Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey: Chasing the Heisman Trophy…and Barry Sanders

Every now and then, a particularly exceptional player surfaces in the ranks of college football. Such a player was the great running back, Barry Sanders, who won college football’s coveted Heisman trophy back in 1988. Sanders was a running back at Oklahoma State University with speed and exceptional quickness, qualities which made him almost impossible to corral on the football field. His reputation was cemented by a stellar career with the NFL’s Detroit Lions; Sanders is regarded as one of the very best ever to play the game…. at any level.

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Stanford University’s nationally-ranked football team has a player cast from the same mold as Sanders – sophomore Christian McCaffrey – running back, pass receiver, and punt/kickoff returner par-excellence. Linda and I were at Stanford Stadium last Friday evening to see young McCaffrey set a Stanford single-game school record for total all-purpose yards – 389 yards which included 192 yards rushing on 29 carries. In addition, the young phenom snaked his way through the entire University of California defense for a 49 yard touchdown off a screen pass followed by a 98 yard kickoff return for another score. That first touchdown showcased the Sanders-like balance, elusiveness, and anticipation that made Barry Sanders so unique. The second score highlighted McCaffrey’s flat-out speed as he glimpsed daylight and hit the afterburner, leaving all pursuers in the dust.

Rumors Last Season

There were rumors last season about young McCaffrey who, as an incoming freshman, deeply impressed the entire coaching staff and the other players not only with his ability, but with his mature attitude and work-ethic. Those rumors of something special surfaced early, emanating from spring football camp last year. Stanford head coach David Shaw occasionally played McCaffrey last season as a true freshman, but only in spot situations, preferring wisely not to overwhelm a young, budding talent with Stanford’s complicated offensive schemes. Whenever young Christian did trot out for a play or two, it was invariably with good results. In fact, I recall that on his very first play in the game we saw, he reeled off a long gainer.

As an alum and a long-time follower of Stanford football (since 1960), I have seen them come and seen them go, including some truly great players like Plunkett (Stanford’s only Heisman winner – 1970), Elway, Stenstrom, Luck, Hogan, Gerhart, Nelson, Hill, and Lofton. Sometimes, though, the early program hype does not fully materialize during the ensuing four years.

I wondered about young McCaffrey last year who still had a boyish-look about him, and, yes, talent and good speed….but why did Coach Shaw not utilize him more if he was that good? As this season opened, Stanford lost unexpectedly to Northwestern, and the entire team played poorly. Stanford has since decisively beaten all opponents except for a close loss to Oregon, late on the schedule.

Since the disastrous Northwestern opener, I have been surprised and impressed by two things about this Stanford team beside the fact that they are good:

First: The maturation of McCaffrey as a physical player since last year. He worked hard in the weight room during the off-season to bulk-up, adding an additional thirty pounds of mainly muscle – extra baggage which makes breaking tackles easier, but tends invariably to temper a player’s quickness. Now, as a sophomore, he is very physical going through the line yet more elusive than ever with greater quickness and flat-out speed than last year. In that respect, alone, he is an anomaly. There are few players around with the flat-out speed to catch him on his way to the end-zone. Very impressive, and it has been a long time since Stanford had a back who, like O.J. Simpson at USC, long ago, will not be caught from behind!

Second: I noticed Stanford’s team demeanor throughout televised games when the cameras routinely scanned the sidelines. I saw unmistakable signs of great team chemistry on display. McCaffrey is partly responsible for that, I am certain. It is a rare “star” player who is truly likable and revered by his teammates without reservation. In that vein, today’s local sports page highlighted some pertinent comments made by Coach Shaw:

-After Friday’s Cal game: “I haven’t seen anybody in America like this kid.”

-“Kickoff returner, runner, receiver, blocker – the kid’s just truly special. And our guys know that, and they take a lot of pride blocking for him.”

-Earlier in the year, Shaw commented in a half-time TV interview that his team had a good first half because they were playing hard and they were playing for each other. I believe the last part of Shaw’s comment fully explains the team chemistry – a credit to the individuals on the roster and a reflection on their young Heisman candidate, Christian McCaffrey.

A quick vignette to illustrate the point: Barry Sanders, Jr. – the son of the great Barry Sanders who holds the collegiate season record for all-purpose yards – ironically is a reserve running back to the man who is chasing his father’s long-standing record as well as the Heisman – young McCaffrey.

The junior Sanders is a talented back, but not in the same unique mold as his father. Earlier in the season, when young Sanders came in to spell McCaffrey and scored on a long run from scrimmage, he was mobbed by his teammates. The sincerity of their joy for young Sanders was evident. The season has been that way all along, and I credit McCaffrey’s presence and the coaching staff for nurturing the elusive team chemistry that is the mark of champions.

Out of curiosity, last night, I googled some of young McCaffrey’s recruiting film clips from his stellar high school career at Valor Christian High in Colorado. What I saw on film was the prelude to greatness which is currently unfolding at Stanford Stadium. One of young McCaffrey’s high school kickoff touchdown returns looked like a carbon-copy of what we saw last Friday night against the Cal Bears.

Reel after reel of great football plays and McCaffrey’s matter-of-fact reaction to his own success were the dominant themes. After a score, he politely hands the ball to the officials, modestly accepts inevitable congratulations from his teammates, and heads for the sidelines. I never once saw the “number 1” finger in the air, chest thumping, or strutting of any kind – and that self-effacing style is also evident at Stanford. How refreshing is that, in this age of self-promotion on the football field? I fully understand why McCaffrey’s teammates consider it a privilege to be blocking for him – all game long. Barring injury, he is on his way to becoming a truly great player as well as a fine example of what collegiate football should be all about!

Football Moxie and a Sprinter’s Speed:
A Rare Combination and a Great McCaffrey Story

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To understand how a Christian McCaffrey “happens along,” it helps to know something of his fascinating lineage:

His maternal grandfather is David Sime – silver medalist at 100 meters in the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and former world record holder in the 100 and 220 yard sprints. David Sime was the world’s fastest human in the time-frame of 1954/56.

