- Beano Cook, College Football
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The following is reprinted from ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game, edited by Michael MacCambridge
Polls, rankings and "top" lists -- and controversy over who belongs where on which -- have been woven into the fabric of college football since that inaugural autumn of 1869 when Rutgers bested Princeton, six goals to four. Princeton won the rematch ("The Game of the 19th Century") by a score of 8-0 later that season. And so the debate began. Who do you think should have been invited to the White House by President Ulysses S. Grant? Who do you think deserved to be anointed the first national champion?
And so it has continued, for 136 years -- and counting.
What follows is one fan's personal top-10 list of the most important names, dates, moments and legends that make up the lore of college football. Perhaps you'll agree with all my selections. (Highly unlikely.) More likely you'll disagree with some of them. (Hey, this is college football.) For sure, you'll have your own favorites. Let the debate continue.
1. Nov. 10, 1928/Oct. 5, 1940: The "Win One for the Gipper" Speech
"I'm going to tell you something I've kept to myself for years. None of you ever knew George Gipp -- it was long before your time. But you all know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. And the last thing he said to me, 'Rock,' he said, 'sometime, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock,' he said, 'but I'll know about it ... and I'll be happy.'"
The speech, according to popular myth and "Knute Rockne, All American", the 1940 Hollywood movie starring Pat O'Brien as Rockne and Ronald Reagan as the gifted yet doomed football star George Gipp, was given by the legendary Notre Dame coach in the locker room at Yankee Stadium before a 1928 game against heavily favored Army. Rockne's undermanned charges, filled with renewed vigor and purpose, promptly went out and upended the undefeated Army Cadets, 12-6.
Or was it? Some people said no such thing happened, that Rockne never uttered a word about Gipp in the Irish locker room that cold, crisp, late-fall afternoon. Only one New York sportswriter, Notre Dame alum Francis Wallace of the New York Daily News, mentioned the Gipper speech in his account of the game. No Notre Dame player of that era ever stepped forward to verify the story -- or debunk it. We'll probably never know just what happened in 1928. We do know that the world at large didn't learn about the story until Hollywood told it in 1940.
What we know about George Gipp is that he was a loner who shied away from attention and shunned photography. An inveterate gambler, party animal and pool shark who flaunted a flagrant disregard for most laws, school regulations and team rules, Gipp was nonetheless a hero to Notre Dame students and South Bend townsfolk alike, the star athlete who often passed on his gambling winnings to those needing money for tuition or train tickets. But he was also a thorn in the side of Notre Dame's administration and even his famed head coach. Gipp's behavior may even have contributed to his untimely death. Legend has it that after missing yet another curfew, Gipp was locked out of his campus residence, Washington Hall, by an overzealous priest, and forced to sleep outdoors on the frozen steps of the dorm. Shortly thereafter, he contracted the throat infection that killed him in December 1920.
Many college football stars (Princeton's Hobey Baker, Iowa's Nile Kinnick, Syracuse's Ernie Davis) have been cut down in the flower of their youth and lionized in death. But only the story of a young, dying Gipp -- Notre Dame's first Walter Camp All-America selection -- entreating his coach to win a game in his memory, survives in the minds of most college football fans.
And it is because of Rockne's speech.
2. Nov. 16, 1940: The Fifth-Down Game
Cornell, with a powerful offense averaging 30 points per game, a perfect 6-0 record and No. 2 ranking in The Associated Press poll -- this is 1940, remember -- is at Hanover, N.H., for its annual game with Dartmouth, then 3-4. The Big Red hasn't lost a game in nearly three seasons. But for almost four quarters, the spirited Indians, coached by the legendary Earl "Red" Blaik -- who would leave Dartmouth after the season for West Point -- bottle up the mighty Cornell offense. Late in the game, Dartmouth holds onto a precarious 3-0 lead when Cornell's offensive juggernaut finally awakens.
Cornell's ball, first and goal at the Dartmouth 6-yard line, less than a minute remaining on the clock: from this point, a series of events unfolds that will keep Cornell-Dartmouth in the headlines throughout the following week -- and make it one of the great stories in college football history.
