It’s football season once again, time for me to reminisce about my one year of tossing the ol’ pigskin in high school. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “You played football?!? Was this two-hand-touch or flag football? Was it a league for boys 5 feet 7 inches and under? And what about cross country; didn’t you run that in high school?”
Look, I’m as surprised as all of you are to find out that I played football back in the day (not really, because I know this story already). And I honestly don’t remember the whole thought process that led me to join the team my freshman year. I think it went like this: my older brother really, really wanted to play football, but my parents said no, so he became a cross-country star. Since we shared a room and hated each other in the way that brothers do (sample conversation from the year 1984: My brother: “Shut up.” Me: “[incoherent mumble under my breath]” My brother: “What’d you say?” Me: “Nothing.” My brother: “I didn’t think so.”), I decided to go in the opposite direction, which I guess would have been to whine to my mom until she got so annoyed that she agreed to let me go out for the team if I would just stop.
I didn’t do any summer conditioning before the season began. Unless riding my bike around and playing video games at the 7-Eleven counts as conditioning. (It doesn’t.) I just showed up on the first day of practice and got in line with the rest of the freshmen to pick up our pads and helmets, waiting and hoping that some adult would remove me and tell me I was in the wrong place. When that didn’t happen, I looked around and noticed two things: (1) I was tied for shortest boy on the team, and (2) I definitely weighed less than everyone else. I had a “growth spurt” over the summer to push my height up to 5 feet 3 inches, and I tipped the scales at about 110 pounds.
I realized pretty quickly that my size wasn’t going to intimidate anyone, so hopefully the look on my face would. Unfortunately, my parents got me sports goggles that didn’t fit under my helmet, so I had to wear glasses during practice and games. Yes, glasses, with a strap to keep them from flying out of the helmet. Any chance of scaring opponents with a sneer was lost.
We had to choose positions on both offense and defense. It was obvious that I should get with the smaller guys as a halfback on offense and a safety on defense. My basic goal on the field was to try and hide somewhere and not get killed; probably not the best strategy for winning, but I’m sitting here writing for you, so the not-dying plan worked. I played way more defense than offense; it turned out I was better at tackling than I was at taking the handoff from the quarterback, holding the ball in my arms, and figuring out what the 5 hole was and running through it. Early in the first week, I was playing deep safety (that’s not something I was told to do; I just figured I’d be most out of the way if I went really far back), and the offense ran the ball; the fullback, who outweighed me by about 60 pounds and clearly was dealing with some personal issues that he thought could be resolved by hitting people, blasted through the other ten defenders and had a head of steam coming at me for approximately 40 yards. I had enough time to go through the tackling checklist: feet squared, helmet to the side, hit with the shoulder pad, etc. I also had some time to wonder why the fullback hated me so much; steam was coming out of his helmet by the time he reached me. I went low, but he went lower and pretty much abused me on the field. I laid on my back for a little while and stared at the sky, thinking, “I wonder if anyone noticed how bad that looked.”
Apparently, the coaches noticed because I was placed on the C team. Our school was huge, and there were about 90 boys on the freshman team, so we had A, B, and C teams. It shouldn’t take you three guesses to figure out the talent levels on those teams. Anyway, we all practiced together, and our head coach, Mr. Curby, was a nice guy. The assistant coaches were monsters; we got called all kinds of female names, and we were publicly denigrated in new and creative ways on a daily basis.
One drill that haunts me to this day is Burma Road. Basically, we would split up into lines of eight and spread out about 10 yards apart from our line mates. The first person in the group would be given a ball and turn to face the next person in line; he would then try to run past that person, either by juking around him or running into him. Then get up, find the ball (and, for me, my glasses), and run at the next guy, and the next guy, until he reaches the end of the line. Then the second guy would go. So even when your turn was over, you still had to tackle seven other guys coming at you. To make matters worse, there were about nine of us who were small, so whenever Mr. Curby yelled, “Burma Road!” it would be a game of musical chairs to see which one of us ended up having to move on to a group of bigger boys. Mr. Curby could say anything that started with the letter B and the small guys would start huddling together.
I got stuck in the bigger-boy group only once, about midway through the season. I survived. But it was horrible. I had a friend on the team, we’ll call him Dave (because that was his name), and Dave was a nice guy but had a lot of rage, perhaps more than most 14-year-old boys. He was in a thrasher metal band called the Dead Youth. I still have their first demo cassette, with songs such as “Stonehead,” “Parental Abuse,” and “Smell My Butt Please.” He seemed particularly gleeful when someone my size ended up in his group for Burma Road. Dave loved contact so much that he craved it and missed it when he wasn’t at practice. He was right behind me in the Burma Road line, and every time we would tackle someone and move up one place in the line, I would glance back at him and see the gleam in his eyes, knowing he was that much closer to separating me from my helmet. The funny thing was, when it was my turn, he hit me so hard that getting tackled by the other six guys was relatively painless.
