My favorite early game ritual in any televised sport is the introduction of players during Sunday Night Football. If you’re a football fan you either love it or hate it, but I enjoy hearing these guys mention their university as a brief mugshot of them scrolls across the screen.
The former Buckeyes have a tradition when mentioned, “…THE (emphasis on the) Ohio State” and a few, most notably former defensive end Brett Keisel of Greybull, mentioning their high school, “Greybull High School, Go Buffs” the 6-6 290 pound Keisel would smile and say.
In Keisel’s case, it was genuine.
I met Brett at training camp and in the Steeler’s locker room at Heinz Field a few times during his career. Press passes are great when you find an organization that is open to all media outlets as the Rooney-owned Steelers are.
After a thrilling 31-27 win over the rival Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Day in 2016, I waited for a crowd around Keisel to dissipate before I spoke with him.
I’d known him since he was in junior high at Greybull, and he started the conversation with a basketball question, “Can the Buffs win it this year,” he asked. “I hear they’re pretty good.”
“Not good enough,” I said, “Wyoming Indian and Wind River are the teams to beat in the west, and Pine Bluffs is loaded again.”
He was visibly disappointed at my assessment. A little over two months later, the Cougars beat the Chiefs in the Class 2-A state championship game.
Keisel was a basketball player, the Gatorade Player of the Year out of tiny Greybull High School.
If you know anything about professional football, every one of these guys is a multi-sport athlete and many are all-state level competitors or state champions in other sports besides football.
Every running back, defensive back, and wide receiver played basketball, ran track, and a few played baseball. Many of the quarterbacks were also hurdlers, shortstops, or pitchers. When it came time for charity fundraising basketball games featuring the Steelers against a local all-star team, Keisel was always on the roster if the team they were scheduled to play was loaded with a few ringers.
A couple of front office guys told me he was the best basketball player on the entire team. High praise when you’re in the upper echelon of athletics that the NFL represents.
Aside from that, Keisel is articulate and a great spokesman for the team, the city, and the sport. His face still appears on billboards, fundraisers, and commercials around the Steel City.
Which brings us back to the starting lineups and “The Ohio State.”
Ever notice that the players from Ohio State, Michigan, Purdue, Penn State, and sometimes Washington and USC dominate the offensive line and linebacker positions? You always have players in these spots from other schools as well, but just not at the level, you do from the Big 10 and PAC 12 conferences.
Why is that? Once again, if you’re a football fan you understand that the most complex positions to master are quarterback, middle linebacker, and the offensive line.
Quarterback and linebacker seem obvious, these guys run the show on both sides of the ball. The offense and the defense center around them, and their knowledge of the position is essential so every other position can execute at the highest level.
But why the offensive line?
It’s difficult to think of these 6-8 330-pound men as being the most intelligent, and best students on the team, but most of the time they are. If a running back rushes for 1500 yards, he gets all the accolades, but if he’s smart, he takes his offensive line out to dinner after every big game at his expense.
In the 1970s, the Buffalo Bills line was called “The Electric Company” because they gave OJ Simpson the juice. Juice was Simpson’s nickname. No matter what you think of the star-crossed Simpson, he was a great running back, one of the top five of all time, before his crime spree began.
Why are these linemen from specific conferences such as the Big 10, and PAC 12 and not from the all-powerful SEC and ACC where national champions are crowned year after year at schools like Georgia, Alabama, LSU, and Clemson?
Admission standards are the reason. Players recruited by Penn State, Notre Dame, Stanford, Cal, Ohio State, Michigan State, UCLA, Michigan, Northwestern, and all the other top-tier football schools surrounding the Great Lakes and lining the West Coast operate at a higher academic level. Recruits have to score higher on admissions tests, have higher GPAs out of high school, and have cleaner criminal records than their rivals down south.
If you want a running back, wide receiver, or defensive player outside the middle linebacker position, the power schools of the ACC and SEC are where you look. These guys can fly, jump, catch and deliver a hit like no other, but most of them could never pass the admission standards at Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, or Iowa.
Why this is quietly accepted without argument isn’t a mystery. Money drives big-time athletics, and none are bigger than ACC or SEC football.
The big detriment to a Big 10 school winning a national championship always comes down to speed. It’s a thinly veiled statement, bordering on a racist comment, but in spite of all the rhetoric trying to convince us otherwise, the young black athletes are on the whole, much faster than the young white ones at the same position. That’s why the NFL, a league dependent on speed for success is 58% black.
Those black players are at every position, quarterback, offensive line, and middle linebacker included.
There is a valid argument that the inclusion of players who came from poverty, or from the poorest public schools in the nation as represented by the same geographic area as the ACC and the SEC can develop academically as well as athletically at a major university. That’s why we ostensibly have universities, to begin with, isn’t it?
But you don’t want them making decisions on your professional football team that can cost untold millions of dollars for one misread play. That’s why bright offensive linemen, quarterbacks, and linebackers that can still crush the opposition to dust are at a premium.
Watch the game this Sunday night and note the position and the school the guys are from as the offenses and defenses of both teams are introduced. It’s always an interesting look at America.