First down: Cornell fullback Mort Landsberg picks up three yards.
Second down: Cornell halfback Walt Scholl pushes the ball to the 1.
Third down: Landsberg, driving up the middle, nets only inches.
Fourth down: Cornell is flagged for delay of game. Referee Red Friesell spots the ball just beyond the 5-yard line. Nine seconds on the clock. Scholl, lining up at quarterback, lobs a pass into the end zone. Incomplete. Ball goes over to Dartmouth ...
But wait. Linesman Joe McKenny signals Cornell's ball. Friesell, who's also lost count of the downs, concurs.
Fourth down--again: Scholl throws a touchdown pass. The extra point is good. Cornell 7, Dartmouth 3. Game over.
Or was it?
The consensus view in the press box was that Cornell had used five downs to score. That was transmitted to the referee after the game. Both schools had filmed the contest, so the next evening Friesell watched the final sequence of plays and spotted his error. He contacted Asa Bushnell, commissioner
of the Central Office for Eastern Intercollegiate Athletics. A stickler for rules, Bushnell advised Friesell that since the game was already entered into the official record books, the final score would stand.
When news of the error reached Cornell, president Edmund E. Day, athletic director Jim Lynah and coach Carl Snavely concluded that the honorable thing to do was to forfeit the game. Snavely sent a telegram to Blaik: "I accept the final conclusion of the officials and without reservations concede the victory to Dartmouth, with hearty congratulations to you and the gallant Dartmouth team."
Dartmouth athletic director W.H. McCarter responded immediately: "Thank you for your wire. Dartmouth accepts the victory and your congratulations and salutes the Cornell team, the honorable and honored opponent of her longest football rivalry."
Demoralized by the defeat, Cornell lost the following week to the Pennsylvania Quakers at Franklin Field and plummeted to a disappointing No. 15 finish in the final AP poll. But the gesture would be remembered and honored across the decades. (Especially after Colorado, en route to a national title in 1990, pointedly didn't concede a game it had won with a similar "fifth-down" victory over Missouri.)
Today, if anybody followed Snavely and Day's honorable lead, especially with the multimillion dollar BCS pot of gold on the line, it's likely they'd be hung -- not in effigy, but in person.
3. Nov. 20, 1982: The Play, California vs. Stanford
"Oh, my god! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football!" --California play-by-play announcer Joe Starkey of radio station KGO, from Memorial Stadium in Berkeley.
In the closing moments of the 1982 Big Game, as the
Cal-Stanford rivalry is known in college football, John Elway -- starting at his own 20-yard line and facing a 19-17 deficit -- drove Stanford down the field. Elway converted a fourth-and-17 play during an improbable Cardinal drive that culminated in what looked to be a game-winning Mark Harmon field goal. Following the kick, joyous Stanford players swarmed the field. Just four seconds stood between a 20-19 lead becoming a 20-19 Cardinal win.
After clearing the Stanford team off the field and assessing the requisite 15-yard celebration penalty, the officials blew their whistles -- and the ensuing four seconds -- into college football history.
Stanford's squib kick was fielded by Cal defensive back Kevin Moen at the Bears' 43-yard line. Moen tossed the ball to Richard Rodgers, who lateraled it to freshman Dwight Garner. As three defenders swarmed Garner, he pitched the ball back to Rodgers. The Stanford band, believing the game to be over, left their seats and began to storm the end zone. Rodgers, stumbling to the Stanford 45, shoveled the ball to Cal receiver Mariet Ford. Out of nowhere came Moen, the play's catalyst, to catch a haphazard, over-the-shoulder lateral from Ford. In the process, Ford barreled into the three remaining Stanford players and cleared a path for Moen, who then plowed into the Stanford band, now milling around dazedly in the end zone. The coup de grace was Moen's impromptu, celebratory spike on the head of Gary Tyrrell, a senior Stanford trombone player and engineering major.
