Nothing unglues the fabric of small towns faster than Friday night high school football. The blood of this gladiatorial sport flows hot and red. Every father relives his own glory days. Bragging rights are on the line.
I know these things. My name is Harold. I survived it.
I was a reluctant warrior. My father begged me, “Son, don’t cast shame on the family by playing trumpet in the marching band.” I hated to see him cry. I was in the tenth grade. Weight, soaking wet, 145 pounds. I sacrificed myself on the altar of the gridiron.
One day Coach Roy knocked on the back screen door. “I want Harold!” he said. He was bigger than life. Small children begged for autographs. Grown men shrank and women swooned when he showed up. The word ‘No’ was not in his vocabulary. My father offered me up as the family’s token football sacrificial lamb without conditions.
Practice started on a scorching August afternoon. The sun and sweat melted us. The grass was seared, brown, limp and lifeless. Heat devils danced on the sagging goal posts. An apparition appeared under the bleachers. It resembled the bones of former players.
Coach Roy sized me up and shook his head. “Did you leave your legs at home, son?” he asked, laughing. I glanced down to find two knees, knocking together. “Boy, you’re at a disadvantage. You were born with a neck.” The analogy escaped me at the time.
He put his arm around me. “Son, you’re gonna be a ‘tight end.’” Later, I told my father. He looked despondent, muttered something about a quarterback. I wasn’t quite sure what position a tight end played…until the Homecoming game. Some things can only be discovered experientially.
Playing football can be a spectacle for embarrassment, like the night I recovered a fumble and ran…the wrong way. The crowd screamed, “No! No! No!” My thoughts of fame overruled. Fortunately, my teammates nailed me on our own goal’s one-foot line. Coach Roy swallowed his Skoal. “Kid, next time you pull that stunt you’re gonna know where this football’s going.” The visceral image remains vivid.
My girlfriend was a majorette. She twirled fire with her baton. One night the flambeau found her blonde curls. Her hair was never the same afterwards. That’s another story. Anyway, we ‘liked’ one another.
‘Liking’ someone is the first stage of romance. It happens when a boy works up his nerve to hold a girl’s hand. I had scored twice and was convinced she ‘liked’ me. ‘Liking’ is the precursor to ‘going steady,’ which is a doubled-edged sword. ‘Breaking up’ also follows… good training ground for the future divorce.
Skinny guys have no business playing football. On the field they resemble skeletons with colorful helmets bobbing up and down. They’re best used as practice dummies. Coach Roy devised this torture routine to insure discipline.
Here’s how it works. The dummy lines up across from Mean, Dumb and Nasty, three meathead goons. The coach pitches him the football and shouts to the hit men, “Get him!” There’s no escape. The ensuing carnage is a ghastly scene.
Homecoming games are sacrosanct. They’re must-wins at all cost. Honor hangs in the balance. Coach Roy found me hiding behind the water bucket.“Harold,” he said, jabbing his index finger into my chest, “You’re starting as tight end tonight. Make me proud.” It was my first start after the unfortunate fumble incident.
“See that boy? He’s your man. Take him out.” An audible groan erupted from the spectators as I tiptoed onto the field. Nobody applauded. We lined up for the kickoff. I looked at my assigned enemy. Goliath stood there grinning, 390 pounds of testosterone. My eyes rolled back in my head. It gave new meaning to the term ‘tight end.’
He pointed his finger at me. His lips moved, “You’re dead meat.” The National Anthem played like a dirge. My heart throbbed. Something warm and wet trickled down my pants leg. I inched toward the sidelines. Coach Roy growled. I fainted.
That was my last football game. My mother sobbed inconsolably. My father dodged the shame by hiding behind the hot dog shack. The next week I took up the violin. Life goes on.
In retrospect, I felt sorry for Coach Roy that night. The loss was devastating. I recall his last words, “Boys, the bus leaves in fifteen minutes. Be under it!”