A Gift Idea for Those Gifted by Football

  • December 4, 2019

BY JAY GREENBERG

Bob Casciola ’58 worries that the popularity of football, immense as that is, ultimately won’t be enough to save it. Americans can’t keep watching if nobody is playing and fewer are out of concern for injury, particularly head trauma.

Enrollment in youth football programs is the lowest it has been since 1999-2000 and legislators in some states are pushing for tackling bans before age 12, threatening early exposure to the game and a generation of kids not growing up to love it as much as Casciola.

“I told my daughter Jeanne that somebody should write a defense of the game,” said Casciola, a recent honoree by this site as one of Princeton’s greatest players of the Ivy League era, head coach of the Tigers from 1973-77, and former president of he National Football Foundation and the College Football Hall of Fame. “But what do I know about writing a book? I couldn’t place where I fit into that.”

“Then I started thinking about players I had coached, recruited, or played with and how football had opened doors for them.”

Jeanne, whose son Will Twyman was All-Ivy at Brown, put him in touch with Jon Land, a prodigious author of 43 books of multiple genres, a Brown grad and vice president of its football association.  The result became 1st and Forever, Making the Case for the Future of Football, which it does one chapter at a time with stories of men who used the game they adore as an entry into college and as tickets to success well beyond the playing field.

“I picked out players I knew, ran them by Jon,” said Casciola.  “Let’s defend the game by putting together examples of the value of it to persons who have had a profound effect on the lives of others.”

One of just five black freshmen in his class at Brown when football gave him entry there in 1953, Dr Augustus White became a war hero and a pioneer orthopedist.  Dr. Tom Catena went from Brown to becoming the only doctor for 400 square miles and 100,000 persons in The Sudan.

Don McPherson, a former Syracuse quarterback has used his passion for football and the platform it has given him to be a decorated advocate for women threatened by violence. Jack Lengyel embraced the withering task of healing Marshall University by taking its coaching job after the school lost virtually its entire team in a 1970 plane crash.

There are plenty of Princeton stories too, as you would expect. Charlie Gogolak, whose families escaped oppression in Hungary and turned to football because the school in upstate New York where his family settled did not have a soccer program, revolutionized with his Cornell brother Pete placekicking as a specialty.

As a five year old, Staś Maliszewski ’66 was hand-carried by his mother and father fleeing Poland in 1944 after their horse was killed in a plane bombing of the emigrants as they fled. They settled in Iowa and Maliszewski became a linebacking legend at Princeton.

Football would have given Cosmo Iacavazzi ’65, son of a trucking company owner in Pennsylvania hard coal country, entry to any school, but his grades gave him the option of Princeton, where he became an All-American running back.

Casciola was the first member of his family to go to college when football helped him into Princeton. Reggie Williams, born with a hearing impediment, went from the mean streets of Flint, Michigan to Dartmouth, 14 years with the Bengals, and two terms on Cincinnati City Council. A retired executive at Disney, Williams has endured 24 post-career operations and osteomyelitis that at one point threatened his leg with amputation and left it considerably shorter than the other.

“The people we wrote about all come back to the fact that they would change nothing, would go back and do football again,” said Casciola. “The sport created a unique opportunity for them.”

More than that, the dedication, it’s demand and the teamwork it fostered shaped success following graduation, in coaching, business, and in the case of Grant Teaff and Steve Hatchell, the latter the current president of the National Football Foundation, to promoting the good that comes from the game.

On a football website, we are preaching to the choir in recommending 1st and Forever (Post Hill Press) as a Christmas gift for the football parent and, better yet, for prospective ones. Their kids have fallen for a game in a way beautifully expressed by accomplished people who continue to give back to it for all the right reasons; starting with saving the sport as a builder of character in its participants, plus camaraderie in those who watch it.

“It brings a lot of people together,” said Casciola. “I don’t think that is exaggerated. Almost anyone who played or plays the game looks back at it as a wonderful experience. Coaches have to promote that.”

With that responsibility comes an obligation to be forces in making the game safer. After President Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban football unless it was made less brutal, rules changes in 1906 and again in 1910 created the neutral zone, put in the forward pass and banned the flying wedge. In recent decades, bigger and faster than ever players, plus well-documented tragedies of CTE and paralysis have made imperative the teaching of shoulder tackling and game disqualifications for leading with the helmet.

Coaches today are smarter about tackling dummies, rather than ballcarriers, in practice, hydration, two-a-days in the brutal heat of training camps, the Ivies becoming a leader in the game in many reforms.  As 23 tough guys tell their stories in 1st and Forever, none of them denigrate those concerns or pine for the days when men were men. If players last, the game will, too.  Tacklers can’t stick their heads into ball carrier’s sternums and coaches cannot bury their heads in the sand.

“We have to be careful,” said Casciola. “The injury thing has gotten to the point where people question whether it is worth it.”

“That’s understandable. The key will be to continue to work on promoting more safety. That has to be the responsibility of people coaching it more so than ever before.”

“You have to get players in shape. It’s a physical game. But now that they are training year round, it makes it more possible to cut back in other areas. This is learning. You have to talk about safety because you are trying to convince parents who will make the final decisions on allowing kids to play which sport. Parents have to have enough faith in a coach to let them work with their sons. The game is looking at itself, getting safer and stronger.”

The responsibility to save it falls on the people who cherish it. No one can love football more than the 23 men Casciola and Land have provided the opportunity to tell why, which they do with so much passion mixed with concern to back critics of the game to the goal line.

 

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