The mood inside Memorial Stadium shifted immediately from the gloom of an expected loss to the euphoria of an inexplicable, improbable win. Cal fans and team members paraded around the field with the Axe, a symbolic trophy awarded to winners of the Big Game. Catatonic Cardinals fans stood motionless, unable to comprehend what they'd just witnessed. Stanford's coaching staff, on the other hand, protested loudly that the play should be ruled dead, that Garner's knee had touched the ground before his late toss
to Rodgers. Motorists listening on their car radios to the madness engulfing Strawberry Canyon sat in intersections
all over Northern California, unaware of successive green lights while waiting for the final decision. Some drove their cars into ditches.
Finally, the huddled and bewildered officials, led by referee Charles Moffett, issued their ruling. "The Play," as it would henceforth be known, stood.
Final score: Cal 25, Stanford 20.
Starkey, in the concluding remarks of his famous broadcast, said that "people years from now will say they were here today for what has to be, as of this moment, the greatest Big Game in history."
No argument here.
4. Dec. 7, 1963: The Birth of Instant Replay
Ask football fans if instant replay has its roots in the college or the professional game and most will go with the pros. But those who tuned in to the Army-Navy game on CBS on Dec. 7, 1963, know better.
When director Tony Verna, a Philadelphia native, returned to his hometown to direct the Army-Navy game that year, he arrived with a unique plan and a giant, 1,200-pound tape machine he had unplugged and transported from the CBS network control room (known as "Grand Central Station") in New York. Unbeknownst to all but a handful of CBS executives and his crew, Verna was going to attempt to give viewers an immediate second look at a play.
"Video replay" was Verna's unofficial name for the yet-to-be unveiled and considerably risky innovation. Risky because at that time the Army-Navy game was the showcase game in college football. In this pre-Super Bowl era, there was no grander stage in televised sports than the annual clash between the Cadets and Midshipmen. And in 1963, the stakes were even higher. Millions of Americans would be tuning in to the high-profile military rivalry game because of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy 16 days earlier.
For Verna, the genesis for the idea came years before when, as a twentysomething wunderkind recently hired by CBS executive Tex Schramm, he worked on that network's telecasts of the 1960 Rome Olympics. The network aired the entire Olympics on tape delay -- after the tape was flown across the Atlantic to New York. It was then that Verna learned videotape possesses two audio tracks. For his special replay, he would use one track for crowd noise, the other for a simple cue system that would help locate the correct spot on the tape. One solid, clean beep would indicate a team going into a huddle; two clean beeps would indicate a team breaking a huddle.
Several glitches occurred during his first attempts at fusing his taped technology with the game in progress. His monolithic tape machine was spitting out seven to nine seconds of video "hash," indecipherable, cluttered pictures, before locking into a clear shot of game action. Occasionally, his machine didn't work at all. Instead of football action, the monitor would reveal what was already on the tape, sometimes a scene from I Love Lucy or a Duz detergent commercial.
For three nervous quarters, Verna peered into his monitor and studied his two guinea pigs, Navy quarterback Roger Staubach and Army counterpart Rollie Stichweh. Verna had assigned one camera to follow only the two signal-callers, primarily because Staubach was so skilled with his ball-handling and fakes that most cameramen couldn't keep up with him. Although Staubach was the winner of the 1963 Heisman Trophy, it was Stichweh who made television history that day. Stichweh faked to an Army halfback before running into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown, Army's last in a 21-15 loss. The requisite beeps sounded in the production truck. Words passed through cables and into headsets. Seconds later, a clear image of Stichweh and the Army offense appeared on the monitor. Verna pulled the trigger and threw the picture on air.
"Here it comes," he warned play-by-play announcer Lindsey Nelson, to whom he had revealed his intentions only hours earlier, during the taxicab ride to Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium. Nelson didn't even have time to forewarn his audience that they would be witnessing television history. Most important, though, Stichweh
"re-scampered" into the end zone and the very first instant replay went off without a technical hitch.
So as not to confuse viewers, Nelson alerted his audience to what they'd just seen: "This is not live! Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again!"
At the end of the game, praise for Verna came from far and near. "My boy," Schramm told Verna over the telephone, "what you have done here will have such far-reaching implications, we can't begin to imagine them today."
(In fact, during the early days of the innovation following the 1963 Army-Navy game, the phenomenon became so popular that viewers demanded to see it during practically every sporting event. Unfortunately, there weren't enough tape machines to go around.)
