News item: Hendrix College in Conway may resume intercollegiate football in 2010, after a 50-year hiatus. Many students object.
Hooray. An opportunity to recount my famous athletic career.
Though I was outsized by the standards of the time — 6-foot-5, 230 pounds — my parents didn't want me to play football because I was born with one eye. Football was the only sport that mattered in Lake Charles, La. My senior year, I finally prevailed on them to let me play. As a third-team tackle, I was a blocking dummy for three future LSU linemen.
Then college. I went to Washington and Lee University, a small, all-male school in Lexington, Va. Why? In 1961, when W&L won the small- college national football championship, Sports Illustrated did a feature story, “Where Gentlemen Play Football.” The school offered no scholarships, all comers were welcome on the practice field and the college itself occupied a historic campus where students abided by a rigorous honor code and wore coats and ties to class. All this intrigued me. My dreams of athletic stardom had always exceeded the reality of my slow feet.
Though sports led me directly to W&L, I intended to limit my athletic participation to shot put and discus.
Funny thing. The football coaches saw me playing touch football and urged me to suit up. At 236 (yes, beer drinking had begun), I was just about the biggest player on the field. A still funnier thing happened. I was one of only a handful of freshmen who made the varsity team. Gridiron glory, or at least some playing time, might finally be mine.
Then, tragedy. A W&L soccer player died of a heart condition. The university physician reviewed all athletes' medical records. He deemed the risk of a one-eyed football player unacceptable. The president of the school called my parents, then me, with the decision that I could not play. I was allowed to suit up one last time for the season opener against mighty Guilford. My extracurricular pursuits turned to road trips to places with names like Mary Baldwin and Sweet Briar.
All of which is to say that, to me, the administration at Hendrix College is not wholly off base. Football can attract male students. But a simple cost vs. new-tuition benefit isn't the only measure of success. W&L, highly selective and co-ed now, certainly gives some consideration to athletic talent in the admission procedure. But above all else? No. Win at any cost, including a lack of caution about health issues? No.
The W&L won-loss record was abysmal in my day and game attendance was puny. Still, competitive, small-time football was a perk of the glorious Shenandoah Valley fall for me, just as a spectator. It didn't seem to deter the nurturing of Rhodes Scholars and other great achievers. NOT playing certainly didn't improve my academic record. Hendrix students worry about the nature of students that football might attract. At my Division III school — where the student body was distinguished by a distressing prevalence of political conservatism — I found the jocks more diverse, philosophically and in other ways.
But forget my hoary anecdotes. Hendrix should be judged not by the presence of a football team, but by the integrity of its management. If football changes the essential nature of a cherished campus, it will be a failure — no matter how many students it attracts or how many games the Warriors win.