SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The most remarkable play of this college football season may have already occurred. Last Saturday, in the first quarter of the game between the North Texas Mean Green and the Arkansas Razorbacks, Keegan Brewer, a punt returner for North Texas, drifted back to catch a kick on the 10-yard line. He was surrounded by Razorbacks. Keegan Brewer caught the ball and stayed in place as players do after they signal for what's called a fair catch. That's a rule by which they can catch the ball and not be hit - can't even be touched - and the play is whistled dead.
Keegan Brewer stood in place, the ball locked in his arms, looking almost serene. His Mean Green teammates began to drift toward the sidelines. So the Arkansas Razorbacks deployed around him began to drift away, too. Keegan Brewer later told reporters that one Razorback actually asked him, why aren't they blowing the whistle?
Because it was a Mean Green trick. Keegan Brewer had not signaled for a fair catch. When he saw Razorbacks begin to walk away, he took three casual steps as if he was just headed to the sidelines for iced tea, then bolted downfield like a leopard to score a 90-yard touchdown. North Texas went on to win 44-17.
The players and coaches of North Texas have accepted plaudits for their Emmy-caliber performances all week. Their fair-catch trick was utterly within the rules. But what did it really achieve? A fair-catch rule isn't there to make the game more entertaining or competitive. It's meant to keep 11 players running full steam down the field from smashing into one player who's looking skyward to catch a punt. The fair catch is meant to try to protect, as much as any rule in football really can, the skulls, brains and spines of young players at a time when we know much more about the damage caused by football, especially brain injuries.
I understand that North Texas coaches are proud of how deftly their players executed their trick. But the players are young, ambitious athletes who will do just about anything to please their coaches and prove themselves. If Arkansas had seen through North Texas' trick, sophomore Keegan Brewer - not his coaches - would have been isolated and defenseless on the field, even more vulnerable to a head-wringing tackles that the fair-catch rule is meant to prevent. North Texas won the game by 27 points and a lot of attention with their trick. But what do the coaches really win for their players?
(SOUNDBITE OF PRETEND'S "ALIVE IN THE TONE")
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