There's a fun item in the Sept. 26, 1967, issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel I found on Google the other day. It details how Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Sam Wheeler received the "Savage" award from head coach John Coatta for his aggressive play that week. Two of Wheeler's teammates, Ken Criter and Tom Domres, were also honored and presented with black helmets.
"Black helmets will go to hitters," reads the story, "gridders who go all out, constantly above and beyond the call of duty."
Coatta's teams wore cardinal helmets with a Bucky Badger logo on the side, but his most aggressive, or "savage," defensive players were awarded black helmets for the season's remaining games. Coatta lasted just three years at Wisconsin, his teams compiling a combined 3-26-1 record.
I was reminded of Coatta this week as sports pundits expressed outrage at the revelations that some NFL teams have bounty programs that reward players for bone-rattling hits. Reports say the rewards rarely amount to more than a couple thousand bucks, far less than the fines for taking dangerous head shots.
It sounds like an extension of how my own seventh-grade coach - who began each practice by yelling, "All right ladies, knock off the grab-assin' and line up!" - handed out helmet stickers for big tackles. Getting one was a huge deal, maybe bigger than a handful of hundreds to a millionaire athlete.
In the rush to judgment, some are calling for criminal charges to save the game's integrity. But one of the more sensible voices belongs to Nate Jackson, a former NFL player who writes for Slate.com.
"Bounties or no bounties, the game maims the men who play it," he writes. "Yet the NFL stays busy selling the myth that football would be safe so long as the guys on the field played with a little integrity. Now where is the integrity in that?"