No memories are better than HS football
Open a can of memories and old guys will rush in to say they were there. Business. War. Politics. Travel.
But perhaps more poignantly than most, football.
As the calendar flips to the fall months, a young man’s fancy often turns to his gridiron glories of yesteryear. As the saying goes, they get more glorious with each passing decade.
It can be very hard for younger people to imagine an oldster streaking around end as he cradles the ball, or hauling in a pass over the outstretched arms of two defenders.
Even the oldsters themselves sometimes wonder if it all really happened. But streak and haul we did.
In my case, our high school team won far more than it lost, including an undefeated senior season with this correspondent as the quarterback. We thus forged lifelong friendships (and yes, regular brag-a-thons that cause youngsters to roll their eyes and ask what’s good on television).
But what football will always mean to me is facing down obstacles and overcoming them. A life’s lesson? For sure.
Let’s begin before any calendar flips. The doggiest dog days of August. Hot and humid. But because football season always starts in September, practice needs to start in August.
So there we were, in full pads and helmets. If you’ve never worn either or both of these, take it from me: They make hot even hotter.
Today, when I hear whining on radio and TV about how dreadfully toasty it is, I scoff. We young gladiators spent four hours a day on the practice field. It was routine to lose ten pounds each afternoon. But as our coach loved to say, “Nothing ain’t worth nothing if it don’t make you sweat.”
Then there was the game itself. Every other sport demands grace and speed. Football demands those on every play, but also brawn and courage, maybe even a dose of foolhardiness.
How well I remember my first practice, as a sophomore. I might have weighed 160 pounds if you had put me on the scale right after dinner.
There I was, on the field with and against seniors, who were far bigger and far wiser in the ways of smashing their opponents into the turf.
The coach installed me in the defensive backfield. The offense started a play — a run around end, toward my side of the field.
I moved forward crisply. I evaded a blocker. About five yards in front of me, here came a runaway train — the star running back of our team.
I rushed up to tackle him. He lowered his shoulder into me. Boom! Senior met sophomore, and sophomore did not get the best of it.
I still remember lying on my back, the smell of grass all around me, my body ringing with the impact, utterly humiliated that I had been bowled over like so many ten pins.
But as our coach also loved to say, “Nothing don’t teach you nothing faster than your own mistakes.”
So, I stuck it out. And I bulked up. And like my teammates, I chug-a-lugged an entire quart of orange juice at each break. Very slowly, but very surely, the fact that this was difficult made my steady improvement all the more enjoyable.
About two weeks into practice, here again came our star senior running back, carrying the ball around end. Here again came little old me, rushing up to try to tackle him.
I lowered my shoulder. He lowered his. Boom again!
But this time, I felt him lurch and begin to fall. I wrapped my arms around his legs and held on for dear life. A few bucks, a few thrashes, and down he went.
“Nice hit,” the senior said.
“Where you been all my life?” the coach yelped.
Many good things happened to me when I was 15. An A in English. A first kiss. An after-school job. A new cat.
But when I close my eyes and reconstruct that moment of slam-bang impact, it’s still as fresh as if it happened an hour ago.
Football certainly has its downsides. It did even when I played. Concern over head injuries is very real, and long overdue.
Glamour heaped on those who score touchdowns is often misplaced (football is won in the trenches). And the macho code that surrounds the game can be somewhere between absurd and toxic.
How well I remember the practice during our senior year when my friend Tommy broke his leg. He was writhing on the ground in pain. A teammate stood over him and said, “Hey, Tommy, you’re OK. Get up, man.”
He wasn’t OK and he couldn’t get up.
And yet, it was all worth it. Mountains climbed. Obstacles overcome. Limits stretched. Lessons learned.
I don’t wish to make any more tackles, thank you. Not at my age. But I certainly intend to hold onto my memories of having made them, as tightly as I held onto a certain senior’s legs.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.