Attending my 50th high school class reunion and seeing my old football coach and team mates got me to thinking about my love-hate relationship with football.
It all started when I was 6 years old and I began playing football in the first grade. It was called “Midget Football” and was not associated with the school system. I don’t remember whether I had actually expressed a desire to play football, after all, I was a very skinny little boy. I imagine that my parents made the decision for me. From that time on I HAD to play football and offer up my skinny frame as a sacrifice every year because I felt that my father expected it and would be disappointed in me had I not played football. I did not wish to disappoint my father, as that might be worse than any fear I had of playing football.
Each “Midget” footballer was required to furnish his own equipment (helmet, uniform, pads, etc.). My mother took me to a sporting goods shop in Columbus, GA (55 miles north of Cuthbert, my hometown) where she bought a red plastic helmet, shoulder pads, red jersey, pants with pads, and shoes for me. I believe we must have been told ahead of time whether we were to be on the “Red Team” or the “Blue Team”.
There were all manner of uniforms when we showed up for our first practice. Not everyone could afford a complete uniform or a good quality one. I’m sure that I must have had one of the best, my father being a physician and surgeon who enjoyed the respect (and love) of the community. That may have had something to do with my being chosen as the quarterback for the Red Team.
The Red Team’s coach was a volunteer whose name is on the tip of my tongue. His first name was Bill. Why I can remember his first but not his last name I don’t know, as I would never have called him by his first name. I am still able to picture his face in my mind. Hopefully, his name will come to me.
I have no memories of, but I did continue playing “Midget Football” or its equivalent until 7th grade when I went out for the junior high football team. I was scared to death. It was like the “Big Time” compared to the kind of football I had played for the previous 6 years. I was still skinny as a rail and I just knew that the 8th grade boys would kill me for sure. But what made it REALLY scary was the fact that the junior high players often practiced with the high school “B Team” (mainly the freshmen)! I felt that the only thing that would keep me from being killed would be speed and quickness. I could run a lot faster than almost anybody else on the team, as evidenced by my pre-junior high school nickname, “Rabbit”.
I don’t remember much about junior high football except that I still played (or practiced at) quarterback, although much of my game time was spent on the bench. However, the coach would sometimes put me in a game to return punts and kick offs. That was the down side of being fast! I would get to run with the football straight into the teeth of the other team and have every single one of them wanting to tear me limb from limb and stomp me into the ground.
The coach would put two of us back to receive a kick off, one on the left and one on the right. From the time I ran onto the field until the ball was in the air I would repeat the mantra, “Please, don’t let it come to me. Please, don’t let it come to me.” over and over. When the ball did come to me I would take it and run as fast as I could in an attempt to evade the oncoming meat-grinder. Even though I was scared to death of playing football there was no way that I could tell my father that I wanted to quit. As I have already implied, that would be far worse than being torn apart and stomped into the ground! Was I afraid of my father? Let’s just say that I had a great deal of respect for him and I certainly did not want to disappoint him or make him mad. He never laid a hand on me but the verbal abuse he could dish out was worse than any whipping.
After junior high football it suddenly got worse. Now I HAD to play HIGH SCHOOL football! It was a very small school so there was no way I was not going to make the team. They had to beg guys to play! I was a freshman who weighed about 120 pounds and I would be knocking heads (and other body parts) with sophomores, juniors, and seniors, some of who were almost twice my weight. Football practice during my freshman year was nothing less than shear terror. I would almost make myself sick, spending most of the school day dreading the coming afternoon’s practice session. The high school football coach, Coach Murphy, was reputed to be the devil incarnate. How would I manage to survive with my sanity intact? It seemed my only chance would be to run faster than ever.
I began running track in junior high school. I was a sprinter, very fast over relatively short distances. This was good for playing football. However, I didn’t get very much playing time as a freshman, even though I still had to endure the tortures of the practice sessions. At least I still practiced as a quarterback. I learned that if I executed a play quickly, smoothly, and effectively got rid of the ball, I might not get hit at all! Unfortunately, I still had to participate in the head-on tackling during practice. You couldn’t sidestep or try to make the other guy miss. You were required to run straight into the other player. At 120 pounds it was similar to being run over by a Mack truck when I met my opponent at full speed.
