By Ron Lora
Watching the New Orleans Saints defeat the Minnesota Vikings for the National Football League championship reminded me of Washington Post columnist George Will's witty comment that football combines two of the worst features of American life: "violence punctuated by committee meetings."
It was a highly physical game during which fast, powerful linemen pounded 40-year-old Viking quarterback Brett Favre again and again.
The game conjured up old mental tapes of the 1958 Bluffton College football team when we won our third consecutive Mid-Ohio League championship, with a fourth to come the following year.
Coach Kenneth Mast wasn't sure how the year would develop for the Beavers. Many stellar veterans had been lost to graduation, injury, or eligibility: Willis Taylor, Bill Ramseyer, Tom Reichenbach, Roger Bixel, Harry Weibel, Carl Ervin, Jerry Schiffer, Dan Roth, LaVerne Schirch, Gene McMullen, Dave Conrad - and Harold Garverick, who would return the following year and, with six others, make the all-Mid-Ohio Conference team.
An excellent crop of freshman, led by John Weber, Bill Lape, Bob Logan, Greg Besonson, Dan Pannabecker, Ralph Reichenbach, and Ted Clemens, gave reason for optimism, however.
Bluffton high school graduates on the team that year included veterans Spike Berry, Joe Urich, Ron Lora, and Ron Yoder, with Bob Logan and Ralph Reichenbach joining as freshman.
As it developed, there was little need to worry. It's unlucky to be behind at the end of a game, and that occurred only once during the season, as the team went 8-1.
It's also said that football is a game of inches, which is how most Beaver opponents other than Heidelberg and Findlay moved the ball. By the time the season closed against Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky, six opponents had been held scoreless.
Team statistics - 1958
Bluffton College Opponents
Victories 8 1
Scoreless 0 6
Points 293 66
TDs 44 9
Yds/game 415 197
Yds/season 3,739 1,778
While the 8-1 won/lost record was of most importance, shutting out six opponents remained the most remarkable statistic.
Football is about blocking and tackling, running with the ball and catching it - and having fun. It's a tough sport, which perhaps explains why military metaphors abound: "offense," "defense," "attack," "blitz," "the bomb," "platoons," and among tougher ones, "kill the quarterback."
It was on Mondays, when watching game film in the concession room of Founders Hall, that the good and the bad of our weekend efforts became clear. My favorite blocking assignment was the cross-block. A great angle, made doubly delicious by the fact that the target didn't know it was coming.
During a successful season so many things go right that it's arbitrary to single out specific examples. However, consider that while defeating Defiance 34-0, the defense, led by linemen C.J. Steiner, Jim Weaver, Ez Springer, and Larry Raid spent many happy minutes in their backfield, throwing the Yellowjackets for losses 14 times.
In humbling Ashland College 57-0, Elbert Dubenion scored four touchdowns (two in his first three carries), Spike Berry completed two TD passes to Chet Foraker, and Joe Urich another to Dubenion.
Dubenion's heroics no longer surprised; players and fans had come to expect them. But Bluffton didn't pass much more than Woody Hayes did at Ohio State in those days. Unlike professional football, college football was a running back's game. And so it was with us.
Offensive ends may have preferred more passing, but Coach Mast's attitude was, "Why go overhead when you have backs like ours?" He was right, of course. Even though the Beavers presented an excellent one-two punch at quarterback with Spike Berry and Joe Urich, we averaged 7 passes per game. Teams today sometimes throw more than that in one trip down the field.
Our star, Elbert Dubenion, was much more than that. A brilliant superstar, Dobe was named to the Little-All-America team, and upon graduating from Bluffton College went on to become an All-Pro receiver with the Buffalo Bills of the National Football League. Dobe was (and is) also a man of great character. Everyone loved him for his abilities, his personality, and his integrity.
It must have intimidated opponents to see him lining up in his familiar left halfback slot before the snap. During the year, Dubenion ran for 1,290 yards, averaged 8.5 yards per carry, and scored 17 touchdowns. Considering that he left the game early when we had wracked up 35 or 40 points, one can appreciate that statistics tell only part of the story.
His most memorable burst from scrimmage while at Bluffton occurred against Hiram College during the 1956 season. Injured, he traveled with the team, though without his uniform. But with Bluffton behind at halftime, he borrowed freshman Glenn Snyder's pads and early in the second half took off for a 40-yard touchdown. Dobe ran that one play, putting Bluffton ahead 13-12, and then sat down. The one-point lead held and a Dubenion moment became legend.
Sportswriters occasionally called us the "Mastmen," after Coach Kenny Mast. He was the only one-man coaching staff in Ohio. (Harry Weibel and Dave Conrad, two standouts from the 1957 team, served as volunteer assistants.)
As Academic Dean Robert Kreider noted at the time, Mast worked with "the smallest male student body of any Ohio college." Yet in every year of the late 1950s he placed high in the balloting for Ohio Coach-of-the-Year: second in 1956, fourth in 1957, and third in 1958, when he finished behind coaches at the large public universities of Miami and Kent State.
We Mid-Ohio champions didn't have many plays, but the team worked re-
lentlessly on a repertoire of perhaps 20 running plays, plus 5 or 6 pass plays.
Teammates crowded into a small room in the northeast corner of Founders Hall, where Coach Mast put x's and o's on the black board, erased them, went to another play, worked it over, erased it, and drew up another one. We tried to remember it all.
Teammates don't recall rousing pep talks. Coach Mast knew his guys were going to go out and play for their team, for him, and for Bluffton College. There was noise when entering the playing field, but little whooping and hollering, as though one understood that there is such a thing as false emotion and wasted effort. Another reason is that sports generally had less hoopla half a century ago.
It was inspiring to see the fans that supported the team; the stadium at Harmon Field stadium filled up for Beaver football, with spectators often lining the field. Like today at Bluffton University, no one carried athletic scholarships. One played to be with friends, to perform and to enjoy.
Several years ago a writer in the Nation magazine stated: "Sport elaborates in its rituals what it means to be human: the play, the risk, the trial, the collective impulse to games, the thrill of physicality, the necessity of strategy; defeat, victory, defeat again, pain, transcendence and, most of all, the certainty that nothing is certain - that everything can change and be changed."
It's a shrewd statement as to what makes sports so attractive and so memorable. It also clarifies why decades later athletes will remember specific plays.
For a portion of the game - long or short, depending on the sport - life is lived at full speed. And the action during tense moments is imprinted in the brain. Biological psychologists can explain why, but athletes know without reflection that William Faulkner got it right when he commented about the longer pull of time: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." It lives on in memory and in myth and its imprinting is strengthened by every retelling.