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The Literature of College Football

by on October 31, 2019 4:30 AM


One hundred fifty years ago, on November 6, 1869, a group of students from Princeton traveled to play Rutgers in what would become the first football game ever played. The forces set forth on that day could never have been imagined by those first gridiron gladiators.

From humble beginnings, college football grew to be our uniquely American game. It is power, grace and speed. It is the ultimate team game. It is reliant on people from a vast array of talents and body types doing work in an organized division of labor that no one individual can ever completely overcome.

College football’s rise to prominence in its early days was helped along by the words of great sportswriters immortalizing these games, gladiators and sideline generals. While Western society abandoned ancient Greek and Roman gods centuries ago for monotheist faiths, on college campuses we’ve built temples of football where Saturday rituals are contests of strength and will between players, teams and coaches. 

It gained an unshakable hold on us. Evidence of the game’s hold seeped into popular culture, including references by great American writers. Over a century ago, F. Scott Fitzgerald became a convert as a Princeton freshman when the Tigers and their eastern university brethren were among the elite of the game.

Fitzgerald’s moment of complete conversion came on November 15, 1913, when he watched Princeton and Yale play to a thrilling 3-3 tie after the Tigers’ Hobey Baker drop-kicked a 43-yard field goal. 

In 1927 he was convinced of college football’s importance when he wrote: “For at Princeton, as at Yale, football became, back in the nineties, a sort of symbol. Symbol of what? Of the eternal violence of American life? Of the eternal immaturity of the race? The failure of a culture within the walls? Who knows? It became something at first satisfactory, then essential and beautiful. It became the most intense and dramatic spectacle since the Olympic games.”

By the time another American writer, Jack Kerouac, wrote “On The Road” in the 1950s he, too, was drawn to college football. In that classic book, his narrator, Sal Paradise, recounts his traveling companion Dean Moriarty’s tale of making a detour to see a big football game.

“The following fall I did the same thing again to see the Notre Dame-California game in South Bend, Indiana—trouble none this time and, Sal, I had just the money for the ticket and not an extra cent and didn’t eat anything all up and back except for what I could panhandle from all kinds of crazy cats I met on the road and at the same time gun gals. Only guy in the United States of America that ever went to so much trouble to see a ball game.”

He is probably not the only guy in America to go to that much trouble to see a big game. That character represents so many people that will go to great lengths to be part of an important college football Saturday. In its own way the passage from “On The Road” mirrors what Fitzgerald wrote a few decades earlier about college football. 

“Essential and beautiful”… “Dramatic spectacle”?  Imagine what Saturday afternoons would be like if there was no football here at Penn State? Is there any more dramatic spectacle in all of sports than a Saturday night White Out… or a Saturday night game at LSU… or the Script Ohio… or the Army-Navy game? 

Just the words “Army-Navy game” conjure up the spectacle and essential names of other intense rivalries. These rivalries create lifelong resentment. Perhaps Fitzgerald even reveals an old lingering disdain of Yale football in his classic book “The Great Gatsby.” Tom Buchanan the book’s “bad guy” is a domineering, philandering, brutish and racist husband AND a former Yale football player.

Of the fictional Buchanan, Fitzgerald wrote that he “among various physical accomplishments, had been one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything after savors of anticlimax… but I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”

Beyond Fitzgerald’s reference to Yale, he was also showing great understanding of what these players feel when the cheering stops and the competition is over, when the days they line up across from a worthy adversary and calculate and compete and look for some way to overcome their foe with strength, toughness and power come to an end. 

That is what is unique about this great game and what draws so many of us to it. It is ever-changing with new story lines across stories spanning 150 years. College football is temporary, a brief shooting star of light for young men that will burn out and fade as years pass. Their days will yield to the next generation of gladiators who will fight to secure feats worthy of ascendency into the mythology housed in our Saturday afternoon temples and cathedrals. 

For 150 years it has been ever thus, and so it will remain.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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