BY WARREN COHEN
In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt called officials from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House, threatening to ban the infant sport of football. That year, 18 players had died and 159 had been critically injured in a no-holds-barred contest. Indeed, the game seemed unchanged from its violent 11th-century origins, when the British played "Kick the Dane's Head" with a dead soldier's skull. The colleges heeded Roosevelt's warning and, in 1906, adopted new rules preventing unnecessary roughness.
What football fan among us would not give up a Super Bowl ticket in exchange for such knowledge? Well, perhaps I exaggerate a bit. My point is that a visit to the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, where I learned the preceding pigskin lore, is a fine way to pass the time on a lonely weekend when the game is not being played. The $14.7 million pantheon, the third-largest athletic hall of fame in the country after baseball and pro football, opened in August 1995; the old hall in Kings Mill, Ohio, had closed because of poor attendance. Organizers hope the new location will draw tourists from nearby Chicago, less than two hours away on Interstate 80/90.
Before entering the hallowed hall, I visited nearby Notre Dame. Tales of past football glory take up much of the university's public tour (free but tips for volunteer guides are suggested; call 219-631-5726 for the schedule). Even the religious art on campus has gridiron meaning. The towering mural of Jesus on the school library, arms uplifted, is known as "Touchdown Jesus" because his posture resembles a referee's touchdown signal. A statue of Moses with his index finger extended upward goes by "We're Number One Moses."
My appetite whetted by the Notre Dame tour, I took the 10-minute drive to the hall of fame (9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; $9 adults, discounts for seniors and children). The first order of business is hero worship. The hall enshrines 743 players and coaches, their portraits rendered in bas-relief and bathed in shimmering light. But the men are organized by the decade in which they played, so I had no idea how to find stars like former Supreme Court Justice (and famed University of Colorado running back) Byron "Whizzer" White. Turns out his college career began in 1935. Interactive kiosks let you learn more about the honorees. Two large-screen movies provide a behind-the-scenes but somewhat unsatisfying tour of the sport. In locker room shots, coaches tell teams to play with pride while players pray silently. I was much happier viewing highlights of famous games, broadcast on a television set housed inside a giant football. I relived a comeback by my pint-size hero, Boston College's 5-foot, 9-inch quarterback Doug Flutie, who threw a last-second, game-winning long bomb against Miami 13 years ago.
Then I advanced to the many exhibits on football's history. I saw how a football evolved from a round rubber ball into a leather spheroid as the forward pass grew popular. I heard university fight songs (but opted not to pick up pom-poms and play cheerleader). I saw time lines, medical information, and scores and stats from every bowl game ever played. After a while, my brain called for a timeout. A museum guide confided it would take 7 and 1/2 hours to absorb all the material in the hall.
Thankfully, the museum has not forgotten that football is basically about running around, getting sweaty, and knocking people down. Outside, by the hall's faux coliseum exterior, are 30 yards of a fake football field. Kids, many with $13 pigskins from the gift shop, were trying to make kicks into the goal post. Inside, a "Training Center" tests your football mettle. Computer sensors measure how many steps you can take in 30 seconds, how quickly you can run across a balance beam. Another room tests playing skills: your speed when running through a tackling dummy, your ability to throw a football into a tiny hole. At the end of the 45-minute exercise, which was great fun, I received my rank. Thinking back to my boyhood, when my overprotective mother wouldn't let me play football, I sadly concluded that Mom was right. I missed the category of "Hall of Famer" by a mile.
Copyright 1997, U.S.News & World Report. All rights reserved.