"Tighten Your Chinstrap," the advertisement for Maryland football commands. It's a notion that ought to spread across several borders this fall, for never in recent memory have so many area teams been so compelling.
Almost anyone who knows a pigskin from a plowshare, or thinks he does, has the Terrapins among the top 10 college teams in the country; the party school, Virginia, all of a sudden has players worth toasting; Napoleon McCallum might well pick up the Heisman Trophy after several dozen sweeps for Navy; the Redskins -- ho hum -- are among the Super Bowl contenders.
Whether any other football precinct ever experienced so much anticipation -- the possibility of the best college team in the land, the best pro team and the most honored semi-amateur athlete -- is unknown, and not worth pursuing.
It's enough for local fans simply to be able to rub shoulder pads with Texans, Californians, Pennsylvanians and the like for a change, having slugged along with sad teams so often not so long ago. From a pleasant perch among the elite, recall with a small smile when the journey back to prominence began.
The late '60s would be as good a time as any to pronounce area football at its most pathetic. Maryland was 0-9 in 1967, 2-8 in 1968 and 3-7 to end a decade that began with three winning seasons; Virginia started a (3-7) slide that never got righted, for more than one season, until George Welsh arrived three years ago; Navy was a combined 3-17 in '68-69, scoring 10 or fewer points in half the games.
The Terrapins scored only 46 points the entire '67 season; if the schedule were not so imposing, they might get close to that several times this year with the system and players Bobby Ross has assembled. Dress these turtles in track shoes.
From beating Penn State by a point in '67, Navy went to losing to the Nittany Lions by 25 the next season, by 23 the next, by 48 the next and by 53 the next. The same wizard with a whistle who has Virginia moving in the proper direction, Welsh, rejuvenated the Midshipmen.
McCallum was lured to Navy during Welsh's watch.
Before the Redskins were very good, they were very entertaining. Unlike Maryland, Navy and Virginia, they knew exactly where the end zone was and how to get there. Problem was, they couldn't stop the other guys from arriving there even more frequently.
The coach, Otto Graham, said he'd rather lose a game by 38-35 than win by 3-0. He once won by 72-41, but lost his job because of the sort of setbacks he thought would be excused by their thrills. Graham gave the Redskins offense; George Allen gave the Redskins defense. Joe Gibbs has given them both.
In the late '60s, the characters at Maryland were more interesting than the games. Scrubs would honor themselves each week, with awards for those who held blocking dummies straight and tall or who seemed especially spirited while being pummeled by a double-team block.
"Sometimes," one of them said, "we'd recognize anyone who seemed like he was trying."
For players, coaches and fans, those were trying times.
What a nice contrast.
Enthusiasm at Maryland is such that season tickets were going at the rate of 110 a day for July. By the second week of August, a school-record 22,500 were sold and Maryland had sold out of season tickets for the first time.
Until something tops it this season, and each school hopes that will happen, the state of Maryland's wildest one-day college football binge was last Nov. 17. On that day in Baltimore, Maryland defeated arch-rival Clemson; in Annapolis, Navy upset second-ranked South Carolina.
A week later, a scenario once assumed to be impossible became reality: Maryland played Virginia for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. The Terrapins won, although both teams already were assured of decent bowls.
Most of the reasoning behind Maryland being rated so highly involves its obvious skill and depth and the opposition's reputation perhaps outshining ability for a change. Penn State, for instance, had no one chosen earlier than the sixth round in the most recent NFL draft; Miami is without lots of talent, including quarterback Bernie Kosar, who turned pro with two seasons of college eligibility left.
Still, it is possible to get more than slightly carried away with area teams' prospects, as one writer seemed to be doing by forecasting: "Maryland's chances of not winning the league are about the same as the ocean's waves refusing to come ashore."
The dream game for the Terrapins this season has yet to be scheduled. It would be against the winner of the Big Eight Conference in the Orange Bowl, with the national championship on the line. By then, McCallum might have fetched another Heisman for Navy. And the Redskins should be involved in the NFL playoffs.
Last season ended with the Redskins sad about not at least making the Super Bowl for the third year in a row. If older local fans surely wanted more, they recall having often settled for far less.