Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Season

The Season
  Sweat dripped off of Roy Bond’s oily face. It glistened in the bright September sun.  The temperature was still in the high 90s in south Florida. The registration line stretched from one end of the school to the other.  The hallways were open and ran along the exterior of the building.  Roy was leaning out to see how much further he had to go when someone stuck a permission form in his hand.  Turning, he stared at the slender man with the crew cut. 
    “Son, get you parents to sign this form, and report to the field house tomorrow for a football physical.” 
    “But…” His stammering response fell short of the back of the man’s head.  The speaker continued down the long line with another man following close behind.  They were dressed alike in Khaki shorts and matching purple shirts.  Both had whistles hanging from cords around their necks.  They sized up each male in the line.  If they had any size at all, they repeated the short speech and handed them a form. 
     Golfview Junior High School opened its doors just two years before.  Roy stood in line to register for the ninth grade.  The school sat between an affluent golfing community, Golfview, and the infamous South Gate, a place where the railroad tracks literally marked the boundary between the fortunate and the unfortunate. A few kids, including Roy, lived in a semi-rural area near the school.  Both of Roy’s parents worked and had no time for golf.
     He stared at the form in his hand and wondered about the possibility of playing football.  Roy weighed 165 pounds, but most of it was baby fat.  Very few kids in his neighborhood ever played any organized sport other than baseball.  Still, the thought of putting on a football uniform and running onto the field in front of cheering fans excited him.  Sweat continued to streak down his cheek as he waited in the slow moving line, but Roy didn’t notice. He dreamed of stardom.  In the past, only the well-to-do kids played football at Golfview.  The school win/loss record was dismal.
    That evening when his dad got home, Roy gave him the insurance card and permission form. 
    “Dad, can I go out for football?”
    Before he could answer Roy’s mother said, “You’re in the band.”
    “I could do both.” He countered.
    “You’ve never played football.”  She said, looking at her husband for some support.
    His dad was an athlete: a champion boxer in the Navy.  Roy could sense that his dad was on his side.
      Roy remembered how his dad tried to prepare him for life.  It all started in grammar school. He was too young to start.   He still had his baby teeth.  But there he was at school, back against the wall, trying to avoid contact with strangers.  A large boy stood in front of him looking down at his upturned face.  His stare was unfriendly. 
     “What are you looking at?” The large boy asked...
     “Uh, you look sleepy.” Roy said.
    Apparently he took offense at Roy’s retort and pounded him into a submissive blob.  This was his first encounter with a bully.  His dad later told him that crying and rolling into a ball was not an acceptable defense tactic. He tried to teach him the “sweet science”, but Roy was left handed, and a bit of a bumble foot, so he progressed slowly and avoided physical confrontation.  By the end of elementary school he gained some confidence, but, just when he began to feel comfortable, Junior High School started.  The process had to be repeated. 
    His dad looked at him and then back at his mother. “Let’s let him tryout.”
    His mother turned away in defeat.  Roy started in on the usual list of promises related to what he would do if allowed to play.  Dad signed the form.
     The next day Roy stood in front of the concrete block field house with a great host of other potential players.  Three major groups huddled in separate areas around the front steps.  The kids from Golfview community stood nearest the door.  Most of them had played before.  Another group from South Gate milled around in the shade of a nearby palm tree. This group smelled strongly of cigarette smoke and Vitalis hair tonic.  Roy didn’t know the South Gate kids very well because he spent most of the last two years trying to avoid them. 
   The new coach stepped out of the field house and addressed them. “Men, line up and have your signed forms ready when you get to the door.  After you pass your physical, report to the equipment room and check out your pads.  Practice will start this afternoon at four.  Bring your equipment when you come.”
     He called them “men”.  Roy felt tougher already.  He rubbed his hand across his face to see if he could feel a whisker. He thought for a second that he did, but realized that it was only a pimple.  Once through the door they were told to strip down to their shorts. Roy looked around to see how he measured up with the rest of the guys.  He thought maybe he should order the Charles Atlas muscle building course after he got home.  Once the poking and prodding behind the curtain was complete, they redressed and picked up their equipment.  All were fitted for a helmet, pads, a practice uniform and game pants.  They had to provide their own jock strap.  Roy had never worn one before.  He left with a hefty load of armor stuffed into his football pants.  He purchased a jock strap at the local drug store on his way home.  That was embarrassing.  Now he stood in front of a full length mirror and practiced putting it on over his pants.  He had a horrible vision of standing naked and afraid in front of strangers and not knowing how to put it on.  Once he mastered his most basic piece of equipment, he worked on figuring out the rest.  The remainder of the day whizzed by as he dreamed of flying tackles and crushing blocks.  All of these delivered by him, of course.
