Bert Wilson on the Gridiron

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Bert Wilson on the Gridiron


J. W. Duffield

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Never Say Die

"HOLD 'em! Hold 'em! Buck up, fellows. Don't give an inch!"

A storm of cheers swept over the field, as it was seen that the scrubs were holding the 'Varsity on their ten-yard line.

Three times in succession the 'Varsity players plunged like enraged bulls against the defenders of the goal, only to be thrown back without a gain. One more fierce attempt, and the ball went to the scrubs on downs.

It was unprecedented. It was revolutionary. It shrieked unto heaven. The poor, despised scrubs were actually holding the haughty 'Varsity men on even terms. More than that; they even threatened to win. They seemed to forget that they were doormats for the "regulars," mere "sparring partners," to be straightened up with one punch and knocked down by the next. The "forlorn hope" had suddenly become a triumphant hope. The worm had turned, and turned with a vengeance. Pale and panting, plastered with mud and drenched with sweat, with "blood in their eyes" and here and there a little on their features, they faced the "big fellows" and gave as good as they took.

Reddy, the college trainer, danced up and down on the side lines and sputtered incoherently. "Bull" Hendricks, the head coach, stamped and stormed and yelled to his charges to "put it over." The things he said may not be set down here, but he gave the recording angel a busy afternoon. His words stung like whips, and under the lash of them the 'Varsity men braced themselves desperately. They burned with shame and rage. Were they to have a defeat "slapped" upon them by the scrubs? The college would ring with it, and it would be the sensation of the season.

But the scrubs were not to be denied. They had caught the 'Varsity "off its stride," and they fought like tigers to clinch their advantage. Every ounce of strength and determination that they possessed was called to the front by the prospect of impending victory. A daring run around the left end netted them twenty yards, and they gained fifteen more on downs. An easy forward pass was fumbled by the regulars, who were becoming so demoralized that the men fell all over themselves. The panic was growing into a rout that promised to end in a Waterloo.

The referee was poising his whistle and looking at his watch, ready to blow the signal that marked the end of play. There was but one chance left—a goal from the field. On the 'Varsity team only two men had seemed to keep their heads. The quarterback and fullback had sought to stem the tide, but in the general melting away of the defence had been able to do but little. The ball was now on the scrubs' forty-yard line. The player who had it fumbled in his eagerness to advance it, and the 'Varsity quarterback pounced on it like a hawk. With almost the same motion he passed it to the fullback. The opposing line bore down upon him frantically, but too late. One mighty kick and the pigskin rose in the air like a bird, soared over the bar between the goal posts, and the 'Varsity was three points to the good. An instant later and the whistle blew. The game was over.

The hearts of the scrubs went down into their boots. Another minute and the game would have ended with the ball in the middle of the field, and the score a tie; and a tie on the part of the scrubs was equivalent to a victory. But that last kick had dashed their hopes into ruin.

Still, they were not wholly cast down. They had deserved success, if they had not actually won it. They had really played the better game and beaten their foes to a standstill. The nominal victory of the 'Varsity was a virtual defeat.

And the 'Varsity knew it. For an instant they felt an immense relief, as they crowded around Wilson, the fullback, and clapped him on the shoulder. But their momentary exultation was replaced by chagrin, as they filed past the coach on the way to the shower baths, and their eyes fell before the steely gleam in his.

"I won't say anything to you dubs, just now," he announced with ominous calmness, as they shambled along wearily and shamefacedly. "I don't dare to. What I'd have to say wouldn't be fit for the ears of young ladies like you. Besides, I don't want to commit murder. But I may have a few quiet remarks to make before practice to-morrow."

"A few quiet remarks," muttered Ellis, when they got beyond earshot. "Gee. I'll bet life in a boiler factory would be peaceful compared with the training quarters when he once gets going."

"I've always thought deafness an affliction," said Drake, "but I think I'd welcome it for the next twenty-four hours."

"Ten to one that's why they call a football field a gridiron," grumbled Axtell. "The fellows that play on it get such a fearful roasting."

Just then, Morley, the captain of the scrubs, came along with a broad grin on his face.

"Buck up, you fellows," he joshed, "the worst is yet to come. I can see just where you 'false alarms' get off. Your epitaph will be that of the office boy."

"What was that?" queried Martin, biting at the bait.

"Monday, hired-Tuesday, tired-Wednesday, fired," retorted Morley.

"Don't you worry about epitaphs," snapped Tom Henderson. "We're not dead ones yet, as you'll find out the next time we take your measure."

"What was that Satan said," asked Dick Trent, "about rather reigning in hell than serving in heaven? I'd rather be a boob on the 'Varsity than king of the scrubs."

"O, well," laughed Morley, "if you want to put yourself on a level with Satan, there's no one to prevent you. As for me, I'm a little particular about my company;" and with this Parthian shot he rejoined his exulting mates.

