Saturday, February 15, 2014


                My first paying job in journalism was at age 19 with the Champaign-Urbana Courier in the home cities of the University of Illinois, where I was a student. I received $1.25 an hour to cover the Champaign High School teams. I felt myself richly rewarded, the sum being more than adequate to pay for gas for my ‘53 Ford, movies and almost-nightly trips to the Chuck Wagon, my diner of choice. Life was good.
               One of my first “enterprise” features came in 1958, my second year on the job. In a football game that season, a player on the CHS team kicked a field goal, about a 20-yarder. The feat was so unusual I asked around to see if anyone could remember the last time it had been done locally. No one could with certainty. I searched the paper’s ragged files and found that a field goal had been kicked against the school four or five years earlier but that no Champaign lad had done it during that period. I already knew that even kicked points-after-touchdown were rare at the high-school level, so using the FG as a point of departure my piece investigated the sad state of the placekicking art. I recall it being well received.

                Of late, of course, every decent-sized high school has a good kicker, and the specialty has blossomed fully in the colleges and pros. Indeed, one of football’s seminal events was the day in 1961 that a young Pete Gogolak kicked a 41-yard field goal for Cornell University using the “soccer-style” movement he’d learned on the pitches of his native Hungary.  By adding hip torque to leg strength, the technique vastly increased kickers’ range and accuracy. Its later development by Gogolak and others at the pro level revolutionized the game.

                Now a counter-revolution is stirring, led by the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, of all people. As last season wound down he noted aloud that kicked points-after-touchdown in the league had become so monotonously successful that they might better be eliminated, replaced by the awarding of seven points for a TD or giving the scoring team the option of going for two points with a play from scrimmage while forfeiting a point for failure. Since the commish’s musings are taken as seriously as Chairman Mao’s once were, league officials can be expected to consider the change before next season commences.

                To that I say fine, but why stop at examining just extra points? I’ve long held that football would be a better game without the foot, one with no kicking at all, punting as well as placekicking. You could start each game by putting the ball at midfield, lining up a player from each team on the 40s and letting them race and claw for possession. The winner’s team would possess the spheroid until it goes four-downs-and-out or scores a touchdown. Then the other guys would give it a go from the point of surrender or from its own 30-yard line after a TD, back and forth until time expires, with the usual quarter- and half-time breaks.

                Extra points would be regular plays from the 2 1/2-yard line, just like they’re sometimes done now. Field goals are copouts and dull to boot (they’re either good or they’re not), and no big loss. No punting would enhance the importance of every play and make fourth-down plays—the game’s most exciting—more frequent.  With no way out under the rules, coaches would have to shed the play-calling conservatism that soddens the present-day game. It’d be a true 100-yard war without quarter. Call it “Battleball” and let the boys go at it!

                I’m sure your eyes are rolling by now, but steady them if you can. If eliminating kicked extra points is justifiable by their frequency of success (99.something% in recent years), field goals haven’t been far behind.  In the years immediately before 1974,  when NFL goal post were placed at the back of the end zone and their widths narrowed to 18 ½ feet, field goals were good roughly 50% of the time. Now the overall success rate is at about 85% and climbing.

Field goals of 50 yards or more were rare in the 1960s and ‘70s but last season they were good about 65% of the time. Six of the 14 NFL FGs of 60-yards or more were kicked in the last three seasons, including Matt Prater’s 2013 record 64-yarder. At the rate things are going, any team that reaches midfield soon will be in scoring range, offering reward for slight achievement. Is this the sort of lesson we should be teaching our children?

              NFL kickoffs already have come in for deemphasis, with player safety the objective. In 2011 the league moved the kickoff spot up five yards to the 35-yard line; in consequence, the number of touchbacks rose to about 44% last season from about 16% the season before the change. The complete absence of the play, with its high-velocity collisions, only could aid the league’s effort to reduce concussions and other serious injuries.   

