Christian McCaffrey’s announcement that he will skip Stanford’s Sun Bowl game brought back fond memories of sitting in the bleachers and watching some of the greatest players in football history.
They participated in the College All-Star Game, an event that was less a competitive contest than a ritual. Between 1934 and 1976, the top college seniors from the previous season were teamed up to take on the defending NFL champs at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
The series was a mismatch — the pros won 31 of the 42 games — but the final scores were irrelevant for a kid like me. My father would buy eight or 10 tickets for his business associates, and it was my privilege to join them for dinner and the game.
I saw Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath and Bubba Smith. I saw the Miami Dolphins take the field for the first time after their 1972 perfect season. I saw championship teams stocked with veterans give first-round draft choices a crash course on how things are done at the next level.
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The All-Star Game has been defunct for four decades, and yet I still recall those dreamy midsummer nights with a sense of disbelief: Did I actually see raw rookies thrown to the wolves, year after year?
The notion of NFL prospects agreeing to be victims of an exhibition-game pummeling might seem ludicrous, but the format evolved into a tradition, and traditions don’t easily die. It took an act of God — a second-half thunderstorm that rendered conditions unplayable in 1976 — for the league to realize the folly of the College All-Star Game.
Which brings me to McCaffrey, the standout running back who is shunning participation in the Sun Bowl for the chance, as he wrote on Twitter, “to begin my draft prep immediately.”
A more forthright explanation would have read: “I have decided not to play in the Sun Bowl because putting my pro career at risk in a meaningless game would be the very definition of dumb.”
Whether you consider McCaffrey a party-spoiling mope or a free-thinking progressive — strong cases can be made on both sides — this much is certain: Other NFL-bound prospects will follow his cue.
Any potential first or second-round draft choice should be thrilled about extending his final college season with a team eligible for the national championship. Four such teams exist, including the Washington Huskies.
But for the NFL-bound players on 78 other teams, a bowl game presents a startling risk-reward dichotomy.
The risk: Suffering an injury that deprives you a lucky-for-life contract.
The reward: A free barbecue dinner, followed by another free meal at a steak house, along with a gift bag packed with some cool electronic gadgets.
Not to disparage the many southwestern Texas tourist destinations surrounding El Paso, or any of the wonderful people who live there, but it’s difficult to justify the Sun Bowl as anything other than daytime-television filler on a holiday week.
Some of us will watch the Sun Bowl, if we watch the Sun Bowl, by casually glancing at a TV in a sports bar. Gamblers will watch the Sun Bowl as if their next mortgage payment is at stake. So there’s that.
The Sun Bowl, the Liberty Bowl, the Music City Bowl, the Arizona Bowl … all these games are scheduled for Dec. 30, convening like that intersection where the green arrow takes longer to turn than the plot of “The Maltese Falcon.”
Should Christian McCaffrey become responsible for the demise of irrelevant bowls, he’ll be worthy of a fifth face on Mount Rushmore. In the meantime, let’s imagine a new world awaiting college football: An 11-game regular season, with no conference championships, preceding a 16-team playoff at eight sites. The obligatory bowl formalities — the parades, the royal courts, the trips to adventure-ride parks — could all be organized.
But there’d be this twist: Every bowl game would prove consequential in the determination of a national champion.
This won’t happen in my lifetime, but it’ll happen. Forty years from now, the tradition of requiring football players to risk career-ending injuries in meaningless bowl games will seem as ludicrous as the premise of rookies lining up against the NFL champions, determined to knock the hotshots senseless.
The world turns. As I treasure precious memories of the College All-Star Game, a question persists:
This game was a tradition? Seriously?
John McGrath: @TNTMcGrath