Sime’s personal story is fascinating in itself, but suffice it to say he graduated from Duke University medical school as an ophthalmologist after missing the gold medal in the 100 meters by a hair to the German “Thief of Starts,” Armin Hary. He fathered several children, one of whom is Lisa Sime McCaffrey who graduated from Stanford after starring there on the women’s soccer team. While at Stanford, she met and subsequently married a 6-foot-five, lanky, sure-handed pass receiver on Stanford’s football team named Ed McCaffrey – Christian’s father. The senior McCaffrey was an All-American at Stanford and enjoyed a notable career in the NFL as a Denver Bronco. Ed McCaffrey is the owner of three Super Bowl rings.

Hearing the McCaffrey name (often) last Friday night at Stanford Stadium rekindled still-vibrant memories of sunny, Saturday afternoons at Stanford Stadium in the late 1980’s. I still hear the echoes of long-time stadium announcer Ed McCauley’s play-call floating above the crowd’s roar: “….the pass complete to Ed McCaffrey for 24 yards and a Stanford first down….”

Never forgot the sights, never forgot the sounds, never forgot the great ones.
Never will. Good luck to Christian McCaffrey…and GO STANFORD!

Back Grazing in Familiar Pastures; Shannon’s Milestone Book on Communication Theory

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Do you use the internet and personal communication devices such as cell phones? Since you are here, you must! Who doesn’t these days? One look at people in public places with eyes riveted on phone screens or tablets speaks to the popularity of personal communication. DSL (Direct Subscriber Line) services like AT&T’s U-Verse reliably bring broadband television and the Internet into our homes over lowly, antiquated, but ubiquitous twisted-pair phone wire connections. That miracle is only possible thanks to the power of modern digital communication theory.

The gospel of the engineering/mathematics that enable that capability is this 1949 book edition by Claude Shannon of AT&T’s famous Bell Telephone Laboratories. Its title: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. “Bell Labs” made immense contributions to our body of technical knowledge over many decades through its familiar, blue-wrappered Technical Journal. The authors of its featured papers include many of the most important scientists, engineers, and mathematicians of the past century.

Claude Shannon was one of them; the contents of his 1949 book, published by the University of Illinois Press, first appeared in the Bell System’s Journal in 1948. The paper’s unique and important approach to reliably sending electrical/optical signals from one point (the source) to another (the destination) through a “channel” was instrumental in realizing today’s communication miracles. Shannon’s methods are not limited to this or that specific channel technology; rather, his work applies to virtually all forms of communication channels – from digital audio/video disks, to AM/FM broadcasting, to the technology of the Internet, itself. The wide applicability of Shannon’s insights to communication systems as diverse as Samuel Morse’s original telegraph system and modern satellite communications is quite remarkable and underlines the importance of his findings.

Claude_Elwood_Shannon_(1916-2001)[1]Interestingly, some of the foundation for Shannon’s ideas emanated from the early design of Morse’s first telegraph system which began service in 1844 between Washington and Baltimore. The first message sent over that line was Morse’s famous utterance in Morse code to his assistant, Alfred Vail: “What hath God wrought?” While Claude Shannon is fairly identified as the “father of communication theory” thanks to his famous 1948/49 publications, there were also many grandfathers! Most of them made valuable contributions to the speed and reliability of early communication vis-à-vis the telegraph and early telephony, as pioneered by Alexander Graham Bell. One of the early, key contributors to communication technology was R.V.L. Hartley who, in the July, 1928 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal, published a very original treatise titled Transmission of Information. This paper of Hartley’s and one in the 1924 Journal by Harry Nyquist were acknowledged by Shannon as prime foundational sources for his later ideas.

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What Were Claude Shannon’s Contributions?

A brief but inclusive answer comes from the well-regarded book of J.R. Pierce, Symbols, Signals and Noise. I quote, here:

“The problem Shannon set for himself is somewhat different. Suppose we have a message source which produces messages of a given type, such as English text. Suppose we have a noisy communication channel of specified characteristics. How can we represent or encode messages from the message source by means of electrical signals so as to attain the fastest possible transmission over the noisy channel? Indeed, how fast can we transmit a given type of message over a given channel without error? In a rough and general way, this is the problem that Shannon set himself and solved.”

Although Shannon impressively refined our concepts regarding the statistical nature of communication, Samuel Morse and his assistant, Alfred Vail, had, long ago, recognized statistical ramifications, and that fact was reflected in their telegraph code. Notably, they made certain that the most commonly used letters of the alphabet had the simplest dot/dash implementations in the Morse code – to minimize the overall transmission time of messages. For example, the most commonly used letter “e” was assigned a short, single “dot” as its telegraphic representation. Reportedly, this “code optimization” task was handled by Vail who merely visited a local printing shop and examined the “type bins,” equating the frequency of use in print for a specific letter to the size of its type bin! The printing industry had a good handle on text statistics of the English language long before electrical technology arrived on the scene. The specific dot/dash coding of each letter for Morse’s code proceeded accordingly. From that practical and humble beginning, statistical communication theory reached full mathematical bloom in Shannon’s capable hands. As in Morse’s time, coding theory remains an important subset of modern digital communication theory.

Revisiting Communication Theory:
Grazing Once Again in Technical Pastures of the Past

The most satisfying portion of my engineering career came later – particularly the last ten years – when I became immersed in the fundamentals of communication theory while working in the computer disk drive industry, here in Silicon Valley. My job as electrical engineer was to reliably record and retrieve digital data using the thin, magnetic film deposited on spinning computer disks. As the data demands of personal computers rapidly increased in the decade of the 1990’s, the challenge of reliably “communicating” with the magnetic film and its increasingly dense magnetically recorded bits of data was akin to the DSL task of cramming today’s broadband data streams down the old, low-tech telephone twisted-pair wires which have been resident in phone cables for many decades. Twisted-pair wires make a very poor high speed communication cable compared to coaxial cable or the latest fiber-optic high-speed cable, but they had one huge advantage/motivation for DSL’s innovators: They already fed most every home and business in the country!

