The apocryphal story is that my father scored a touchdown while unconscious. Although I never saw him participate in any sport, his legend lived. I did not follow in his footsteps, and since we had a hands-off relationship, he gave me no hints as to any ways to improve my feeble athletic skills. Once, when I was trying to play high-school football, I asked for such aid, and he merely told me that my coaches would help.
The first active sport I remember taking part in was running home from school in first and second grade from a bully. I’m not sure whether the villain was male or female.
In later grades I was an vigorous roller-skater. We would strap those cheap metal skates on and try, going as fast as possible, to jump as many side-walk blocks as we could. I often landed on my nose or chin.
Other sports were kick-the-can and touch football. These were played in the street while waiting for the papers to be delivered for our paper routes. Often we were dodging the city buses. I was in junior high-school at this time in a medium sized city, Steubenville, Ohio. This was when I discovered my true love, basketball. But I guess it should really be called mini-basketball. Our court was an alley. Our basket, as such, was the space between a garage door track and the garage itself, and our ball was a tennis or small rubber ball. This bogus game really took hold of me and I continued to play, in one form or another, until I was in my fifties.
My first gym class in the large high-school was surprising. The instructor left the gym in order that the the older boys could beat-up on the freshmen. I doubt if the PTA would approve of this today. One of the older “boys” was Don Joyce, who later on would play tackle for, I believe, the Minnesota Viking. He and others would prowl around seeking those they wished to punish. I stood as inconspicuously as I could in a corner, pretending to be part of the wall. But the dreaded Don came toward me, looked me over, and kicked my feet from under me. I lay there quietly, while others took worse beatings. At that time, the Don was playing quarterback on the Steubenville team. That high-school league included Akron and Massilon, where Paul Brown started his illustrious coaching career. The Don would punt in the coldest winter games with a bare foot.
My father was a peripatetic railroad worker. I went to at least four different grade schools, and now, in the middle of my freshman year, he was transferred to Carnegie, PA. Thus I went from a large urban school, where gym class was the highest sporting achievement I could possibly attain, to a small rust-belt high-school with only five hundred students. But in Western Pennsylvania football was king. As a result, in the first class I attended, a school mate leaned over and asked, “You do football?” Of course I knew I was expected to answer in the affirmative, and I did. Little did the questioner know that my only experience playing football, beyond the previously mentioned touch football was a game or our own devising. Four or five of us would take a football to a vacant lot and throw it in the air. Whoever caught it was fair game, and would run with it until pummeled by the others. Then the ball would be thrown up again, and the process repeated.
Fortunately I arrived in Carnegie too late in my freshman year to participate in any sports activity. The other sport was basketball, my favorite, played only to maintain the football players’ conditioning over the winter. But in late August of my sophomore year I reported for football practice. It consisted of two weeks of two-a-day practices in the most humid hot part of the year before the regular season began.
We were issued equipment; shoulder, rib, and hip pads, cleated shoes, and helmets. My equipment was so antiquated that I had to tape the thigh pads to my legs because the pockets in my practice pants had been destroyed. And my leather helmet (yes , I said leather) was at least twenty years old. The scrub team got the dregs of the equipment.
The first day consisted of calisthenics and drills, for which I was not in condition.
The second day I could barely get out of bed. Everything ached. And the cleats made the condition of my feet unbearable. I did get foot pads to help with that situation.
Our locker room was in the basement of our antiquated high school. It was rumored that it had been condemned for many years. The room was cold and damp. The sweaty uniforms did not dry from day to day. I still remember putting on clammy jock straps each day. I don’t remember how or when our equipment got laundered.
There was a half-mile walk from the school to the football field. Later in the fall, this was pleasurable, but in August it was just another ordeal.
As the days went by, the team began to run plays. The coach knew pretty well who his better and experienced players were. The new people, like myself, were to become defensive fodder for the first team to run plays against. One day there seemed to be a dearth of centers. Not knowing what position I should play, I volunteered. And so I was a center for the rest of my football career, such as it was.
In those days one played on both offensive and defensive teams. As a center I became a line backer on defense. One day the coach decided that he would try our first string tackle at fullback. We were still using the single wing formation, so the ball was centered directly to Carmen Tavoletti, the largest player on our team. Quite suddenly, a large space opened up in front of me as our scrub defensive team got out of the way and I was aware that Carmen was pounding directly toward me. Not knowing what to do I lowered my head and went directly into him. My ancient leather helmet collided with his thigh and caved in, and so did Carmen who came up limping. I was unconscious for a brief moment. But the coach picked me up and held me perpendicular while he praised my courage to the rest of the team. I believe this may have been the highlight of my football career. Incidentally, it ended Carmen’s fullback experience. He returned to his tackle position.
This also made me official third string center. About midway through the season, in a game our first string center hurt his shoulder. And, for no apparent reason, the second string center passed out. I was to go in the game, a situation I was wholly unprepared for. One of the managers put his arm around my waist to encourage me, and asked why I was shaking. At this point we had switched to the T-formation. All I had to do was hand the ball back to the quarterback on the proper count. He started the count: “Hut-two-three-four----------”. When he reached twelve he shouted desperately, “Center the ball, damn it!” I remember none of the rest of the game.
The tragedy of my football career happened in my senior year. I had spent my grade-school years in Canonsburg. We were scheduled to play the Canonsburg team at a time when they were undefeated and we definitely were not undefeated. We were given little chance against them. There were even a couple of childhood friends on their team. It was in Canonsburg, and some of my cousins were in the crowd.
We played beyond our ability and even scored the first touchdown, which was called back, the ref claiming our end had pushed off the defensive player. The game remained scoreless into the fourth quarter and a scoreless tie would have been a moral victory for us. Although I had been kneed in the groin by one of my childhood friends, I had come back in the game and played well, particularly backing up the line on defense. But at one point we needed to punt. As center I had to throw the ball back to the punter, from between my legs, about fifteen yards. I have small hands, and this procedure was always an adventure for me. This time I threw it over the punters head, a Canonsburg player recovered the ball near their goal-line, and they quickly scored the winning touchdown. My heart was broken. I wept.
Later in the season, I had a rib broken and played little after that. I was happy to be done with football.
There will be more sports in a future blog.