Schramm's words proved to be prophetic. In the ensuing decades, instant replay -- Verna's not certain which of two announcers, Ray Scott or Pat Summerall, actually named his invention -- became a cornerstone component of all sports telecasts.
And so it remains today.
5. Circa Early 1970s: The Army-Navy Postgame Show
The long, storied history of the Army-Navy rivalry has given us many of the game's great players, moments and legends. The names -- Blaik, Blanchard, Beagle, Bellino, Cagle, Carpenter, Davis, Duden, Dawkins, Staubach, just to name a few -- are synonymous with gridiron excellence. And the games, from the landmark clashes of the Roaring '20s to the thrilling finishes of the modern era, rank with college football's epic contests.
But in my opinion, the rivalry's most enduring legacy is not what has happened on the field during the series' 115-year history, but what transpires immediately following the conclusion of an Army-Navy game. That scene, for the uninitiated, is truly one of the most magical moments in college football. Unlike the scenes following other heated rivalry games, postgame scuffles at Army-Navy are rare. No trash-talking. No tasteless, teamwide celebration dances. No hurling of insults, profanities or bottles by fans. No tumbling goalposts.
When time expires, the winning team simply and purposefully moves en masse to the losing squad's side of the field and proceeds to sing that school's alma mater with its counterparts. The losing squad crosses the field and matches the gesture in front of the victor's cheering section. Win,
lose or draw, it's a powerful moment that has sent chills throughout the Army Corps and the Navy Brigade, as well as the fans in attendance, for years.
No one, including old-timers, historians and officials associated with both schools, knows precisely when the tradition began. According to Navy football historian Jack Clary, it wasn't until sometime after the 1960s that the tradition, as known today, took its current form. But clearly, its roots go much deeper.
During the early years of World War II, gas rationing and travel restrictions prevented most fans and cheering squads from accompanying their teams to away games. As a result, for the 1942 Army-Navy game at Annapolis, some midshipmen were ordered by the Navy to sit in the visitor's section, and -- take a deep breath here -- cheer for Army. In 1943, Army earmarked a squad of Cadets to return the favor at West Point.
Imagine that taking place in the SEC.
The Army-Navy postgame show remains one of the classiest displays of respect in sports. And for good reason. When these players -- especially the seniors playing in their last game -- remove their helmets and sing each other's alma mater, it signifies the moment when they go from being rivals to being teammates on a much more important squad.
The tradition of the singing of the alma maters after the Army-Navy game is, in many ways, sportsmanship's last stand, a relic of a bygone era in sports when, to paraphrase legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice, it mattered not who won or lost, but how you played the game -- and how you behaved when the final gun sounded.
6. Oct. 18, 1924 (Part I): The Original Ride of the Four Horsemen
Oct. 18, 1924, is the most sacred day in college football history because of two landmark games played on that date.
The story begins in the press box of the old Polo Grounds in New York, where Knute Rockne's Fighting Irish were leading Army 6-0 at halftime. In the press box, Grantland Rice of the New York Herald Tribune happened to overhear a conversation between a young Notre Dame press assistant named George Strickler and another New York writer. The writer commented on the skillful play of Notre Dame's backfield quartet -- quarterback Harry Stuhldreher, halfbacks "Sleepy" Jim Crowley and Don Miller and fullback Elmer Layden -- and Strickler remembered the Rudolph Valentino movie he'd recently seen, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a 1921 silent film that had been rereleased in 1924. The Fighting Irish backfield, Strickler said, was just like the Four Horsemen of the film.
Rice returned to his seat. Notre Dame went on to beat Army in an unremarkable game by the score of 13-7. And then the keys of Rice's typewriter clicked out the single most famous lead in the history of sports journalism:
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. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.
The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame became the most famous quartet of the 20th century -- at least before the Beatles. Yet it wasn't until the following week that the famed moniker would become permanently embedded in the American sports vernacular. Strickler capitalized on his
own idea by arranging for the four players to pose for a photograph on the backs of four large workhorses he had borrowed from a livery stable in South Bend. The wire services picked up the photo. And, after the Four Horsemen led Notre Dame to a 27-10 win over Stanford in the 1925 Rose Bowl and a perfect 10–0 record, they passed permanently into legend.
