Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Faded Americana: A SSR Look At Our Changing Culture

The Fullback Era

On a brisk, windswept day at Chicago's hallowed Wrigley Field, a emblematic figure charged up and down the gridiron. After one run, a hapless defender was carted off with a broken shoulder. An attempted tackle left another out cold. And on one fearsome run, the ballcarrier burst into the end zone with such ferocity that his momentum carried him into the brick wall beyond the end zone. According to legend, the brick wall cracked from the collision with this mighty behemoth. Bronko Nagurski, 6'2'', 228 pounds, was the prototypical, all-American fullback. His responsibilities on the field were many: blocking, running the ball, catching short passes out of the backfield. He even passed the ball, throwing two touchdown passes in the Bears' 1933 Championship
winning victory. On the other side of the ball, he played linebacker, mercilessly driving his opposite numbers into the turf on drive after drive. Nagurski's battles with one such adversary, fellow fullback Clarke Hinkle are the stuff of legend. Although Hinkle gave up at least three inches in height and 25 pounds in weight, he matched Nagurski's savage passion and was nearly as versatile. In one epic clash in 1934, Hinkle pounded the ball upfield, only to come face with face with Nagurski. As he later told the press, his only choice was to "get Nagurski before he got me." Lowering his head and squaring his shoulders, Hinkle pounded into and through Nagurski, shattering the gladiator's nose and fracturing one of his ribs. LikeNagurski, Hinkle also played linebacker on defense, viciously shutting down not only the running game but the passing game as well. On special teams, Hinkle was the Packer's punter and place kicker. Hinkle and Nagurski were both consumnate fullbacks, dynamic players who each helped their teams in a number of ways. But their fullback brethen, while not nearly as celebrated, were equally as important to their teams. The fullback has been called 'the heartbeat of the offense,' and in many ways the position of fullback, which flourished in the 1930's, represented the larger American culture. The fullback's main job was to sacrifice himself for the good of teammates, using his size and exceptional field vision to block for the smaller tailbacks and quarterbacks. However, the fullback was pressed into a number of duties, depending on the situation. In some cases, the fullback was used in crucial short yardage situations, where his larger size allowed him to bull past defenders. The fullback also was asked to catch passes out of the backfield when the offense's play broke down. Oftentimes, the fullback also played linebacker, where his size and vision also served him well. Of course, many Americans in the 1930's could emphathize with the fullback; with the country mired in a deep depression, the population knew sacrifice, knew the value of hard, oftentimes unappreciated work, and knew the need to do whatever task the situation demanded.

The Fullback in Decline

After World War II, American culture began changing dramatically. The Depression was over and a new period of prosperity arrived. Rapid technological advances brought an unprecedented level of comfort to the average American citizen. In some ways these changes were reflected in the fullback position. Although this era produced a number of Hall of Fame caliber fullbacks, such as Frank Gifford, Larry Csonka, and Jim Brown, these fullbacks were more precursors of the modern running back than throwbacks to Nagurski and Hinkle. By this time, increasing specialization in both football and American society stripped the fullback of his myriad roles. No longer did players play on both offense and defense; running duties were increasingly handled by the running backs and fullbacks such as Hall of Famer Joe Perry used more of a slashing, elusive running style than the power running typically associated with the fullback. As the years passed, football teams began employing more of a "hybrid" back; a player with the size and strength of a fullback but the speed of a running back. Similarly, an increased reliance on passing brought more wide receivers and tight ends into the formations and in many cases they were called on to perform the blocking chores normally relegated to the fullback.
Now, the fullback position is a dinosaur, an echo of a bygone era. Many teams do not even have a dedicated fullback on their roster, instead employing tight ends or, ironically, linebackers in the role if need be. On teams with fullbacks, the player's role has been reduced to the bare minimum: block. Lorenzo Neal of the San Diego Chargers, widely regarded as the best fullback in the current league, averages roughly 3 yards per game; in contrast, the running back he clears holes for averages about 4 yards a carry. Neal realizes that he may be the last of a dying breed.
"If the position dies, it dies. But as long as I'm in this league, the fullback won't die. I'm not going to let my position die."

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