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Thistles and Roses

Say what? Keeping up with football jargon


College football will dominate the TV airwaves for the next 30-40 days with the innumerable number of bowl games and the national playoffs. It seems impossible that my alma mater, TCU, has had the season it has.

Football has not changed much in the many years since I played at O.D. Wyatt High School in Fort Worth, but the language and terms have. I realize that I am “old school” (mostly just old) but some of these changes confuse me a bit. If you share my confusion, please read on.

One sports announcer, whose name I cannot keep straight, seems to be the leader of these changes. I never can remember if his name is Herb Kirkstreit or Kirk Herbstreit. Legendary announcer Brent Musburger called him “Herbie” which seems it would be a nickname for Herbert, but I think his name is Kirk Herbstreit, at least for now.

Some of his phrases involve the running game where the team snaps the ball and runs as far as they can until stopped. We used to call it a run up the middle; just that, a run up the middle. Now Herbie calls it running downhill, which used to be mostly a term for snow skiing. There may be some slope on a football field to help with drainage, but there are no hills. What was wrong with calling it a run up the middle? Would the opposite term be “uphill”? That would be odd to say a runner was running “uphill.”

If a running play was wide around the end, we called it running wide, or a sweep. Now it is almost always called a “jet sweep.” Why? A sweep is a sweep. The runners are really fast these days, but they are not jets. I think it just sounds cooler to the announcers.

The passing game is another area of change. If a pass was a long pass, it was a deep pass, or a long pass. Now it is called “going vertical.” I don’t see players levitating.We used to call a short pass to a running back out of the backfield a swing pass. Now it is called a “wheel route.” I just don’t get that metaphor but I have learned what it means. A screen pass, where lineman feign a block while a receiver sneaks behind the hard-charging defenders, is still mostly still called a screen, but now we have “bubble” screens. I guess when it doesn’t work, the defense has burst the bubble!

We used to call a run in the open field just a run where the runner has escaped the defenders and has run a long way before being tackled — a run in the open. If a defender made a big tackle on such a runner, it was called an open-field tackle. Now we call it “space.” I think of space as the “last frontier” from Star Trek or the old sci-fi TV show called “Lost in Space.” Again, I ask why call it “space” instead of “open?”

A lot of jargon is used to describe college football players. There are “true freshmen.” (Would the opposite be a “fake” freshman?) There are also red-shirt freshmen. A red shirt is a player who does not play one of his eligible years so he gets another year of eligibility. Some broadcasters are now calling players “ red-shirt sophomores.” It seems to never end. It used to be colleges had freshman teams and freshmen couldn’t play until they were sophomores. I think freshmen, true or redshirts, should be able to play. Freshmen are freshmen, what difference does it make if they are “true” or “red-shirts?

I am adjusting to the times, and I understand change is inevitable in all parts of life. I am learning the new words, even if they don’t make complete sense to me. Still, some things never change. The team who scores the most points is called the “winner” and the team scoring fewer points is the “loser.”


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