was seemingly impossible to make one’s players do anything other than fall over or spin.

Electric football games continued to sell well and to presumably be enjoyed throughout the 1970’s. By the 1980’s, though, video games began to dominate the electronic gaming industry and the original was largely forgotten, relegated to the fields of memory and the basements of nostalgia, played by a select Dungeons and Dragons-like cadre of electric football wizards.

Now, though, thanks largely to our sports obsessed culture and fueled by the internet, electric football is back. The game might not be better than ever, but it is certainly bigger than before.

Much like fantasy sports there are now electric football leagues across the country. Players are referred to as coaches since they control an entire team, rather than any one player on the field. Coaches give their teams custom paint jobs and accessories (such as added weight to the base of linemen to improve blocking ability) and tournaments are held annually.

The Miniature Football Coaches Association (MFCA) is the governing body of competitive electric football and oversees tournaments and the World Championships (July, 29-31, 2016 in Richmond, VA). Rings are awarded at the electric football championships and the sport does have its legends and superstars.

Adrian Baxter, a 43 year old accountant from Maryland is known as “The Walter Payton of Electric Football.” The nickname might not make much sense, but there is no denying the sweetness of his stats (25 tournament wins to date).

The MFCA recently named Baxter “The Greatest Coach Ever,” which presumably puts him alongside the likes of Lombardi, or at least Belichick. ESPN has aired some electric football tournaments and a reality show chronicling some of the prominent coaches from around the country is supposedly in the works.

When speaking of his love of electric football Baxter says that, “it’s something that found my heart at a young age and I don’t want to let it go.”

Electric football is BBZZZING, vibrating, and shaking its way out of basement rec rooms and into the mainstream of sports and entertainment. Electric football sets are still being produced, although not under an NFL licensing agreement, and can be found at most major toy stores for $30-$120.

So often in life things from the past are not really as great as we remember them, but perhaps in the case of electric football they are actually better. How else could a board game become a sport?

George Poage: Man of Firsts

By Michael LeCompte

The upcoming film Race chronicles the golden exploits of Jesse Owens against the powers of racism at the 1936 Olympics. Owens’ story is well-known, yet still heroic. Racially and historically significant it is certainly worth remembering and retelling, however, at the 1904 Olympics (nine years before Owens was even born), it was another African-American, George Poage, who made history.

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Poage (1880-1962) grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 1899 he was not only the first African-American to graduate from La Crosse High School, he was also the class Salutatorian.

Continuing his education at the University of Wisconsin Poage was held in such high-esteem by teammates and University officials that he occasionally coached the Badger’s track squad when their actual coach was away on business.

Poage specialized in the 440 and 220 meter hurdles and in 1904 became the first African-American track champion in the history of the Big 10.

After earning a Bachelor’s degree in American History Poage remained at Wisconsin and began working on a Master’s degree,  while serving as a trainer for the football team and continuing to run track.

In 1904 the Olympics were held in St. Louis to coincide with the World’s Fair. National African-American leaders called for a boycott of the games to protest the segregation of the athletic events and audiences at the Fair exhibits, however, the Milwaukee Athletic Club offered Poage a sponsorship to compete.

Similar to the decision Owens would face 32 years later Poage had to determine whether he should make a statement against the overt racism of the time by sitting out the Olympics or take a stand on the track, letting his performance speak for itself.

Poage ultimately chose to compete and he became the first African-American to win an Olympic medal, taking bronze in both the 200 and 400 meter hurdles.

Following the Olympics Poage worked in St. Louis as a teacher then a school principal. In 1920 he moved to Chicago and was a postal clerk for 30 years. He died in 1962.

From the classroom to the track and the world stage, George Poage was truly a man of firsts. His combination of grace and athleticism resulted in medals and provided the perfect example for Jesse Owens and what is perhaps the greatest American Olympic triumph ever.

When Gold Could Tarnish

By Michael LeCompte

Playoff hype is in full swing this week as Tom Brady, the NFL’s current “Golden Boy,” and the Patriots gear up for another postseason run. Outside of New England another Brady playoff march is utterly uninteresting, though, and leaves most fans wondering what if?

What if the NFL had been able to make Brady’s four game suspension stick? Would the Patriots still be primed for the playoffs?

Once upon a time, before multi-million dollar contracts, billion dollar television deals, lawyers, agents, and an all-powerful player’s union, the NFL could and did hold its players-even superstars accountable.

In the NFL of the 1960’s Paul Hornung was the “Golden Boy.” The Brady of his day Hornung, who played halfback and kicker in the pros, had the blonde hair, movie star looks and superior athletic skill. He remains the only player in NFL history to win the Heisman (1956 at Notre Dame), be the first pick in the draft, be named league MVP, win a Super Bowl (SB I with Green Bay), and be elected to the Hall of Fame.

In his prime Hornung seemed to have it all, yet like Brady today he wanted or for some reason needed more and found himself in trouble with the league concerning his actions and the sanctity of football.

In 1963 NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Hornung, along with Alex Karras of the Lions, indefinitely for betting on NFL games.

Hornung called his actions “a mistake” and after some hard lobbying on his behalf by his coach Vince Lombardi, was reinstated to the NFL after serving a one year suspension on the condition that he stay out of Las Vegas and no longer attend the Kentucky Derby every year.

Eventually Hornung’s legal issue was forgotten, overshadowed by one of the greatest careers in football history. Now 79, Hornung says of his betting on football, “I broke the rules and had to accept my punishment.” His legacy remains largely untarnished because he admitted his transgressions, paid the price then moved on.

That is the main difference between the “Golden Boy” of yesteryear and Brady. With the aid of lawyers, his union, and the courts he managed to move on without ever admitting anything. If Brady had simply stated what every fan already knows-that he cheated, and remorsefully served his suspension all would have been forgiven. However, Brady denied everything and his team hasn’t missed a beat.

The playoffs are here, where games become epics, instant classics in which mere men are transformed into gridiron gods right on our TV screens. It’s enough to make fans yearn for a simpler time when the game of football was played for fun and even gold could tarnish.