     He was at the practice field early.  The Golfview physical training area was a large sandy expanse covered with sand spurs and bounded on three sides by palmetto, cabbage palms, and other scrub plants.  The guys from Golfview subdivision were all wearing matching shorts and tee shirts.  Some of the group from South Gate drifted into the brush on the other side of the fence for one last cigarette.  Roy and his friends stood in between them.  They watched and waited for instructions.  The coaches held a clinic on how to properly put on the uniform. They told the players where to buy their cleats and other gear not provided by the school.
      The practice started with fifty and one hundred yard time trials.  Roy ran as fast as he could, but when the players were assigned, he was told to report to the offensive line coach.  .  He didn’t know the difference between offense and defense.  He was just happy to be there.  The rest of the afternoon was spent running.  He had never run so much in his life.  His lungs hurt, his legs shook, and his gym clothes were soaked and sticking to his body.  Over the next few days they ran until they collapsed.  The loose white sand made footing difficult.  Roy hoped he wouldn’t give out.  Some guys threw up across the fence at the edge of the practice field.  The heavier smokers gave up on football altogether.  Roy stayed.  His mother was disappointed.
     After a week of running, push-ups, jumping jacks, squat thrusts, and agility drills the coach told them to report to the field in pads.  Roy saw the world for the first time from inside a football helmet.  The curved nylon face mask looked like a small ladder just below the level of his eyes.  The pads and other gear made him look like quite a physical specimen.  On the other hand it made the really big guys look like giants.  Roy lumbered from the field house with the rest of the team.  The metal tipped nylon cleats made an awful racket as they ran down the concrete runway.  The coaches and some of the football dads made a wooden seven-man blocking sled.  It was a behemoth.  Seven players lined up in a three point stance in front of the blocking pads attached to its front.  On the coach’s whistle they lunged at the great wooden beast slamming their shoulders into the pads and driving their legs with short choppy steps.  Because the field was sand, and because the blocking sled was homemade, it rarely slid.  The runners of the sled tipped forward and dug into the loose turf.  The linemen continued to drive with their legs until the coaches’ second whistle.  A large deep hole formed beneath their cleated shoes as they strained against the immovable object.  Roy’s calves cramped and his thighs burned but he continued.  He wasn’t going to quit.  His pads got heavy as the cotton backing soaked up the sweat. 
     The offensive line coach showed them how to make a proper block on a running play.  He showed them how plays were diagramed with X’s and O’s, and where they were to block based on the play called.  After that, they learned pass blocking, keeping their butts low and getting under their opponent.  They practiced these moves over and over again.  Then the coaches called the entire team back together for fumble drills and tackling practice.  Roy thought he was going to die.  Every time he thought it was time for practice to end they would start something else.  In the early stages, they practiced everything at half speed concentrating on their form.  The coaches taught them to tackle with their heads on the same side of the ball carrier as the ball.  The wet pads picked up the grit from the sandy field and rubbed them raw.  Just when Roy thought he could go on no more, the coach blew his whistle and lined them up at one end of the field.  They were five or six abreast and on the coach’s whistle they ran one hundred yard wind sprints.  At the end of the field they got back in line and repeated the drill.  Before practice was over, players were stumbling and falling down.  Roy dragged his spent body to the showers and stood under the soothing blast.  He left his equipment in the compartment with his name on it and headed home.  He went to bed early that night.
    The following days passed with the same intensity.  The strong stench of ammonia and body odor filled the locker room and increased with each passing day.  Roy thought they could probably win if the other team had to smell their pads before the game. 
    During the second week, the coaches picked up the speed.  They added tackling drills at full speed.  Bull in the ring and head on tackling introduced Roy to the physics of two large objects meeting helmet to helmet.  He dreaded tackling their big fullback, Mike Rains.   Mike weighed 180 pounds and had a beard as heavy as that of any man. Roy got up after some tackles looking out the ear hole of his helmet.  If the offensive linemen missed a block, the coach would make them run the ball with no blockers.  Several times the coaches pulled up on the belt of Roy’s football pants as he lay sprawled on the ground trying to regain his breath after a collision.  He was playing football.  Roy was put into the lineup at Guard.  He was the smallest man on the line.  He often pulled away from the line on an end run called to his side and led the running back around.  Most of the players on the offensive and defensive interior line were over two hundred pounds.  Roy had to try and hold them out on pass plays and block them on running plays.  His battered and bruised body was evidence of his tenacity.  He had been run over, stepped on, cleated, kneed, poked, jabbed, and flattened, and this at the hands of his own teammates.  He wondered what playing against other players might be like.  The players from South Gate were the toughest.  They played dirty, and they enjoyed a good fight.  Some had earned nicknames; Benny the biter, Knees Orton, Walrus, Scat.  Benny would bite the nearest leg or arm in the pile after a tackle.  Once, in the tangle of the pile, he bit himself, and spent the rest of the game trying to figure out who did it.
