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My older brother, like he did with so many things, introduced me to football. He came in one afternoon with an old worn out leather football that looked more pumpkin shaped than the official Wilson …
My older brother, like he did with so many things, introduced me to football. He came in one afternoon with an old worn out leather football that looked more pumpkin shaped than the official Wilson “Duke” used by the NFL today. I would have thought it more suited to the Knute Rockne or Red Grange era but I’d never heard of either of those guys at the time.
Leon collected me and David Mark out in the front yard and explained the rules of the game, “I’m going to tuck this ball under my arm and run from the sidewalk to the edge of the road. The house is out of bounds on this side, the line of maple trees will be the other sideline. Y’all have to tackle me to the ground before I get to the road….anyway you can!”
He directed us out to the middle of the “field” and came thundering at us with a full head of steam. Folks, I’m five years old. David is twenty months younger. Leon (because of World War II) was almost eleven!
He was twice as tall, three times as big and four times meaner! We would have thought he looked like Bronko Nagurski and Tank Younger rolled into one snorting across the yard….but again, we’d never heard of either of these NFL titans.
His knee caught me square in the nose, his left foot crushed my Adam’s apple as he roared over us on the way to his first ever touchdown. I was gasping for air and wiping blood on the tail of my shirt when he backed us up almost to the sidewalk, “I’m going to kick the ball to you now, you have to catch it and try to run to the road before I smack you into the ground.”
David Mark and I didn’t win a game the first two seasons.
I hear these coaches today talk about how football builds character. They swear the game prepares you for life. They extol the virtues of getting knocked down…and rising again and again. They toss words around like fortitude, courage, teamwork, guts and determination.
Didn’t a one of those things cross my mind out there between the house and the maple trees! Survival did! How to stop a nosebleed did! What in the world am I doing out here did!
I signed up for junior high football in the seventh grade. I was so proud to finally have shoulder pads, real football cleats and a helmet.
Coach Rogers ran us everyday before, during and after practice. It was hard to go out for a pass when you were standing on your tongue. I’m telling you, we ran more than we footballed!
Coach Scott ran us even more in high school. He allowed it would make us “stronger in the fourth quarter”. We’d get in a circle and play “bull in the ring” to toughen us up. We’d back up about ten feet apart and practice running head long into each other
I came home limping or nursing a bruise so often that Mom grew a little leery of football. She was afraid we might get hurt. I shook my head in disbelief. Didn’t she ever look out the window when Leon was beating us to death in the front yard! We were barefooted, not a bit of protective gear and playing against a giant!
And remember when Leon shoved us out of bounds…it was into a maple tree on one side, and a brick house on the other!
My first day of practice in college was a hoot. The University of the South didn’t have tackling dummies. They used freshmen! If you got run over or dropped a pass, Coach Majors would say, “Your problem, son, is your mother has always cut your meat for you.”
He didn’t give the character speech. Or bother with the courage or determination stuff. He “grew you up” whether you wanted to or not…
Another football season is upon us. We’ll hear about the Crimson Tide and the rambling wreck from Georgia Tech. We’ll be inundated with Aaron Rogers’ sightings. We’ll argue over targeting rules. And maybe this is the year someone will explain how the Big Ten Conference has, in fact, fourteen teams.
But mostly, the return of football gives me pause to appreciate all over again the wonderful moments I spent with Leon and Dave out in the front yard, the many teammates that are as special to me today as they were “back when” and the precious group of tough, mean, snarly old coaches that cared enough to yell at me…from their hearts.