How Football Explains America

How Football Explains America

by Sal Paolantonio


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ESPN's Sal Paolantonio explores just how crucial football is to understanding the American psyche 
Using some of the most prominent voices in pro sports and cultural and media criticism, How Football Explains America is a fascinating, first-of-its-kind journey through the making of America's most complex, intriguing, and popular game. It tackles varying American themes—from Manifest Destiny to "fourth and one"—as it answers the age-old question, “Why does America love football so much?” An unabashedly celebratory explanation of America's love affair with the game and the men who make it possible, this work sheds light on how the pioneers and cowboys helped create a game that resembled their march across the continent. It explores why rugby and soccer don't excite the American male like football does and how the game's rules are continually changing to enhance the dramatic action and create a better narrative. It also investigates the eternal appeal of the heroic quarterback position, the sport's rich military lineage, and how the burgeoning medium of television identified and exploited the NFL's great characters. It is a must read for anyone interested in more fully understanding not only the game but also the nation in which it thrives. Updated throughout and with a new introduction, this edition brings How Football Explains America to paperback for the first time.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781629371412
Publisher: Triumph Books
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Series: How...Explain
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 476,660
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Sal Paolantonio is a national correspondent for ESPN, covering the NFL for SportsCenter, Sunday NFL Countdown, and He hosts ESPN’s State Farm NFL Matchup on Sunday mornings. He is a former sportswriter and political correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer and served as an officer in the U.S. Navy. He lives in Moorestown, New Jersey.

Read an Excerpt

How Football Explains America

By Sal Paolantonio

Triumph Books

Copyright © 2015 Sal Paolantonio
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-63319-291-1


How Football Explains Manifest Destiny

"There was no football, if one may except a New England fashion of kicking a substitute made of a pig's bladder in skylarking fashion after Thanksgiving dinner."

— American football founding father Walter Camp, 1891

Tedy Bruschi of the New England Patriots walked casually through the tunnel of Giants Stadium, the aging concrete structure in a thousand-acre swamp located about eight miles west of Manhattan, and stepped into the light of an unusually warm Sunday morning on September 9 — the first Sunday of the 2007 National Football League season. He stopped. He'd seen this view countless times. This was the beginning of his 12 season. Yet his smile, with the brown-eyed hint of his Italian and Filipino ancestry, had a boyish, naïve glow — for a reason.

He has a hole in his heart. A real hole, not the kind left by an unrequited lover — a hole left by a stroke in February 2005 that would have claimed the professional football career of any normal human being. But doctors performed some kind of newfangled surgery to fix the hole — and, more important, Bruschi is not your normal guy. He has the rare determination of an astronaut, the drive of a stagecoach pioneer. So, even after winning three Super Bowl rings, Bruschi shocked his wife, his coach, and his teammates and came back to play the middle linebacker position with the kind of, well, heart few players possess. When he looked up at the sky that morning, he was thinking, I'm still here. Still doing this. And he was determined to win one more championship, hoist that trophy named after the guy named Lombardi, who grew up not far from this stadium in northern New Jersey, but was denied a chance to coach his hometown New York Giants and instead went into exile in the small town of Green Bay, Wisconsin, with his unhappy wife, Marie, in 1959, and went on to win five NFL championships, including the first two Super Bowls. That's why it's called the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

It was all there for Bruschi to feel on that Sunday morning — the layer upon layer of story lines filled with ethnic heritage, American history, and current football rivalries, pitting former friends and colleagues against each other in a game and a season that would tell us about ourselves in many more ways than were apparent that day.

The story of Bruschi's cool, aloof, single-minded coach, Bill Belichick, facing off against his former protégé, Eric Mangini, a disciple who strayed to New York to become the head coach of the New York Jets, and who was called "Mangenius" for his stunning one-year turnaround that defied his old boss and landed the freshman coach and his young team in the playoffs a year earlier.

The story of Bruschi's new teammate, the mercurial Randy Moss, who was salvaged from the wreckage of pro football in Oakland, where for two years he wore a Raiders uniform, which Brady never fully embraced. Moss's singularly incandescent talents were now expected to transform quarterback Tom Brady from just your average three-time Super Bowl champion into the kind of player Brady idolized as a child growing up in northern California — that being Joe Montana, the coolest of the cool champion quarterbacks who waved his light saber through the 1980s in a dazzling display of magical championships.

The story of Bruschi's fellow aging comrades on defense — 38-year-old linebacker Junior Seau, who had been voted to the NFL All-Pro team 12 straight times, but never hoisted Lombardi; 35-year-old safety Rodney Harrison, who had defied age and injury to win two Super Bowl championships with Bruschi; and the gruff ageless linebacker, Mike Vrabel, who had won three Super Bowl titles with Bruschi with a guile and toughness that seem to contradict the fact that he was a pre-med major at Ohio State. Did any of them, on this day, think they had enough left in their legs, and in their will, to make it through a 16-game season, and the playoffs, to win another championship?

