'Eleven Men And Sic 'Em'

On Jan. 26, 1983, phone service through-out area code 205, which then included all of Alabama, crashed from overload. Was the cause a natural disaster? Yes. Oh, yes, something very natural--death--had claimed the University of Alabama's football coach.

Allen Barra's illuminating book "The Last Coach: A Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant" explains why Alabamians felt so bereft. It also answers a question especially pertinent since Thomas Herrion, 23, a 315-pound lineman for the San Francisco 49ers, died in August of a previously undetected heart disease: Has football become grotesque?

Football combines two disagreeable features of American life--violence punctuated by committee meetings, called huddles. Furthermore, after Bryant became a coach, and to his regret, football players became specialists--often dangerously large specialists.

In 1964, all limits on substitution ended, bringing the virtual extinction of players who played "on both sides of the ball"--both offense and defense. Some teams swelled to more than 130 players until the NCAA cut scholarships to only--only!--85. This was the end of the "11 men and sic 'em" football favored by the man who earned his nickname when, at the age of 14, he wrestled a bear.

For some Alabamians, Barra says, September 11 means the day in 1913 when Bryant was born in a place--it was not a town--called Moro Bottom, Ark. He played at Alabama and got most of his then record 323 victories there, where he won six national championships--as many as the top three active coaches combined. He would have won a seventh in 1966 if the country, including those who vote on team rankings, had not been so angry about the only Alabamian more famous than Bryant--Gov. George Wallace.

But football helped change the face of the South. Before the 1963 Orange Bowl, President Kennedy visited the locker room of the integrated Oklahoma Sooners, but not Alabama's. The 1969 Texas Longhorns were the last all-white team voted national champions.

Bryant--"My players are athletes first and students second"--had an agreeable aversion to hypocrisy and cant. He told players: "Ten years from now you are going to be married with a family, your wife might be sick, your kids might be sick, you might be sick, but you will get your butt up and go to work. That's what I'm going to do for you. I'm going to teach you how to do things you don't feel like doing."

Bryant understood what football meant to the South. The Rose Bowl had been reluctant to invite Alabama to play in 1926, the era of Erskine Caldwell's novels about rural Georgia, "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre." Alabama's victory over Washington occasioned, Barra says, "the greatest statewide celebration since the shelling of Fort Sumter."

The University of Alabama's enrollment actually increased during the Depression partly because it welcomed Northeastern Jewish students who were excluded by quotas from many prestigious Northern schools. In the 1960s, the South's most turbulent decade since the 1860s, Alabama dominated college football, and because an ABC television prodigy named Roone Arledge knew charisma when he saw it, Bryant became the craggy face of college football.

Also in the 1960s, unlimited substitution began making huge players practical as offensive or defensive specialists. Barra notes that Bryant's 1966 team "looked like an average high school team today." It went 11-0 and then won the Sugar Bowl. It had only 14 players who weighed more than 200 pounds. The two heaviest weighed 213. The linemen averaged 195. The quarterback weighed 175.

Today, Scouts, Inc., reports that nearly 40 percent of the interior linemen who will go to Division I colleges in September 2006--many of these players not yet 18--already weigh at least 300 pounds. In 1980, only one NFL player topped 300. In 1994, the year a mortality study found that linemen have a 52 percent greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than the general population and that the largest players have six times the risk of cardiac death than normal-size players, the number of 300-pounders was 155. Ten years later 370 NFL players exceeded 300, and 10 exceeded 350.

This season, the offensive lines of 30 of the 32 NFL teams average at least 300 pounds, and one team averages 323. Of the 61 offensive college linemen invited to last February's NFL Scouting Combine, 58 weighed at least 300. Of the three little fellows, one weighed 299 and two weighed 298.

After 18 college players died in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt--it took serious carnage to cause that cowboy and warrior to flinch--compelled rules changes to make football safer. Today it is unhealthy because of the kinetic energy involved in collisions between huge men--and because of what they do to become huge. Not coaching football was unhealthy for Bryant. "If I quit coaching," he frequently said, "I'll croak in a week." He died 28 days after his last game.