It was a disgruntled group of athletes that plunged into the tank and stood beneath the shower. And when it came to the rubdown, Reddy and his helpers seemed to take a fiendish delight in picking out the sore spots and getting even for the day's poor showing. But such vigorous health and splendid condition as theirs could not be long a prey to gloom, and when, refreshed and glowing, they wended their way to the training table, they were inclined to take a more cheerful view of life. They ate like famished wolves, and when they had made away with everything in sight, even the promised raking from "Bull" Hendricks had lost some of its terrors.

"O, well," remarked Tom, "while there's life there's hope. We won't be shot at sunrise, anyway, even if we deserve to be."

"No," assented Dick, yielding to his irrepressible habit of quotation:

"Somewhere 'tis always morning, and above
The wakening continents from shore to shore,
Somewhere the birds are singing evermore."

"The only bird you'll hear to-morrow," said practical Bert Wilson, "will be a crow. Poe's raven won't have a thing on Hendricks when he starts croaking."

One would have had to go far to find a finer group of young fellows than this trio, as they sauntered over the campus to the college buildings. They were tall, well-knit and muscular, and no one, looking at them, would "despair of the Republic," as long as she produced such sons. Outdoor life, clean living and vigorous exercise had left their stamp on face and frame. They were immensely popular in the college, leaders in fun and frolic, and in the very front rank as athletes. Each had won the right to wear the college jersey with the coveted "initial," proving that on hard fought fields they had brought glory to their Alma Mater.

This was preëminently the case in college baseball. Tom at third and Dick at first had starred in their positions, while Bert in the pitcher's box with his masterly "fadeaway" had cinched the pennant, after a heartbreaking struggle with the "Greys" and "Maroons," their leading rivals. The story of how he had plucked victory from defeat in that memorable fight was already a classic and had made his name famous in the college world. And now, in the early fall, the three comrades were seeking to win further laurels on the gridiron as they had previously won them on the diamond.

Provisionally, they had been placed by the keen-eyed coach on the 'Varsity team. Tom's quickness and adroitness had singled him out as especially fitted for quarterback. Dick, who had been the leading slugger on the nine, was peculiarly qualified by his "beef" and strength for the position of center. Bert's lightning speed—he had made the hundred yards in ten seconds, flat, and won a Marathon at the Olympic Games—together with his phenomenal kicking ability, made him the leading candidate for fullback.

So far, the results had seemed to indicate that no mistake had been made. But no one knew better than they how insecure their positions were, and how desperate a fight they would have to wage in order to hold their places. The competition was fierce, and the least sign of wavering on their part might send them back to the scrubs. Bull Hendricks played no favorites. He was "from Missouri" and "had to be shown." His eagle eye was always looking for the weak places in the armor of his players, and no one was quicker to detect the least touch of "yellow." He had no use for any one but a winner. He watched unceasingly for any failure of body or spirit and pounced upon it as a cat upon a mouse. Nor could any past success atone for present "flunking."

Not that he acted hastily or upon impulse. Had he done so, he would have been unfitted for his position. He knew that everybody had his "off days." The speediest thoroughbred will sometimes run like a cart horse. No one can be always at the "top of his form." But after making all allowances for human weakness and occasional lapses, when he once reached a definite conclusion he was as abrupt and remorseless as a guillotine. Many a hopeful athlete had been decapitated so swiftly and neatly, that, like the man in the fable, he did not know his head was off until he tried to sneeze.

It was a sharp but wholesome discipline, and kept his men "on their toes" all the time. It gave hope and energy also to the scrubs. They knew that they had a chance to "make" the 'Varsity team, if they could prove themselves better than the men opposed to them. The scrub of to-day might be the regular of to-morrow. They felt like the soldiers in Napoleon's army where it was said that "every private carried a marshal's baton in his knapsack." So they fought like tigers, and many a battle between them and the 'Varsity was worthy of a vaster audience than the yelling crowds of students that watched it rage up and down the field.

But the rivalry, though bitter, was also generous. There was nothing mean or petty about it. After all, it was "all in the family." Everybody, scrub or 'Varsity, was crazy to win from the other colleges. If it could be shown that the team could be strengthened thereby, any 'Varsity man would go back to the scrubs without grumbling and "root" just as hard as ever for the team to make good. It was a pure democracy where only merit counted and where the individual effaced himself for the common good of all. So that while the 'Varsity and scrubs were bitter enemies on the gridiron, they were chums as soon as they had shed their football "togs."

"We certainly did put up a rotten game to-day," ruminated Tom. "I don't wonder that the coach was sore. We ought to have eaten those fellows up, but they walked all over us. What was the matter with us, anyway?"

