I drove by my high school the other day and caught a glimpse of the football team practicing. It’s hard to believe that it was 45 years ago that I last wore shoulder pads. I was always an unwilling participant in those hot August practices known as two-a-days. Unwilling because it meant an early end to summer, for something as miserable as football practice, where my wiry 160 pounds had to go up against beefy, grunting man-boys, who had lots of hair covering thick biceps, calves and knuckles. And who didn’t seem to concerned that they could have easily killed me.
Mostly though, I just stood around, while real players got to practice actual plays, as I and the rest of the walking practice dummies became known as “team players,” our only game experience coming with less than a minute and the team up by at least 40 points. We usually just languished on the sidelines, in our moth-eaten jerseys and over-sized, under-padded helmets, feigning interest and enthusiasm, while the real jocks rode the brokenness of our frail bodies to glory.
I did have a couple of moments though, when, as a sophomore, I scored two touchdowns. Of course it was for the sophomore team, but hey, even Jerry Rice started somewhere. When the coach at last put me in that first time, it sort of turned out I didn’t know the plays all that well, and sort of ran the wrong route, which put me right in front of our flanker the same time the ball got there. So naturally I grabbed it, and after spinning around a few times, managed to even run the right way before being tackled. Somehow I made it to the end zone, where I handed the ball to the ref while envisioning my upcoming ticker-tape parade. My teammates all seemed happy. Well, not the flanker so much.
My second and last TD came a few weeks later at the end of a game we were losing 42-0. I did make a great catch over their fourth-string safety though. So after those small successes the coach finally had enough confidence in me to grab me by the shoulder pad in the next game, and tell me to run a post (I had learned the difference in a post and a flag after the flanker incident). He said to tell our quarterback to throw it to me. I still remember the look on that QB’s face after I relayed the instructions from the sideline.
I had a lot of time to think about my route as I trotted from the huddle to my spot at the end of the line of scrimmage. The cornerback was right on the line staring at me as I got down in my stance. Then suddenly a linebacker yelled out, “Watch 87!” (my number). I wanted to stand up and yell back at him — “You don’t need to watch me!” Instead I remained still and tried to look invisible.
I heard the signals and bolted from my stance, firing off the line. But a bit prematurely and before the rest of my teammates. Realizing the mistake, I hesitated, wanting to take it back, but it was too late, as the rest of our offense was now moving. So I began running again as they charged down the field, and from the corner of my eye I could see the yellow flag drifting in front of the referee.
I continued with my route and the cornerback let me go as the safety picked me up. But when I made my cut toward the goal post my feet became tangled and down I went, only to look up just in time to see the safety catch the pass. He smiled down at me as he ran the other way.
The following Monday I went to talk to the golf coach.
Jay Edwards is a freelance columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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