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As families gather around the game, we tapped Super Bowl champ Kevin Boothe ’05 for the basics—plus some convincing jargon!

By Beth Saulnier

It’s fall, and the holidays are coming up. That means not only is it football season, but many families will gather around the game on TV. And inevitably, some of those folks—including, most emphatically, this reporter—will be hopelessly lost.

Downs? Interceptions? Holding? The “red zone”? The terms may be vaguely familiar.

But for non-fans, football games are opaque, Byzantine, and (above all) mind-bendingly long.

So to help the pigskin-challenged among us, Cornellians tapped an expert.

And not just any football guru: Kevin Boothe ’05, a star player for the Big Red who was drafted by the Oakland Raiders and later won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants.

Since retiring as a player in 2015, the Hotelie has served in various roles in NFL operations and leadership, and is now director of the league’s Management Council.

Kevin Booth wearing a gray sweater
(Andrew Kelly / AP Images for NFL)

But perhaps most importantly for this story: he’s an extremely affable guy who was gracious enough to answer our questions without laughing too hard.

Let’s ease into it: what’s the essence of a football game?

I think it was Hank Stram, legendary coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, who said, “We’re trying to matriculate the ball down the field.”

Basically, you have four tries—downs—to get 10 yards. And if you move the ball 10 yards or more, it starts over again, and you have another four downs. Eventually you get to the end zone to score a touchdown. And the team with more points wins.

How can someone with—shall we say—scant knowledge of the game best enjoy it?

First, you’re going to see tremendous athletes and coaches. But overall, the main thing that would appeal to more casual observers is seeing exciting plays, such as long passes and runs that lead to touchdowns—the joy of the scoring team, and how much the fans get into it.

All right, let’s dive in. What are the basics?

It’s one side against the other. The defense is trying to keep you out of their end zone—which is at the end of the field—while the offense is trying to score.

Kevin Boothe playing football for Cornell against Bucknell
Playing for the Big Red against Bucknell.

Could you explain the various positions? Let’s start with offense.

The center starts with the ball; on both sides of him are the guards, and next to them are two tackles. So the five of them—left tackle, left guard, center, right guard, and right tackle—make up the offensive line.

Outside of them are wide receivers. They’re usually a smaller body type. In between there’s a tight end; they’re unique, because they could have blocking responsibilities similar to an offensive lineman, but they can catch the ball like a wide receiver. So their body type is typically somewhere in between a big offensive lineman and a fast wide receiver.

Probably the most recognizable position is the quarterback; he receives the ball from the center. The running back is behind the quarterback, and their job is to get the ball down the field.

That’s a lot! Is there an analogy you could offer, to make this more understandable? Like chess? Or the cast of “Star Trek”?

[He laughs.] The quarterback, typically, is like the lead singer of a band. The wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends are the backup singers and dancers. The offensive line is essentially the bodyguards.

The lead singer gets all the fame and praise when things go great—but he needs the rest of his band to succeed. He has his bodyguards in front of him, and after he sings his solo, he’ll pass it off to another band member for their turn with the microphone. So, the other positions all get a chance to shine.

The quarterback, typically, is like the lead singer of a band.

What about defense?

The counterpart to the offensive line—the bodyguards—is the defensive line; they’re trying to get through the bodyguards to tackle the person with the ball. The defense also has other positions called linebackers and defensive backs.

And as the game progresses, does the mix of players change?

Yes, players go in and out. On one play, the offense might have two wide receivers, two running backs, and one tight end, and the defense will adjust accordingly.

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But the next play, the offense might come out with zero tight ends or running backs, and five wide receivers—so the defense needs to match their personnel with similar athleticism.

What about the “foot” part of football? Where does kicking come in?

Every team has a kicker and a punter. On fourth down, you can elect to punt the ball. The punter will come out, the center will snap the ball to him, and he’ll boot it down the field to the other team.

Kevin Boothe's hands displaying his two Super Bowl championship rings
Sporting his two Super Bowl rings.