Taking the foot out of football would have other beneficial results. One would be to eliminate kickers, specialists who fit into the game about as well would Chihuahuas at a convention of Dobermans. With few exceptions kickers are pale, frail guys whose lives seem at risk every time they make contact with the big-bodied types who staff most of the other positions. If not for the money, most probably would be glad to be elsewhere.
                Finally, by calling the sport “Battleball,” the U.S. could join the rest of the world to whom “football” means the real game of the foot. That would erase the name “soccer” (derived from the old term AsSOCiation Football), one of the ugliest words around.

Addition by subtraction! Who could ask for more?



Saturday, February 1, 2014


                Old people love to give advice, and since I turn age 76 tomorrow, and thus qualify firmly as old, I am indulging myself with what follows.  Stick with me and your life will improve, or your money back.

--Smile when another car passes you on the road because you never want to be the fastest guy out there.

--When someone is tailgating you slow down gradually by taking your foot off the accelerator. The jerk will go around you and bother someone else.

--In your first visit to any Italian restaurant, order lasagna. If it’s not good don’t return because it’s unlikely that the place will make anything else well, either.

--If you’re writing anything that could get you into trouble, hold it overnight before sending.

--Be grateful if you’re happy in the water because swimming is the best exercise. It provides a full-body workout without stressing your frame.

--Netflix is the best company. It offers 100,000-odd movie or TV titles, its delivery system is seamless and you can keep the discs as long as you like. Plus, when you need to call, an American will answer.

--If I had my life to live over I’d pay more attention in foreign-language classes and take better care of my teeth.

--Wear as few clothes as possible. I like Arizona because I can get away with shorts, t-shirts and sandals nine months of the year.

--When your wife calls you “sweetheart” you can be pretty sure something else is coming.

--The only way to know what’s going on is to read the New York Times. You may not agree with its editorials but it’s the only U.S. newspaper that covers the world.

--Playing the horses makes you an expert on your own failings, but the knowledge does you little good.

--If you have a choice, get in the line with the fewest women.

--Don’t expect star athletes to be outstanding (or even upstanding) human beings. Most have been spoiled since early childhood and behave accordingly.

--Professional sports teams are businesses and make most decisions with an eye to the bottom line. Remember that before you give one your heart.

--Credit cards are a great deal if you can pay your balances in full every month. That way you get a free loan with every purchase. Otherwise you might as well be borrowing from the Mafia.

--The more any program strives for “fairness” the more complicated and less workable it becomes. I’m thinking specifically of Obamacare and the NFL’s TV-review system.

--When someone prefaces a remark with “with all due respect” or “no offense meant,” you know you’re going to be dissed.

-- Anyone who holds up big companies as efficiency models for government probably never worked in a big company.

--I don’t carry a cell phone and don’t feel a lack. Very few calls can’t be returned an hour or even a day later.  (Yes, I’m retired, but I worked without one for close to 50 years.)

--The best seats in any baseball park are behind home plate, from where the action spreads out before you and you can see what the pitchers are throwing. Surprisingly, they’re often among the cheapest and easiest to get. My favorite ones in the upper deck at Chase Field in Phoenix usually sell for $16 per, about one-fifth of what some people downstairs are paying for inferior views.

--The best seat for any football game is in front of your TV set.

--If one of your elected representatives does something you really don’t like, let him or her know about it. It probably won’t make a difference but will make you feel better.

--I rarely sign up for anything where I pay up front and must hustle to receive the benefits. Disneyland makes big money from that system.

--Brussel sprouts are the best vegetables. If you don’t like them you probably aren’t cooking them right; cut in half and fried in butter is one good way.

--If you can see retirement coming, line up a few things to keep you busy when the days arrive. Just vegging out can get old fast.

--Relatedly, if you’re retired and have two errands to run, don’t do both the same day.

--Try to enjoy whatever you do because that’s the only reward you’re likely to get.

--Advice is much easier to give than to take.