I retired from engineering in 2001 after a thirty-seven year career and now find myself wandering back to “technical pastures of the past.” During the last ten and most exciting years of my career, I came to know and work with two brilliant electrical engineering PhDs from Stanford University. They had been doctoral students there under Professor John Cioffi who is considered the “father of DSL.” The two were employed by our company to implement the latest communication technologies into disk storage by working closely with our product design teams. Accordingly, the fundamental communication theories that Shannon developed which enabled the DSL revolution were applied to our disk drive channels to increase data capacity/reliability. Under the technical leadership of the two Stanford PhDs, our design team produced the industry’s first, successful production disk drive utilizing the radically new technology. IBM had preceded our efforts somewhat with their “concept” disk drive, but it never achieved full-scale production. After the successful introduction of our product, the disk drive industry never looked back, and, soon, everyone else was on-board with the new design approach known as a “Partial Response/Maximum Likelihood” channel.

I always appreciated the strong similarities between the technology we implemented and that which made DSL possible, but I recently decided to learn more. I purchased a book, a tech-bible on DSL, co-authored in 1999 by Professor Cioffi. Thumbing through it, I recognize much of the engineering it contains. I have long felt privileged that I and our design team had the opportunity to work with the two young PhD engineers who studied with Cioffi and who knew communication theory inside-out. Along with their academic, theoretical brilliance, the two also possessed a rare, practical mindset toward hardware implementation which immensely helped us transfer theory into practice – in the form of a commercially successful, mass-produced computer product. Everyone on our company staff liked and deeply respected these two fellows.

When the junior of the two left our company as our drive design was nearing full production, he circulated a company-wide memo thanking the organization for his opportunity to work with us. He cited several of us engineers by name for special thanks, an act which really meant a lot to me…and, surely, to my colleagues – an uncommon courtesy, these days, and a class act in every sense of the word!

Even in this valley of pervasive engineering excellence, that particular experience was one of a select few during my career which allowed me a privileged glimpse into the rarified world of “top-minds” in engineering and mathematics – the best of the best. A still-higher category up the ladder of excellence and achievement is that of “monster minds” (like Einstein, Bohr, and Pauli) which the Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman, so humorously wrote about in his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman. A very select club!

The recent event which tuned me in, once again, to this technology and my past recollections was the subject of my May 2, 2015 blog post, Two Books from 1948 : Foundations of the Internet and Today’s Computer Technology (click on the link). In it, I describe the incredible good fortune of stumbling upon one of the two scarce, foundational books on communication theory and computer control: Cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. More recently, I acquired a nice copy of Claude Shannon’s 1949 first edition, The Mathematical Theory of Communication (the other book). That one came at no give-away price like my copy of Cybernetics, but, given its importance, it still represents a bargain in my mind.

IMG_2479 PSLike many engineers who are familiar with Shannon and his influence, I had never read his book, although I had taken a course on statistical communication theory in my master’s degree program over 45 years ago. Unlike many engineers, today, whose gaze is fixed only upon the present and the future, I have a deep interest in the history of the profession and a healthy respect for its early practitioners and their foundational work. Accordingly, I have been brushing off some technical rust and am now immersed in Shannon’s book for the first time and in the subject material, once again.

Old, familiar pastures – a bit like coming home, again, to peacefully graze. While the overall “view” improves with age and experience, the “eyesight” is not so keen, anymore. But my curiosity is up, yet again, and I will soldier-on through the technical difficulties and see where that takes me, all the while relishing the journey and the landscape.

Time for College Admission Letters to Arrive….or Not!

This is the time of year when high school students and their parents anxiously sort the daily mail looking for college acceptance letters.

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This past weekend, Linda and I were in Santa Barbara (California) to celebrate her mother’s ninety-sixth birthday. Ruth still lives alone, cooks, bakes, gardens, and maintains a sharp mind – amazing lady! Among the family members present were Linda’s brother Ken and his son, Owen, who has a key position on the admissions staff of Pitzer College – one of the well-known “Claremont Colleges,” in Southern California.

I love talking with Owen, a young man with an out-reach personality which is perfectly suited to his role as a college admissions officer. In addition, he can answer any question on the college admissions process.

In the course of our conversations last Saturday, he mentioned that the current acceptance rate for college applicants is 5% for my alma mater, Stanford University, which makes it the most selective school in the country – even more so than Harvard and Princeton. “Good thing I attended Stanford in the early sixties,” I mused to myself. I certainly would not be admitted today!

When mulling over my “college conversations” with Owen this weekend, some of my earlier blog posts came to mind: Specifically those having to do with the pressures students face today with the prospect of college and the admissions process. I have provided links to these posts at the end of this piece.

The Pathway to Success in School (Including College)
is Paved with Curiosity and a Love of Learning

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When I reflect on the grade pressures weighing on today’s students, I recall my experiences tutoring high-achieving, high school students in science and math, here, in Silicon Valley, California. I  will summarize those experiences using an excerpt from my recently published parental guide to science/math education: Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning. This is from Chapter 12 of my book (on the role of outside tutoring).

Beginning of excerpt:

Early in my retirement, I tutored in math and physics at a center which catered to fairly up-scale, high-achieving families in the area. Most of my work was with high school students. I found it to be challenging initially, requiring considerable up-front refreshing of my nitty-gritty problem-solving skills in pure math and physics. I put in considerable hours of outside study even though I have been a life-long learner in the subjects. I also found today’s student textbook formats, presentation framework, and newer nomenclature to be quite a departure from older texts. Once past the initial adjustment period, I enjoyed working with high school students and helping them to “see the light.”