Something flipped after that. I, too, became fueled by rage. Rage and the baloney-and-mustard sandwiches my mom packed me for lunch every day. And I became a much better hitter. It led to my one defensive glory moment, which then led to my one chance to shine on offense, and two lion stickers. Our team was the Lions, and big plays would earn a lion sticker on your helmet. The A and B teams would play on Saturday, and the C squad would carry over to Monday. I got promoted to the B team and started, playing the whole game. I was even called on to return one punt. Near the end of the 4th quarter, our team was leading by 4 points, so the other guys had to score to win. They got to first-and-goal. We stopped them on the first three downs. On fourth-and-goal, they had to go for the touchdown. Our coach called a safety blitz; I was supposed to run between two of our lineman and get into the backfield. The quarterback hiked the ball and was going to do a bootleg to his left. I went to blitz, but my teammate on the line had his leg stuck out, so I tripped on it. I tumbled forward, threw my arms out to catch myself, and landed at the feet of the quarterback, who promptly tripped over my body and fell to the ground, ending the game. All my teammates yelled, “Great sack, Dudley!” I said, “I meant to do that.”
After that, I found myself on the bus to the C game on Monday, confident that I wouldn’t have to play. Mr. Curby, who usually only coached the A squad, decided to see how bad the C team was, so he was at the front of the bus with index cards and a pencil, calling out, “Who here is a safety? A cornerback?” etc. I raised my hand when he called my positions, but for whatever reason (perhaps my arm wasn’t long enough to go over the front of the bus seat), he didn’t see and didn’t write my name down. Again, I assumed that I wasn’t playing anyway because of my star turn in the B game. I spent my time on the sidelines chatting with the girl who was the student trainer. At some point during the second half, Mr. Curby noticed me on the sideline and yelled, “Dudley! What are you doing? I don’t have you on my index cards! Why didn’t you raise your hands on the bus?” I said, “But I did,” and looked around for support from my teammates, who all averted their eyes and pretended to tie their shoes. Mr. Curby yelled, “You’ve been spending the whole game flirting with the student trainer, haven’t you?” Oh, the truth hurt. Mr. Curby said, “Get in there, and run the 44 Dive!”
The 44 Dive was one of the only plays I ran on offense; it was the running back (the number “4” person on the team) running through the “4” hole, which was between the tackle and the end. Or something like that; I just know that Mr. Curby was using it to punish me today. So I ran up the middle and gained about 5 yards. Usually, our coaches would send in another player, who would relay a new play for a different person to run, to keep us fresh and switch it up. New player came in with the play: “44 Dive. Sorry, Dudley, Coach must be mad at you.” I ran it, gained another 4 or 5 yards. Next play: 44 Dive. The play after that: 44 Dive. This time, I broke free for a 50-yard run and used my blazing speed to get tackled from behind by a 200-pound linebacker at the 3-yard line. Surely, Mr. Curby would take me out to catch my breath and recover. Next play: 44 Dive. I ran up the middle and scored the only touchdown of my playing career. All because my coach was punishing me.
That Tuesday, we had our team meeting, where all the best plays were recounted and lion stickers were handed out. I received two: one for the sack on Saturday, and one for the touchdown on Monday.
At the end of the season, we had a team banquet. I remember my dad telling me on the way there, “I’m surprised you made it through the season. It reminds me of when I was in the Marines: I hated it at times and didn’t always want to be there, but I’m glad I did it.” The cafeteria was filled with all the players from the freshman, sophomore and varsity teams. The freshman coaches got up first and handed out awards: most valuable, most improved, etc. Mr. Curby had a few special awards at the end; one of them, for two players, was what he called the Cobra Award: silent but deadly, to two boys who didn’t say a lot when they were on the sidelines but were the hardest hitters when they were on the field. I was so shocked when he called my name that I didn’t go up right away and had to be pushed up there by my teammates.
There were some other moments on the practice field I won’t forget: I witnessed our star tight end get his leg snapped in half and have his season end by a teammate during a routine drill; I mistook a rare-for-our-area earthquake for just another ground-shaking hit from my teammates in another practice; and I landed on both elbows breaking up a pass on defense once, sending a numbing, tingling pain up both my arms to my shoulders. When I tried to raise a hand to get taken out for the next few plays, I couldn’t lift either arm, so I had to run three more plays covering a receiver without using my arms.
I switched to cross country after that. Purely from a social standpoint, it was the best decision I could make because I met my lovely wife Jen at a cross-country team get-together (future blog post). When my kids don’t believe me when I tell them about my football days, I break out the yearbook to show them the one picture of me in shoulder pads that has survived. And I break out the Dead Youth cassette.