"The End Of An Era"





By Dr. Ken 

There will always be arguments pertaining to which era of professional or college football was “best” and it is expected that those who spent there formative years, most meaningful years, or can attach a significant event to a specific period of time will believe that “their era” was the best. Arguments abound daily on the internet, sports talk radio and television, and presumably among friends in the office and work setting about this very issue. Those of us who came of age during what is considered The Golden Age Of Professional Football are now seeing the heroes who shaped our interest in the game pass away on what seems like a weekly basis.

Andy Robustelli of the Giants swarms Cleveland’s Frank Ryan

There can be no argument that today’s pro football player relative to that of the 1950’s through 1960’s time period are larger, stronger, and faster. However, I have unapologetically noted to others that these factors does not in any way imply that they are “better” than the players of the previous era where pro football experienced unparalleled growth and prosperity. Observation of any professional contest makes apparent the lack of skill most of the player’s display. Despite their relatively superior size, speed, and strength they cannot tackle. For every “kill shot” that is repeated ad nauseam on sports networks or the NFL Network, there are a dozen missed tackles that allow an average running back look like the second coming of Jim Brown, at least for that one game. The new blocking techniques which allow outstretched arms and a great deal of holding only highlights the inability of most offensive players to knock defensive opponents out of a play or do much more than redirect an onrushing pass defender. For purists and those like me who respect the game as a team sport necessitating the mastery of certain skills, the individualized aggrandizement of mediocre play and routine plays is both disgusting and a reminder of how wonderful the “older” game was. Unfortunately, those players who made that game what it was are of an age where literally every month and at times, every week, we are presented with the sad news that yet another great, a truly great, has passed on. With those in the media who shape our interpretation of pro football having a sense of history that reaches back little more than twenty-five years ago, we are left with a Pro Football Hall Of Fame that should be renamed as per the grouping of players noted by the highly respected Professional Football Researchers Association, The Hall Of Very Good!

It is quite a bit more than sour grapes or a jaundiced view of the sport due to my introduction and involvement with football as a player and fan through a specific time period that makes me think that John Randall for example, and with no disrespect meant towards him or his level of play, is not at the same level of a Gino Marchetti or Andy Robustelli. The Hall Of Fame, any Hall Of Fame is for the very best, not players who were very good or the best of their era, not if “their best” wasn’t at a level to place them among the most unforgettable of all time. These observations are more poignant as we lose more of the greats who established the baseline of what it truly meant to be a fantastic professional football player. I am reminded of this as May rolled into June of 2011 and within days of each other, both Andy Robustelli and John Henry Johnson both died. The May 2011 HELMET NEWS/REFLECTIONS column http://www.helmethut.com/Features/Dr.Ken91.html featured The Great Joe Perry and he truly was great, deserving the headline space on our Features front page. The same could no doubt be said about Robustelli and Johnson and I am sure, many others that will unfortunately soon follow. Receiving my introduction and indoctrination to professional football as a Giants fan, Robustelli had arrived in New York shortly before I became aware of the pro game. To me, he represented what a pro player was meant to be. Like most of his day, he served in the military during the Second World War, in his case, the U.S. Navy and then played at the now defunct Arnold College in his home state of Connecticut. Arnold College had been a physical education college requiring a strict uniform dress code and standard of behavior for students seeking a physical education degree which in my eyes, made Robustelli a true professional, trained to understand, train, and get the most out of his physical assets. A seven time First Team All Pro with the Rams and Giants, I was most impressed that as a family man, he had forced a trade from the Rams because he would not leave home while his wife was entering imminent labor and delivery of one of their children. That he shone as a player and on the field leader is a matter of record, leading not only to election to the Pro Football Hall Of Fame but to the accolades of the men he played with and against. Johnson too, was a gifted star who maintained close ties with his Pittsburg, California hometown.

Johnson, in a hurry vs. the Browns in 1962 game

The HELMET HUT feature on the Arizona State University football helmets of 1951 through 1954 included a summary of Johnson’s storied career at both ASU and in the pro ranks http://www.helmethut.com/College/Arizona/AZXASU5154.html and there were few better. John Henry was known as a man not to be trifled with, a player among the toughest who would strike back if challenged or abused. Sixty years after establishing his schoolboy reputation in football, basketball, and track, he remains one of the Oakland Bay area’s all time greatest athletes. The Canadian Football League Rookie Of The Year, he was dominant in the “Million Dollar” San Francisco Forty Niner backfield that included Joe Perry, Hugh McElhenny, and Y.A. Tittle. His performances with the Lions and Steelers left him as one of the most outstanding and unforgettable backs of all time when his career wrapped up with a final season spent with the Houston Oilers in 1966. In an era of relatively limited offense, he departed the game as the fourth leading rusher of all time and like Robustelli, had the respect of all he played with or against.

John Henry Johnson; power, speed, and toughness in his distinctive Rawlings HCR Cy-Co-Lite helmet

If one is so inclined, they can avoid the obituary pages in order to save a certain amount of sadness as the players of this earlier era pass on. I know that more than the sadness or the wish for their families that their loved ones were as comfortable as possible in their final hours, I am served up reminders of motivation, inspiration, and wonderful memories that make professional football worth remembering.