So to summarize; in my last tale, I shared with you the sights sounds and smells of football. The football of my youth… what it meant to me, and how I missed it. I tried to explain to you that even though my last game was 38 years ago (almost to this very day), I’m still a football player…and I will always be a football player.
That’s pretty much it.
Some people might wonder why I needed the 1,700 words in our last chapter to tell you what I just summarized in 65…try not to pay attention to those people.
Friday Night, November 6th, 2015
My hometown’s high school football team got a bonus game. I don’t know why or how, but we were able to schedule an extra game against our historical rivals, the Owls of Bradford, PA. (I know what you’re thinking: Owls? Really? What were they thinking?)
This development was especially exciting to me, because I had missed the previous 2 games due to my day job’s travel requirements. The last game I saw under those Friday night lights, was a gut wrenching, homecoming game loss, to a team that our hometown boys clearly outplayed. (It happens. They’re kids). So the opportunity to see just one more, with a chance to end it on a sweeter note was a nice and welcome bonus for The Large Man.
It was cold, as northwest Pennsylvania football games, in November, tend to be. Because it was so cold, and probably because it was a non-scheduled game, the crowd was a bit smaller than usual. Also, there was no marching band, so that made the evening chill a bit more menacing.
I love our marching band. It might be because my daughter has been marching and playing piccolo with this band since she was in 8th grade. My daughter is the greatest piccolo player in the history of Pennsylvania high school marching bands…and although they don’t officially keep these kinds of records, she’s probably the greatest piccolo player in the history of American music.
Because my wife and I have had a kid participating in Friday Night Lights for the last 4 years, attendance is not an option. Why would it be? I still get a thrill every time I see that kid march onto the field, under those sacred lights, playing with her besties, being a “geek”…in the most awesome and proud sense of that word. I only wish my Mom had been able to see it one time (in this life), she would have loved every minute, and she would have cherished every note. I would have loved to share that with her.
So anyway…back to the game. This last game…
We won. That was good.
Because this “last game”, really was the last game. The announcer took some time to introduce and honor the senior players one last time. Then at the end of the game, the underclassmen formed 2 lines for the seniors to walk through, took off their helmets, and held them high as their teammates walked off that hallowed ground for the last time. It was a moving and powerful moment.
The “moving and powerful moment” was amplified by the soundtrack being played over the PA system, (remember, no marching band tonight) the song being played was Kenny Chesney’s, ‘Boys of Fall’. Until this night, I was not familiar with the song.
If you are not familiar with the tune, take a break, go to YouTube, or some on demand music source, and acquaint yourself. It is as beautiful a tribute to this game as anything I have ever seen or heard. And the timing of its play on this night was perfect.
So as I’m taking in this touching scene, hearing this song, watching these boys; my attention was drawn to one…#60. He’s a big kid, and just a freshman. I was watching #60, and watching his body contort and twitch as he watched his mentors, his elders…his friends, assemble for that last walk. I watched his face torque up a little, and then he reached up and wiped his eyes, doing his best to hold it together as he watched his brothers walked past.
I think #60 gets it.
The story of how #60 got here is ironic for a few different reasons, mostly because it’s something I predicted 3 or 4 years ago.
Ever since #60 was old enough to understand the words being spoken to him, he has been told to be gentle, or be careful.
“Be nice, (#60), that kid is smaller than you, sweetie, you have to be gentle”.
So #60 grew up to be a very big, very careful, and very gentle kid. He followed all the rules, he did his best to be calm, kind, and gentle, in all circumstances.
When he was 4-years-old, he was the size of a 10-year-old, and his uncles, and older cousins were totally jacked with excitement when they were considering the potential damage this kid was going to do to our family’s annual Easter piñata.
“Let all the other kids go first. It’s going to be over when (#60) gets his swing”.
When #60 took his turn, he gently tapped the Easter Bunny piñata, that was it…just a kind little tap. Everyone laughed and laughed. It was a family joke for years. It just wasn’t in #60 to hit something, he was supposed to be gentle, so he was.
When #60 was in 6th grade, I had an opportunity to talk with him about what school extracurricular activities he thought he might try to participate in. He considered basketball (tallest kid in the school, cut from the team…not aggressive enough). He participated in student government, and he played rec league soccer. I asked him (with permission from his mom) if he thought he would be interested in playing football. I explained to him that his size would make him a valuable asset to a team, and that he should consider it.
He told me, “I don’t really like football. I don’t really understand it either. I don’t think I would be good at it.”
“Fair enough”, I replied. “So answer me this; we live in a small town in western Pennsylvania, football is a big deal here. It’s very possible that you could be just walking to class one day, walking down the street, you could be anywhere, and one of the middle school, or high school football coaches are going to see you, see your size, and ask you to consider playing. What are you going to say?”
He contemplated what I said, pondered my question, and answered with unwavering confidence, “I’ll just tell them ‘Thanks, but I don’t like football’, and I’ll tell them my parents won’t let me play”.
