CHARLOTTESVILLE -- The first woman sportswriter, Willa Cather, had a special fondness for college football. She valued the game as "one of the few survivals of the heroic" and was pleased to note it aroused "only the most simple and normal emotions" and offered "no particular inducement to betting."
About 100 years ago, she wrote: "Of course it is brutal. So is Homer brutal, and Tolstoy; that is, they all alike appeal to the crude savage instincts of men. We have not outgrown all our old animal instincts yet -- heaven grant we never shall! The moment that, as a nation, we lose brute force, or an admiration for brute force, from that moment poetry and art are forever dead among us, and we will have nothing but grammar and mathematics left. The only way poetry can ever reach one is through one's brute instincts. 'Charge of the Light Brigade' or 'How They Brought Good News to Aix' move us in exactly the same way that touchdowns do, only not half so intensely. A good football game is an epic."
That same day, or thereabouts, the University of Virginia trimmed the Albemarle County Englishmen, or vice versa, in a pickup game on The Lawn. Ever since, no place in the country has worked harder at keeping brute force and poetry in balance. And almost none has failed more consistently on the side of poetry.
Until now, that is. Allowing its poetic qualities, this football season has to go down as the most brutal in the history of the school.
Two amazing embarrassments befell the Cavaliers. First, they were ranked No. 1 in the nation, a distinction one usually associates with the University of Miami. Then, when the damage was done, and they already were invited to the Sugar Bowl, they began to tumble down the list, past the first 10, beyond the top 25, until finally they came to rest somewhere on the other side of the Albemarle County Englishmen.
How has the campus reacted to this dramatic double reversal? "We prefer 'grounds' to 'campus,' " someone replied. In other words, wonderfully well.
The line at the ticket window was sparse last week, but students signing up for the Sugar Bowl lottery were brimming with enthusiasm for a 17-hour drive. They were especially approving of the New Orleans drinking age, which, judging from the vintage of the thirsty, must be 18. A French scholar remarked that, although distressed by the team's collapse to 8-3, he felt obligated to visit the French Quarter.
Cheryl Thomas, a French teacher from an old undergraduate dream, observed: "The Monday morning talk has been a lot different" since the Cavaliers lost their eighth game to Georgia Tech and kept on losing to Maryland and Virginia Tech. "The faculty tries to keep a certain distance from athletics, but for a while there, it was difficult to leave football out of the classroom entirely."
Paul Gilman, a senior majoring in history, said: "Historically, we have this image as a 'public Ivy,' and some people around here get to worrying when the teams are too successful. But, personally, I'm disappointed, extremely disappointed."
Not that Gilman was totally fooled during Virginia's three-week stay at the top. "Nobody who knows football was," he said. "Our pass defense was horrible. But even if we didn't deserve it, it was great to be number one. We had T-shirts made and everything. You know, if you're overly realistic, it can ruin your appreciation of college."
An anthropology student, Scott Cohen, sifted through the ashes and determined: "We were number one for three weeks. Three weeks is about right." With some chagrin, he confessed to holding a reservation in New Orleans. "I guess I'll cancel," he said. "In the excitement, everybody got a room at the Econolodge or someplace. Oh well. Now the true fans will be able to get tickets."
One of the players, senior receiver Derek Dooley, commented without bitterness: "We've found out who the true fans are." Truly, "the bashers" haven't bothered him. "Even negative interest is interest," he said. "When we were winning, you could really feel the electricity around here. It's less now, but it isn't gone completely. They're talking about us still."
Dooley has more perspective than the average collegiate athlete, even at Virginia. His father, Vince, coached Georgia to a national championship in the very game that will be the son's last. Derek certainly hasn't the makings of a pro. He scarcely had the requisites for college football. But he enjoyed a rich career.
"I grew up at a place where 80,000 people went to the stadium every week," he said, "where the games were so big that they were almost dehumanizing, where nearly everyone seemed to forget that the players were 20 or 22 and that football wasn't their job. At Virginia this year, we had a little taste of some of that.
"When you lose something, and it's something you never had before, you don't always know how to react. That was our problem after Georgia Tech. But our younger guys will learn from it. They'll be a top 20 team from now on, and they'll still be Virginia. I don't think that's ever going to change."
Heaven grant it never shall.