I learned one lesson early in my tutoring experience: Most students who came to the tutoring center had little time for – or interest in – anything having to do with the more sublime, fascinating aspects of physics and mathematics. There seemed to be no sense of historical context and no nascent curiosity about the subject matter itself – not even a sense of excitement over finally “getting it” as problems were solved during the sessions.

Most of these kids were figuratively “under the gun” to just solve the problems, get the answers, and run to their next activity.

Since most of my tutorees were high school kids enrolled in high-achievement schools, the ultimate axe over their heads was one poor course grade in physics or math which would tarnish their transcript and cripple their chance for admission to a prestige college or university. Students today are under considerable pressure to “succeed” with little time or energy to contemplate and fully absorb the richness of the material they cram or to establish a larger perspective.

It became clear to me that professional tutoring, for the most part, has little to do with the concept of academic enrichment. It is much more akin to an “educational emergency room” for students who have experienced course-induced trauma. If you recall from chapter two of this book, the desire to “get the answer and run” is reminiscent of my help-sessions in math with my daughter, Ginny.

Here is the point: Parents and students generally resort to outside tutoring, especially in science and math, primarily with an eye to solving homework/exam problems and getting good grades. The main issue with an excessive dependence on that approach, in the absence of true student motivation, is the following: As the material increases in difficulty at each grade level, the curiosity, background and interest requisite for sustaining the motivation required to apply oneself in advanced science/math and to learn the material cannot keep pace with the increasing task difficulty.

Soon, this attitude becomes all about merely getting good grades accompanied by the lament, “Why do I need to know this stuff?” At a young age (including high school students) and without sufficient background and perspective to provide the answer to the question they pose, it is not surprising that those students become robotized, learning only the “how to” of the course work while oblivious as to the “why” and the significance of the subject in the larger picture.

End of excerpt

So, What is the “Take-Away” Message, Here?

For prospective parents and parent/mentors of young children already in school or in preschool: Realize that your child’s education and “learning attitude” begin at home, and the earlier, the better. This is especially true for those most problematic of subjects, science and mathematics. The parent/mentor’s role in preparing young students for the future challenges of the college admissions process and the rigors of technical or other demanding careers cannot be over-stated. I suggest to parent/mentors that preschool is the optimum time to begin engagement with your student in order to nurture genuine curiosity and a “learning attitude.” Some parents, even here, in Silicon Valley, are not capable of directly tutoring science and math to their students; I understand that, but all parents must learn how to nurture curiosity and a love of learning in their students – at an early age.

My newly published book is a common-sense, how-to guide for parents, guardians, mentors….and teachers, too, for instilling effective student attitudes toward school and learning. Click the following link for more information on my book and where to buy it – including Amazon and Barnes and Noble:

Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning: How Does a Fart Go Through Your Clothes?

There is one sure way for your student to succeed in school and someday qualify for admission to an upper-tier college or university. The potent factor present in all success stories is….. “curiosity,” that frame of mind which makes learning a delight rather than a chore. Those who travel the “curious” pathway will encounter, along the way, not only learning success, but also the “joy” of knowledge. That is the main theme of my book. Resorting to parental/mentor pressure or threats to limit privileges in order to motivate today’s distracted students just does not work!

After reading still more articles and Facebook posts on the all-out competition for grades in the Palo Alto (CA) school system – some of which are literally pleas from students who are overwhelmed – I encourage parent/mentors in this and similar regions of over-achievers to reflect on their definition of  “success,” and whether or not that interpretation is realistic and appropriate for their student. Perhaps not.

Links to other posts of mine which relate to students, colleges, and education:

What’s Gone Wrong at Our Schools? It’s Not What You Might Think! July 7, 2013

Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student  Jan. 26, 2014

Teaching Children Math…By Example!  Sept. 27, 2014

Why Go to College? Is it Worth It?  Oct. 11, 2014

Now Available: My New Book, Nurturing Curiosity and Success in Science, Math, and Learning  Nov. 22, 2015

Another Student Suicide: Academic / Parental Pressures on Today’s Youngsters 
Jan. 31, 2015

A Tour of Levi’s Stadium: The 49er’s New $1.2 Billion NFL Football Palace

My wife presented me with a most unusual birthday present this past August: A guided tour of Levi’s Stadium, the brand new football home to the fabled San Francisco 49ers NFL franchise. Linda learned of this stadium tour from a fellow volunteer at the local Sunnyvale Historical Museum who had recently taken it. My wife’s senior colleague does not invoke the image of a rabid football fan, so Linda was surprised at her friend’s rave reviews of the stadium and the tour.

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Yesterday, we saw for ourselves why this newest crown-jewel of National Football League stadiums can so excite even casual visitors. Yes, it is a beautiful stadium complex, constructed with an eye to environmental considerations and fan enjoyment. Unique to such stadiums is the fact that fully two-thirds of its 68,500 seats (all of which have been “sold”) are located in the “lower bowl,” closer to the playing field.

As the photos show, everything is spit and polish…except for the natural grass turf which posed a problem on opening day, surrendering large divots to the player’s football cleats. The grass problem is slowly yielding to the extensive efforts and expenditures being applied. Artificial turf has been ruled out as unsatisfactory. The stadium and practice facilities are located down the peninsula from San Francisco – in Santa Clara, California…in the heart of the world’s tech center, “Silicon Valley.” Nevertheless, the team is still known as the San Francisco 49ers.

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The luxury amenities in the form of “suites” which lease for hundreds of thousands of dollars and the large “club” areas meant for socializing, eating, and drinking (and occasional game-viewing) are quite spectacular and posh.

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The construction, appointments, and attention to detail of this entire facility is simply mind-boggling. This is a first-class facility, one fit for the wealthiest of Silicon Valley entrepreneur sport-fans, but, alas, not for the bulk of the valley’s residents. Going to a game, here, will cost big-bucks. I have more to say on that, later.

