Monday, August 23, 2010

The Smell of Pigskin

When I was eight years old, Daddy came home early on a hot day in late August and told me to jump in the car with him. We rode down Lumpkin Road, headed back into Augusta (Ga) and pulled into the Richmond County athletic grounds where hundreds of other boys my size and general age were coagulated with their parents. I saw several footballs wobbling through the air.

“What are we doing here, Daddy?”

“Gonna sign you up for football, son.”

My heart skipped a beat. I can still feel the flutter of it; just thinking back to that day opens up the emotion I always get when it’s that time of year.

For the couple of years we had lived in Amarillo Texas, Daddy had coached the base Pop Warner team and I was too little, and too young to play. I galled me no end. So when he drove me out there, it was to fulfill his promise to me that I would play one day, if I still wanted to…

I played on the Richmond County Jets under the tutelage of Coach Paul Caine, who constantly told us: “Winning ain’t everything, boys, it’s the ONLY thing!”

Somehow, I ended up playing quarterback. I could not throw the ball—at all—at the time, but that didn’t matter anyway; we only passed once the whole season, and that was a halfback option pass that our star runner ‘Hal Griffin’ tossed in for an extra point. We ran a straight ‘T’ formation and swept left, right, and pounded up the middle as we went 10-0 (twice) to soundly trounce the rest of the league. I was hooked like a catfish gnawing on stink bait. I never looked back.

When we moved to Gastonia, I worried that they might not even play football up there. Daddy assured me they did, and in fact, that he had already found a place to take me once we got settled in. So, on another hot August day, I was taken to the big gym over behind the Groves Thread Mill, where a man named Benny Cunningham lorded over four sports and hundreds of small boys. His teams, I came to find out, were legendary around the South. He took his teams on bowl trips to Florida, California and exotic places of that sort to play kids from all over the country, as well as the back woods little towns of Carolina, like Stanley, Ranlo, Lincolnton and Punkin Center.

I’d never played the game so hard, nor had I ever learned as much about the game than under that man’s keen eye. He taught me the ‘forearm shiver’, a deadly technique that helped me down much larger opponents. Two more seasons went by at Groves, until I became too large to play there and Benny, with something close to tears in his eyes, sent me away to play for one of his old players who coached the Salvation Army Boy’s Club team across town.

Steve Culbertson, and his sidekick Scotty Ferguson were a couple of young guys, compared to Benny. A good friend of mine (Tommy Sherman) and I were dropped off there with brand new white cleats—just like Joe Namath’s—and found ourselves two of eight white boys in the entire building. Talk about culture shock. The Groves teams I played on had one black kid, the son of Coach Mason at the high school I would one day attend. His name was Sherman, and I was really glad to see that he too had become too big to play for the Little Orangemen, and was standing there with us, just as scared and just as anxious as Tommy and I were.

We adjusted and were accepted into that little fraternity of a team, despite color and multiple other differences; we went 12-0, winning the National Championship with a bunch of guys who would later help Gastonia Ashbrook win the State 4-A Title in 1974. We also took a wild trip to play in Gainesville Fla. Most of those kids had never been out of town; much less the state, and we rattled our way down through the Deep South in the decrepit old Salvation Army Bus. We slept on cots in a gym with pigeons roosting in the rafters; the birds shat all over us every morning. But we pounded those Florida kids too, and I figured loosing was just something that happened to other teams, other kids, kids who didn’t understand that winning was the ONLY thing.

When I reached the eight grade I had already played more football than anybody else on the Junior High team (except Mike Huggins, he started really early too). I was only 122 lbs, but I ended up starting for one of the most fierce coaches I’d known to that point: Paul Conner, who also taught me English and Literature the year before.

That was also the year my father was diagnosed with cancer, just before the season started. It dampened things; certainly my enthusiasm was subdued, to say the least. Before I took the starting job at right guard, we suffered the first loss I’d ever known, and one Coach Conner was irate over. Still, we battled through, and even after a loss to Shelby, we ended up winning the league title.

