By Richard Martin
The name F. Scott Fitzgerald conjures up images of wild, decadent parties and the dissolution of the Jazz Age. He was married to an unstable woman and had more than a few issues himself, suffering his own breakdown that was the basis for “The Crack-Up.” He could be the epitome of the suffering artist.
For Fitzgerald, for all his literary ability and real enough suffering, was a football fanatic whose devotion to the Princeton Tigers rivals that of any fan, past, present or future. College football is in his novels as it was in his life. Tom Buchanan, his best villain ever, who haunts the pages of “The Great Gatsby,” was a star player at Yale. Fitzgerald chronicles it his love of college football in “This Side of Paradise,” whose publication in 1920 made him rich and famous and allowed him to marry Zelda Sayre, which proved to be a tragic mistake for both of them.
He never made it as a player. The skinny writer-to-be was cut from the freshman team on his first day of practice in 1913. But he may have been an innovator, as chronicled in an article in the Wall Street Journal. It all goes back to a 1956 interview with Fritz Crisler, then coach at Michigan but earlier a coach at Princeton. Then a graduate student in romance languages, Donald A. Yates, asked Crisler, who coached at Princeton in the ‘30s, if he’d had any contact with Fitzgerald. The article ran in a University of Michigan publication.
Crisler said he regularly received late-night calls from Fitzgerald (from Chicago, Los Angeles, the Riviera, who knows) with the sounds of a dying party in the background. Sometimes, Crisler said, “he had a play or a new strategy he wanted me to use. Some of the ideas Scott used to suggest to me over the phone were reasonable – and some were fantastic.” One of the better ideas Fitzgerald had, Crisler said, was “a scheme for a whole new offense. Something that involved a two-platoon system.” Crisler is credited with inventing the two-platoon system, and that’s one of the major reasons he’s in the College Football Hall of Fame.
But does that mean Crisler got the idea from Fitzgerald?
Alas, we don’t know that. Yates, who was asking the questions, was not a sports fan and didn’t appear to realize that this was a revolutionary idea. He didn’t ask whether Crisler got the idea from Fitzgerald or had already gotten it. It might well be that Crisler had already thought of a two-platoon system. Maybe Fitzgerald’s rantings were just inspired lunacy. Then again, maybe not.
Fitzgerald wrote in “This Side of Paradise” that the jaded protagonist, after boozing and canoodling, arose to “find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken.”
That implies, perhaps, that all we have left to believe in is our football team.