By Marty Farmer
It was hard to find anything good about the Northwestern University football program reeling off 34 losses in a row between 1979 and '82, the longest losing streak in major college football history. In fact, after breaking the shared record of 29 straight setbacks (with Kansas State and Virginia) with a 61-14 drubbing by Michigan State, Northwestern students rushed the field to "celebrate," chanting "we're the worst."
But the Wildcats' freefall offered first-time author and Oak Park resident Dave Revsine a serendipitous introduction to legendary University of Wisconsin kicker Pat O'Dea. While attending a Northwestern game during "the streak" with his father, Lawrence (a NU professor at the time), Revsine noticed O'Dea's name listed next to the longest field goal (62 yards) ever kicked against the Wildcats. The historic boot occurred in 1898 via dropkick, which intrigued the young Revsine.
Approximately 30 years later, he encountered O'Dea once again, leafing through the Wisconsin section of the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia. While researching O'Dea (one of college football's first true superstars), Revsine quickly discovered the native Australian's story was just one of several worth sharing during college football's fascinating early period, 1890-1915.
Inspired by O'Dea's mystique, Revsine embarked on a four-year journey, writing about that remarkable but underpublicized era. His first book, Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation, has drawn praise from books critics and football fans alike.
Revsine revisits the formative period of college football, which, like the modern game, produced huge crowds and celebrated superstars on the field, extensively covered in the newspapers. Also reminiscent of the modern game, the era saw more than its share of physical brutality on the field along with assorted academic, recruiting and financial controversies and scandals.
For Revsine, a former ESPN sportscaster and now the lead studio host at the Big Ten Network, the sordid college football conditions back in O'Dea's day were a true eye-opener.
"I always had this idea that football [back then] was a bunch of well-mannered Ivy Leaguers kind of kicking the ball around in front of a small crowd between Shakespeare recitations," he said. "Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1893, Yale and Princeton played each other in front of 50,000 people in New York City with 17 reporters at the game."
Of all the noteworthy players and teams during that era, O'Dea clearly captured Revsine's imagination. Well before glitzy gridiron stars like Deion "Prime Time" Sanders at Florida State and "Johnny Football" Manziel at Texas A&M appeared on the Saturday scene, Pat "Kangaroo Kicker" O'Dea monopolized the attention of fans.
"O'Dea wasn't a particularly charismatic guy other than perhaps trying to woo women," Revsine said with a laugh. "He was a pretty straightforward guy. People watched him because he was a phenomenal kicker. Back then, kickers could take over a game in ways we can't imagine due to the rules of the time.
"The equivalent today would be a player who can break a run 80 yards for a touchdown every time he touches the ball. O'Dea was that kind of talent. He was an electric player who was a curiosity to fans because he was so much better than everybody else."
However, numerous scandals and controversies sullied the game between 1890 and 1915. One of the primary culprits may come as a surprise.
"The University of Chicago used football as an avenue to be recognized on the same plane as Harvard and Princeton, not only academically but as one of the entrenched football powers," Revsine said. "They did everything they could from the outset to be good at football, including massively sacrificing their academic integrity."
One glaring example is Walter Eckersall, a 20th-century star, who was allowed to play football at the U. of C. for almost three years despite little progress toward a degree. Eckersall's enabler was coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, who played a key role in the university's unwillingness to share gate receipts with its conference foes, nearly causing the dissolution of what is now the Big Ten Conference.
The recent scandals that rocked the University of North Carolina, University of Miami, and Penn State University football programs have their roots in football's formative period.
In 1905, 18 players died from injuries incurred on the football field. Princeton President Francis L. Patton's fixation on winning teams and increased alumni donations caused a shocking lapse of conscience.
So those glorified win-at-all costs gridiron movies like, On Any Given Sunday and The Program weren't so hyperbolic after all?
"Human nature is fundamentally the same in any aspect of life," Revsine said. "When people are critical of college football [today], there's blame assigned to the culture. In reality, whether its college football, law, business or journalism, I think whenever there is an opportunity to operate in the margin or gray area, people often look for that competitive edge."
At the beginning of his book, Revsine chose a quotation from the Bible that he feels perfectly encapsulates the past, present and future of college football (and life, too, for that matter).
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Ecclesiastes 1:9.
When he's not busy analyzing college sports as the lead anchor at the Big Ten Network, Revsine enjoys life in Oak Park with his wife and three daughters.
"Growing up in Northbrook, when I moved back to Chicago I decided that I didn't want to replicate my childhood," Revsine said. "I had a great time in Northbrook, but I just wanted my family to experience new adventures together. I asked around and several people recommended the Oak Park and River Forest area.
"When my wife and I discussed it, the decision was a no-brainer. We love the proximity to the city, the beautiful old homes, the community and I read the Wednesday Journal every week."
Revsine also enjoys another family tradition with his daughters, which harkens back to football in its purest form.
"We go to all the OPRF football games on Friday nights and we love it," he said. "The first time we went was about four years ago, and the team wasn't very good. Now they are really good and the games are a lot fun. I love Oak Park Stadium, and the coach [John Hoerster] is doing a great job with the program."
Before landing a job with ESPN, Revsine engaged in several life-altering experiences. After graduating from Northwestern, he lived abroad for a year as a Rotary Scholar at Trinity College in Dublin where he played on the school's basketball team.
"Our games were standing-room-only because there were no seats," Revsine recalled. "I was on the basketball team, but it was really like intramurals. OPRF would beat us by 50 points. It was a wonderful experience, and I got to know Ireland very well."
Revsine also briefly worked as an investment banker at Chase Manhattan in New York City before turning to a career in sportscasting.
"I would say within two days I knew the [banking] job wasn't for me," Revsine said. "It was the worst year of my life and I was just miserable. I decided that I wouldn't be happy unless I pursued my passion, or at least give it a shot. So I got a job as a sportscaster in Sherman, Texas, took an 80 percent pay cut and started my journey. Fortunately, it's worked out better than I possibly could have imagined."
The Midtown Athletic Club Athlete Feature, The Midtown Athletic Club Athlete of the Week and weekly sports calendar/scoreboard are sponsored by Midtown Athletic Club in Oak Park.