Knocking heads with the Sons of Ephraim.

Now that I’m back home, expect a string of boring travelogue posts over the next couple days talking about where I was and what I was doing over the weekend.

For one thing, I went to the third college football game of my life.

The first was in the fall of ’94. Boston University, which was not yet my alma mater, played James Madison. It rained. We lost.

The second was in maybe ’03 or ’04. The paper I worked for sent me to the Penn State-Iowa game to write a story about local people who tailgate at Penn State games. I got to sit up in the press box and write the story while the game was going on.

I have no memories except that the stadium seemed huge; I got lost looking for my car on the way out; and Penn State lost in overtime, by which point I had found my car and was on the highway home.

(I always disliked Penn State, even before the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse saga went public. It always seemed like Pennsylvania’s collective lips were pressed a little too firmly against Saint JoePa’s hinder.)

This time around, I decided small-college Division III action was the way to go.

So I drove east on the fog-choked Taconic Trail to get to Williams College, where the home-team Ephs took on the Bates College Bobcats against a backdrop that would have been remarkably scenic if it hadn’t been so overcast.

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Real men wear purple.

I got there early, had a beer and mingled with the Williams Classes of ’58 and ’63. (By “mingled” I mean “stood by myself within earshot of the tent where they were eating while I looked at their parked Saabs and Volvos.”)

Now *that* is a sweet ride to take to your alma mater's football game on a mellow October afternoon in Massachusetts. I assume they left their fur coats and megaphones in the trunk.
Now *that* is a sweet ride to take to your alma mater’s football game on a mellow October afternoon in Massachusetts. I assume they left their fur coats and megaphones in the trunk.

Once the game got going, I ignored distant family ties to Williams and sat on the Bates side, along with a good, noisy crowd of burgundy-clad State-of-Mainers.

The two teams had at each other using the familiar tools employed by gentleman footballers since the dawn of time — an option here; a pitch to the running back there; plowing off-tackle runs everywhere; and at the end of each sequence, a good healthy punt.

Surprise! A Bates handoff! (I do not think I saw Bates complete a forward pass in the entire first half. In retrospect, I am not even sure I saw them attempt one. Amos Alonzo Stagg smiles upon them from the great beyond.)
Surprise! A Bates handoff! (I do not remember Bates completing a forward pass in the entire first half. I am not even sure I saw them attempt one. Amos Alonzo Stagg smiles upon their single-mindedness.)

Each team scraped across a laboriously earned rushing touchdown.

A goal-line stand for the Ephs' defense. Love the old-school white diamond design in the end zone.
A goal-line stand for the Ephs’ defense. Love the old-school white diamond design in the end zone.

With three seconds left in the first half, Williams’ kicker — whom I’d watched nailing field goals pre-game — hit an especially long effort to give his team a 10-7 lead. (I learned later it was 46 yards, a school record. No wonder he was so happy afterward.)

And then, after a hard-fought 30 minutes of football, with the game very much up for grabs, I got up and left.

For one thing, Williams doesn’t sell tickets; anyone who shows up at Weston Field can watch for free. So I didn’t feel any great regret about walking out on my investment in a ticket.

Also, it had started to rain lightly, and I’d realized that the thick fogbank over my one route back to New York wasn’t going to lift. I had obligations on the other side of the fog, and I decided I’d rather drive through it earlier than later. So I got going.

Watching football close up also reminded me how much trouble I now have accepting the game’s inherent violence.

There weren’t that many injuries, really — not like some NFL games, where somebody seems to go down on every fifth play. And nobody got hurt at this game who couldn’t get up and walk off the field within two minutes.

Still, seeing a bunch of otherwise intelligent young men crash and sway and topple and bend in weird ways kinda lost its interest for me after a while.

I wondered whether it was worth it … whether creaky joints and punch-drunkenness later in life were a justifiable price to pay for stuffing a running play in the backfield on second and 8.

I fear that football, like federal politics, has lost my endorsement — even in the honorable, graft-free precincts.

And that’s a shame, because game day at a place like Williams College is still a great atmosphere, with pride, tradition, lovely scenery, and touches of low-budget ragtag to keep things from getting too fancy.

