Brisk, sunny autumn has arrived -- "football weather," my mother calls it -- and my mind turns to the game on September 21 between Michigan State and Notre Dame, for I graduated from both schools and, even more, have personal ties to their fabled 1966 contest, sometimes called "the game of the century." Travel back with me to this incredibly exciting event, but be warned: Its important legacy is a painful, tragic one.
What bliss it was to be 18 at Michigan State, golden in the fall, and with the nation trained on our upcoming game with Notre Dame. I had even attended high school with the Notre Dame star receiver gracing the cover of TIME magazine that week, Jim Seymour.
Then one night I heard a rumble, and the campus lanterns revealed a crowd approaching, cheering for the Spartans. I found myself swept along, but eventually got winded and dropped out as we rounded the Student Union. On its steps stood one, lone figure.
"Gene?" I said.
"Hi," he said.
"Good luck," I said, and he thanked me.
It was Gene Washington, the Spartan star receiver. I left him to himself, silently observing the throng as it swept by.
The morning of the Big Game dawned with Notre Dame folks dropping leaflets from the sky! All I could think was, "What will I do when Hanratty throws a pass to Jim?" How could I keep from cheering for Seymour? And yet how could I root against my own team?
The game see-sawed back and forth, but when State took the lead in the second quarter, we chanted, "Hail Mary, full of grace, Notre Dame's in second place." Of course many of us shouting that slogan were Catholic. Indeed, I had recognized Gene Washington on the steps of the Student Union because he, along with Spartan head coach Duffy Daugherty, had appeared at the Catholic Student Center as part of a welcoming event for us Catholic freshmen.
The Catholic presence at such major state schools has long been huge. In sheer numbers, MSU has always had many more Catholics than Notre Dame, of course, and as a religious historian once remarked to me, in that sense the largest Catholic university in the United States is Rutgers.
Providentially, MSU defenders closely covered Jim Seymour, such that virtually no passes came his way, so I never had to resolve my dilemma over whether to cheer for my old parochial school cohort if he caught the ball. And luckily, the game itself ended in a tie! -- even if it seemed I was the only person in the stadium who wasn't disappointed.
That year both teams were named national champions. Gene Washington put it this way in 2011 when he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame:
"Both teams entered the game undefeated, so that game meant everything. You gain an even greater appreciation for that game now, knowing that people still talk about that matchup 45 years later. I'm confident that game-day atmosphere in Spartan Stadium rivals that of today's National Championship Games."
Just recently I discovered that Gene Washington came to MSU because, in his native Texas, the universities refused to recruit African Americans. In eliminating such practices, how far we have come! And yet, over these nearly 50 years, much has gone tragically wrong.
Back then, college football paid at least lip service to the academic calendar, holding no national championship and prohibiting freshmen from appearing in games. The Big Ten even had a rule that a team could not go to the Rose Bowl two years in a row, which meant that the 1966 MSU team had to stay home! Today, in contrast, college athletes increasingly risk injury, for no pay, even as the top coaches reap millions in salaries and the winning programs rake in television money. As sportswriter David Zirin recently pointed out to Bill Moyers,
"Walter Byers headed the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] from 1951 to 1988... and when he left the sport, he said, "We've turned it into a plantation system," meaning that there is a tremendous amount of money being generated that would flow into very few hands, and none of that money, obviously, going into the hands of the people on the field..."
Zirin notes something even more ominous: the growing evidence that brain damage is often caused by routine plays.
"You don't need a diagnosis of a concussion to have a concussion...We're so attune to thinking that the danger of football is some 6'4" 250-pound linebacker...knocking your block off, but that's not the danger. It's the mundane, daily knocking into the next person: that's where the danger is."
My husband had an intimation of this danger some 25 years ago while observing football practice when he served as the academic adviser to the athletes at Fordham. We vowed never to let our son play, and ever since, I have felt like a hypocrite for following MSU and ND.
Now, with medical findings confirming our worst fears, perhaps we will have the courage to stop supporting the game. I say this with a heavy heart. We who joyously embrace our own college's fight song and all recognize the storied Notre Dame Victory March -- we who instantly bond anew with heartland relatives through the grand tradition of college football -- we will lose something precious. We may even lose a piece of ourselves.
But we cannot remain uncritical fans of this sport. Let us work for a society where players are treated more justly. Here I recall the words of Catholic Worker leader Dorothy Day: "Let us work toward building a world in which it is easier for people to be good."