Smack in the midst of my ninth grade season, Daddy passed. We buried him on a Tuesday, and on the following day, my team set a new scoring record when we annihilated Kings Mountain 77-0. All through that game, I could feel my father’s presence and I played like a lunatic, knocking the shit out of those poor kids, trying to shove all my pain out of my system. The game had to be stopped a few times, since they were woefully short of players—I think they only dressed out nineteen kids. By the time Coach Walker pulled me out of the game (coach Walker took over for Paul Conner that season) all I could do was go to the bench, a place I did not care to know much about and had never occupied, to sit and finish crying. Anyone who didn’t know I’d just lost my father would have figured we were loosing the game.

I also injured my back that year, and had to spend countless hours in hydrotherapy. Two more losses were added to my total; the taste of them galled me no end.

High school came and I determined to get myself into the best shape I’d ever been in. I ran and ran through woods and grass fields behind the stadium, swam laps at the neighborhood pool, and worked weights in the wee hours to get myself up to size. A summer growth spurt put me up to 168 pounds, and I was ready. Then my buddy Courts, who lived across the street, came by the day before practice was to start and asked if I wanted to go up to his Uncle’s pool for a swim. I knew that was at least a mile run, so I nodded, got my shorts on (we all wore cut-offs back then) and left my shoes in my closet. Barefooted, we took off, up our street, then out of the neighborhood and just as we ran across the front of the Conner’s long front yard, I stomped down on something hard. It felt like a rock, but I kept right on running until Courts hollered out. I stopped and turned to look. Courts stood there, covered in blood. It took a moment for me to realize that It was my blood! Then I looked down and saw the gush of crimson puddling under my right foot. My blood-covered buddy pointed to a broken Pepsi bottle bottom, with jagged, blood-covered edges. Dr. Conner took one look and said the word I just refused to hear: Stitches.

So, I showed up to begin my high school career with a lame-ass note from the ER doctors and saw the look of distain from my new coaches and from some new teammates who had played over at the other Junior high in our area (Holbrook).

It was not a good start to what I considered the most important football I was ever going to play. There was another kid out there who claimed to be a great right guard. Mark Wilson looked like he knew what he was doing. I watched as my hopes and expectations drooped. Mark also understood proper technique, how to get low and project your power to overcome adversaries larger than he was. He could move guys around with relative ease and open holes as well as pull and trap (my favorite thing) like a guillotine dropping on an unaware head.

I had to wait ten days before I could even suit up, and by then, the damage was done. Sherman Mason had the left side guard locked down and it looked like I was going to be stuck playing center. I could play the position well enough, and I was the best long-snapper out there, so it sort of made sense as well. But I LOVED to play right guard. So I went at Mark Wilson as soon as I got the chance. We battled each other day in and day out. In Oklahoma drills, we fought for the lowest purchase point, but only ended up canceling each other out. In the end, the coaches decided to rotate the two of us, each coming to the sidelines after a play to get the next call from our chain-smoking coach who always knelt at the boundary.

We won the JV championship that season, but suffered two more losses. The back injury I mentioned got worse, and as I tried to compensate for it, I only ended up fracturing both arches of my L-5. The last game of the regular season was the point where Dr. Buddy Whitesides shook his head and told me that I had no choice but surgery. And, that I’d have to sit out a year…

When you play football year after year, from such an early age, you come to think of late summer and the entire fall of the year as a time when the game takes over all thought. Having to sit in the stands and watch the guys I played with as they struggled through the next season hurt almost as bad as the back pain I would have to learn to live with to this day. I don’t count the losses from that season, since I was not part of the squad. I just remember it, as do more than a few of my old buddies, as a bleak year for the Mean Green.

Had I continued to play without the injury, I was headed to Georgia as a long-snapper. It seemed kind of absurd that they give free rides to kids who only have to kick or snap, but it’s one of those parts of the game that not everyone can do all that well, so I was tickled pink for even the semblance of a chance; besides, my uncle and a bunch of his old friends were the scouts recommending me. Of course, after the injury I went down to watch the Georgia/Georgia Tech game that fall and was told that there would be no offer any more. Too bad…

My attitude going into my senior year was not what it once was. I’d grown accustomed to entering a year of football with the confidence of someone who knows he is already established. Without me, my team had adjusted; someone else filled whatever hole I had left the year before. So, I fiddled around with getting in shape, and to make things worse, I suffered a minor (we guess it was minor) concussion on the first day we put on pads. I’m told I was wandering around mumbling to myself before Coach Cline had me taken up the hill to the locker room. I only remember waking up with a cold white towel over my face and John Craft, our trainer, sitting there asking if I was okay.

