One of my first sports heroes was pure fiction.
Chip Hilton was the main character in a series of books written by Clair Bee back in the 1940s and 1950s. Chip was the star player in athletics’ Holy Three – football, basketball and baseball – at Valley Falls High School and later at State University.
He and his best friends – Soapy Smith, Speed Morris and Biggie Cohen – faced all sorts of adversity and usually ended up battling valiantly for a conference championship against vicious Tech or Southwestern. Often, they were tempted to break rules in order to win, but their overall decency would prevail.
As a result, they might lose. The main lesson for me was that a heroic effort didn’t guarantee success. Your satisfaction came from integrity, from doing the right thing no matter the consequence.
Based on drawings on the book covers, Chip looked vaguely like the teen-ager I could become someday – similar to Roger Maris or Paul Hornung. Wow. I could be that guy.
I didn’t, in most respects. As one of my boyhood friends would say, I was one of “those slow-footed Bradfords.” I had a little natural talent, but I had other directions I needed to take. I couldn’t afford to focus narrowly enough on athletics to become another Chip.
Still, his lessons of integrity stayed with me, even though I never threw a touchdown pass for Valley High. I don’t always succeed, but at least I know the concepts well enough that I feel shame when I behave badly.
In the interest of feeling shame, I recommend a TV series I watched on Netflix recently called “Last Chance U.” For me, it was like peeking over the edge into the deep abyss, and that is where big-time college football may be headed.
Over five seasons, this real-life documentary follows football programs at three junior colleges in Mississippi, Kansas and California. The premise is that these teams offer a final opportunity for discarded football players to pursue their dream of playing in the National Football League.
In several cases, these were elite high school players who began their college careers with teams that typically competed for the national championship. In some cases, they flunked out. In others, they were dismissed for committing crimes or violating school rules.
These junior colleges functioned as rehab facilities. For example, DeAndre Johnson was destined to be the starting quarterback at Florida State until he was dismissed from school. A videotape had shown him punching a woman in the face in a Tallahassee bar. She had cut in front of him in a line to order drinks.
We see him following all the rules at East Mississippi Community College. Afterwards, he transferred to Florida Atlantic and then to Texas Southern. Most recently, he was a backup quarterback for the New Jersey Generals in the USFL.
Compared with the majority of young men introduced during those five seasons, Johnson is a success story. A half-dozen others got NFL tryouts and a couple ended up on an actual roster. The rest ended up with college loans, concussions, prison terms and dashed dreams.
The people you meet at all levels through “Last Chance U” have solid reasons for what they do. The athletes have few job prospects beyond football, their coaches are building their own careers, the college administrators want a way to fill their classrooms. The net result is a system that feels icky.
In most cases, given the opportunity to do a decent thing, these people choose otherwise.
Why would I want you to watch this? If you’re a college football fan, “Last Chance U” may prepare you for more upheavals ahead.
The NCAA already has honked off many fans with two major rule changes. One, college students can turn their sports careers into moneymakers by charging for product endorsements and autographs, just like pro players do. And two, players who don’t like the way their college careers are going can transfer to any school that will take them.
One major result is, you don’t have to make it to the NFL to earn money playing football. You can get paid in college, which makes it lucrative to stick around longer.
If you knew about this, you shouldn’t have been surprised when Notre Dame lost to Marshall last weekend. Marshall is a pioneer in the way the sport is going.
After a 7-6 record last year, the Thundering Herd brought in two dozen transfers, including a 23-year-old quarterback who had already played two years at Utah State and two more at Texas Tech. Notre Dame’s overwhelmed quarterback was 19-year-old Tyler Buchner, making his second career start.
Marshall’s leading runner, Khalan Laborn, had been suspended from the Florida State team twice, in 2017 and 2019, and spent last year at a junior college. If my math logic is correct, he’s 23 or 24 years old. That’s an age when running backs gain 1,000 yards in the pros.
In all, Marshall’s roster has 11 sixth-year players and six more listed as redshirt seniors. By bringing in 24 transfer students, the team was able to upgrade itself at all those positions without having to teach football to 18-year-olds.
And so you’ll know, I checked. Notre Dame is using older players as well, with 19 players on the 2022 roster listed as graduate students. The difference, I think, is the Irish are sticking mostly with the players they recruited. They brought in just five older players, by my count, as transfers.
Postgraduate transfers can blur the lines. In the year he led LSU to a national championship and won the Heisman Trophy, Joe Burrow never set foot on campus. Instead, he took a couple of online courses to stay eligible but reported to the football complex every day to study film.
How do you classify a guy like that as being a student?
And when you start chipping away at our hope for purity in competition, you risk losing your fans. If your memory goes back 50 years, consider what happened in the years since to boxing, horse racing and Indycars.
I’ve enjoyed thinking of college athletics as a place for amateurs who, like me, counted on a solid college education as their ticket to a better life. I realize that system worked for some but obviously not for all.
se are different times, so it’s unfair to judge too harshly. Chip Hilton had that blond hair, his boyhood pals and his girlfriend named Mitzi. He didn’t have to sleep in his car because he couldn’t afford an apartment near State U. He didn’t need the miracle of athletics to lift himself or his family out of poverty. If all else failed, Chip could work more hours at his dad’s pottery shop.
A lot of last-chance players playing for their third or fourth college didn’t have that safety net.
Until all this gets straightened out, expect a lot more schools like Marshall to put together these mercenary teams with players aged 23-plus who somehow qualify as students. Here’s one: Appalachian State, which upset sixth-ranked Texas A&M on Saturday, upgraded its 2022 roster by binge shopping on the transfer portal during the winter and spring.
If you follow Notre Dame and other stubbornly high-minded schools that stick to their old standards, be prepared for a lot of glum Saturdays.
I’m old-fashioned, and I still would be cheering for Chip and his pals at Valley Falls. But this era, as long as it lasts, belongs to those steely-eyed guys at Southwestern and Tech – and at Marshall.