     The day soon came when the lineup for the first game was announced.  Roy was chosen to play first team offensive guard.  His mother rued the day when she had agreed to let him play.  She believed he would probably quit before the first game.  His dad on the other hand was quite proud.  Central Jr. High was the largest in the division and they had won every game they played in the last several years.  They were Golfview’s first opponent.  During the week before the game the coach passed out the new purple game shirts with the gold numbers.  Roy wore number 69.  The Golfview Gators were ready to play.
     The game was played under the lights at the high school stadium.  Most of the Gator squad had never been there before, and most had never played under the lights.  Their practice field didn’t have any markings on it.  The referees had to line them up before the first kick-off.  The Central squad looked huge.  They won the toss and chose to receive.  Coach Mays gathered the Golfview players in a big huddle and gave them a pep talk. 
     “Men, their return man is named DeAngelo and he is wearing number 32.  All of you look for number 32.  He is very fast.  Hit him low, and hit him hard.”
     Coach called Roy’s name for the kick-off squad.  All of the team joined in a cheer that started low and got louder as they broke the huddle.  “Gator bait, gator bait, gator bait….”
Roy ran onto the field.  He looked at the other team and found number 32 near the goal line.  He saw himself shedding blockers and plowing DeAngelo into the turf in front of the cheering masses.  The referee’s whistle blew and Golfview’s kicker hit the football.  It sailed toward number 32.  DeAngelo got the football and started up field.  Roy could see nothing but number 32.  He was going to hit him untouched.  Just as he took his angle, Roy was hit by a crushing cross-body block.  He fell to the turf and caught the top of DeAngelo’s sock with one finger.  The running back high stepped and jerked free.  Roy watched as he crossed the goal line at the other end of the field.  They made the extra point, and the score was seven to nothing in favor of Central.
    The Golfview team lined up to receive the kickoff.  Ronnie Massey, the scat back received the kick and ran it out to the thirty yard line.  On the first play from scrimmage, Golfview fumbled the ball and Central recovered.  On their next play, they scored another touchdown.  They missed the extra point.  The score was now thirteen to nothing after three plays.  Coach Mays called a time out and the Golfview team ran to the sidelines.  He didn’t call them men. 
     “I didn’t bring you here to have you lie down in front of the other team.  You either get out there and stop them, or I’m going to forfeit and take you home.”
      The team ran back on to the field.  Roy and his team mates played an inspired game after that.  They even scored.  At the end of the game, the score was Central 13, and Golfview 7. 
     The rest of the season was a dream.  Every team that the scrubby little Golfview team played lost.  Central and Golfview met in the championship game.  The scene was very similar to their first meeting except that Golfview had something to prove.  Roy’s dad and mom attended every game.  Roy even had a girlfriend who ran on to the field and hugged him when the final gun sounded.  The championship was a battle from the first whistle.  The ball went back and forth between the two teams.  At the end of the final quarter, the score was Golfview 14, and Central 7.  The clock continued to run during the final two minutes.  Central possessed the ball and drove to Golfview’s five yard line.  The play gave them a first down.  The big Central full back pounded the center of the line.  In three plays he was at the one yard line.  A defensive guard for Golfview fell and had to be carried off the field.  Coach Mays looked to the bench and called for Roy
     “Get in there and seal off that gap.  I don’t want anyone to make it through.  Is that clear?”
     “Yes sir” Roy said as he buttoned his chin strap.
Roy got down in the awkward feeling four point stance of a defensive lineman.  The center and guard across from him looked huge.  He watched the center’s hands and moved when he snapped the ball.  Roy lowered his butt and pushed his body upward with all his strength wedging himself into the gap.  Through the mass of grunting, pushing flesh he could see the thighs of the big fullback coming straight for him.  Roy lowered the crown of his helmet and strained forward with everything he had.  The knees of Central’s big fullback hit Roy’s helmet and the runner fell just short of the goal line.
      Roy could not hear the cheers or remember what happened on the play.  He awoke minutes later on the sideline with his dad looking down at him and his girlfriend standing near by.  His mother had already gone to the car.  She just couldn’t stand to watch.  Later he learned that he had held his ground.  Golfview won.

     Roy’s dad, who was gravely ill, didn’t live long enough to see another season, but sometimes one is enough.

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