“Picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature
Emerson’s delivery is a bit more involved and serious sounding, but what he says makes sense: when we come across things in need of explanation, we compare them to things we already know.
In his world, the world of Nature, language and imagery are derived from those things which he sees around him. The same happens in sports. To explain things which are difficult to explain, we make comparisons.
Once the proper imagery is found, the result is often nicknames for the people playing those sports. The bald-headed and muscular-yet-rounded linebacker Christian Holmes at Mississippi State is called Turtle. It’s even better when he puts pads on and his bare head sticks out of the shell. Fellow MSU linebacker Matt Wells is one of the fastest members of State’s defense. He’s called Cheetah.
And now, in a newer world with more than Nature to draw from, it’s not just plants and animals we use for comparison. Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson is called Megatron for his Transformer-like physique and skill. Retired defensive lineman William Perry was called The Refrigerator, much more to do with his great size than an ability to preserve foods.
Of course, not all nicknames are so clever.
“We had a kid named Jogger,” MSU coach Dan Mullen said of his college years. “He used to jog from drill to drill. I still talk to Jogger.”
For athletes, though, that’s where those nicknames often come from – practice.
“There’s a camaraderie to it,” Mullen said. “I think they just kind of come from something funny that happens and they throw it out there.”
So, what of MSU’s junior running back Josh Robinson, widely called Bowling Ball?
The imagery is obvious. A short, round and strong runner, Robinson knocks down defenders like pins, rolling down the field like a ball down a lane tossed out of the backfield. Quarterback Dak Prescott isn’t just handing a ball off. He might as well be winding up for a strike and hurling Robinson himself into the fray.
But even Robinson isn’t sure where the nickname came from.
“I think you gave me that nickname,” he told me after MSU’s win over LSU.
Nope. Wasn’t me. Though I’d be happy to take credit.
We can at least find the original Human Bowling Ball, one of the first men in football to garner such a nickname, long before Megatrons and Refrigerators were running around.
The second-to-last pick of the 1971 NFL Draft, Don Nottingham was a small-ish rookie fullback who Baltimore Colts coaches and players were taken surprise by.
As an old Baltimore Sun article put it, “The Colts, then reigning Super Bowl champs, didn’t know what to make of the odd-shaped rookie from Kent State. Size aside, Nottingham stood out in training camp for his high-pitched voice, feet as wide as snowshoes and a fearsome love of contact.”
Standing at 5’9” and 220 pounds, Nottingham probably looked similar to Robinson, who currently rounds out at 5’9” and 215 pounds.
In practice one day, as the Sun tells it, Colts linebacker Ray May grew tired of trying to tackle the low-running Nottingham and accidentally awarded the nickname in a frustrated yell as he got up from being flattened for the third play in a row.
“You can’t get lower than no damn bowling ball!”
And there it was. Nottingham has been known as nothing else since then. Teammates, coaches, fans, family and even broadcasters referred to him as Bowling Ball the rest of his career.
As it turns out, Robinson got the same nickname in precisely the same way exactly 40 years later.
Robinson’s first year at MSU was 2011, and it was then that defensive players in practice had the same reaction.
One of State’s linebackers retreated to the sidelines after a play and offered a refrain similar to May’s so many years before.
“It’s like trying to tackle a bowling ball,” the beat-up linebacker complained.
Who that linebacker was is now forgotten, but Kyle Niblett on MSU’s media relations team was there to hear it, even if he’s not sure who exactly said it.
By week four, it had grown so much that Robinson was there in the post-game fracas at LSU explaining his 197-yard performance the same way.
“Why do you think they call me the Human Bowling Ball?”
The answer, as Emerson explained it, is pretty simple. Robinson looks like a bowling ball out there.
“He’ll hit anything standing and knock it down,” former Colts coach Don Shula said.
He was talking about Nottingham, but he could just as easily have been describing Robinson decades in advance.
Either way, let’s just say he was talking about Bowling Ball.