I was about to toss yesterday’s Wall Street Journal into the recycling bin this morning but realized I hadn’t read the “Review” section. Am I glad I took a minute to page through! On page C3 was this excellent essay/article, “Fitzgerald and the Football Revolution,” by Kevin Helliker.
The gist of the article—and I love stories like this—is that in 1956 a romance languages graduate student at the University of Michigan thought to interview the head football coach, Fritz Crisler, for the school newspaper to see whether, by chance, he’d ever had contact with F. Scott Fitzgerald during his years coaching the Princeton team.
Apparently what this graduate student knew, and most people didn’t, was that Fitzgerald was a lifelong devoted fan of Princeton’s football team. When Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44, according to the WSJ article, he was in the middle of reading a Princeton Alumni Weekly analysis of the upcoming football season. (The WSJ article also notes that Fitzgerald had written notes in the margins, “which makes college football the last thing he ever wrote about.”)
Why, yes, Head Coach Fritz Crisler told the grad student, Donald A. Yates. He had had contact with Fitzgerald during those years at Princeton. In fact, Fitzgerald used to call him up in the middle of the night before game day with ideas about plays the coach should use. Often Crisler could hear “the laughter and cries of a dying party” in the background. (Crisler’s Princeton coaching years were 1932–1937.)
Fritz Crisler is famous for inventing “two-platoon football,” or the use of two separate offensive and defensive teams. Prior to that innovation the same eleven players played the entire game, switching off between offense and defense. Yates knew little about football, so when Crisler told him that one of Fitzgerald’s “fantastic” ideas was “a scheme for a whole new offense. Something that involved a two-platoon system,” Yates didn’t realize the import of that statement and didn’t think to follow up by asking whether Fitzgerald, in fact, gave Crisler the idea that revolutionized the sport.
Reflecting on the interview conversation today, Yates (a professor emeritus of Latin American literature at Michigan State) says, “That seems to be what he is saying.”
The author of the WSJ article found additional support for Fitzgerald’s influence in a 1962 Fitzgerald biography written by Andrew Turnbull. Turnbull cites an athletic manager under Crisler at Princeton who remembers getting a call from Fitzgerald during those years saying, “Princeton must have two teams. One will be big—all men over two hundred [pounds]. This team will be used to batter them down and wear them out. Then the little team, the pony team, will go in and make the touchdowns.”
I find it fascinating that people who are creative innovators in one area so often turn out to be creative innovators in multiple other areas. The term for people like this is “polymath,” and their numbers include people like Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, actress Hedy Lamarr, Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan guitarist Jeff Baxter, and many others. (Hmm, this is a topic I should probably blog about :) )
This Wall Street Journal article is really interesting and well written. If you have time you should link over and read it.