The most impressive aspect of the entire complex was not the stadium itself, but the 49ers football museum it contains. I was impressed by the larger facility, for sure, but I was absolutely blown-away by the beautiful tribute paid to 49er football history. The museum with its attention to detail, fabulous visual displays, and wealth of information reminded me of a gentler time back in 1957, a time when a seventeen year old high-school kid (me) and his dad could afford to attend a 49ers game at old Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

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It was my first significant sporting event…of any kind – in any venue, and it was a good one! My dad and I attended the pivotal 1957 game with the Baltimore Colts. I saw the fabled “million dollar backfield” of the 49ers: Quarterback Y.A. Tittle, halfback Hugh McElhenny, and running backs Joe Perry and John Henry Johnson. Across the line of scrimmage, I saw some now-legendary players from the Colts as well: Quarterback Johnny Unitas – one of the best ever – and his great wide-receiver, Lenny Moore. What can I say? These folks are all in the NFL Hall of Fame. McElhenny, in particular, was a sight to behold carrying the football and is generally regarded as the greatest open-field runner in the history of the game. Once he got underway with a step or two and any openings ahead, good luck even laying a hand on him let alone slowing him down.

I recall playing touch football on a neighborhood street in San Mateo with some friends when I was in grade school – we did that a lot. That particular day, another boy from their neighborhood had joined our small group – he went by the name, “Whitey.” I never forgot that guy: It was impossible to “catch” that kid – he was so quick and elusive – on the run or from a dead start. Standing face-to-face, he would head-fake, juke, and take off with the ball leaving even the quickest of us in the dust! On the run, you could not anticipate what his next move would be; you merely blinked and, suddenly, he was… “gone.” Through the years, whenever I bemusedly recalled that afternoon of frustration playing against that kid, I could understand how Hugh McElhenny’s opponents at the University of Washington and, later, in the NFL must have felt.

That day of the 49ers/Colts game, October 8, 1957, John Brodie, the rookie All-American quarterback from Stanford University won the game in the last seconds after replacing veteran Y.A. Tittle who was injured late in the game. The winning touchdown pass from Brodie to Hugh McElhenny in the end-zone gave the 49ers an exciting 17 to 13 win and kept their playoff hopes alive. The thundering crowd reaction to that play was the first of many that I would hear in the years to come while following major college football at Stanford Stadium.

Fifty-seven years later, I could still play that touchdown back in my mind’s eye like a film replay; it happened in our corner of the end-zone. I was thrilled yesterday to see a film-clip of that very play featured in the museum displays – a virtual duplicate of the 57 year old “highlight film” embedded in my memory. Even the actual game ball that was presented to John Brodie that day was on display! Fabulous memories, those are. Seeing that film-clip was like meeting a very old friend, once again, whose persona and likeness one never, ever forgot.

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Entering the 49ers football museum, one is immediately greeted by the “million dollar backfield” of the nineteen-fifties era 49ers, sculpted in life-size figures and painted in silver. In fact, the dark-walled, spotlighted room is populated by a ghostly, apparition-like phalanx of players who are members of the 49er Hall of Fame. Many of these greats are also honored in the NFL Hall of Fame located in Canton, Ohio. Such a display could easily have looked cheesy; not this one! I was extremely impressed by the fine finish and detail of the many posed figures. Every aspect of the players and their uniforms was perfectly executed. After a first, cursory look, I checked the sculpted faces of these figures – the acid test! I was very impressed that I could easily recognize those players most familiar to me, a tremendous tribute to the exhibit and the folks who created it.

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Here is the fabled “million dollar backfield.” From left to right, Hugh McElhenny (halfback), Joe Perry (fullback), Y.A. Tittle (quarterback), and John Henry Johnson (halfback). These four comprise the only complete backfield ever to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

A fellow senior on our stadium tour commented that, in the off-season, Y.A. Tittle – star quarterback – was their milkman in the nearby community of Los Altos! That recollection highlights the wide gulf between salaries paid star players then and those of today. Those old-timers had all the motivation in the world to play their hearts out every single minute of every game…and they did. There were no “instant football millionaires” back then. Hugh McElhenny received $7,000 for his rookie season in 1952!

A famous 49er moment portrayed among these life-size figures is “The Catch,” capturing the instant which finally lurched the Niners past the Dallas Cowboys and propelled them to their first Super Bowl win in 1982 under legendary coach, Bill Walsh. The winning fourth-down touchdown pass at the end of the game was from Hall-of-Famer Joe Montana to receiver Dwight Clark. Given the Niners’ seemingly perpetual domination by the Dallas Cowboys, this was one of the greatest of 49er moments.

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Joe Perry, the Niner’s great Hall of Fame running back never had a contract with owner Tony Morabito back in the fifties – just a verbal agreement and a handshake. Oh, don’t get me started! What a beautiful time – when a man’s word was sealed with a handshake and so different from the big bucks, the miles of legal red-tape and the pages of fine print which dominate big-money sports and all other aspects of today’s society. I took particular note of that exhibit.

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There are more pictures to show, so I leave you with this: Levi’s is an amazing monument to the popularity of NFL football, today. The logistics and the talent required to conceive, build, manage, and operate this stadium truly boggle the mind. While the image of legions of excited, expectant fans filling the stadium seats on game day is easy to conjure-up in the mind’s eye, the behind-the-scenes requisite flow of money which changes hands with every game played at Levi’s is truly incomprehensible. It is sobering to ponder the vast army of people required to support the several dozen supremely talented athletes who display their skills weekly…and the huge sums of money involved in the enterprise. Perhaps it has now grown beyond reasonable bounds.

The first few games this year revealed severe traffic problems to and mainly from the stadium after the games. That is undoubtedly being improved via “logistics learning curves,” yet it is clear to me that because of the hassle and the expense involved in attending games, Linda and I will be watching 49er games mostly from the comfort and convenience of our family-room television set.