The Williams pep band, in its entirety. They do a mean version of "Call Me."
The Williams pep band, in its entirety. They do a mean version of “Call Me.”
Weston Field will be significantly revamped after this season. Hopefully they start with the men's room.
Weston Field will be significantly revamped after this season. Hopefully they start with the men’s room.

If I go to another college football game, it will be at someplace like Williams College.

I seem to be averaging one game a decade; I’ll have to re-examine my opinion on violence for sport’s sake in 2023 and see how I feel then.

Today’s score: 84-70.

We got three or four inches of snow in the Lehigh Valley today, which brought the kids out to frolic in the yard.

It also reminded me of one of my favorite snowy-Saturday pastimes growing up — one that, as far as I know, is unknown to my kids.

My friends and I would play football for hours in the yard, buoyed by kids’ remarkable ability to stay out in the cold and slush long after adults give up and go inside.

I figured I’d write down the basic rules of yard football as we played it, just in case somebody out there in Netland is writing a master’s thesis on childhood games of 1980s America:

– Yard football can be played with either a Nerf football or a real ball. Both have disadvantages in the winter: Nerf balls get soggy and heavy and don’t fly as far, whereas real footballs may not be covered in an all-weather material.

– Two completions equal a first down. It is generally not considered sporting to throw two tiny dink-passes just to get the first down. However, desperate quarterbacks are allowed to resort to this measure if they do not abuse it.

– The shotgun formation is allowed.

– There is essentially no such thing as a rush, since they don’t count toward first downs.

– If both sides have the same number of players, one defensive player will be assigned to guard the quarterback. He is allowed to cross the line of scrimmage and blitz the quarterback after counting aloud to five-mississippi.

– The quarterback-guarding position is ideal for a player who is younger or smaller than all the others; or one who has turned an ankle and lost a little mobility; or one who took a pass to the house on the previous possession and needs to catch his breath for a couple of plays.

– A quarterback under pressure will sometimes take off running down the field to avoid being sacked. This is the only “ground game” in yard football. (The threat of a long run is why the extra defender is assigned to guard the quarterback, rather than dropping back into pass protection as might be expected in a heavily pass-oriented game.)

– Despite what I wrote in the title of this post, the score in yard-football games is generally measured by the number of touchdowns (e.g. 14-12), not the number of points. This is because yard-football games go on so long — even in an upstate New York winter — that the winning team’s point total can get close to 100.

– A touchdown is seven points. There are no extra points or two-point conversions. There aren’t really safeties, either, since adding two points to the score complicates scorekeeping. A quarterback in trouble in his own end zone can be counted on to avoid the sack by throwing long and hoping for the best, anyway.

– Sideline boundaries are roughly settled on by gentlemen’s agreement. The boundaries of an end zone — at least at the front — are usually more formally defined, and are marked on either side by frisbees, traffic cones or any other object on hand.

– Punts and kickoffs are thrown, not kicked.

– It is legal for offensive players to block defenders by standing in front of them and sort of generically tangling them up. Blatant holds, however, are illegal.

– Yard football can be either tackle or two-hand touch, depending on the whim of the players.

– It is not uncommon for a yard-football game to incorporate both tackle *and* two-hand touch. For instance, a game can be tackle in the open grass but two-hand touch near the street. If a driveway is used as an end zone, action there is likely to be two-hand touch as well.

And finally … not a rule, just a helpful tip:

– A yard-football player’s performance, especially on offense, will be at least 40 percent better if he is fully convinced that he is the second coming of Billy “White Shoes” Johnson.

Fourth and long.

NFL season is upon us, and I care less than ever.

I profess in social settings to be a Buffalo Bills fan, and I mark their results each week, but I’m not loyal enough to know the names of most of the players on the roster.

I intentionally didn’t watch them today — maybe the one day this year they’ll be on a national broadcast — because I didn’t want to hear about Tim Tebow all game, plus I didn’t need the kicked-in-the-junk feeling that always comes from losing to the Jets.

(I am still conscious of that feeling, which means I must not be totally detached from football. Getting there, though.)

Off the field, I find NFL broadcasters to be loud and bellicose and obvious and daft. And on the field, the game seems pretty much a vehicle for people to hurt themselves, the long-term consequences of which get less and less entertaining each year.

Maybe minor-league and college hockey (which, granted, have their own injury issues) are poised to take over my winters.