I said, “OK. I think you should be prepared for that conversation. It sounds like you’re settled and grounded. I respect your decision.”
This seemed to make #60 happy. He was rehearsed, and prepared. We discussed the possibility every fall, and he remained steadfast, “No football for me! I don’t like it, I don’t want to like it. I won’t play!”
Flash forward about a year, maybe a year and a half, #60 was on the middle school track team, throwing the Frisbee (I think in track and field, they call it “discus”) and the spear (they call that a “javelin”). He was finished with an event, walking towards the locker room, when he was stopped by a stranger.
“What’s your name, young man?” asked the personable, yet imposing figure of a man, who #60 had never met before.
“I’m Jack” replied #60 as he extended his hand. “Who are you?”
As they shook hands, the stranger said, “I’m Coach Latimer, my players call me Coach Lats. I’m the high school football coach. You’re a big kid, have you ever thought about playing football?”
And just as #60 had rehearsed over and over again whenever his Large father brought up the subject, he was about to say, “Nah, not really…football just isn’t my thing”.
He looked Coach Lats in the eye, and said, “Sure, I mean, I’ve thought about it. I think I’d like to try.”
“Well that’s great! We have a bus that takes kids from the middle school up to the high school for weight lifting. It’s a voluntary activity, and you would be welcome to join. We just need a permission slip from your one of your parents. I’d love to see you there!”
#60 was less “steadfast” when face to face with Coach Lats’ charm.
“OK. I think I’d like that. I’ll talk to my parents tonight. Thank you.”
I was out of town when this chance meeting (that I predicted, but did NOT orchestrate) went down. Later that evening, when my son (#60) called me to tell the story, he was as excited as a lottery winner. When I asked what changed his mind, he didn’t really have an answer. I held the phone in my hand, looked at it, shook my head and laughed. Kids.
Talking to his dad over a 3 year time frame: “NO…I don’t think so…just not my thing…I don’t like it”
Talking to Coach Lats over a less than 5 minute time frame: “OK!”
And so it began.
I could write a book about #60’s August. (And I just might) I didn’t know how it was going to go, I didn’t know how this kind and gentle giant was going to react the first time he got knocked on his ass. Nobody knew how he was going to work through the pain, bumps and bruises of his first full contact practices, and then 2-a day practices. He was going to have to endure all of the brutality of the sport, before he ever understood or could comprehend the beauty of the game. I have a lot of admiration for the adults who found a way to coach #60 through August of 2015. I have a lot of appreciation for a handful of older kids who encouraged and helped him. It was tough, but somehow, #60 made it.
On a muggy August evening, at the first scrimmage …
Coach Lats called his name, putting #60 in at defensive tackle. It was a rough debut, but #60 entered the fray head up, and head first…nervous, but unafraid. As a father, I will never forget that moment.
He also entered the fray to sincere and enthusiastic cheers and “whoops” from his teammates…his brothers. After getting pushed around a few plays, he came off the field and was greeted halfway by some seniors, congratulating him on his first action. When I asked #60 about it the next day, how it made him feel to have that support, he looked me right in the eye, and a single tear rolled down his cheek, “You have no idea, Dad. It’s hard to explain. It’s like I’m the biggest person in the room almost everywhere I go, but I always kinda feel invisible. But now, I don’t know…I feel different. I feel like I belong. You don’t know what that feels like.”
Well…yeah, son, I do. I know exactly what that feels like.
I didn’t tell him that, I just let it be his. It’s his time now, and believe me, he has earned it. I didn’t think #60 would make it through August. That’s an accomplishment I will always respect. Not everyone gets to be a football player, but #60 does. This second half belongs to him, and his piccolo playing big sister.
I don’t know if #60 is going to be a good football player, or a great football player, or just a football player. Time will tell, and it’s his own journey.
Here is what I do know: You need 3 things to be a great football player. You need talent. God provides most of that…you can certainly develop it, but to be great, some Divine assistance is usually necessary. You also need a little starch … a bit of a mean streak. It’s not a game for the “gentle” or the “careful”. But above all, you need passion. You need passion for the game, passion for your teammates, and passion for the moments they create. You need to play this game with passion. Without passion, it’s just a sport.
We’ll see if #60 can uncover and develop those first two, but he has the passion. #60 showed it as he honored his senior teammates, as he struggled to contain that emotion on their last night, his last night with them, and his first night truly understanding that he’s a “Boy of Fall”, a football player… and he will be for the rest of his life.
So here we are…it’s the second half, and I’m back on the bench. This time, it’s the best seat in the house.
Thanks for reading.
Well it’s, turn and face the stars and stripes
It’s fightin’ back them butterflies
It’s call it in the air alright yes sir we want the ball
And it’s knockin’ heads and talkin’ trash
It’s slingin’ mud and dirt and grass
It’s I got your number, I got your back
When your back’s against the wall
You mess with one man, you got us all
The boys of fall
‘The Boys of Fall’
Written by Casey Beathard and Dave Turnbull
Recorded and Performed by Kenny Chesney