"Aw," snorted Dick, disgustedly, "why is it that an elephant runs away from a mouse? They simply threw a scare into us and we lost our nerve. We can thank our stars it was only a practice game."

"It goes that way sometimes," said Bert philosophically. "It's just the same in other games. I've seen the Giants and Athletics play like a lot of schoolboys. One fellow will muff an easy fly and then the whole infield will go to pieces. They'll fumble and boot anything that comes along."

"Yes," assented Tom, "and the pitchers get theirs too. There's Matty, the king of them all. There are days, when even Ty Cobb, if he were batting against him, couldn't do anything but fan. Then again, there are other days when he hasn't anything on the ball but his glove. I saw him in an opening game in New York before thirty-five thousand people, when he was batted out of the box like any bush leaguer."

"Even Homer sometimes nods and Milton droops his wing," quoted Dick. "If our playing is rank sometimes, it's a comfort to feel that we have lots of company. But speaking of baseball, fellows, how do you think it compares with chasing the pigskin?"

"Well," said Bert slowly, "it's hard to tell. They're both glorious games, and personally I'm like the donkey between the two bundles of hay. I wouldn't know which to nibble at first."

"Of course," he went on, "they're so different that it's hard to compare them. Both of them demand every bit of speed and nerve a fellow has, if he plays them right. And a bonehead can't make good in either. There are lots of times in each game when a man has to think like lightning. As for courage, it's about a stand off. With three men on bases in the ninth, nobody out, and only one run needed to win, it's a sure enough test of pluck for either nine. But it needs just as much for a losing eleven to buck its way up the field and carry the ball over the goal line, when there's only three minutes left of playing time. Both games take out of a fellow all there is in him. As for brute strength, there's no doubt that football makes the greater demand. But when it comes to saying which I prefer, I'm up a tree. I'd rather play either one than eat."

"How happy could I be with either, were 'tother dear charmer away," laughed Dick.

"Well," remarked Tom, "it's lucky that they come at different seasons so that we can play both. But when you speak of 'brute' strength, Bert, you're giving 'aid and comfort' to the enemies of football. That's just the point they make. It's so 'awfully brutal'," he mimicked, in a high falsetto voice.

"Nonsense," retorted Bert. "Of course, no fellow can be a 'perfect lady' and play the game. Even a militant suffragette might find it too rough. There are plenty of hard knocks to be taken and given. It's no game for prigs or dudes. But for healthy, strong young fellows with good red blood in their veins, there's no finer game in the world to develop pluck and determination and self-control and all the other qualities that make a man successful in life. He has to keep himself in first-class physical condition, and cut out all booze and dissipation. He must learn to keep his temper, under great provocation. He must forget his selfish interests for the good of the team. And above all he has to fight, fight, fight,—fight to the last minute, fight to the last ditch, fight to the last ounce. It's a case of 'the Old Guard dies, but never surrenders.' He's like old General Couch at the battle of Kenesaw Mountain, who, when Sherman asked him if he could hold out a little longer, sent back word that 'he'd lost one eye and a piece of his ear, but he could lick all Hades yet.'"

"Hear, hear," cried Tom. "Listen, ladies and gentlemen, to our eloquent young Demosthenes, the only one in captivity."

He skilfully dodged the pass made at him and Bert went on:

"I don't deny that there was a time when the game was a little too rough, but most of that has been done away with. There has been progress in football as in everything else. There's no wholesale slugging as in the early days, when the football field was more like a prize ring than a gridiron. Of course, once in a while, even now, you'll be handed a nifty little uppercut, if the referee isn't looking. But if they catch on to it, the fellow is yanked out of the game and his team loses half the distance to its goal line as a penalty. So that it doesn't pay to take chances. Then, too, a fellow used to strain himself by trying to creep along even when the whole eleven was piled on him. They've cut that out. Making it four downs instead of three has led to a more open game, and the flying wedge has been done away with altogether. The game is just as fierce, but the open play has put a premium on speed instead of mass plays, and made it more interesting for the spectators and less dangerous for the players. And the most timid of mothers and anxious of aunties needn't go into hysterics for fear that their Algernon or Percival may try to 'make' the team."

"This seems to be quite an animated discussion," said a pleasant voice behind them; and wheeling about they saw Professor Benton, who held the chair of History in the college.

They greeted him cordially. Although a scholar of international reputation, he was genial and approachable, and a great favorite with the students. In connection with his other duties, he was also a member of the Athletic Association and took a keen interest in college sports. He himself had been a famous left end in his undergraduate days, and his enthusiasm for the game had not lessened with the passing of the years and the piling up of scholastic honors.

"We were talking about football, Professor," explained Bert, "and agreeing that many of the rough edges had been planed off in the last few years."

