If you twist and turn away If you tear yourself in two again If I could, yes I would If I could, I would let it go Surrender, dislocate
Football used to be a violent sport.
Yes, today’s version of the game involves plenty of bumping and banging. But we’ve worked out the kinks, padded the players, spaced out the formations. Heck, the most popular modern offensive scheme is called the Spread.
In its early days, when it emerged from the primordial soup of soccer and rugby, the game we love looked like bloody chaos.
In 1869, twenty-five Princeton students faced twenty-five Rutgers students in a match of what they called “the Boston game,” a full-contact soccer-esque sport with roots in America’s colonial days. Most historians consider this the first college football game.
But history is wrong.
The first matchup in a sport that looked anything like real football happened in 1874 between students from Harvard, innovators of “the Boston game,” and a rugby squad from McGill University of Montreal. Against the odds, the Americans trounced the Canadians in the very first “Boston game” contested under rugby rules. Chests metaphorically puffed, Harvard did what they always do and challenged Yale in this newfangled sport, facing the Bulldogs in 1875.
For five years, plays started with rugby’s brutal, crowded scrum. Injury was frequent and brutal. Then in 1880, a man named Walter Camp changed the rules. Now the ball was snapped to the quarterback from a “line of scrimmage.” Again, history says this is what transformed this rugby-soccer-hybrid mishmash of a game into American football.
Again, history is wrong.
Because despite Camp’s initial efforts, injuries kept piling up. Oh, and deaths. Let’s not forget the deaths.
In 1905, 19 young men died playing football. Nineteen. For the first time, but certainly not the last, the sport became political. President Teddy Roosevelt, manliest of men, threatened to abolish football unless something significant was done.
In my opinion, the change that truly transformed football into football took place that very year. Faced with the game’s extinction, a Harvard coach named William Henry Lewis recognized one major cause of injuries: pre-play punching and gouging and holding that the officials couldn’t see along the line of scrimmage. So Lewis proposed a “neutral zone” separating both teams by the width of a football before every play.
Not much distancing. Just enough to preserve contact, but prevent horror.
If I could, through myself, set your spirit free I’d lead your heart away, see you break, break away Into the light and to the day
Decades after Lewis, near London, a mulleted Irishman croons languorously into a microphone. He looks across the thousand-strong sea of humanity gathered in London’s Wembley Stadium, imagines the millions besides them that see and hear him through the cathode-ray glow of their television sets.
His name is Paul David Hewson. His friends in his fledgling band called U2 call him Bono. Soon, so will the world.
But Bono doesn’t know that. Right now, he’s working his way through the lyrics of a song he’ll later admit was unfinished in front of Live Aid’s gargantuan British crowd.
U2 supports Live Aid’s cause — ending famine in Africa — but also sees this concert as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Their timeslot falls when much of the world will be watching. The United States doesn’t really know about U2. They’re still emphatically a British and Irish phenomenon. If U2 can impress here, they’ll break into the American market.
All this runs through Bono’s head. His childhood friend Dave, better known now as The Edge, continues strumming their song’s simple, meandering riff. It glitters like raindrops scattering off of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.’s insistent drum-and-bass thrum.
Their first number, a banger titled “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” went well, but not breakthrough starshot levels of well. Now, presented with an obscure B-side from U2’s most recent album, the Wembley throng adopts the mood of a housecat swatting at a sunbeam: intrigued, but reserved.
To let it go And so to fade away To let it go And so fade away
On comes Bono’s voice, building, the melody starting to boil around him, trying to draw the watchers in closer, but still to no avail. Inwardly, Bono’s feeling the pressure build.
He needs this. His friends need it. Something must give.
Wide awake Wide awake
He’s giving it all he has, belting like his life depends on it, singing to people he does not know, telling them things they don’t understand, reaching out desperately with what words he has and . . . nothing.
It’s not working.
Wide awake I’m not sleeping
In defiance of its name, “Bad” isn’t. For my money, it’s the best song from U2’s early years.
But by almost every measurable metric, it should not be.
Objectively, “Bad” is a muddy overlong sparsely-instrumented repetitive whirling dervish of a composition. It’s supposedly about heroin addiction. Yet Bono’s lyrics only flirt with the subject. Instead, they have a universal, serendipitous quality to them. They face outward toward an unseen crowd, a rallying cry with no immediately perceptible fixed meaning, a rebellious shout to the sky couched in an veiled poetical mishmash.
“Bad” wants to be sung not just to others, but with others. It has connection in its bones. Just like football.
William Henry Lewis understood this truth. He sought to eliminate only the worst, most devious sorts of contact, not strip so much away that football became “a game of ping-pong or marbles.” Football’s very character was bound up in its physical closeness. The game was meant to be played “with vigor and force, sincerity and earnestness.”
Virtue from near-disorder. Good from bad. There aren’t many things human beings have crafted that can pull that strange contradiction off without a hitch.
But college football does. And so does “Bad.”
The performance that made “Bad” great happened at Live Aid in 1985. It happened because Bono, like William Henry Lewis, knew the power of connection.
U2 runs through another verse. Still barely anything from Wembley’s assembly of thousands.
Bono will later say how much he hates the distance between the crowd and the stage. So now, searching for a moment, understanding what the song needs, he suddenly drops his mic.