7. Oct. 18, 1924 (Part II): Red Grange Day
More than 800 miles from the Polo Grounds, across endless Midwestern grain fields in Champaign, Ill., another remarkable performance was taking place that autumn afternoon. On the field of the University of Illinois' newly dedicated Memorial Stadium, in a 39-14 Illini homecoming victory over the Michigan Wolverines, Harold "Red" Grange had the single greatest individual performance in college football history.
In the first 12 minutes, Grange ran for a total of 262 yards -- and scored each of the first four times he touched the ball. On the opening kickoff, No. 77 caught the ball on the Illinois 5-yard line and never looked back. On his first offensive carry, he raced 67 yards for a touchdown. His next carry, he ran 56 yards for a touchdown. Touch No. 4 produced TD No. 4, a 44-yarder.
The first 12 minutes!
Grange then went to the bench ... before the end of the first quarter. In the third quarter, he returned and ran 13 yards for his fifth touchdown. In the fourth quarter, he passed to Marion Leonard for his sixth score of the day. In 42 minutes of playing time, Grange gained a total of 402 yards on 21 rushing and kick-return carries, and also completed six passes for 64 yards.
"This man Red Grange of Illinois is three or four men and a horse rolled into one for football purposes," wrote sportswriter Damon Runyon. "He is Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson, Paavo Nurmi and Man o' War. Put together, they spell Grange."
But it was Grantland Rice who pinned on Grange the immortal designation "Galloping Ghost." And that was before he saw Grange play. When Rice finally did see Grange live in action, he waxed poetic -- literally -- about the impact made by the greatest offensive halfback in college football history:
There are two shapes now moving
Two ghosts that drift and glide
And which of them to tackle
Each rival must decide.
They shift with special swiftness
Across the swarded range.
And one of them's a shadow,
And one of them is Grange.
8. Jan. 1, 1929: "Wrong Way" Riegels Runs to Destiny
The play unfolds so quickly, so unbelievably quickly, that Roy Riegels barely has time to react.
A fumble by Georgia Tech back "Stumpy" Thomason. A crazy bounce into the waiting arms of Riegels near the Yellow Jacket 36-yard line. The Cal center and captain-elect, although a solid player, is a relative unknown on the national college football scene. He feels himself get bumped, but when he regains his balance he does what any good defender would do: he turns toward the goal line, 64 yards distant, and runs. As hard and as fast as he can, Riegels runs over the green, sun-drenched expanse of turf. The cheers and the deafening noise from the massive Rose Bowl crowd ring like thunder in his ears. It's a glorious moment.
But soon it turns into something else.
Teammate Benny Lom, racing only a step or two behind, screams at Riegels to lateral him the ball. "Stop!" Lom yells frantically. "Stop! You're going the wrong way!" Thinking that Lom wants to shanghai his moment of glory, Riegels yells back, "Get away from me! This is my touchdown!"
Play-by-play announcer Graham McNamee can't believe his eyes. "What's the matter with me?" he shouts into his radio mike, relaying the moment to millions of listeners from Los Angeles to Long Island -- at the time, the Rose Bowl is the only postseason bowl game in the country. "Am I crazy?"
Georgia Tech players on the sideline are incredulous. They start to jump up and down in surprise. Jackets coach Bill Alexander hushes them: "Let's see how far he can go."
Riegels goes almost all the way. Finally, he tries to reverse himself, but by then the gleeful Yellow Jackets have caught up to him. He's swarmed at the Cal 1-yard line. Several plays later, Cal is forced to punt. The punt is blocked by a surging Tech defense. Safety.
Despite a valiant effort in the second half that included a blocked punt from Riegels, the Bears couldn't counteract the effects of his wrong-way run. The safety from the botched fumble return would prove the difference in an 8-7 Georgia Tech victory.
