Thursday, August 7, 2008

My gridiron Glory

In our neighborhood, there was always a game of some kind going: baseball, football, basketball, pickle, 500, home run derby, wiffle ball, catch. Once late August hit, it was football time. There were always enough kids eager to play that we could put together two teams of at least 6 kids. Football for us was something like Arena Football: short field, all passing with full-on tackling. No one ran the ball. Being somewhere in the middle of the pack age-wise, I was never the best or worst player on the field. Before puberty, I was a bit pudgy and not quite as fleet of foot as some of the older kids.

Something changed when I turned 12. I became fast. I grew up, slimmed down and I had a pretty good motor. On vacation in North Carolina, playing two-hand touch football with kids from all over the country, I tore up the field. I returned a “kick off” (we threw the ball in those days) from endzone to endzone without being touched. I felt good. I knew I could be a really good football player. When we got back home to Michigan, I convinced my folks to put me in little league football and I was put on the team with two good friends of mine from the neighborhood, Jimmy and Jeff.

The required physical exam was interesting, to say the least. It was the first time I ever had to drop my pants, turn my head to the left and “cough.” I was thankful to have a male doctor do that exam. I passed so all I needed was the $60 – my parents’ money – for the year and I was all set to play.

Practice was like nothing I had ever seen. We practiced at the same place where all my neighborhood games had been: the grounds of John Glenn High School in Westland. This was my first exposure to organized football with coaches and pads and uniforms and exercises and cheerleaders...It was quite an eye-opener.

The first day was registration. I remember a mad scramble to pull the best pads, pants, socks, etc. out of huge piles of used equipment. Then the “fun” began.

In football they’re called “two-a-days” meaning there are two practice sessions each day. Yes, even little league teams that are supposed to be for fun and recreation go through “two-a-days.” It was early August, before school resumed, and it was brutally hot. We were running, doing “down-ups,” push ups, calisthenics and, worst of all, leg lifts. Punches to the stomach never felt as bad as holding my legs 4-6 inches off the ground for 30 seconds at a time. Nelligan, the lazy kid on the team that most players despised, cheated by holding his legs over a foot off the ground when the coaches weren’t looking. Every chance he got to make practice easier, he took it. Never one to be the hardest worker in life, Nelligan’s laziness shocked even me. Why was he playing if he wasn’t willing to do what the coaches told us to do?

“Hit the pole!” is what one of the assistant coaches would yell to send us on our quarter mile round-trip run across the school’s athletic field and back. When you messed up on an assignment or fought with a teammate or smarted off to a coach, you had to “hit the pole.” I was a pretty mild-mannered kid, but I used to get into it with that coach’s son – one of the biggest whiners I’ve ever met – so I had to “hit the pole” a few times a week.

The field wasn’t full of nice grass. It was dusty and weedy. Undressing after late summer and early fall practices involved ten minute sessions of removing pickers from your shoe laces, socks and even jerseys.

Our coaches were an interesting cast of characters, a few of whom I didn’t like at all. Head coach Wager was a jerk, not because he was tough, just because he wasn’t likable. If he liked kids, he didn’t seem to show it (though credit to him for volunteering his time to coach us.) Coach Nordbeck was a decent guy but left most of the coaching to Wager (whose son was one of the nicest kids you’d ever meet.) Coach Stothers had a son on our team and a daughter on our cheerleading squad. He seemed patient and reasonable. One of the younger coaches, whose name escapes me, was a good guy but a bit unrefined, to put it mildly. We had one black player on our team, a guy I really, really like to this day, but the young coach seemed to forget that when he talked about the “fast n*****s” on one of cross-town teams. Shameful.

Coach Wager used some colorful phrases that, at the time, I thought were completely ridiculous, but which now make me chuckle. Maybe they are funny because they showed that he took too seriously a game that I was playing purely for fun:

“I want you on him like flies on shit!” “Stink on shit” was another lovely metaphor.

Coach Wager: What the hell were you doing out there?
Me: I was blocking _______
Coach Wager: Blocking him? You’re supposed to be covering that guy. Instead you’re out there playing ‘grab ass’ with ______.

Football wouldn’t be football without cursing, now would it?

I thought I was fast, and maybe I was. But there were kids on the team that were either faster than me or had more football experience. Instead of landing a spot as a receiver or running back – I fancied myself a white Billy Sims – I was a second string offensive and defensive lineman. The season, for both the team and me individually, was ugly. When I was on offensive line during games, I’d jump offsides. When I was on the d-line, I was regularly being put on my back by 14 year olds that were 30 pounds heavier than me. I don’t think I made a positive contribution to the team the entire season, but perhaps I’m being hard on myself. I do know this: I was bad enough that I knew organized football wasn’t my bag.

I did like the Friday before games. All of us Comets were supposed to wear our jerseys to school. I had a sense of pride in being a football player, being part of a team, being a guy that could handle the rough and tough gridiron culture.

The highlight of the season might have actually been our team banquet. One of the members of the USFL’s Michigan Panthers was our honored guest. No, we didn’t get Anthony Carter or Bobby Hebert, but it was pretty cool to have a Panther there to talk to us and sign autographs. The Panthers were the USFL champs that year, so it was something of an honor.

25 years later, the memories of football are warm, fun. Way back in the fall of 1983, a sport I thought I loved was something of a burden and certainly a disappointment. Dreams of playing in the NFL were squashed by the time we had played our third game. I wrote myself off as too small and too ignorant of the finer points of the game to give football another try the next season. Two-and-a-half decades later, though, as corny as it sounds, I think I learned some things about sports, life and, most importantly, the person I was then becoming.

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