He jumps down onto the raised apron just below the main stage. The fisheye lenses of the TV cameras, and with them millions of eyes around the globe, follow him. Bono looks out across Wembley Stadium’s thousands, starts beckoning to them, exhorting them like an old-time preacher. What is he doing?
Bono sees two women in the crowd, motions to security to pull them from the mass crowding the barricade. But security won’t lift them up on the stage apron fast enough.
Exasperated, Bono vaults down to crowd level. “Bad” is in his blood now. His focus, his mission, his reason for being has turned on a dime from “play the best dang show of your life” to “connect with someone, anyone.”
On stage, it’s far past time for the song to move on. Bono’s bandmates play on, improvising, looping the already loopy melody back on itself, inwardly panicking.
Revelation, in temptation
Fifteen-year-old Kal Khalique is in the front row. She’s not some U2 superfan. She’s there to see Wham!, another UK musical sensation who’d later appear that day with Elton John.
But she’s who Bono sees next.
Bono reaches out to her. Security helps her over the guardrail. He gives her the biggest hug.
And caught between bewilderment and hilarity, Live Aid’s audience roars to life.
Kal looks completely overwhelmed. Bono turns the hug into a dance, gives her a courteous kiss on the hand, then the cheek. Connection, at last.
Still in shock, Kal melts back into the crowd as Bono suddenly remembers “oh right, the most important performance of my career is happening right now.” He takes off, sprinting toward a ladder to the stage where The Edge, Adam, and Larry are still heroically vamping, keeping “Bad” afloat, unable to see their obviously fearless leader, unseen by the cameras that have been fixated on Bono’s grand adventures for the past two minutes.
Back on the apron are Melanie and Elaine Hills, the two women Bono had been trying to connect with earlier. He’s happy to see them, spins one around, kisses the other. Both girls beam as Bono reaches for his microphone. His mind is finally back on the song.
But then he realizes what time it is. His expedition into the crowd lengthened “Bad” beyond its proper bounds, blotting out time they needed to play their hit song “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
This is U2’s last chance. They must connect now or not at all.
So Bono screams to Heaven.
Kick it off! Let it go! Go! GO! GO!!! LET IT GO!!!
And do they ever.
U2 explodes into an extended chorus, pouring every ounce of themselves into the melody. Just as his bandmates did, Bono improvises, filling time within the huge soaring space of The Edge’s riffs with snippets from his rock ‘n’ roll ancestors. He pays homage to the Rolling Stones and Lou Reed, retrofitting their classics to his melody, conversing with them. He invites the crowd to sing along, just as he did before — and now, together, they do.
As their set time ends, as Live Aid’s throng cheers with ecstatic abandon, Bono leaves expressing his gratitude.
Thank you. God bless you.
Did I mention that William Henry Lewis was a Black man?
Remember the year. In 1905, Jim Crow and widespread, multi-faceted racial segregation were still the hard-and-fast rule in the South. Institutional racism had less of a foothold in the North, where Lewis spent his playing and coaching days, but prejudice is hard to kill.
But Lewis overcame it with sheer overwhelming excellence, over and over again. He captained football teams at Amherst and Harvard after near-unanimous team votes. Teddy Roosevelt counted him as a close friend, and made him the first African-American United States Attorney. (Yep, Lewis also graduated law school.) And Walter Camp, the aforementioned father of American football, named him an All-American.
For my money, William Henry Lewis is the best player-coach combo of his day. But by the disadvantages of his day, he should not have been. Like “Bad,” he succeeded gloriously, emphatically, anomalously.
You know, Walter Camp often gets credit for coming up with the neutral zone. That’s a pity, because William Henry Lewis deserves all the props. He was way ahead of his time.
Success under the circumstances Lewis faced requires deep-down, gut-level courage. Football taught that courage to Lewis. He later noted: “If it hadn’t been for football there is no telling what I would be today.”
And Lewis later invented the neutral zone because football taught him something else too. Somewhere between bruising, chaotic, close-quarters contact and uncomfortable, unbridgeable distance lies connection, that elusive moment we chase like madmen, beckoning to those around us, searching for something in common.
This year, we need connection more than ever.
2020 seems designed to break our spirits. It began with “social distancing,” this dumb jargony phrase that we never used before because it felt wrong to say, a misnomer. Distance is the opposite of social.
So thank goodness it’s time for college football again.
For our collective sanity, this season had to happen. Football is a game of closeness. It forges alliances across boundaries, centers on institutions fueled by traditions upheld by camaraderie, on and off the field. I believe with all the reckless hope in my heart that it can teach us how to come together again, if we let it.
Football is not for the fearful. Especially not college football, the absolute strangest sport there is. Like “Bad,” it’s a rambling wreck of showmanship and simplicity, best played loudly, with thousands of fans.
And just like “Bad,” it defies the name. Because it’s good for man to be together.
Thanks for reading my opening article for this year’s college football season. I hope you enjoyed it! Now, what to watch this weekend?
Here’s an abbreviated schedule of the best games this weekend. All game times are in God’s Time (CST).
Middle Tennessee State vs. Army (Sat 12:30p, CBSSN)
Arkansas State vs. Memphis (Sat 7p, ESPN)
BYU vs. Navy (Mon 7p, ESPN)
The season starts in earnest next week. Until then, you can follow me on Twitter here. And as always, happy watching!