"I started in the right direction but made a complete horseshoe turn after going four or five yards when I saw two players coming at me from the right," explained Riegels later. "In pivoting to get away, I completely lost my bearings. I wasn't out of my head at all. I hadn't been hurt. I just headed the wrong way."
The play immediately turned Riegels into a national celebrity. For several days he was the most famous athlete
in the country. "Wrong Way" was forever etched into the collective American sports memory. Riegels received hundreds of bizarre gifts -- upside down cakes, "Wrong Way" street signs, railroad tickets starting at the end of the line -- but through it all, he remained a good sport. He even performed in a vaudeville show that made light of his claim to fame. Riegels' run also had a longstanding effect on the way the game was played: at the beginning of the 1929 season, the rules committee enacted legislation prohibiting a player from advancing a fumble that touches the ground. This rule, unofficially known as the Riegels Rule, wasn't rescinded until 1990.
In 1971, Georgia Tech's entire 1929 Rose Bowl team was honored by the school's athletic hall of fame. Riegels and Lom attended as special guests, where, to their surprise, they received similar tribute. Riegels, who returned for his senior season in 1929 and was named to several All-America teams, accepted the honor with the same wit and graciousness that had enabled him to weather the "Wrong Way" storm:
"Believe me, I feel I've earned this."
9. Oct. 10, 1936: Dotting the "i" in Ohio State
In Ohio State gridiron history, it wasn't exactly a red-letter day. The Buckeyes, under coach Francis "Close the Gates of Mercy" Schmidt (so nicknamed for his penchant for running up the score on inferior foes), didn't tally a single point in a 6-0 loss to Jock Sutherland's powerhouse Pittsburgh Panthers at Ohio Stadium.
Yet in college football history, that afternoon in the Old Horseshoe on the banks of the Olentangy River would be momentous. At halftime, a trumpet player in Ohio State's marching band, John Brungart, finished the very first "Script Ohio" formation by strutting to the top of the configuration to symbolically dot the i in Ohio. Thus one of the great traditions in college football was born.
The formation was the brainchild of legendary Ohio State band director Eugene Weigel, who visualized the outline of "Script Ohio" -- a large block "O" peeling off into a moving formation to give the impression that the band was literally writing on the field -- after seeing a rotating sign above Times Square during a visit to New York City. He also gave credit to the airplane skywriting craze, which was popular at the time. Yet ironically, the first school marching band to spell out "Ohio" in script writing was that of the University of Michigan, during the 1932 Ohio State game, a goodwill gesture proffered by the visiting Wolverine band.
Weigel fine-tuned the formation in subsequent years into what it is today, the most famous and recognizable marching band movement in college football. During a rehearsal in the fall of 1937, Weigel shouted to Glen R. Johnson, a sousaphone player, "Hey, you! Switch places with the trumpet player in the dot." Weigel liked what he saw, and from that moment on only sousaphone players would anchor the formation's most-cherished spot.
To see the movement performed is like watching a Russian ballet. At exactly 16 measures from the end of
"Le Regiment," a stirring military march, the drum major struts out toward the top of the i, with a sousaphone player high-stepping a few paces behind. The crowd, sensing the building emotion of the scene, begins to cheer wildly. According to the official Ohio State marching band description, the drum major halts and points to the hallowed spot of vacant turf and "the sousaphone player assumes the post of honor, doffs his or her hat and bows deeply to both sides of the stadium." Buckeye marching-band protocols restrict the dotting of the i to a sousaphone player who is at least a fourth-year band member. On very special occasions, though, nonband members, usually individuals very close to the school and the state of Ohio, receive this highest of honors. Among the select few nonsousaphonists who have dotted the i: Bob Hope and -- of course -- Woody Hayes.
10. (Tie) Jan. 2, 1922: The 12th Man Tradition
Texas A&M is perhaps the most tradition-rich school in
all of college football. Reveille, the fine collie mascot of the Aggies, has few rivals save for Uga, the white bulldog who patrols between the hedges during games at the University of Georgia. Until 1999, the towering bonfire built by A&M students before the annual showdown with rival Texas was a sight to see. The ritual of kissing the nearest coed following an A&M touchdown is probably the tradition most envied by male students at other schools. The fight song begins "Hullabaloo, Caneck! Caneck!" -- whatever that means. And what other marching band regularly plays music from the soundtrack to Patton?
