Tuesday, 9 August 2011


My obit of Bubba Smith, football player, pitchman, and actor, is in today's Guardian, you can link to it here. As usual with obits of American sportsmen, some things get lost in the translation (for example, Bubba was only once All-Pro, and played only twice in the Pro Bowl, signs he was nowhere near as dominant in the NFL as he'd been in college). But others, like Police Academy, appear to be universal. Where ripping a beer can in half to demonstrate it's 'easy-opening' falls, albeit somewhere in between, is beyond me.

If you're thinking of a more recent equivalent as a pro football player, it would probably be Too Tall Jones, but the guy he most reminded me of was his predecessor on the Colts, Big Daddy Lipscomb. Like Daddy, Bubba was both strong and fast, but he often played 'high', standing up, and as Jerry Kramer once pointed out, didn't use his hands all that effectively, the way guys like Deacon Jones did. His NFL career was cut short by injury, and in his case the injury was particularly freakish: chasing a runner to the sidelines, Bubba got tangled in the first down chains and sticks--the doctors described the knee injury as the worst they'd ever seen, but Bubba returned the next season. The Colts promptly traded him to Oakland for Raymond Chester, which was a hard deal to turn down; Al Davis got two seasons out of him before he ended his career with nearly-hometown Houston.

In Kill Bubba Kill, Smith claimed Super Bowl III was a 'fix', but offered no evidence for his theory and no on took him seriously. He did claim he went to Don Shula and offered to play over the center and disrupt the Jets' blocking schemes, but Shula turned him down. Maybe he thought he could do what he'd done in the 'Game of the Century', where he injured Notre Dame center George Goedekke early in the game, then sacked Terry Hanratty and put him out too. One of the things people forget about that game is that the Irish, trailing 10-0 on the road, already without their best runner, lost their quarterback, and still held State scoreless the rest of the way and rallied to tie the game.

I suppose Army-Notre Dame inn 1946, another meeting of unbeatens that ended in a tie, might have a stronger case to be the game of the century; played at Yankee Stadium in New York it must be the only college game which featured four Heisman Trophy winners. There have been lots of matchups of the top two teams, but when ND is in the mix it added a national dimension that was important in the days before TV destroyed regional conferences, rivalries, and made them less important.

Allan Barra has a fine essay on the game in his book Big Play, and reprised it in a post about Bubba, and I used it to refresh my memory. I was trying to think of another team that boasted as many black stars but generally I came up with teams in the early 60s with two or three--like Minnesota with QB Sandy Stephens and T Bobby Bell, or Ernie Davis-John Mackey-John Brown Syracuse. I seem to recall that Bubba didn't follow his brother to USC because he would have put the Trojans over their black quota. But State had Jimmy Raye (the current NFL coach) at QB, Gene Washington at end, Clint Jones at halfback, and, on D, Bubba, Jess Phillips, Mad Dog Thornton, and, at rover, George Webster (number 90 left), who went on to make the all-time AFL team, and died a few years ago after losing an appeal to get his disability from the NFL increased even as his limbs were being amputated. Webster may have been the most ferocious hitter in a game full of them.

Notre Dame had their first-ever black player, Alan Page, who went on to the best pro career. The second best probably belonged to linebacker Jim Lynch, whose days with the Chiefs were played in the shadow of Bell and Willie Lanier; they are arguably the best trio of linebackers ever fielded. The third-best pro career was probablyRocky Blier's improbable success with the Steelers after returning from the Vietnam War. Oddly, neither Hanratty nor his star receiver, Jim Seymour, ever did much in the pros. The team also boasted defensive linemen Kevin Hardy and Pete Duranko, backs Larry Conjar and Nick Eddy (injured the week before the big game), and a number of other players who played in the pros.

Ara Parseghian has been accused to 'settling' for a tie, but as Barra shows, he made an effort to move the ball in the final minute and a half, after Duffy Daugherty had punted it away (and nearly recovered the fumbled punt). With the wind at his back and with a killer D, Duffy did what any coach would do, playing to stop ND and maybe get the ball back for a field goal with the wind. Ara had Coley O'Brien, a second-string QB without Hanratty's big arm, throwing into the wind; a Hail Mary was probably out of the question, but there is no question the Irish did try to move the ball.

Where Paraseghian's bad rap comes from, I believe, is first of all Bear Bryant's disgust at not leap-frogging the two teams in the polls with his undefeated Alabama, and second, Parseghian's running-up scores (especially against USC) in order to cement Notre Dame's number one. There's no doubt in my mind that tying State in Lansing without Eddy (and after losing Hanratty) was enough for Notre Dame to edge State in the polls. Barra thinks voters were punishing Alabama for being segregated, but the point runs deeper than that: they played in a segregated conference, and when they met northern teams in bowl games they were, in effect, home games in warm conditions that favoured them. Bryant was not a segregationist--he wanted the best football players--and the story is he tanked a meeting with USC and Sam the Bam Cunningham in order to persuade the SEC to integrate. And Daughtery famously said 'I got out of coaching when Bear started recruiting black kids' (a line cut from my piece).

I can't actually claim to have watched much of the Police Academy movies, but Bubba's 'easy-opening can' commercial was always one of my favourites. I do have a memory of another Miller Lite commerical in which Bubba and Dick Butkus are camping, and one of them starts stretching before retiring to their tent. When the other asks what he's doing, he says, there's bears in these woods and I want to be ready to run. The other laughs and says you can't outrun a bear! Comes the reply: I don't have to ourun the BEAR. I may be conflating a story and/or old joke with the commercial, but there's no sign of it on You Tube. If you remember it, let me know. It is odd how most of the football players turned successful actors: Bubba, Butkus, Merlin Olson, Jack Youngblood, Fred Dryer, Woody Strode--were linemen--and think of Alex Karras, Howie Long, John Matusak, and others who had shorter careers. Jim Brown, Bernie Casey, OJ Simpson, Ed Marinaro, even Mark Harmon might be considered the exceptions.


David Logan said...

Great to see that you are back on C4 for the forthcoming season, Mike.
Are you doing any NFL writing and giving us your valuable tips and recycled jokes for the season?

Chris said...

The joke is a redone version of the one Billy Connolly told in the 80's about a camera crew filming lions on safari.