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Don't Erase Memory of Ghosts of Football Past

NFL STATE OF THE GAME. Day 1: A weeklong look at what has become the most successful television sport in the nation and its impact.

January 18, 1998|JIM MURRAY

The headlines told it all: Three networks were paying a total of $17.6 billion for broadcast rights to professional football.

Red Grange must be mopping his brow and shaking his head someplace today. George Halas must be cussing, to think he gave away the rights to promote his sport in the beginning.

The senses reel at those figures. Used to be, you had to own a railroad or a bank or a coal mine to get rich in this country. Now, all you have to do is run 40 yards in 4.3 seconds. You are immediately as rich as any Rockefeller.

How did it come to this? In ancient Rome, you had to kill a lion. Now, you just have to outrun a Detroit Lion. You become one of the world's richest men without ever being able to read a balance sheet. Or, maybe, read, period.

Once, professional football was a stepchild of sport played by 11 refugees from a railroad roundhouse on Sunday for $25 a game. It was a step above sandlot football. The only game broadcast was the one in New York between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears by a guy who had to stand with his microphone on the Polo Grounds roof. They wouldn't let Caswell Adams in the press box.

But if Red Grange--dubbed "the Galloping Ghost" by a guy in a press box overcome with emotion at Grange's college exploits--put the pro sport on Page 1, who kept it there?

Well, first you have to understand, football in this country originally meant Harvard-Yale, Army-Navy, Notre Dame-anybody in those days. Raccoon coats, hip flasks, saddle shoes and all that.

It was a landlocked sport back then. It was really "foot" ball, a massive tangle of infantrymen in a pileup. The flying wedge. Three yards and a clod of mud.

Then, Knute Rockne invented, so to speak, the forward pass. But the game was still hobbled. You could pass only from five yards behind the line of scrimmage. If you threw two incompletions in the same series of downs, you got a five-yard penalty. If you threw an incompletion in the end zone, the ball went over to the other team on its 20-yard-line.

The pros took the game out of that trunk. You could pass anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. You could throw all the incompletions you had downs for. In college, a team that put the ball in the air five times a game became known as an "aerial" circus. The pros might put it in the air every play. They opened up the game. They put the goal posts back on the goal line, they reinvented the field goal--kicking it from placement--which almost replaced the punt and did replace the dropkick. And 7-0 college games became 28-21 in the pro version.

The public loved it.

But I am indebted to a colleague, Peter Finney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for reminding us of the forgotten man who really made the pro game into, as it were, the Greatest Show on Earth.

The Hall of Fame committee will meet, as usual, at next week's Super Bowl and, also as usual, will probably ignore Clark Shaughnessy.

Clark Shaughnessy? you ask.

Yes, Clark Shaughnessy. Shag, as he was known to some. Shaughnessy, was this spare, fussy, cerebral football strategist who did more to open up the game than any five others, not excluding Rockne.

Before Shaughnessy, football teams used Pop Warner's single wing offense, or the Notre Dame box shift, massed ground systems. Shaughnessy scrapped these Stone Age systems and installed the T-formation, first at the University of Chicago, then with the Chicago Bears. He changed the game forever.

One illustration suffices: In 1940, the Bears lost to the Washington Redskins in the regular season, 7-3. For the title playoff rematch, Bear Coach George Halas sent for Shaughnessy, then a college coach at Stanford. Shaughnessy revised Halas' offensive and defensive strategies. And the Bears beat the Redskins, 73-0. The Bears scored 11 touchdowns in that game.

At Stanford, he took over a team that had won only one game in 1939 and, after installing the Shaughnessy T, took the team, undefeated, to the Rose Bowl where the Indians, as they were then known, beat a vastly superior physically Nebraska team, 21-13.

He joined the Rams as an assistant coach and devised the split offensive lineups, and made quarterbacks Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin legends. The "tight end" and the five-receiver downfield flood? His ideas. He was football's Thomas Edison. Every play in next Sunday's Super Bowl will have Shaughnessy's stamp on it.

There will be a lot of overlooked people at Super Bowl XXXII. The early-day players, identifiable by the broken noses and skewed ears mindful of the bestial nature of the early sport, who do not qualify for the generous benefits that came along later, for instance.

But, unless the Hall of Fame acts, none will be more overlooked than the scholarly genius who took the game out of the cave and made it into a sport for whose broadcast rights American business would be bidding $17.6 billion.

And consider this: John Elway wouldn't be John Elway if it weren't for Clark Shaughnessy. He'd be blocking for his running back. Brett Favre would never get his hands on the ball in the old single wing. He'd be calling signals for the ball to be snapped to three other people all day.

The only guy who did more for the game than Clark Shaughnessy is the guy who first called Red Grange, "the Galloping Ghost." Come to think of it, he's overlooked, too.

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