Two weeks from now the National Football League will hold its annual draft of college football players. For the league’s teams, the draft is the chance to re-stock their rosters with fresh young talent, basing their choices on reams of analytical reports and hours of dissected game films. The players, on the other hand, see the draft as the fulfillment of their lifelong dreams, the chance to slip the penury of amateur collegiate status and earn millions as a professional athlete. Like everything the NFL does, the draft is an epic, made-for-television spectacle, with fans cheering and jeering from the balcony of New York’s Radio City Music Hall, team executives arrayed on the floor like UN diplomats in crisis deliberations, the wise chorus of ESPN experts predicting each team’s selection and then decrying those teams that didn’t do as they had predicted, and the players themselves, dressed in tailor-made suits purchased with their expected millions, waiting for their names to be called. The whole proceeding is broadcast with an accompanying riot of statistics, scrolling text, and computer-generated graphics.
Once upon a time, football was different.
Historian Randy Roberts presents this earlier age of college football, in all its color and drama, in his newest book, A Team for America: The Army-Navy Game That Rallied a Nation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). At the start of World War II, government and military leaders decided (after much debate) that college football had to keep going; it was good exercise for young men soon to leave for overseas service and good entertainment for the home front. And two teams that gained the most talented recruits and the most national attention during the war were the academies for prospective officers: Army and Navy. Randy’s book focuses on the Army team of coach Red Blaik, who came to West Point in 1941 to revive a losing program. By autumn 1944, through his own relentless preparation and innovations in strategy, and with the contributions of two of the greatest backs to play the game, Blaik had built one of the best teams in the country. In November of that year, troops overseas were stalled on the battlefield, and people at home were weary of rationing. They turned on their radios to listen to a football game, the biggest game of the year, played not by pro prospects looking ahead to their big payday, but by officer candidates who expected to go to war.