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Blast from the Past: The Elmira Express

28 Mar

elmira commuter trainHe was hated for being black and loved for his gentleness.  He was admired for his athletic prowess and respected for his humility and compassion.  Sportswriters called him “The Elmira Express” but he was, as one coach described him, “like a puppy dog, friendly and warm and kind”.

Even on the football field where he was powerful and locomotive-like in blowing up opposing players who attempted to tackle him, he would, after knocking an opponent down, run back and help him up.  “We never had a kid so thoughtful and polite,” his college coach said of him.

ernie davis7The kid in question was Ernie Davis.  In a time when the struggle for civil rights dominated our daily lives and hatred spilled into the streets and into the football fields where Ernie played, he was the first black athlete to be awarded the Heisman Trophy.

Born on Dec. 14, 1939, in New Salem, Pa. Davis grew up in poverty in Uniontown, a coal-mining town 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, where he was raised by caring grandparents.  The honors came early and often, from the time he started with organized sports. He succeeded at every venue, a three-sport standout in high school.

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Blast from the Past: How Theodore Roosevelt Changed Football

20 Mar

Article (1905)

Concussions weren’t a pressing issue in the early days of football.  Dying was.  So, after 19 players had been killed and 159 critically injured playing the game in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt – no stranger himself to rugged play — gave the ruling powers of football a choice: change the game or see it abolished by Executive Order.

teddy roosevelt (as a player - 2x3)

Teddy as a player.

As much as he loved the toughness that football ingrained in America’s youth, Roosevelt — and much of eastern society — had wearied of its savagery.  It was, by numerous descriptions, no better than brawling and not only because of the numerous fist fights that routinely erupted at games, but mostly because of an offensive strategy called “mass-momentum plays.”

The concept of massing players into tightly woven formations to increase their power at the point of attack began in 1884, during a game between Princeton and Penn.  In an attempt to break a 0-0 deadlock, Princeton quarterback Richard Hodge devised a play in which the “rush-line” – an early version of an offensive line – jumped into a wedge or V-shaped formation at the snap of the ball and plowed forward like a tank through the Penn defense with the ballcarrier safely tucked in behind.  The men from Penn had no answer for the trick formation and were routed 31-0.

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