Lost an old friend last week, the game they call football.
It had been around a long time, characterized by one thing, its toughness.
Now, it appears, they are trying to take the toughness out of the game, turning it into a game of Patty Cake in chin straps.
They say they are doing it to make the game safer, taking out the plays most likely to cause injury. That would be helmet-to-helmet collisions, chop blocks to the knees, things of that nature.
The intent certainly is good, but somehow it doesn’t fit, at least the way it was called on Saturday when West Virginia beat Maryland.
Two calls went against the Mountaineers on tackles ... middle linebacker Najee Goode on one, safety Terence Garvin on the other. Each was a tooth-rattling hit, each was vicious looking enough to make you gasp.
Each looked legal.
Randy Dunnigan, you may recall, was an offensive lineman at WVU in the 1990s. He came out of Maryland to play in Morgantown, and this was what he sent out on Twitter moments after the second call:
“Hey Mr. Official. It’s called Football. It’s a violent game. Chances are ... you might get hit!”
Before we go any further, let me shortcut one of the arguments that is sure to be put forth about sports writers such as myself who write these kind of articles. I hear it all the time, that I can’t possibly know what I’m talking about because I didn’t play the game.
Well, let me tell you something. There are four teeth laying somewhere on a football field in New Jersey that got kicked out while I wasn’t playing the game. There’s another guy somewhere who bragged about how hard he hit me during a high school game that I was knocked unconscious and had to be helped from the field.
Legal hit then; today it would have cost 15 yards.
And, as for not knowing about how serious these injuries can be, let me assure there aren’t too many people who played football and got up off the ground as a player lying next to him, who had suffered a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit, crying to teammates, “Help me, I can’t move.”
He had broken his neck and was paralyzed from the neck down.
So there is a whole lot of familiarity with the consequences of the game’s violence and we can’t do anything but applaud the efforts to make it safer.
With that, though, comes a tremendous responsibility to the officials to make sure they don’t detract from the heart and soul of the game, which is the ability and necessity of playing hard and hitting hard. Just because a hit is hard does not make it illegal.
Dana Holgorsen, the West Virginia coach, understands the fine line. He wasn’t happy with the two calls made against his players Saturday. But he understood them.
“Those are bang-bang judgment calls, which sometimes they get them right and sometimes they don’t,” he said. “If guys are leading with the top of their heads, you have to call it. There was one on our end that happened to us and that didn’t get called. That’s just part of it. They’re doing their best to protect guys, and if guys come in with their head down, it’s going to get called.”
The problem is that it can take away aggressiveness on the part of a defensive player, leave him hesitant ... and that is probably the most dangerous situation of all.
WVU middle linebacker Najee Goode, who wound up with 11 tackles, had one of the flags thrown on him.
“Playing like that, if I had another opportunity to make the same play, I’d probably do the same thing,” he said. “As a defense, you want to go out and play with energy. You want to make the hard hits and the big hits.”
Safety Terence Garvin drew the other flag.
“You can’t think about penalties like that. You got to play your game, come downhill and play physical and aggressive. Things like that are going to happen. It’s a discretionary call. It’s up to the referee if he wants to call it,” he said.
Both players kept after it despite the penalties.
“The thing that I thought we did a good job of was when both of them happened, we didn’t cave,” Holgorsen said. “We were being real physical and getting off the field on third down, and when those happened it put us in a bind, but we didn’t cave in and they didn’t get touchdowns. It’s officiating. You have to worry about stuff you can control, and that’s one you can’t.”
It becomes crucial this week because WVU plays a big, fast, strong, physical LSU team.
“Playing a team like LSU, if that situation comes up, the best thing I can do is the same thing but change the way I do it, maybe wrap up and do some little things to stop him. If I make the same hit against LSU, he might just bounce off and make a big play out of it,” Goode said.
It’s about making the play and making a point while doing all you can to stop them from making any points.
There isn’t a player out there who doesn’t know that there are risks involved in playing the game, and they accept those risks, in part, because they come about from playing football the way it was meant to be played.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.
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