The high school football season is over in my home town. No Friday night lights for a while…and I’m a little bummed. Would you like to know why?
Thirty-eight years ago, I played in my last high school football game. Well, I didn’t actually play in the game, but I was dressed and on the sidelines, and I would have competed beside my teammates had I been called. That game was a state championship game. We lost a heart breaker, 12 – 7 to the crimson clad Crabbers of Hampton High School in Virginia. I was a boy of fall, and even though my active gridiron journey ended on that chilly December afternoon in 1977, I am still a football player, and I will be for the rest of my life.
Every time I smell fresh cut grass on a muggy August day, I am reminded of who and what I am. I can close my eyes, and I’m walking across that hard as rock practice field, the parched, sun ravaged grass crackles under my cleats. I’m holding my helmet by the facemask and bouncing it off my thigh pad, and I’m on my way to that grueling afternoon practice.
I remember how hopeful we would be if there was even a chance of rain in the forecast. Just the thought of rain’s relief in late August or early September during a practice would fill your heart with hope, and hope can get you through just about anything.
And, oh my… when you saw those clouds forming in the western sky, and you smelled that moisture on the breeze, you somehow found a way to make your tired legs move a little quicker. When those clouds delivered on their promise, and you heard the first notes of that tic, tic, tic, song of raindrops on the top of your helmet, it was like being born again. You pushed a little harder, you ran a little faster, and those shoulder pads popped a little louder. The dust washed away, the heat took a break, and you loved being there.
Later, in those early days of November, there would be the sound of fallen leaves as they rattled and skittered their way across the field, that sound let you know it would all be ending soon. By then, the brown leaves were pretty much the only vegetation left on our practice field; that dry and crackling grass we trudged across in August had given up sometime in October. No matter what color the uniforms are on the field, the game of football is a game that turns gradually from vibrant green to autumn brown. This happens every year, it’s just part of the deal. It’s a beautiful, and a sad transition.
The sights and the sounds and the smells of practice were taken for granted back then, mostly because the joy, pain, and privilege, of being a ball player were all beyond my scope of understanding. I was just a boy, trying to play a sport. Sometimes, I think I just played because I thought I was supposed to. The best way to describe how I felt about the sport back then, was that I both loved, and hated it. Now I only miss it. I miss the game.
I miss it most when the leaves start to turn, or when I see a young girl in a cheerleader’s uniform, or when I smell an outdoor fire. These things are the language of fall, and fall is football.
Every autumn I play in my high school’s annual graduate golf tournament. About 150 classmates get together each year to play a little golf, raise a little money for charity, have a few drinks, and tell a few tales. Obviously, the “tales” are my favorite part.
This year, the foursome playing behind me had 2 guys in their group who played ball with me “back in the day”. My buddy, Chris, was one of the guys.
Chris has a memory about the two of us, and he just loves to share it whenever the two of us are together…and he can gather an audience.
Here’s the condensed, less profanity laced version:
“OK, so we’re a week or two away from the start of the season, and (The Large Man) is pretty much stinking up the joint, and he’s running out of opportunity to be a regular player. The dream of being a starter is LONG gone. He’s slow, he’s nicked up, he’s a senior, and he’s getting desperate.
We’re doing 1 on 1 drills, and as he comes up to the line, the head coach starts strolling our way. Large Man is playing Z, (wide receiver) and I’m playing strong safety. The dude has the nerve to say, “Let me catch this, Chris. Coach is watching, and I need to look good.”
What am I supposed do? Large Man’s been good to me, he’s cool, so I’m willing to help him out.”
Chris is a spark plug. I would bet that Chris pays nothing for his electric bills, he’s his own independent source of energy. Chris is still involved in the game as a high school coach, (a recent state champion coach) and with his intensity and energy to draw upon, I would imagine he’s one of the best out there.
He owns these piercing blue eyes that are so full of life, I think if you look at him directly in his eyes you might turn into a unicorn, or a flying monkey, or a…stone. In a good way, he seems to spend most of his life with a “shit eating grin” on his face…you know the grin I’m talking about. He sports the grin of a dude who is just happy to be wherever he happens to be.
But as he continues his favorite “Large Man” story he struggles to contain the laughter that’s percolating behind that grin.
“So we line up, he’s gonna run a little curl pattern. I know what’s coming, I give him a wink to let him know we’re cool. They snap the ball, he runs a clean pattern and I stay off him – just a touch…made it look like he juked me. I come scrambling back to him as Dahl (the quarterback) hits him, right as he makes his turn. A perfect strike! Chest high, ball right in his hands…we gave him a Christmas present, and it’s not even Halloween yet…
…and the asshole drops it.”
Chris is laughing as he speaks now.
“Before I even touch him…LAY A FINGER ON HIM, the asshole drops it!
The ball goes through his hands, hits his chest and facemask, back through his hands, and lands harmlessly on the ground. Well, not harmlessly, because the head coach just walks away shaking his head, and both of our position coaches are chewing our asses. Me for “…letting his slow ass as beat you!” Large Man for dropping the ball. He goes back to the huddle, Dahl slaps him on the side of his helmet, and doesn’t throw him a ball for the rest of practice…probably for the rest of that year.
Hey Large Man! Is that true or is it not? You remember that? You pass droppin’ mother f%$#&r!”
Yes. It’s true. I remember the moment well. Not with the same affinity I remember the cheerleaders, the smell of the rain and the grass, and the bouncing of the helmet off of my thigh pad and all…but I remember.
I am the Chronicler of Large Man history, but I can’t tell that story any better than Chris tells it. And even in my shame, it’s a great memory. That’s the thing about football, sometimes even the bad stuff is good.
God gave me 2 perfect knees. Football took them from me. My back hurts, my shoulders ache every day. My pride is bludgeoned every time I get together with any of my old teammates. But it’s OK.
My lifelong best friend, DJ, who was an all-star teammate (cornerback), and maybe as great an athlete as I have ever known, will tell anyone who will listen that I was “impossible to cover”. He has told me that I probably should have played more, because none of the teams we played against had athletes slow enough to cover me.
It’s not a compliment.
And yet, I would not trade this pain or that humiliation for anything. If I had it to do all over again, I would. Even if I played less. It sucked to sit on the bench as a senior, knowing that it was all coming to an end. I wish I had some stories about my game winning touchdown catches, and how my team carried me off the field in glory…with confetti falling all around me, but I don’t. I had some moments, but they’re significant only to me, and that’s okay. To me, they are as important as my job, my house, and even the people I love. They are bullet points on my human resume. They are part of the mortar that holds together the building blocks of who I am. I’m a husband, a father, a friend, a salesman. And I’m better at all of those things because I’m a football player.
I guess I’m a pass droppin’ mother f#%&*r too, but there’s no sense in belaboring that point. I choose to leave that bullet point off of my “human resume”.
My buddy Chris can tell that story over and over again, DJ can make us all laugh about my less than fleet feet, and while it may be humor shared at my expense, it’s something we went through together. The kinship that is formed between men and boys who participate in the game creates a bond that is rarely broken. It’s like a souvenir. It’s not something you can hold in your hand, like a silver dollar given to you by your grandfather, but it’s like that.
These memories are emotional keepsakes, and at least for me, they make my knees and shoulders hurt a little bit less. These memories are a like spiritual Bengay. That alone makes it worth it. That’s why it’s not “just a game”.
The game has taken a bit of a turn for me this year, but that’s a story for the sequel. Please stay tuned for, The Second Half – coming soon to a computer screen near YOU!
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Thanks for reading… Happy Thanksgiving…God Bless…