- The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football
Michael Oriard is as known for his intense research and lively academic writing as he was known for his intensity in playing football for two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. His The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football, written shortly after his football career ended, has been reissued by the University of Illinois Press. This time, however, Oriard has an additional quarter-century to reflect on the influence of football on life: his own and, more importantly, those he played with and against, and coaches for whom he played. While the narrative of 1982 has remained intact, he has added an Afterward in which he notes that writing of The End of Autumn was an anomaly for his successful academic career at Oregon State University. In the Afterword, Oriard reveals that researching and writing on sport themes in the 1970s made him defensive of his own academic field of literature, for sport was considered the “toy department of human life” for those in English departments, something that I experienced among other historians when I began to produce sport history in the 1960s. Oriard’s The End of Autumn, along with his [End Page 314] more scholarly Dreaming of Heroes published at about the same time, helped give academic credibility to the new field of sport literature.
Oriard begins the narrative of his life in football with his last game, a playoff contest between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Ottawa Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. He had just been dropped by the Kansas City Chiefs after five years in the National Football League, and, if Hamilton lost, it would be (and it was) his last game of football. By then, he had played nearly two decades of the contact sport, enough that he would feel the concussive results for the rest of his life. He then returns to his early years growing up in Spokane, Washington, where neighborhood football was played. By the time he was nine, he was playing organized football with his Catholic grade school team. Never truly a star, he was a very good high school player who then went to Notre Dame, without an athletic scholarship, playing under Ara Pareghian as a “walk on.” The tenacity that Oriard has shown years later with archival research for his histories of football was evident at Notre Dame as a freshman who went on to become a starting center and captain his senior year. He was good enough to be invited to play with the College All-Stars who met and were outclassed by the professional champion Kansas City Chiefs. He then became a rookie on the same Chiefs, but he was never considered good enough by coach Hank Stram to be a starter.
The End of Autumn is unique for several reasons. One is that Oriard is far more articulate for his insights into the game, both positive and negative, than the average professional football player. Whether he is writing about the “slaughter practices” of his high school days, discussing a locker room scene at Notre Dame, or describing “two-a-day” practices in the heat of August under Hank Stram of the Chiefs, the reader feels like he is in the game with Oriard. Second, the fact that Oriard was never the star on any of his teams adds to his insight into playing. Few books are written by players who are on special teams or are relegated to the taxi-squad. Third, Oriard clearly shows the difference between playing as a holy crusade for Notre Dame and playing for pay, where one was owned by management and individual performance was more important than the team’s record. Oriard writes that “failures in Kansas City were easier to take than they had been in high school or college . . . [for] I was paid for what I did, not what my teammates did.” Fourth, Oriard places a former teammate, Jim Tyrer, at the apex of...