But for me, one tradition stands out among all others:
the 12th Man.
The story of the 12th Man was born in Dallas, during the Dixie Classic -- the forerunner of the Cotton Bowl -- on Jan. 2, 1922. The Aggies, champions of the now-defunct Southwest Conference, were playing Centre College. It was a close, hard-fought contest, and A&M's limited reserves were wearing down. Dana X. Bible, a well-traveled coach who'd won at a number of schools in the early days of the game, remembered E. King Gill, an A&M basketball player who moonlighted on the football team. Gill had traveled from College Station with the team, but had not dressed. He'd been assigned by Bible to work up in the press box as a spotter for Waco News-Tribune sports editor Jinx Tucker. Gill was called down to the field, where he went beneath the crowded stands and donned the uniform of an injured Aggie player. Then he assumed his place on the Aggie sideline and in A&M football history. The Aggies won the game 22-14, but Gill's services were never needed. Gill later said, "I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in
case my team needed me."
Like those Texans who ventured from afar to help defend the Alamo, Gill's name became legendary at Texas A&M. In years after, the A&M cadet corps assumed the role of the
12th Man, remaining standing throughout games and keeping their characteristic yells at window-shattering levels. In the 1980s, coach Jackie Sherrill added to the tradition by creating an entire squad of 12th Men. Sherrill held open tryouts for regular students to join the squad as special-teams performers. R.C. Slocum altered the tradition slightly when he took over as head coach in 1989, choosing to place only one walk-on (who shared the cherished No. 12 with several other players) on the field for special-teams plays.
And Gill? He never played a down, but was honored by his alma mater in a manner only dreamed of by generations of great Aggie players ever since: with his very own lifesize statue on A&M's sprawling campus.
10. (Tie) Dec. 13, 1973: John Cappelletti's Heisman Trophy Acceptance Speech
John Cappelletti had one of the greatest seasons in Penn State football history in 1973, rushing for 1,522 yards. In his two-year career in the Nittany Lion backfield -- he played defensive back in 1971 -- he logged a total of 2,639 yards and scored 29 touchdowns. After his stellar senior campaign, his name popped up on every award and All-America list. In December 1973, he was named one of five finalists for the highest honor in college football, the Heisman Trophy. No Penn State player had ever won the award.
When his name was announced, Cappelletti walked up to the dais and, with Vice President Gerald Ford standing next to him, Cappelletti broke into one of the most emotionally charged speeches in sports history, ranking up there with Rockne's Gipper speech and Lou Gehrig's farewell address.
For several minutes, Cappelletti thanked everyone who had helped him in his journey to that night, including his parents and his high school and college coaches, Jack Gottshalk and Joe Paterno. Then he paused. His face streaked with tears and his powerful, athletic body overwhelmed by feeling, Cappelletti struggled to continue.
"The youngest member of my family, Joseph, is very ill," said Cappelletti, his voice cracking at the mention of his
11-year-old brother. "He has leukemia. If I can dedicate this trophy to him tonight, and give him a couple of days of happiness, this is worth everything. I think a lot of people think that I go through a lot on Saturday and during the week, as most athletes do, and you get your bumps and bruises and it is a terrific battle out there on the field. Only for me, it is on Saturday and it's only in the fall. For Joseph, it is all year round and it is a battle that is unending with him, and he puts up with much more than I'll ever put up with, and I think that this trophy is more his than mine because he has been a great inspiration to me."
Joey Cappelletti died in 1976. The story of the two brothers was made into a book and later, a television movie, "Something for Joey" (1977). After a brief NFL career, Cappelletti became a successful businessman in California, where he now lives with his wife and four children.
He concluded his speech that evening with another message of thanks: "I don't think I'll ever forget this night."
We won't either, John.
Beano Cook has been covering college football for more than 50 years and is currently an analyst at ESPN. This article was completed with the assistance of John Lukacs.
Beano Cook offers up his personal top 10 moments that shook the world of college football in ESPN's College Football Encyclopedia.