Finally, my hat is off to all involved for their role in presenting the history of 49er’s football in the world-class museum that Levi’s stadium offers the public. Yes, world-class I say, and I have seen more than a few of those in my lifetime. If you have the good fortune to visit Levi’s on tour or on game day and you are even vaguely interested in football, plan to spend close to two hours in the museum! I loved the sporting memories and the reminders the museum contains of a simpler society, a simpler life, and a simpler game – food for thought.

 Just A Few More Photos:

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John Brodie’s 1957 game ball: San Francisco 17, Baltimore 13

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 Twenty yards and a cloud of dust: Old Kezar Stadium

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 Linda and life-size Leo “The Lion” Nomellini on her left

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The “imposter” Joe Montana, #16: That’s Linda having
fun at one of the museum’s interactive exhibits!

Chance Encounters: I Wish I Knew Then What I Know Now!

Just a bit of background: The Danish postage stamp pictured was issued in honor of Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Laureate in physics from Denmark and father of the scientific quantum theory of the atom. A close colleague and contemporary of Einstein’s, Bohr’s role in physics and his work on quantum theory share the highest pedestal in physics along with Einstein’s relativity theories and Newton’s mechanics. No, I never met Niels Bohr, but I did have a chance encounter with someone who knew him very well and who contributed to quantum theory.

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It occurred many years ago, 1960 to be exact. I had just transferred to Stanford University from San Jose State College to begin my junior year there. On a September afternoon in 1960, I moved into Stern Hall, the on-campus dormitory at Stanford, with much anticipation (and many qualms) about the great adventure ahead. Being the first in my entire extended family to ever go to college, I had a great number of those qualms and, just like two years prior when first enrolling at San Jose State, I was continually “learning on the fly.”

Checking in at the dormitory desk, I was handed a key to room 102 which was not yet occupied by my (unknown) roommate. It was nice to have first choice of the beds and desks, even though the room was symmetrically arranged. Who will be my roommate and where, in this great United States, will he be from: Perhaps a proper Bostonian with an eastern accent? Maybe a southerner…with an even stronger accent. Because my home in San Mateo was only twenty miles away from the Stanford campus, I was excited about meeting someone from a completely different part of the country.

The day wore on and still…no roommate: I thought that was somewhat odd. Finally, my roommate, Bob, strode through the open door carrying surprisingly little luggage. No wonder! Bob was from…Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University! “Well, so much for the cultural exchange,” I thought to myself, but I could readily see that Bob was a good guy and we would get along fine. That proved to be true even though he was a music major and I, an engineering student going in rather different directions.

But this meeting of roommates is not the subject of this post; the particular encounter which I want relate was Bob’s doing one evening, not far from campus. His mother lived literally just a mile across the El Camino Real which borders the 9600 acres (not a typo!) of the Stanford campus. One evening, we jumped into his Volkswagon beatle and drove over to the house. From there, we drove several blocks in the same residential area to visit two boyhood friends of  Bob’s who he must have known at nearby Palo Alto High School.

As we pulled into the large driveway, he related that Dan and George were twins. He also gave me a heads-up that their father worked at Stanford – a very smart man who won a Nobel Prize in physics, he told me! Despite my youthful naivete, even I  knew at the time that a Nobel Prize in physics is a pretty big deal. I knew little else. We walked in to a very warm, friendly living area which featured a full-size pool table.

Bob introduced me to his friends and to their father, Mr. Bloch, who was relaxing in a large easy chair and puffing on a pipe. We probably shook hands although I cannot recall for certain – at least I hope so.

I hope I shook his hand because Felix Bloch was, in his early years, one of the great young European physicists who ushered-in the scientific revolution called “quantum physics.” The great unveiling of the atom and its mysteries took place in the first three decades of the last century, and Felix Bloch was there when it happened and contributed to it. He worked with and knew, personally, some of the greatest European names in science: The “Great Dane,” Niels Bohr, the father of the quantum atom; The German, Werner Heisenberg of “uncertainty principle” fame; the Austrian whose innate genius was said by colleagues to be second only to Einstein’s, Wolfgang Pauli; and most of the others in the famous cast of roughly two dozen. This revolution, this peeling-back of atomic physics and its mysteries, took place almost exclusively in Europe because that is where the greatest talent in physics resided.

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Felix Bloch was Swiss-born, talented enough and fortunate enough in circumstance to participate in one of the great epochs of science. A young Felix Bloch can be seen in the illustrious company of Bohr and the others at Bohr’s Institute for Physics in Copenhagen, posing on the long auditorium benches in the famous lecture hall where assaults on the mysteries of quantum physics were launched and often won. These period photos date from around 1930 when brilliant young physicists received invitations from Bohr for extended working visits at the Institute. It is no exaggeration to say that the atom grudgingly yielded many of its secrets as the result of the myriad gatherings and collaborations that emanated from Bohr’s circle of brilliant young minds. 

Have you ever had a medical MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)? If so, then you, along with millions of others have benefitted from the talent and fundamental research of Felix Bloch…and many others. My wife’s bout with cancer (complete recovery) several years ago invoked the miracle of MRI many times. It was in recognition of his research on Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, or NMR, that Bloch shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1952. The beginnings of that research date back to the original work of Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli, and Paul Dirac who first endeavored to understand the atom and its mysteries. The seminal paper of Bohr’s which first cast a quantum light on the then-mysterious atom was published by the very young physicist in 1913. It followed on the heels of the 1900 paper of Max Planck which revealed the quantum nature of radiated energy and the 1905 paper of Einstein’s on the quantum photoelectric effect (Nobel Prize, 1921). My wife’s benefit from MRI technology was a first-class connection with the man I met way back in 1960.

