To those of us who study and follow college football as closely as we do our plunging stocks and who devote a great many hours to genuflecting before its shrines—Bear Bryant's drawl, for instance, or John McKay's wit—the first 100 years seemed to speed by as quickly as O.J. Simpson on hut, hut, hut, 23 blast, or whatever that thing was he did off tackle so often. One day some young men from Princeton and Rutgers played Jab the Belly, Knee the Groin, and then the whole mosaic of the game unfolded wondrously like a card section spelling out Granny Rice: here came Pudge Heffelgrange, Amos Alonzo Baugh, Pestilence, Famine, Death and Rockne, Slingin' Sammy Nevers, the Seven Blocks of Seats, Fireball Frankie Harmon, Mr. Sideways and Mr. Backwards, Win One for the Gifford, Indian Doak Thorpe, all of those marvelous coaching names: Pop, Jock, Dutch, Red, Tiny, Moose, Biff and Biggie, all inventing Old 83, the Flea Flopper, and finally like a breath of fire and a streak of flame outlined against a dull-gray October scedule, General George (Blood and Guts) MacHayes and his Buckeyes win again.
It seems impossible that we would have had none of this had it not been for those inventive men from Princeton and Rutgers, 25 on a side, who removed their waistcoats back on Nov. 6, 1869 and fell into a heap; that without their efforts Texas would be meeting Arkansas this Dec. 6 on the new AstroTurf of Fayetteville, Ark. in a televised debate to see who's No. 1 in English Lit 341; that Walter Camp might have been the Father of American Crew; that the annual Army-Navy spectacle might now alternate between lacrosse fields at West Point and Annapolis; and that the Crimson Tide would roll, tide, roll largely during Southeastern Conference triangular track meets.
For all intents and purposes, Dan Jenkins is the L. Ron Hubbard of college football. This sport we follow is a religion in some parts of the country and a complete curiosity in others*, and the combination of snark and adoration with which Jenkins wrote about college football established the template most of us use in our own writing, whether we realize it or not. Old-school baseball writing seems all about the prose -- the crack of the bat, playing catch with your dad, the smell of the grass, et cetera. The beautiful part of college football is just as beautiful as any other sport, but what Jenkins did so well in his writing -- particularly in the compilation of his S.I. columns found in Saturday's America -- was take heed of both the wonder and the absurdity. The awe with which Jenkins looks back on TCU games in the late 1930s, and the obsessiveness of a pair of couples attending four football games in just over two days. The incredible sight of O.J. Simpson running with a football, and the insanity following a star recruit like Jack Mildren. (Even in the 1960s, recruiting was a hilarious spectacle full of grown men and boosters embarrassing themselves to win the hearts and minds of 18-year olds, only without Rivals.com to tell us all about it..) It's all there (with a few off-color-but-okay-in-the-late-1960s jokes along the way), and thanks to the glorious SI Vault, it's all available.
What isn't available, at least not immediately, is Saturday's America itself. It is, amazingly, out of print. I finally broke down and purchased a ratty, used copy off of Amazon for $25 a while back, just to say I owned it. In the process of reading it, a few pages fell out. I think it is the duty of every obsessive college football fan to track down a copy one way or another ... or at least start a Saturday's America exchange program or something.
It is said that Jenkins began to grow a little more weary of college football's sleazy side in the 1980s -- he became a little more critical and a little less loving in his writing about the sport. That's a shame. Who knows ... maybe the same thing will happen to me when I reach the age he reached in the 1980s. But for now, college football, with as much absurdity and beauty as just about every other sport combined, has me hooked. And I'm not sure I've ever read a better continuous ode to the sport than Jenkins' 1960s and 1970s columns.
* When I began writing for Football Outsiders, I was taken aback by how many posters left comments that would start with "I don't really follow college football, but ..." What kind of masochist do you have to be to avoid throwing yourself into this ridiculous sport we love??