That story was week to week, game by game, yard by yard on a field they had to defend inch by inch, beginning with this game filled with hope and redemption, revenge and retribution — a game that would end with a shocking footnote, sending the season and this band of Patriot brothers on a complex, historic journey through one football season that would explain what America is all about.

* * *

Long before all this, there was rugby. And it was boring.

Here was this primitive Old World game, brought over from England and played mostly by college boys at Harvard, Princeton, and Rutgers.

And here was a restless nation in the year 1876, the year of the Centennial, when the thirst for new territory, for westward expansion, seemed unquenchable.

So, it didn't fit. Football, as it was being played by European rules in the New World, wasn't an attractive game. The rules of the London Football Association called for players from both teams to mass about the ball, all trying to kick it out to a teammate. In essence, soccer — with a scrum.

"The rules," wrote Walter Camp, the founding football father from Yale, in his landmark book American Football, first published in 1891, "forbade any one's picking up, carrying, or throwing the ball in any part of the field. There were no 'off' or 'on' side rules, and the goals were made by sending the ball under the cross-bar instead of over it. Fouls were penalized by making the player who had committed the foul toss the ball straight up in the air from the place where the foul occurred, and it was unfair to touch the ball until it struck the ground."

Under these rules — this is hardly what we now call football — Princeton and Rutgers played a game in 1869, a contest that has often been called the first intercollegiate American football game.

But this Old World game — a blend of soccer and rugby — had no compelling action or story line. It was just a mass of humanity moving in what was then called a "scrummage." Not enough happened. There was no premium placed on advancing the ball, capturing territory, quickly defeating your opponent — the core of what America was becoming. And the players and, most important, the spectators quickly grew tired of it.

The boys at Harvard made the first move. They called it "the Boston Game," which allowed running with the football and tackling. Their game was a little more open and much more physical brand of rugby that had for years been played in Wales and England. Still, it wasn't a far cry from "kicking a pig's bladder in skylarking fashion after Thanksgiving dinner," as Camp described early football in America.

As the Harvard Advocate said in 1874, the Boston Game was much better "than the somewhat sleepy game now played by our men."

In 1876, however, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania still competed under soccer rules, while Harvard and Yale competed under the modified Boston Game. Something had to be done.

The four schools held a convention on November 26, 1876, in Springfield, Massachusetts, and formed the Intercollegiate Football Association. The Harvard boys convinced the group to adopt the Boston Game. It was far more compelling. It simply asked the players to do more in more wide-open space.

For the next six years — while the nation was undergoing rapid change in every other walk of life, and while the best and the brightest from the top eastern schools were being drawn to the wide-open opportunity of westward expansion — this new "football" game still proved to be too slow, too stodgy for the players and the fans. Indeed, there were too few of the latter.

An analysis without a byline in the Princetonian in 1879 offered an opinion of the game that demanded action: "Keeping the ball and working it by passing, running and rushing is superior to the kicking game now in vogue."

Keeping the ball.

Working it by passing, running, and rushing.

Superior to the kicking game now in vogue.

Not bad for 1879. Blame this mystery man in Princeton, New Jersey, for America ditching soccer.

That analysis argued that adding these upgrades would make the game more competitive for the players and a more compelling story line for an American audience gaining in literacy rates and sophistication.

The writer made this simple observation, which seemed to capture what was inherently mundane and wrong about the game at the time: "One thing is certain: as long as one side has the ball, the other cannot score, and when one team kicks the ball the other team is sure to get it."

Possession, the ability to quickly advance to the ball, hold the territory, and advance — these American concepts needed to be incorporated into the European game, the writer argued. American players and, more important, American audiences wanted it.

Fans "demanded action," wrote Parke H. Davis in Football: The American Intercollegiate Game. "A great clamor broke out."

So, the tinkering was over. Time for dramatic change. The year was 1880. Another convention was held. This time representatives from Columbia University joined in. New York fans were among the most clamorous for change.

First thing to go: the scrum. It suggested everything that was un-American: a mass of humanity moving in no particular direction, with no particular purpose. Instead, one team was given possession of the ball, and a line of scrimmage was created — a line on the field clearly delineating which team had the ball, and which team did not.

"A scrimmage takes place when the holder of the ball, being in the field of play, puts it down on the ground in front of him and puts it in play with his foot," said Amendment #1, adopted in 1880. Okay, so it's not exactly Jeff Saturday snapping the ball to Peyton Manning. We're not there yet.

"The man who first receives the ball from the snap-back shall be called the quarter-back," the new rule stated. So here's where Manning's prototype is born. By creating the position of "quarter-back," football's founders created a man on the field who would stand out among equals (a deliciously American concept that needs plenty of interpretation, which we will come back to in Chapter 2).

That was not enough. Another convention was held in 1882, and the participants implemented a great idea, an idea completely foreign to the football/rugby/soccer players around the world: the concept of the first down. It was like somebody flipped a light switch.

Here was the new rule they created: "If on three consecutive fairs and downs a team shall not have advanced the ball five yards or lost ten, they must give up the ball to the other side at the spot where the fourth down was made."

