A cultural summit will be reached and decided tomorrow in Sun Life Stadium when Alabama and Notre Dame meet to answer the question: Which football team was best at the end of the 2012 season?
Analysts have spread a forest of statistics across sports pages and computer screens to indicate the strengths and weaknesses of the two teams; most of them predict Alabama will win.
No analyst can predict chance, contingency and which way an oval-shaped ball will bounce. The geysers of emotion that will rise from the stadium Monday demonstrate that the game represents something larger.
Further, as brilliant as the two coaches are, Nick Saban for Alabama and Brian Kelly for the Irish, they are haunted by huge, friendly totemic spirits of the past: Paul W. “Bear” Bryant and Knute Rockne.
The totems built by the character and deeds of the two men are tall, beyond our reach; they are static, solid, hard, which makes it difficult to see the real men who can weep and laugh and cuss concealed inside the monuments.
It is the larger aspects of football that my mini-book sought to reveal, the mystery that binds different people of separate races and stations in life to something larger than self: war, religion and sport.
Here’s my view of the cultural dimensions of football cribbed from the book:
“All the expected sound and fury is to be taken seriously, because college football is not just a sport. It is America’s cultural dynamo, the only one of our organized sports that taps into the martial spirit and evokes the fervor of religious faith. Further, college football has been a fulcrum of social change in the U.S.; its schemes date back to Hannibal; and some of its themes are drawn from military history and Shakespeare’s tragedies.”
What, then, of the two men who helped make football such a cultural generator? They were from different generations; Rockne was named to the All-America team in 1913, the year Bryant was born.
Rockne’s family immigrated to Chicago from their native Norway when Knute was 5. He worked at the post office until he was 22 to earn enough to enroll at Notre Dame.
Not physically imposing, he was a dumpy 5-foot, 8-inches with a large head dominated by a flat nose crafted by the sport he played and coached. His voice was brassy, yet his eyes and his confident presence could register emotions from respect to warmth.
He had this to say about his inner drive: “You know all this hurry and battling we’re going through is just an expression of our inner selves striving for something else. The way I look at it is that we’re all here to try and find, each in his own way, the best road to our ultimate goal. I believe I’ve found my way, and I shall travel it to the end.’”
Bryant was born dirt-poor, the 11th in a family of 12 living in a four-room house in an area called Moro Bottom near the small town of Fordyce, Ark.
Hardened by poverty and farm labor, he grew into a tall, 6-foot-3, good-looking high school star recruited by Alabama.
He was tough, as any of the “Junction Boys” would tell you after surviving the first weeks of practice for the Bryant-coached Texas A&M that was more emotionally and physically demanding than Marine boot camp.
At Alabama, he evidently felt his role was that of a demanding but caring father as revealed in this letter to a star high school recruit named Chris. After house-keeping instructions, Bryant went on to write:
“I hope you will share your problems with me whether it be at home, at the dorm, in your school work, with teammates, with coaches, with training regulations, self-discipline or even flying a kite. If you do that, I will try to help you and, if I can’t, I’ll recommend you get a job, join the Army or join the Foreign Legion, but, in any event, to reside in another state.
“Nothing’s too good for winners. I want to love you, pat you, pet you, brag on you and see you hoot, run and shout and laugh, pray, hug, kiss, and win with humility. If we lose, I want all of us to be unhappy, no one to have any fun, and expect only what is reserved for losers but take it with dignity while planning to come back.
“Please remember us to your family and make your personal plans on how you are going to reach your goal — the NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP.”
There was an inner turbine driving these two men to shape immigrants and farm boys into soldiers of the gridiron and to turn their winning coaches into icons, but they were only men, sentimental as the next man.
Knute Rockne was moved by the dying words of All-American George Gipp, words he used to inspire a team to victory. When Bear Bryant left the bedside of his dying quarterback Pat Trammell, his growl turned into terrible tears.
Only men, but their shadows will be present on the field tomorrow night and wherever the game of football is played.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.