When the first game came around, I had not even made the starting squad. It frustrated me no end, but I understood that I was going to have to go out there and take it back. The question was, did I still have the motivation to do so?

We bobbed like a cork in high seas that year. Winning one week, loosing the next. I only saw action during punts and extra points until the sixth game. By then, Coach Cline’s incessant running until dark every day had me in great condition. It was like a switch went off and I woke up again and realized that I was 195 pounds and knew everything I needed to know to re-claim a spot. By game time that Friday, I was running out with the starting offense and we invaded Morganton N.C. and just ruined their homecoming game by mauling the living hell out of those boys. It was also the game where we began to ignore the constant run calls of our coach and started to pass the ball.

Our game against cross-town rivals Huss High was always the last game of the year. They were having a hell of a season, undefeated to that point. Our lopsided, up and down year had been saved as we finally strung four wins together and stood at five and four, one game back of the Huss Huskies in our division. Only the top two teams went to the playoffs. So, we got ourselves ready to take them on. God, we were so ready…

The night before the game, I began to feel some discomfort in my gut. It was something other than nerves; that, I knew for sure. This was a deep, intense pain. I went to bed without telling anyone. The pain got worse. I woke in the middle of the night and could not even stand up. Crawling, I went up the stairs and woke up Momma. She called Dr. Abernethy who, bless his heart, came up around four a.m. and gave me a shot of something that knocked me out. I remember when he pushed around my right waistline that the pain became blinding.
I think it was around ten in the morning when Huggins, Bill Keith, Marty Peninger and a few other players were standing over my bed trying to wake me up.

“You gotta be in the school by ten thirty or you won’t be eligible to play tonight!”

Shit, the idea of missing that game hurt worse than the pain. I’d been playing in pain all season, so they helped me pull on my jeans and tried to drag me up the stairs. Half way up I passed out. When I woke up Dr. Abernethy was with Momma, standing over my bed again, shaking his head. A few hours later (the whole timeline has become greasy in my fogged-out memory now) I was getting lifted and taken up stairs. I passed out again and woke up in the ER with Uncle John Bond (Daddy’s surgical partner) who was telling me that I was about to go into surgery. That might have been the first time my mother ever heard me utter the words: “Oh fuck.”

When game time came around, I was in a hospital room with a small radio going red hot, tuned to the local AM station broadcasting ‘THE GAME’ as it had come to be called.

We all knew each other, our little town was not that big and we had even played together on various teams as we grew up. It was a heated rivalry; it still is, I’m told. I lay there ready to cheer my guys on, moaning with pain every time I tried to sit up and yell on a good play. In the end, we lost by a point.

Huss went on to lose the next week to a high-powered High Point N.C. team, that eventually went on to win it all. We beat North Meck in the first round, and I watched from the sidelines with my buddy Bill Keith (who broke his leg in our homecoming against East Burke County), the walking, cheering wounded. Our guys were so beat up by the time we got to play those High Point guys that they just routed the hell out of us. Ted Brown, who later went to the NFL and played with the Vikings, ran three TDs over us. Bill and I went out to sit in the bus after it was over. We each took separate seats and then just sat there and cried to ourselves.

When it hit me that football was over, the feeling of emptiness was like a vacuum sucking out my soul. It never goes away. The could haves, the would haves, the should haves, still echo in my mind and drum in my heart every year when this particular time of the season rolls around.

I go to watch the kids getting ready, the old teams, the college teams I enjoy following and the pro teams I pull for now. I don’t think there can ever be enough football for me…

My wife posted a Kenny Chesney’s new video: “The Boys of Fall” on her facebook page yesterday and I watched it, still tender with emotion from my mother’s recent funeral. I just sat here and cried until I was all done with it.

This sport has become the most popular of all our sports, today. So many of us have played, and fallen to the side along the way. We all yearn, and end up cheering and chomping at the bit as a new season comes to fruition. If you know this feeling, then we are brothers of the most demanding mother. It will always be our game, fellas. It’s football. Are you ready?


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