It was a somewhat backhanded way of saying that the team with possession must advance the ball five yards or surrender it. But, more important, it meant that if the team with the ball advanced it five yards, it kept the ball and the territory it had earned and kept going — kept possession of the football.

So, that rule also established possession — another particularly American notion. But to clearly translate the American geo-political mind-set of the time to a game on the field, there needed to be one more critical change in the game: the team possessing the ball had to be able to advance it — while holding onto the territory it had already captured. That was critical: hold and advance. Or surrender.

Ah, Manifest Destiny! Now, that's something American players and spectators could embrace. Capture territory. Hold it. Advance.

Remember, this was happening at the height of the Wild West — in all its rationalized glory. Notorious bank robber Jesse James was shot by a member of his own gang in Missouri in 1882, the same year an outlaw of another kind, John D. Rockefeller, defied his critics, his competitors, and federal regulators by organizing the first oil cartel, Standard Oil Trust. The year before, President James Garfield was shot dead. Also in 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona, city marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Holliday, opened fire in the showdown at O.K. Corral. And, in 1883, Mark Twain would publish Life on the Mississippi.

America needed a game that had a chance to reflect this bold, multilayered panorama of experiences.

"The Rugby code was all right for Englishmen who had been brought up upon traditions as old and as binding as the laws themselves," wrote Camp. American football, he wrote, was evolving from "the nondescript running and kicking." Camp wanted to bring scholarship and rationality to the game, make the game look more like his country.

Look at what is considered the foremost artistic depiction of Manifest Destiny, the painting American Progress by John Gast in 1872. In the painting, American settlers, moving westward, are stringing telegraph wire with different depictions of modern transportation. Guiding them is a white-robed angel. She is holding a schoolbook. Her name is Columbia. (Just a coincidence that it was representatives from Columbia University that joined the convention of football's founding fathers in 1880 to force the changes in the rules to create a truly American game of football.) America, bursting at the seams, needed a game that had a chance to capture this haughtiness, that movement forward at all costs. In Gast's painting, Indians and wild animals flee.

Later, it's no accident that the leaders of the Military Academy at West Point, where generation after generation of young officers would be trained to fight the country's indigenous population, would become prime movers of America's game of football, passing down army tactics from Douglas MacArthur to Red Blaik to Vince Lombardi to Bill Parcells. "This obsession with field position — with territory — is a legacy of my coaching days at West Point, where we'd get free advice from every major on campus," Parcells wrote in his autobiography in 1995. (We will come back to this in Chapter 5.)

Consider this comment from W. Cameron Forbes, the grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "Football is the expression of strength of a dominant race, and to this it owes its popularity and its hopes of permanence." Forbes wrote that in 1900, just after he graduated Harvard. He later served as a governor of the Philippines in the administration of President Teddy Roosevelt, who, of course, was great purveyor of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny beyond the American continent.

So, back to the simple rule change, the creation of the first down simply mirrored the nation's quest for territory. As advancing the ball became more innovative, the first down rule would be changed from five yards to 10.

Back to Gast's painting for a moment. And Mark Twain. And the O.K. Corral. All of them — a painting, the tales of traversing the mighty Mississippi, a real event of the Wild West that took on a mythical status — helped satisfy the American appetite for stories about itself.

"America had all these fundamental myths that were important to us because we had no history, no centuries upon centuries of past history that they had in Europe," said Oregon State professor Mike Oriard, a former NFL player who has written extensively about the history of American sports. "So we had to go looking for those myths, those narratives, or create them."

With these new rules changes, with the use of territorial advancement in five- and then 10-yard increments, there would be a defined structure to the game, allowing for the formation of a narrative and the creation of another set of stories to satiate the American public. And it happened almost instantly.

It was the daily press in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia — hoping to build its readership, of course — that went looking for stories on the football field. As the game opened up, it became more of a story. The characters, with the invention of the quarterback and other distinct positions, became more defined. To be sure, early sportswriters were encouraged by their editors to glorify the game's blood and violence. It was a way to sell newspapers.

But it also served another purpose. Not everybody could go fight on the frontier or whip out a pistol in Tombstone. What was happening in the capture and surrender of territory on the football field in urban settings back east was a mythological extension of what was happening from Missouri to Arizona.

"The champions of necessary roughness" in the new American game of football, writes Oriard in Reading Football, "were concerned that the 'free-born American college boys' might lose their instincts of their ancestral 'fighters from way back.'"


Excerpted from How Football Explains America by Sal Paolantonio. Copyright © 2015 Sal Paolantonio. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. How Football Explains Manifest Destiny,
2. How Football Explains Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett,
3. How Football Explains Alexis de Tocqueville,
4. How Football Explains John Coltrane and Jackie Robinson,
5. How Football Explains West Point,
6. How Football Explains the Battle of Midway,
7. How Football Explains "Father Knows Best",
8. How Football Explains the '60s,
9. How Football Explains Show Business,
10. How Football Explains Us All,
Selected Bibliography,

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