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Friday, August 16, 2002
Football history passes away

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Miles: 442 (Sandusky, Ohio, to Canton, Ohio, to Buffalo, N.Y.); total miles: 2,788; Hours driving: 6; hours of sleep: 6 (we didn't really give all the road machinery much thought when we checked into the motel the previous night, but it kind of got our attention in the morning); turnpike tolls: $4.60; Diet Pepsi: 6 units; McDonalds stops: 2; Gas price per gallon: $1.24; One vanity plate that reads FAVRE 4; Scooter's references to Buffalo: 32; miles to go: 600 (approximate) ...

SANDUSKY, Ohio -- History was made here, right on this sandy beach along Lake Erie, if only we could find the spot.

While working as lifeguards here nine decades ago, Knute Rockne and Gus Dorais forever changed the way football is played when they developed the forward pass on the beach. There is supposedly a sign marking the spot but try as we might, Scooter and I cannot find it. The chamber of commerce gave us the general area, and a security guard told us it was 500 yards to our left. But we've been searching up and down the beach for close to an hour without a sniff of the sign.

No one I ask knows where the sign is. Worse, only one person even knows who Knute Rockne was.

Scooter, I don't think we're in South Bend anymore.

"Knute deserves better than this," Scooter says.

***** ***** *****

My cross-country tour of sports along Interstate 90 has brought us to Sandusky's Cedar Point amusement park, "The Queen of American Watering Places." We're here because every Ohio team seems to be on the road, I don't want to skip such a great state in my diary before driving to Buffalo, and I want to document in some way Ohio's deep passion for football.

I've already done too many training camps and Massillon is too far to the south to be within my 25-mile rule (though we will make an exception for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton for another entry next week).

Thus, we're searching for the origin of the forward pass, which we know is here somewhere thanks to Scooter's near encyclopedic knowledge of useless sports and pop culture. In addition to knowing the names of every athlete who ever lived or played in his beloved Buffalo, he knows the entire cast of every movie and TV show ever made, including the indies at the Sundance film festival but excluding the WB lineup.

Driving with the man is like having the Google search engine in the passenger seat.

We're also here because in addition to being the site of the first forward pass, Cedar Point is home to the world's ultimate roller-coaster park. Describing itself as the country's Roller Coast, Cedar Point boasts an unmatched 15 roller coasters, including the Millennium Force, the fastest and tallest coaster in the world. At 310 feet, it is about as tall as St. Paul's Cathedral in London. With a top speed of 92 mph, the Millennium travels at about the same velocity as Roger Clemens' fastball.

"Oh, sonofabitch," Scooter groans as he stares up at the coaster -- and he isn't even looking at the Millennium Force. This one is much smaller and slower.

Roller coasters have been as much a part of summer as baseball and lemonade for more than a century. Cedar Point began as a favorite resort in 1870, and the first coasters went in here 110 years ago, when the cars had to be hauled back to the start after each ride. Now the rides are so fast, the plunges so steep and the curves so severe, that signs warn that expectant mothers, children under 48 inches (sorry, David Eckstein), the elderly and "guests with excessive weight" should not ride the coasters. Based on the looks of the people in line, however, that last warning about excessive weight would disqualify about two-thirds of the crowd.

"Whatever happened to the situp in this country?" Scooter asks. "If this is a cross-section of America, I'm scared. West Virginia must be closed."

All these rides do not come cheap. A day pass is $42 and a child's is $20, plus $8 for parking. Fortunately we had a couple $10 off coupons -- the family in front of us spends $296 before it even enters the park.

And people think baseball is expensive? At least you can sit down in baseball.

Price is no object for the roller-coaster fanatics who turn roller coasters into a virtual sport by traveling the world riding the best coasters. Our time is too limited to ride more than a very few, though. We opt to first ride the Mean Streak, a magnificent wooden coaster at the very back of the park. And I mean the very back. Building 15 roller coasters of this size takes a lot of space, and we walk and walk and walk and walk and then walk some more to reach the Mean Streak.

And when we reach it, the coaster is temporarily down.

We decide to wait it out. A sign says the line is only a half-hour long, and people are bailing out. After a few minutes, the ride begins up again, and the line starts moving. Slowly. Very slowly. Forty minutes later, we still can not see the front of the line. And then the ride stops again.

Getting on a 161-foot-high, 65-mph roller coaster after it has broken down twice in the past 45 minutes? Are we nuts? Apparently so. We stay in line. "Call Hillary and tell her I have 600 bills stashed under the mattress," Scooter says. "That should buy a nice pine box for me."