Coach Grey was now our coach and he was very meek compared to Coach Murphy and practices were not as terrifying anymore. I began to get quite bit of playing time at quarterback during my sophomore year even though I was still skinny. I believe my weight was listed as 135 pounds in the games’ programs, which was somehow supposed to keep the other team from knowing how light I really was. The uniform and pads could also do a pretty good job of keeping them from seeing how skinny I was.
Our offense was primarily the triple option. The quarterback had the option to hand off or fake it to the full-back straight up the middle, hand-off or fake it to a half-back over the tackle, or pitch out to the other half-back as he swept around the end. Of course the quarterback could also keep the ball himself if the other options were covered. I was pretty good at working that offense and I believe I could have been REALLY good if had been able throw the football. But with my small hands and skinny arms I could not throw the football very far down field.
Because of my speed I also played safety on defense. Theoretically, if everyone else on the defense did his job it would not be necessary for me to head-on tackle some monster fullback breaking into our secondary. Of course, I still had to cover any potential pass receivers once they were through the line. Again, speed was a definite plus to keep the potential receiver from outrunning me and if I could deflect or knock the ball down then I didn’t have to risk potential bodily harm by tackling the pass receiver! However, once or twice, instead of preventing the receiver from catching the football, I actually caught (intercepted) it myself. Then I would become the target and at risk of being physically assaulted by members of the other team.
Even though I still hated and feared football practice I actually began to enjoy playing on Friday nights in the fall. I can still remember the bright lights and the smell of the grass. Friday nights in the fall were usually quite chilly. Sometimes, they could be freezing cold. As the kickoff time neared I would be hyped-up with my adrenalin pumping. But any nervousness would disappear after that first hit and then it became fun. Of course, it was a lot more fun if we won the game, which I don’t remember happening during my sophomore year. Coach Grey and the easy practices would not be back next year.
Coach Fred Tucker became our head football coach my junior year. Coach Tucker quickly established himself as a very demanding coach who pushed us to our physical limits and then some. He was tough, strict, and had a very hot and quick temper. I was a little frightened of him, although I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. Practices were once again to be dreaded. They were long and hard, taking all you had. But Coach Tucker was also a teacher. He knew we were a small team so he preached speed. “You have to out-quick the other team!” and “My 90 year old grandmother is faster!” he would yell at us. He demanded precision and would accept nothing less. To play in his backfield required being able to run the 100-yard dash in 11 seconds or less.
I still couldn’t throw the ball but I was faster than I had been the previous season. It didn’t take Coach Tucker long to determine that I should be a halfback rather than a quarterback. Many of our players had to play both offense and defense during games. I played halfback on offense and safety on defense. The team began to win some ball games and the town began supporting us by filling the stands and even buying us steak dinners when we won. It was fun!
I was standing beside Coach Tucker during practice one day, waiting for him to send me back into the scrimmage with an assigned play to run. Things were not going as he intended and he threw his hat on the ground and shouted, “IF IT WERE RAINING SHAST, I WOULDN’T HAVE AN UMBRELLA!!!!”
“Coach”, I innocently asked. “What’s shast?”
“SHIT, DAMNIT, SHIT!!!” he replied.
Coach Tucker has now coached for 64 consecutive years, which is a record in the State of Georgia. If he hangs in there for 6 more years he will tie the national record set by Alonzo Stagg.
I was not the best player on our team by any means. Nor was I the fastest. Without bragging I can say that I did manage to enjoy a few moments of glory and I have to say that it felt great! Most of those moments were after returning a punt or kickoff for a touchdown or sweeping around left or right end for a long run or touchdown. It could also have been when I made a good play on defense. Granted, it did not happen that often in my last two years of football but it was enough for me and I can watch the instant replays in my mind any time I wish. Everyone should have similar moments to remember when feeling a little down.
I have to tell you that upon graduation from high school I had not yet played in my last football game. No, I did not play in college. At age 36 I played in a full contact, 60-minute, regulation game for a local charity. I played my old high school positions on the hospital team in Gadsden, AL against a team put together by a local radio station. The radio station’s team was bigger and included a couple of ex-college football players. We beat them pretty bad, which only made them mad. I was out of shape, much slower than 18 years earlier, and although I got knocked around a bit, I managed to get in some pretty good licks myself and I enjoyed the pure hell out of it!