It’s essentially a way to say, “We have to give you the ball, but we’re going to make it so you have further to go to score a touchdown.”

OK, so that’s punting. How about kicking?

After you score a touchdown, you have the opportunity to kick from a specific distance for an extra point. So a kicker comes in, and if the ball goes between the uprights, it’s one point.

Now, if you’re on offense and you didn’t score a touchdown, but you’re close enough to the endzone—and it’s on fourth down or at the end of the game, or almost halftime—you can elect to kick a field goal, which counts for three points if you make it.

Also, every game starts with a kickoff.

Wait—it does what?

Yeah, every game starts with a coin toss—and whoever wins can elect to kick the ball or receive it, then do the opposite to start the second half.

[He laughs.] It’s funny, the more we talk it through, I’m like, “This is a weird, weird game.”

Here’s a big one: why do games take so much longer than the time on the clock?

If you were to take football down to the studs, it’s a 60-minute game: four 15-minute quarters. But a typical NFL game runs about three hours because there are stoppages.

If a player runs out of bounds, the clock stops. There are commercial breaks at the end of a period, whenever there’s a timeout, and at certain other times. Each team can take three timeouts each half. Then there’s the two-minute warning: during the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters, there’s an automatic timeout.

It’s funny, the more we talk it through, I’m like, ‘This is a weird, weird game.’

Overall, do you think the rules of football are more complex than most other sports?

It’s quite complicated, and a lot of the rules are based on position. For example, there are holding penalties that typically take place on the offensive line. To somebody who’s not familiar with the game, it can be confusing.

Holding …?

That’s when you prevent somebody from doing their job for an extended period. Like, you can block them, but you can’t grab their clothing or their limb.

How about some convincing jargon—what are some phrases to make somebody sound like they know what they’re talking about?

“I hope the offensive line gives the quarterback time to throw”— that’s always good.

“We need to stop the run on defense”—which means stopping the offense from running the ball effectively.

“We need to control the clock.” That means possessing the ball as long as possible—keeping the ball on offense as long as you can; keep getting first downs.

“I hope we convert this third down.” That means it’s third down, and we want to get however many yards we need to start the downs—or tries—over again.

And then, “We need to get into the red zone.” That’s a big one.

What’s the red zone?

It’s from the 25-yard line to the end zone—and the closer you get to the end zone, it becomes more difficult for the offense to operate successful plays, due to the condensed field.

But what about that yellow line on the field during games on TV?

Kevin Boothe kneeling on the field in his Cornell football uniform as a student
Suited up in Schoellkopf.

That’s the first down line—where the offense must move the ball for the downs to reset. And on the scoreboard, if you see, say, “2nd and 7,” that means it’s their second down and they have seven more yards to go to get a first down.

Lastly: do you think football is an allegory for life?

I actually do. Football is such a large game; there are 22 players on the field, 11 on offense and 11 on defense. All 11 have to work together to succeed. It’s about teamwork, resiliency, and getting through difficult times.

There are going to be some positive plays and some not-so-positive plays—but the key is that you continue to move the ball down the field, get first downs, and eventually get a touchdown.

Top: Illustration by Seung Yeon Kim / Cornell University. All images provided, unless indicated.

Published October 6, 2023


  1. Ann, Class of 1988

    Great explanation!

  2. Judy Harvey, Class of 1966

    Or, do something else instead of watch sports on TV, like read, exercise, report birds to the Ornithology Lab, read to the kids, volunteer, etc., ad infinitum. I love playing sports; sports are fun, healthy, and character building. A culture is skewed when more money and fame goes to people, mostly men, playing sports while other people, women and men, who are working to save the world in so many valuable ways receive less. With a little bit of apology to the many male athletes I adored while at Cornell.

  3. Yohance Fuller, Class of 2005

    As a Cornellian and fan of the NY Giants, I absolutely love this article. Thanks, Kevin!

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