One other personal connection to Mr. Bloch and his contributions comes to mind: My first real job, ever, came through my high school physics teacher at San Mateo High School. He recommended me for a summer position at the Stanford University Microwave Lab that summer between graduation and college. While there, I assisted two physics post-docs with their research projects in …NMR, nuclear magnetic resonance – well before its advent as a medical tool and two years before meeting the man so instrumental in the field. Felix Bloch had come to Stanford in 1934, so it was not surprising that the university would be well-versed in and actively pursuing the physics and the technology in the Microwave Lab and elsewhere on campus. For those interested, I add a humorous postscript at the end of this post.

In summary: I had no clue about the importance and historical significance of the gentleman that I met that evening in 1960. I never would have guessed that he came to reside in familiar, nearby Palo Alto only after an early life spent travelling between the intellectual centers of early European physics, working with many of the greatest names in modern physics!

Since retiring from engineering twelve years ago, I have become very interested in science and science history, as most of you have surmised, so I learned about much of this over the years since. I delved quite deeply into Einstein’s relativity several years ago, but it is only now that I have generated the courage to really learn something in detail about quantum mechanics, a revolution in physics which is just as strange and equally challenging as Einstein’s relativity. Ironically, and surprising, the old textbook for one of my physics courses at Stanford is where I expect to get my firmest footing in the theory (again!). I re-discovered that old text by thumbing through my library (I almost got rid of it once!). Too bad that I did not have the requisite perspective and drive back then to better learn and recall what I now appreciate is contained in that textbook.

Equally regrettable is the fact I did not realize, at the time, my great good fortune in personally meeting Felix Bloch. If I had any inkling back then of what I know today, I would love to have bought lunch and a bottle of fine wine at the best bistro in Palo Alto and discussed with him his recollections of those weeks and months spent in the company of physics’ elite at the Bohr Institute of Physics in Copenhagen. I would certainly have made sure that I at least shook his hand when introduced! As the old Pennsylvania Dutch saying goes, “Too soon oldt; too late schmart!” Ah, so true.

Quantum book

Several days ago, I pulled a recently purchased book off of my “must read” shelf and dove-in. The book is titled “Quantum” by Manjit Kumar, an historical/scientific account of quantum mechanics. Reading the richly-detailed historical account of this scientific revolution revitalized the memory of my introduction to Felix Bloch and prompted the post you have just read. One need not have much of a science background to benefit from Mr. Kumar’s outstanding account of those colorful days and events in the intellectual centers of European science. His recounting is as much a story of the human spirit as it is a scientific overview. I heartily recommend this book; it truly captures the golden years of physics during the first decades of the twentieth century. Google any of the names mentioned, above, and the internet will provide a treasure-trove of both historical and scientific information. “Niels Bohr” would be where I would start! He was at the center of the quantum revolution; everyone else who orbited around quantum physics, including Felix Bloch, was heavily influenced by the “pull” of his persona and acumen.

A Humorous Postscript: My contributions to NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) technology during a summer job in the Stanford Microwave Lab – 1958. My job as a student intern that summer was to help two physics post-doctoral students with their lab experiments involving NMR in ferrite materials. One of the assignments was to grind “chips” of this black rock-like substance into very tiny, round ferrite balls for magnetic resonance testing.

This was accomplished by using cylindrical “wells” bored about an inch deep into blocks of wood. Each well had a small inlet pipe through which compressed air could be used to blow the small ferrite chips around the walls of the capped cylindrical wells. Different wells were lined with different grades of sandpaper. The idea was to “start the ball rolling” using a rough grade of sandpaper, progressively polishing the forming sphere using finer and finer grades.

This particular day, I had eight different, tiny samples to prepare. It was tedious work, efforts for which there is no Nobel Prize! After a full day spent forming ferrite spheres and polishing them to precise diameters as measured with a micrometer, I had my ferrite mini-menagerie. I carefully used tweezers to place them on a twice-creased sheet of paper where they nestled in the apex of the folds. I proceeded to deliver my ferrites and started across the open courtyard between buildings when a sudden gust of wind lifted my paper. My tiny ferrites were now nowhere to be seen. I was standing on the grass at that instant, so forget about finding them. Sorry, no Nobel Prize for me that day; instead, I felt like dummy-of-the-day. My post-doc was quite sympathetic; he probably had a good laugh once I slunk out of sight. Who said doing science was easy?

Choosing the “Right” College or University for Your Student

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This morning at breakfast, my wife called my attention to a recent article in the Huffington Post about colleges and universities. I read it with particular interest for several reasons, not the least of which is that it its message touches two members of my “family circle.” The article champions the importance of small liberal arts colleges within the larger realm of higher education. The article’s theme resonates with our family experience many years ago when we helped our younger daughter, Ginny, choose a college/university to attend. The author of the Huffington Post article, whose younger daughter currently attends Pomona College, in Southern California, extols the close faculty/student ties that exist in small, liberal arts colleges by elaborating on one of his daughter’s professors and that educator’s dedication to learning. He relates meeting the professor by chance during a family stroll around the campus and being impressed by the fact that the professor actually recognized his daughter by name and clearly was “invested fully in her learning.”

That un-named professor happens to be my wife’s youngest brother, a history professor at Pomona College – Ginny’s uncle!

The first stage of our college-searching years was easy. Our older daughter, Amy, had her eyes set on my wife’s alma-mater, what is now part of the California State University system and known as “Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.” Given her fine high school record, she was accepted for admission and had a great four-year experience there. She has been an elementary schoolteacher for many years, now. Cal Poly was the perfect school for her as it was for my wife, years earlier.

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Vising Stanford University with Ginny and Amy in 1991

Ginny, a top-tier student with an affinity for and a superb ability with English and matters literary, posed a more interesting dilemma. She easily won acceptance at most of the schools to which she applied, and therein was the “problem.”

