Are You Ready for Some Episkyros?

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As the Zombies first sang in 1968, “It’s the time of the season.”  Yes, September in the U.S. not only brings cooler temperatures, fewer daylight hours, and new types of allergenic pollen, but it also brings America’s favorite televised sport.  Training camps and pre-season games are done, and stadiums around America are degreasing their industrial popcorn machines for the season.  Actually, I hope they degreased at the end of last season.  But, as the Zucchabar slave trader told Proximo before selling him rotten arena fighters in the movie Gladiator, “Adds to the flavor.”  

Speaking of gladiatorial times, football is actually much older than those black-and-white photos of leather-headed college teams in the late 19th century.  It’s older than earlier bare-headed players who suffered injuries before someone decided it was smart to protect a player’s head.  “Protect your [other organ],” Hemingway famously told a young player.  (It’s all his fault.)  Yes, football can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece.  Vases and sculptures from 2400 years ago show players exchanging a large round ball.  Back then, the game was called “episkyros,” and it was played by throwing a ball over a scrimmage while avoiding tackles.  Kicking was also permitted, but ancient Greek kickers weren’t very good at it, often kicking wide left and wide right, damaging roofs and columns of great temples and occasionally breaking arms off of fine statues.  Damage caused by these aberrant kicks is what today we call “ancient ruins.”

After the Greeks, the Romans changed football in important ways.  It’s not known from archaeology if they played on Monday nights or even if they had a second generation singer from the country provinces to sing a theme song before games.  But the most significant contribution Romans made to football was for the first time allowing players to wear clothes while playing.  

After the fall of the empire, football continued in the former provinces among barbarian tribes.  In their hands, the game became a mob sport, with unlimited number of players on opposing teams who would clash in a heaving mass to drag an inflated pig’s bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of the village.  If there was either an Armour Star or Libby’s factory at the end of the village, however, they were forced to play the game with plant gourds.

England inherited the mob game, and in their hands the game first became less footed.  In 1828, a mob player picked up the ball and ran with it beyond the goal marker.  It was such a novel play that they gave him points for it.  This unfortunate historic event foreshadowed the predominance of running the ball over kicking the ball.  Then, in 1898, such “touchdowns” were promoted from 4 points to 5.  Six years later, field goals were demoted from 5 points to 4.  The footness of football was diluted further when the forward pass was legalized in 1906, made even easier when the ball was tapered at the ends in 1936.  The rifling motion of hurling such a tapered ball was nicknamed “throwing a bullet.”  In the 1980s and 1990s, NFL and PoV Country quarterback Bobby Hebert would use other ammo for the forward pass by “throwing cannons” –Cajun ones.

In America, football developed first at colleges in the east and later in cities of the Midwest–cities with industrial-sounding names with harsh, ironclad consonants like Pittsburg, Latrobe, Allegheny, Chicago, Racine, Duquesne, Syracuse, Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Dayton, Decatur, Columbus, and Detroit.  The players, too, had industrial, matter-of-fact names, like Red, Bronco, Pudge, Nagurski, Curly, Stagg, and, of course, the most industrial-sounding of all, Knute and Rockne.  American football was geographically a gridiron, hammer-and-anvil sport before the vernacular was polluted with Frenchy city names like New Orleans and Baton Rouge and boy-nouveau given names like Peyton and Drew and Archie and Bert and Shaun and Joe.  

And before scrimmage became so dainty in 1876 like two parallel stirrers at a pristine tea service, even team formations were industrial:  Consider the “flying wedge,” first used by Harvard and Yale in 1892, in which a triangle of players surrounded the ball carrier and charged point-first into a line of defensive players.  The wedge proved to be so dangerous (and even lethal) that it was eventually outlawed from the game two years and many Ivy-League craniums later.  Today, the flying wedge is memorialized in Cambridge and New Haven with food fights involving McDonalds Chicken Nuggets.  Only the wedge shapes can be used without penalty.

So, now that you know some history, are you ready for some football?  As the Zombies sang in 1968, “It’s the time of the season.”  The Zombies weren’t talking about football, of course.  It’s just that there’s no good football songs from the hippie era.