Scooter passes the time by naming people too short to ride the Mean Streak. "Billy Barty. Eddie Gaedel. Eckstein. Albie Pearson. Verne Troyer."

Vern Troyer?

"Verne Troyer. Mini-Me."

After an hour wait, we finally reach the coaster and squeeze into seats narrower than those in coach class on America West airlines. The car begins climbing the first rise, the familiar "clack, clack, clack" filling our ears with anticipation and apprehension as surely as the familiar chords to the "Jaws" theme. Then we curve over the top and plunge down the other side. Our necks whip back, our bodies shake from side-to-side as if we're on the bridge of the Enterprise during a Klingon attack, and we can taste last night's dinner.

Roughly three minutes later, the car glides back to the ride's start, and we get out. Scooter walks down the ramp, shaking so much he resembles a bobblehead doll. He's all right but decides to sit out the rest of the day's rides.

I choose the 72-mph Magnum for my next ride, which once was the word's tallest coaster (205 feet). We climb rapidly to the top of the first rise, and I am able to get a good view of the beach. As I try to spot the Rockne marker before we begin the plunge, my neck jerks like a teenage boy at an Anna Kournikova tennis match.

I taste this morning's breakfast.

***** ***** *****

Scooter is waiting for me at the end of the ride, and we make our way to the beach, where a security guard assures us the marker is a mere 500 yards away. A thousand yards later, we still haven't seen it, and no one I ask has the slightest idea what I'm talking about.

I finally find a man working the hotel concierge desk at the Breakers who knows what I'm talking about. Unfortunately, Terry Geraghty says the sign has been replaced with a marker describing the hotel's history. A maintenance worker contradicts him, saying the sign is still there, it's just been moved. "They wouldn't get rid of that," he says. "That's history."

Perhaps, but after searching the area for a second time to no avail, we decide the sign is history as well. I settle for Geraghty showing me where it used to be.

"I didn't know this was the place they invented the pass until they told me about the marker," Geraghty says. "I thought it was pretty cool when I first saw it. But I have thought a couple times why it took so long to think of. You would think someone would have done it on a broken play or something."

Indeed. I know footballs were shaped differently back then, but what took them so long? I can just picture Dorais looking through the rulebook and shaking his head. "No, I can't find anything against it, either."

"OK then. Go long."

(And why such an emphasis on the ''forward pass"? Did they run the "backward pass" before then and get frustrated at their limited yardage?)

If the marker is on the beach somewhere, it will go undiscovered by us. Scooter and I call off our search and take photos in passing and receiving poses to record the moment. Somewhere around here, Rockne and Dorais changed football, and "somewhere" will have to suffice.

It's sad. We've come more than 2,500 miles to see a bit of history, and there's nothing to tell us where it is. I know that compared to Thomas Edison's birthplace (just back down the road a short ways) this a trivial part of history, but who's to say the invention of the forward pass is any less important than the invention of the phonograph? I mean, just imagine how many Fantasy League picks you would waste on receivers if it hadn't been for Rockne or Dorais.

That's America, though. If it isn't in today's edition of USA Today, it happened too long ago for us to care about.

"You ought to go to Canton," Geraghty says. "That's where I'm from."

Geraghty says Canton is about two hours away, which is farther than I thought. We've got to get moving.

On our way out, we pass the park's nearly empty midway where the carnies stand alone, attempting to entice anyone to try their games of skill. In keeping with the day's theme, I go to the football toss, pull out $2 and take aim at the tire hanging from the ceiling. My pass nicks the inside of the tire and bounces away as if it were made of flubber.

Just as I'm thinking Kurt Warner couldn't toss these footballs through such a small target, the man next to me throws a tight spiral through the tire and wins a stuffed Spider-Man doll for his child. Impressed, I introduce myself and compliment him on his pass. Nice arm, I say. By the way, did you know Knute Rockne invented the forward pass on the beach here?

"Knute who?"

Obviously, it's time to leave. Canton is two hours away, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame closes in three hours. It's going to be close, but if we hustle, we just might get there in time to tour the Hall quickly.

We are tired, sore and hungry. We just spent $72 to stand in line for 90 minutes and walk for 45 minutes to ride two roller coasters. We just walked up and down a beach for more than an hour searching for an obscure marker that probably no longer exists. It is beginning to rain. But at least we will be on the road again soon.

And then just as we reach the vast sea of cars in the parking lot, we realize that we didn't bother noticing what row we parked in this morning.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.