"May I Please Have Your Autograph?"



May I Please Have Your Autograph? 


By Dr. Ken 


Recent Helmet News/Reflections columns have, in what is not supposed to be a twist of a phrase, highlighted the lowlights of the modern game. Poor blocking and tackling techniques, horrid sportsmanship, and a Hall Of Fame that reflects a set of values that truly do not support the type of qualifications needed by recipients of past decades have provided the column’s 2012 reading material. Reader e mails and letters indicate that I am certainly not the Lone Ranger in my assessment or disappointment. With sons coaching in the National Football League, a livelihood that includes interaction with numerous collegiate and professional football players, and a value system that was highly influenced by my football coaches that spanned the Lido-Point Lookout Knights Pop Warner League squad through the Atlantic Coast Football League, football has been an integral part of the fabric of my life. Thinking about some of my coaches, I recall that most had a military background which should not come as a surprise. Playing for the combat veterans of World War II and the Korean War, almost all aspects of team organization, practice, conditioning, and game strategy were reflective of their value system and it was a value system that included commitment, loyalty, and seeing a task through to its end point. One of the football-related disappointments that seems to be of recent origin, is the hand-in-hand media events surrounding the college commitments and letter of intent signings of high school stars that result in a high ranking for a specific school’s recruiting class, and the program’s loss of a large percentage of those same players as they bail out when they don’t get enough playing time.


I believe that this frequent and widespread occurrence is a relatively new phenomenon. Certainly through the decades there have been highly touted freshmen who arrive on campus to great fanfare who quickly realize that they cannot compete well at the next level. Perhaps the coaching staff figures out that these athletes peaked as high school players and will not contribute as college level players. When the handwriting on the wall becomes readable to these young men, rather than remain in the program, compete as hard as possible to prove the coaching staff wrong and earn a place on the team, and most importantly, earn a degree, they bolt, usually for a football program at a lower level. I am old fashioned and believe that one chooses a college experience for the opportunity to earn a diploma and as a high level high school football player, also have a chance to enjoy the collegiate football experience. One cannot deny that a top high school player, unlike a “regular” student, is going to factor in “where can I play” with “do they have my projected academic major” as part of the decision making process when making a commitment to college. However it is rather depressing to note that what seems like an overwhelmingly majority of “student-athletes” now are so quick to leave their chosen school when it appears that they are not going to receive the expected playing time. It’s obvious that “education” has absolutely nothing to do with their decision to change schools, nor is it a factor in their college attendance.


For a multitude of reasons, college football just doesn’t work out for numerous high school stars


The discerning HELMET HUT reader has I’m sure, noted that for the past few weeks there has been a significant discount offered on the collection of autographed helmets offered through the site’s store. While all of the suspension era helmets in my personal collection have been carefully selected and displayed because they evoke very specific memories or can provide a distinct source of motivation or inspiration, I have included a number of autographed helmets to intensify every one of these emotions. My wife has both complimented and criticized me for the same trait. Despite being old enough to have played organized football since the mid-1950’s, many of my thoughts and actions reflect the mind set of a nineteen year old. I make no apologies for that. Nurturing many of the emotional responses I had as a college athlete has kept me strongly motivated to maintain my health, strength, and a high level of physical conditioning. By calling up the same type of motivation I had to run on the beach at 2 AM after a night working as a bouncer and before beginning my day job at 5 AM as an ironworker, I am able to work long hours at my profession and do so with clarity and efficiency. If I did not think like that same nineteen year old college gridder, aspiring to earn playing time and the approval of my coaches, I know I would not and could not accomplish what I do on a daily or weekly basis. Of course my wife is quick to point out that my sense of humor often slides downward to the junior high school level but I have adapted to adulthood and a lifetime of productive work, very much because I continue to call upon the lessons learned as a young football player. I get my constant reminder of these lessons by looking at the HELMET HUT collection of suspension helmets placed in my office facility and home. Those that carry the autograph of specific players hold a special place and provide a bit more inspiration because I can clearly picture their deeds.


Mike Ditka, great as a Pitt Panther on both sides of the ball, great as a pro


Every individual is “taken” with a different quality exhibited by any team or player. Some respect “toughness,” some respond to a player’s extraordinary talent, and others are sold on the fact that the player in question made his team a true winner. Among my very special HELMET HUT autographed models are Mike Ditka, Billy Cannon, and John David Crow. One can no doubt read much into this small sample and make certain inferences. These three players were very tough, even for an era that reflected toughness. During one-platoon football, Ditka, Cannon, and Crow were superb two-way players with marvelous, Hall Of Fame level talent. More than these obvious qualities, I can look at the Mike Ditka autographed University Of Pittsburgh helmet and recall Pitt teams that saw eighty percent or more majoring in pre-medical, pre-law, and pre-dental curricula, including Ditka. Crow earned his degree in business administration, on time with his graduating class, from Texas A&M and Cannon became a dentist by studying for licensure during the off-seasons when he played professional football. In part because of the example set by these three players, I attended college intent on earning my degree. Billy Cannon of course led LSU to the 1958 National Championship and won the Heisman Trophy in 1959, thus it can be said that he had the most obvious impact on his team’s success.



Billy Cannon is still recognized by many as the greatest collegiate player of his era


 Many of the era believe that if A&M Head Coach Bear Bryant had not been announced as leaving for Alabama before the conclusion of the 1957 season, A&M, undefeated through its first eight games, would have won the National title. Crow of course was also a Heisman Trophy recipient. Anyone that actually watched the Pitt teams of 1958 through ’60 seasons recalls squads that compiled less than stellar records (5-4-1, 6-4, and 4-3-3 respectively) but that always played rough, physical football. Ditka led the way in the “physical” department and it is rarely recalled that he was as much an All American as a defensive player as he was as a tight end, and how many recall his fine ability as Pitt’s punter?     


John David Crow, cited by Coach Bear Bryant as the greatest player he ever coached


The players that HELMET HUT has chosen to autograph their specific collection of special helmets, reflects the positive qualities of college football. Certainly some of the players, Cannon among my favorites being one of them, have transgressed or perhaps not lived up to the “All American image” at all times, but every one of my autographed helmets is a very special reminder that one can try, one can work, one can do an awful lot that perhaps does not seem possible. It is a hackneyed notion, sophomoric to some, and yes, in many ways reflective of a nineteen year old mind instead of one in its sixties but if something as “small” as an autographed helmet can stimulate a response large enough to enhance productivity, efficiency, and enjoyment, there is much justification in surrounding oneself with this type of motivation.