"I could have guessed that you weren't talking about your studies," said the Professor quizzically. "You fellows seldom betray undue enthusiasm about those. But you are right about the changes brought in by the new rules. It surely was a bone-breaking, back-breaking game during my own student days.

"And yet," he went on with a reminiscent smile, "even that was child's play compared with what it was a thousand years ago."

"What!" cried Dick. "Is the game as old as that?"

"Much older," was the reply. "The Greeks and Romans played it two or three thousand years ago. But I was referring especially to the beginning of the game in England. In the tenth century, they commenced by using human skulls as footballs."

"What!" exclaimed the boys in chorus.

"It's a fact beyond all question," reaffirmed the Professor. "In the year 962, when the Danes were invading England, a resident of Chester captured a Dane, cut off his head and kicked it around the streets. The gentle populace of that time took a huge liking to the game and the idea spread like wildfire. You see, it didn't cost much to run a football team in those days. Whenever they ran short of material, they could go out and kill a Dane, and there were always plenty swarming about."

"Those good old days of yore," quoted Dick.

"Plenty of bonehead plays in those days as well as now," murmured Tom.

"Of course," resumed the Professor, "that sort of thing couldn't go on forever. The Danes withdrew, and naturally no Englishman was sport enough to offer his own head for the good of the game. So they substituted a leather ball. But the game itself was about as rough as ever. It was usually played in the streets, and very often, when some dispute arose about the rules, it developed into a battle royal, and the players chased each other all over the town with ready fists and readier clubs. Heads were broken and lives lost, and the King issued an edict forbidding the game. But under other rulers it was resumed, though in a somewhat milder form, and has continued up to the present.

"No longer ago than yesterday," he added, taking out his memorandum book, "I ran across a criticism of the game, by an Englishman named Stubbs, way back in 1583. He goes for it right and left, so bitterly and yet so quaintly, that I thought it worth while preserving, old-fashioned spelling and all. Here's the way it goes:

"'As concerning footballe, I protest unto you it may rather be called a friendlie kind of a fight than a play or recreation, a bloody and murthering practice than a felowy sort of pastime. For doth not every one lie in wait for his adversary, seeking to overthrow him and kicke him on the nose, though it be on hard stones or ditch or dale, or valley or hill, so he has him down, and he that can serve the most of this fashion is counted the only fellow, and who but he, so that by this means their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their arms, sometimes their noses gush forth with blood, sometimes their eyes start out; for they have the sleights to mix one between two, to dash him against the heart with their elbows, to butt him under the short ribs with their gripped fists, and with their knees to catch him on the hip and kicke him on his neck with a hundred murthering devices.'"

"Phew," said Tom, "that's a hot one right off the bat."

"He hits straight from the shoulder," agreed Dick. "I'll bet the old boy himself would have been a dandy football rusher, if he'd ever got into the game."

"He certainly leaves no doubt as to where he stands on the question," assented the Professor, "and I think we'll admit, after that, that the game has improved. The most rabid critic of to-day wouldn't go so far as this old Briton. The game as played to-day offers very little danger to life and not much more to limb. Of course, accidents happen now and then, but that's true of every game. The old French proverb says that 'he who risks nothing, has nothing.' The element of risk in football is more than counterbalanced by the character it develops. The whole secret of success in life is to 'never say die.' And I don't know of any game that teaches this as well as football. But I must be going," he concluded, with a glance at his watch; and, turning off to the right with a farewell wave of the hand, he left the boys to finish their interrupted stroll.

"The Prof's all right," said Tom emphatically.

"They say that he was the bright particular star on his football team," contributed Dick.

"And he's starred just as brightly in his profession since then," chimed in Bert.

"I guess that 'never say die' motto has stuck by him all the time," mused Tom. "It's a bully motto, too. By the way, have you fellows ever heard the story of the mouse that fell in the milk pail?"

They stared at him suspiciously. Long experience with that facetious youth had taught them the folly of biting too quickly, when he put a question.

"No catch," protested Tom. "This is on the level."

"Well," said Dick, "if a crook like you can be on the level, shoot."

"It was this way," continued Tom, cheerfully accepting the reflection on his character. "Two mice fell into a bucket of milk. They swam about for a while and then one of them gave it up and sank. The other one, though, was made of different stuff and wouldn't give up. He kept on kicking until he had churned the milk into butter. Then he climbed on top of it, made a flying leap for the edge of the bucket and got away. You see, he was a kicker from Kickersville and his motto was 'Never say die'."

They looked at him reproachfully, but Tom never "batted an eye."

"That mouse was a smooth proposition," murmured Dick softly.

"A slippery customer," echoed Bert. "But, Tom," he asked, in mock innocence, "is that story true?"

"True?" snorted Tom, "you'd butter believe that it's true. Why——"

But this crowning outrage on the English language was too much, and he took to his heels, barely escaping a flying tackle as they launched themselves toward him.