Hot Reads: A Strange Christmas-Day Football Game
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Hot Reads: A Strange Christmas-Day Football Game

December 20, 2016

Like a lot of others, I get a little nostalgic around the holidays. Perhaps unlike some others, that nostalgia somehow got me thinking about the Blue-Gray Game, the annual college all-star game played in Montgomery, Alabama, from 1939 through 2003.

Starting the year I was born, that game was played on Christmas every year and when you’re a too-cool teen who feels stranded at an aunt’s house for the day that’s what you do: Head to the basement and watch this football-like product even though as far as football went it was sort of like getting a pair of socks in your stocking — useful for a very specific purpose (college football on Christmas Day, in this instance) but not all that exciting.

It wasn’t until about five years ago, the last time I was probably thinking about old Blue-Gray Games and Christmas Day, that it dawned on me why it was called the Blue-Gray Game. “Ohhhh,” my inner monologue went, “this is about the Civil War.”

I blame youth and indifference for not realizing this sooner, but that was the idea from the start. It was hatched by Champ Pickens, a former Alabama football manager and bon vivant, who seems to be the model upon which all other fanatical Southern football boosters are built.

Seriously, he created his own trophy, the Pickens Trophy, which was considered the “Dixie Championship” as it was awarded to the champion of the Southern Conference, which for a few years upon its founding in 1921 was basically the SEC and ACC combined. Pickens is all over the newspapers of the time and probably deserving of a book if no such volume already exists. Here, for example, is Grantland Rice using Pickens as an example of how football seems to matter more in the South. That was in 1926, but that particular narrative has never really gone away.

Thirteen years later, Pickens hatched his idea for the Blue-Gray Game. Here’s an excerpt from an advance story on the first game from Nashville’s the Tennessean:

The game, planned as an annual classic, has a tint of the old North-South rivalry going back to the era of the War Between the States.

Each roster, selected from senior college players from either side of the Mason and Dixon line, has 22 players. All must report here [Montgomery] by December 28.

A “tint?” Seems like it was maybe more than that. From an AP report in the Dec. 29, 1938, Gettysburg Times:

Football talent from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line mobolized [sic] here today for the January 2 Blue and Gray charity battle in “the Cradle of the Confederacy.”

Turns out that was another name for the game in the early days — “the Cradle Bowl.”

And here I thought I was just watching a bowl game with strange colors, geographic designations, and very few recognizable names all this time.

Expanding bowls spelled doom for the Blue-Gray Game. If many of the top college stars were snapped up when there were 10 bowl games, imagine what those rosters looked like with 25 games.

The last Blue-Gray Game was played in 2003.

The Grab Bag

  • Somebody had to write it, I suppose: Nebraska is probably regretting firing Bo Pelini.
  • Dennis Dodd of names Brenda Tracy his “person of the year” for holding college football accountable in matters of sexual assault.
  • Penn State isn’t viewing the Rose Bowl as a consolation prize.
  • Interesting look at the financial boost of Washington’s College Football Playoff appearance.

Today’s Song of Today

Song No. 9 in this de facto end-of-the-year countdown, which really approaches Elvis-in-Vegas levels of grandiosity.

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