These days the beginning of football season sparks a national celebration, but that was not always the case.
Back in the 1920s, Red Grange was the most famous football player alive and was invited to the White House.
When he was introduced to President Calvin Coolidge, an aide said "Mr. President this is Red Grange. He is with the Bears."
"Oh good," President Coolidge said, "I always enjoy a good animal act."
Obviously the president had never heard of The Galloping Ghost or his team, the Chicago Bears. Since then the nation's football players have had a steady rise to fame and fortune. Whether it is the tyke playing Pop Warner, the cocky teenager in high school, the popular college player or the ultra-wealthy pros of the NFL, they all have the adoration of their fans.
In the blue-collar sitcom "Married With Children" the father, Al Bundy, peaked in high school when he scored four touchdowns in one game. After that his life was all down hill.
Funny stuff, but often all too true. You better believe in high school I knew my ability to date the head cheerleader was directly proportional to my success on the football field. In order to impress the girls, I gave it my all and in the process risked life and limb.
As a player, I idolized the great Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon from Louisiana State University and the ex-Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung, then with the Green Bay Packers. With a single punt return against Ole Miss, Billy Cannon had given LSU the national title and Paul Horning ran, passed and kicked for the champion Lombardi Packers. Later Mr. Cannon would be arrested for counterfeiting and Mr. Hornung would be suspended for gambling on the games.
Very disillusional to a young athlete, but that would begin a litany of football heroes that would run afoul of the law.
In the military, I met a young man from Kansas who had attended the university there with the great Gayle Sayers, star running back for the same Chicago Bears. The fellow told me the Kansas alumni provided Mr. Sayers with a house, money, women and cars in return for his playing there. All against NCAA rules. He also told me it was rumored that Mr. Sayers played every game under the influence of cocaine. This was in the early '60s and I had never heard of such a thing and didn't give it much thought until years later when drugs became a well-known problem in the NFL.
I won't get into the long list of players who were busted for drugs, but a few of the more famous were Lawrence Taylor of the Giants, Dexter Manley of the Cowboys and Mercury Morris of the Dolphins. Some have even been involved in much more serious crimes. O. J. Simpson aside, you may have heard of Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers, who ordered a hit man to murder his pregnant girlfriend. He is serving a 24-year sentence. Journeyman quarterback Ryan Leaf is now in the Montana State Prison for burglary and other things. And now along comes Aaron Hernandez. This kid really had it all, but now is in jail awaiting trial for murder.
Mr. Hernandez was a top player with the Florida Gators and helped them win a national title. He also was instrumental in getting a Heisman Trophy for Tim Tebow.
When he entered the NFL, he was given a signing bonus of $12.5 million, the most ever paid to a rookie tight end.
His annual salary was more than $5.5 million when he was released by the New England Patriots. In his short career, he had found great success and was on the way to becoming a household name. Now all of that is gone. He is 24 years old. While what happened to Mr. Hernandez is remarkable, he follows a rogue's gallery of players who have lost it all for lesser crimes.
Believe me football is a tough game and anyone who reaches the pros has endured a lot of pain and sacrifice. Those of us who were not able to make it are always confused by the ease with which the lucky ones allow it to slip away. Is it too much fame or too much money? Perhaps but maybe a better answer would be too little character.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned." Email questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (386) 441-7793.