Her two finalists of choice were as distinctively different as schools could be. We were thrilled when she received her notice of acceptance to Stanford University where I earned my undergraduate degree. I have had a long relationship with Stanford over many years, and I love and deeply respect the school – so I was personally very excited about my daughter’s accomplishment. A letter of acceptance to Stanford is highly-coveted these days. Her other choice after the winnowing process was complete, was the very same Pomona College mentioned in the Huffington Post article.

Pomona College is located in Claremont, California – a beautiful haven of a “small” college town in Southern California and away from the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. Spending time in Claremont makes one oblivious to the noise and confusion of the nearby metropolis – a very good thing! The campus is spacious and beautiful, artfully combining newer facilities with many picturesque, ivy-covered buildings. All student facilities are first-rate thanks to Pomona’s very large endowment.

Pomona College is a small, private, liberal arts school with a sterling national reputation within academic circles; that said, it is not so well known by the public-at-large as is Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, etc. Pomona annually ranks in the top-tier of national liberal arts schools and, together with a nearby group of four other diverse, small colleges, they constitute a group known collectively as the “Claremont Colleges.” While the admission percentages at Stanford are every bit as daunting as those at the vaunted “Ivy League” schools, Pomona’s admission standards are just as demanding, and the total cost of a year away at school was, and is, in the same rarified atmosphere as Stanford’s and the Ivies’ – so the looming cost to mom and dad was not a consideration in our daughter’s final decision. We had always told Ginny, “We will find a way to pay for whatever school you are able to attend.” Our daughter did her part, and we were ready to do ours.

There was that ONE other factor which influenced our decision, and that was Ginny’s uncle on the Pomona faculty. To make the story even more interesting, he received his entire university education, through a doctorate, at …Stanford University! Upon receiving his doctorate, he landed at Pomona College. It was through him and the family of a neighbor-girl who was enrolled there that we first came to know and appreciate the sterling academic reputation of Pomona College. Indeed, our neighbor took us on a family tour of the campus a year or two prior to Ginny’s senior year of high school and heavily praised the school and its academics. It is important to note that merely being a small, liberal arts college does not guarantee a fine educational experience. There are many private schools in that category that are expensive and mediocre – buyer beware! One other comment: Needless to say, Ginny’s uncle had no influence on her actual acceptance to the school! It doesn’t work that way; besides, Ginny needed no help.

We all agonized over the pending decision. It was always our daughter’s decision to make, but she was confused and wanted our advice. How could one possibly turn down Stanford? On the one hand, I was moved by my loyalty to and respect for Stanford University and the experience it provided me, the first in my entire extended family ever to attend college. On the other hand, Ginny was going to major in English with a heavy emphasis on literature and creative writing, whereas I studied electrical engineering. There is a huge difference – more significant than one might imagine. Engineering can be learned in the lecture halls and from textbooks – it is a science. Creative writing and literary appreciation, like all the arts, demands up-close-and-personal nurturing from mature minds, well-versed in the field – professors, in other words. Frequent, casual, in-depth conversations over coffee or tea with faculty members are an essential part of a strong liberal arts education, and, generally, not a reality in large universities. I could readily see that – we all could after a while.

In the final analysis, our daughter’s decision and our recommendation came down to that very issue, namely, that a small liberal arts college like Pomona offers students in the arts a first-name relationship with the faculty in addition to hands-on instruction and guidance – so important in the arts. She chose Pomona College with our full blessing and has never regretted her decision.

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Ginny and Me During Freshman Orientation, 1991

Our daughter, as usual, made the most of her opportunities during her four years at Pomona College. She became close friends with numerous senior faculty members who taught her classes, who really knew Ginny as a person, and who personally graded her papers and essays; that rarely happens in the larger universities where professors deliver the large class lectures, but graduate teaching assistants handle the smaller section-discussions (the great learning opportunity) and the arduous task of grading student essays and papers. During her four years at Pomona, Ginny had the pleasure of taking two classes from her uncle in the history department, and she took advantage of the college’s study-abroad program in her junior year to spend an academic quarter living with a French family in Paris while studying at the Sorbonne. My wife and I will never forget our invitation to dinner at her host family’s fashionable Paris apartment – a wonderful evening.

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I must relate one anecdote involving Stanford and Pomona. I have always enjoyed big-time college football…when played by true student-athletes. Stanford’s approach has always been to do it “right” in that regard – which I truly respect. Some of our favorite memories as a couple and a family involve Saturday afternoon tail-gate picnics and football games at Stanford Stadium. We have seen some very big games and many great athletes in Stanford’s 80,000 seat stadium of the past – very memorable stuff! Ginny could care less about football, so Pomona’s modest athletic stature was not a problem for her at all (they are the Pomona “Sagehens”; at Stanford, the modern mascot is now the “tree” – what can one say!). I recall the one Pomona football game we attended at the cozy, bleacher-surrounded athletic field: The extra-point kicks through the goal posts in one direction inevitably landed in the adjacent college swimming pool! I loved that particular comical contrast with the football played in the 80,000 seat Stanford Stadium.

In closing, we always told our daughters that we would find a way to pay for their undergraduate educations no matter what the cost, but we made clear that they were on their own as far as graduate work was concerned. I was pleased when Ginny was admitted to Stanford’s very demanding STEP program which earns its carefully selected students a master’s degree in education after one grueling year of study and student teaching. At that point in her academic life, Stanford’s program was the perfect opportunity for her. Ginny and her husband, Scott, recently paid off her graduate student loan! Ginny has been happily teaching English for many years at a high school near Stanford which enjoys a very fine academic reputation. She has authored two books and co-authored a third.

When she is not grading high school essays or writing books, Ginny writes an outstanding and entertaining public blog which can be found at http://randomactsofmomness.com and which amply reflects her real job – partner to her husband in raising two young boys. Her blog also reflects, through her writing, the very fine education she received at Pomona College – and Stanford, too. Take a look at her blog, and you will see what I mean!