War by other means: Four thousand pounds of muscle and will...
September 22, 2013
By Brandt Ayers

Four thousand pounds of offensive and defensive linemen crash against each other, a muddle of muscle and will and suddenly ... an opening appears and the quarterback is visible as if he were in a display window. The linebacker’s thigh muscles clench as he sprints toward his quarry — only to be knocked silly by a 300-pound pulling tackle, and the quarterback completes a crossing pattern to the very spot the linebacker vacated.
Mayhem rules when the expected is suddenly scrambled and a soldier or football player is disoriented by the unexpected, loses his sense of direction and falls prey to an onrushing enemy.
In his famous essay, William James said that any moral equivalent to war should inculcate strong values: “Martial virtues must be the enduring cement; intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built … ”
He might as well have said it directly: Football is the moral equivalent of war.
The primary color of both war and football is red — the color of intense emotion. John Keegan, the British military historian, came close to defining the spiritual force that moves men in sport as in war in this eloquent passage: “Warfare … reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king.”
Comparisons between football and actual combat ring true; for instance, the linebacker who thought he had a clear shot at the quarterback was fooled by a play invented in 216 BC by the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal — the “draw” or “trap.” It was at the ancient Roman town of Cannae that the classic football sucker-play was invented.
Sixteen Roman legions attacked the outnumbered Carthaginian. Hannibal stood with his men in the weak center and held them to a controlled retreat. Knowing the superiority of the Roman infantry, Hannibal had instructed his own infantry to withdraw. The Roman infantry drove deeper and deeper into the Carthaginian semicircle, forcing itself into an alley. At this decisive point, Hannibal ordered his African infantry waiting on the wings to turn inward and advance against the Roman flanks, encircling the Roman infantry. For the superior Roman force it was … HAVOC.
The legions’ anticipation of easy victory had suddenly become attacks from all sides. There was a cacophony of metal on metal, the soundless slice of sword upon flesh, the grunt of fatal sword thrusts, dust rose above the screams of encircling infantry, Roman discipline evaporated in a whirl of attacks that came from every direction.
The Roman legions were eliminated as a fighting force.
Havoc can come in many forms: an irrationally heroic soldier or an exceptionally gifted athlete. In 1970, Coach John McKay brought his integrated USC team to face one of Bear Bryant’s typically strong defenses. USC’s black halfback Sam “the Bam” Cunningham played havoc with the Bama team, running for 135 yards, scoring twice in a 42 to 21 rout of the Tide. The loss helped create a climate favorable to integration of Southern teams, which Bryant had already done in recruiting red shirt freshman Wilbur Jackson.
To open the 1971 season the Bear installed an offense the Trojans had never seen, the triple option Wishbone. The quarterback might hand off to the fullback, pitch out to a trailing halfback, keep the ball himself or pass. The formation played mayhem with the USC defense. The system worked perfectly in capping an opening 59-yard drive. Quarterback Terry Davis faked to the diving fullback and pitched out to Johnny “Italian Stallion” Musso, who dived in for the score. Musso scored twice in a 17-10 upset.
Charge of the Light Brigade
Generals who order attacks without clearly seeing the battlefield court disaster as surely as a coach who sent his team to face a superior foe without looking at any films of the opponent. Take the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 during the Crimean War — popularly known as “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Lord Raglan, overall commander of English forces, ordered a cavalry charge against what he thought were retreating Russian artillery. But since the obtuse general was so distant from the battlefield, he mistakenly thought the Russian guns were retreating.
The Light Brigade was sent into a valley whose hills on all sides were spiked with Russian cannon and riflemen. The senior cavalry commander, Lieutenant General the Earl of Lucan, who could see the battlefield clearly, gave Raglan’s order to the commander of the Light Brigade, Major General the Earl of Cardigan, his brother-in-law who was bound to him in mutual hatred for decades. Despite his feelings for his brother-in-law, true to military discipline, Cardigan obeyed, leading his lightly saber-armed cavalry directly into the Russian cannon — a charnel house of butchery. He then led the decimated few in retreat as the Russians continued to pour down shells.
Having done all he could that day, with the nonchalance of a British gentleman going to his club, the general retired to his yacht for a champagne dinner.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, then the poet laureate of the United Kingdom, dashed off what became an immortal poem, which was published in a popular newspaper. Among the most quoted lines are these:
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
It may appear incongruous to compare football to the heart-breaking blunder in the Crimea, but stupidity is stupidity on any scale, and the superior generalship of Hannibal is still taught by every high school and college coach to this day.
Havoc awaits all who rush willy-nilly toward their objective without care and planning or those who are blindsided by a weapon they had not seen before. On Nov. 1, 1913, a heavily favored Army team must have felt they were recreating the charge of the Light Brigade when Coach Jesse Harper of Notre Dame unleashed a secret weapon on the West Point cadets.
The story actually begins on an Ohio beach where a Norwegian immigrant and Notre Dame left end named Knute Rockne was life guard. He and his roommate, All-American Gus Dorais spent the summer perfecting a forward pass tandem. In the past, Army had frustrated Coach Harper’s running attack by crowding the line of scrimmage — a perfect defense to be exploited by the newly minted passing tandem of Dorais to Rockne. Dorai was 12 of 14 for 243 yards and a confused Army was embarrassed 35 to 14.
In war or football or business, surprise can be an enemy, but martial courage, persistence and planning can win a victory, and winning is such a glorious thing.
Brandt Ayers is Chairman and Publisher of The Anniston Star and the author of the recently released memoir “In Love With Defeat.” Prior to the battle between Alabama and Notre Dame, he wrote the eBook, “The 2013 BCS National Championship.” Both are published by NewSouth Books, Montgomery, Alabama.
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