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How football grew to dominate the US sports landscape — and all fall weekends

The rough-and-tumble sport isn't for the faint of heart. That's why Americans love it.

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There might not be a more American image than the one of legendary football coach John Madden, hand in the air, being carried off the field by his Oakland Raiders team after winning Super Bowl XI in 1977.

If you know football, you know the image. The Raiders had defeated the Minnesota Vikings 32-14 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Madden, who died in December at the age of 85, looks so happy in this photo. Whether as a coach or a broadcaster or a video game cover star, no one loved the game of football more than Madden. He was representative of America: big, loud and never too serious, but sharper than a steel knife. When he won that Super Bowl, it was a result of not just his success, but the people around him, all working together to achieve a common goal. 

It's appropriate that he came to represent our country's favorite sport. Yes, baseball may be America's pastime, but it is football that controls our fall weekends and pulls our hearts in a million different directions.

Like America itself, football grew out of something English and made better. In 1869, college students from Princeton and Rutgers played the first intercollegiate football game, something students in the Northeast created as a mix of rugby and soccer. In fact, the game was originally known as "gridiron football" to differentiate it from soccer — which is short for "association football," if you didn't know. The game was still fairly rugby-ish at the beginning; we have Yale student and eventual coach Walter Camp to thank for the implementation most of football's signature features, like the concept of downs, turnovers, the line of scrimmage and, crucially, the quarterback.

Would we love football as much as we do if there was no quarterback position? There's something about Americans' DNA that makes us love watching sports balls fly far through the air. Think about it: right now, the long-range three-point shot is all the rage in the NBA at the same time as its popularity and, thanks to the baseball's home run explosion of the 1990s, we all know that "chicks (and dudes) dig the long ball." When you watch Tampa Bay's Tom Brady or Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes make a 40-yard throw to the corner of the end zone that falls gently into their receiver's arms, as if handing them a newborn, it almost makes you want to cry — but this is football, so you hoot and holler instead. It's art in the same way the Sistine Chapel's ceiling is art and takes a similar amount of precision; it just happens in a flash as opposed to five years. 

Know what else is beautiful? Kids playing football in the snow. That's how Braden River High Head Coach Curt Bradley came to love the game. Bradley, the son of former University of Missouri quarterback (and professional baseball player) Phil Bradley, was born in 1985 in Missouri and grew up watching not the Tigers, but the University of Colorado Buffaloes. 

Braden River offensive coordinator Eric Sanders and Head Coach Curt Bradley first met while playing football together at the University of Northern Iowa. They then coached together at Syracuse before coming to the Pirates. (File photo)
Braden River offensive coordinator Eric Sanders and Head Coach Curt Bradley first met while playing football together at the University of Northern Iowa. They then coached together at Syracuse before coming to the Pirates. (File photo)

"They had a running back named Eric Bienemy, who is now the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs," Bradley said. "He was a small running back and I was small. In those days running backs used to go over the top of their linemen at the goal line. I would practice that, going over the top of my dad, who was on his hands and knees."

Bradley said snow was not a hinderance to him and his football-playing friends. In fact, it created one of his fondest memories, when the group snuck into a friend's parents' garage and took their spray paint. Bradley and his friends spray painted an entire football field, complete with end zones, in the neighborhood and played a full game. 

See that? Football teaches innovation. 

It teaches a lot more than that, too. Bradley said despite the rise of social media in today's age — which has created a more individual sport with a "me first" attitude — football has a lot to teach our country's youth. 

"I tell my team all the time, if you work hard and do the right thing, the game will pay you back," Bradley said. "For some, that means playing the game at the next level, but for others it means learning how to persevere through difficult times. What it takes to be successful in football is still the same: commitment, toughness and being a good teammate. You can't fake anything in the weight room or in blocking and tackling drills. The same players who show up consistently over the summer and participate are the people who turn into great employees who don't call out all the time or who do as little as possible."

You don't need to look further for proof of that than Bradley, who not only has been a successful football coach at Braden River, but has turned many of his players into stand-up members of the community. Bradley said he's blessed for the opportunity to do so. Watching former Pirates turn into parents and successful businessmen is one of his favorite parts of the job, he said. 

I played football for a few Pop Warner seasons. I stopped, ironically, to focus on baseball, which was more suited to my skills, but my experience playing football has stuck with me. It was where I learned how to get yelled at, which is a surprisingly important skill to learn. It was where I learned how to pick myself up, literally, after taking a beating. And it was where I learned how to do a touchdown dance, because this is America, damn it, and if there is one thing Americans know how to do, it's celebrate. 

Now go have a beer and throw the pigskin around your backyard. You deserve it. 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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