Friday Night Lights
The TV series Friday Night Lights brings back memories of my football days in public school.
I played flag football until I was well into my 40s. Now I love to watch football live at a stadium or on TV and I'll even listen to a game on the radio if no TV broadcast is available.
Baseball was my favorite sport until I turned 11, the year I discovered the wonders of football. It was much more exciting than baseball -- faster, rougher, unforgiving of mistakes, like the game of life.
My initial interest in football started with Bobby Cox, who played at the University of Minnesota. He was the best quarterback in the Big Ten, an all-American who could run as well as he could pass. That year Cox won game after game almost single-handedly with the triple option offense. On each play he could run the ball himself, pitch to a trailing back or throw a pass. His photograph was plastered across the cover of the first sports magazine I ever bought.
In other words, Bobby Cox was a celebrity. I was so impressed I started dreaming of becoming the next Bobby Cox when I got to college.
But first I had to learn the game of football. Whenever I got the chance, I played sandlot football with kids from my neighborhood. Most of the time it was the tag version of the game, but occasionally we played tackle football -- without any equipment. It was brutal, but I loved every minute of it.
I had good speed as a running back and my passing was accurate if I didn't throw too far. I could also catch passes as well as most kids. But my best skill was kicking field goals. I could kick them successfully all day long from 40 yards -- no small feat for a kid my age. If I tried from beyond 40 yards, I began missing.
My father nearly derailed my plans to go out for the junior high school team the following year. I needed his signature on a permission slip, but he thought I was too skinny to play football. "You'll get hurt," he said.
I didn't tell him I was already playing sandlot football and I pestered him until he finally relented. The junior high school coach ignored my running and passing abilities and made me an offensive lineman. I played guard and tackle with much heavier kids. Worst of all, the coach wouldn't let me be the place kicker, giving that position to a kid who could barely reach the goal post from 30 yards.
My junior high school football career lasted exactly four games. During practice scrimmage one afternoon, a big kid fell on my back when I knocked his legs out from under him. At first I couldn't breathe, but I thought I only had the wind knocked out of me. The next day it was painful to breathe.
I had a cracked rib (hairline fracture.) My father went ballistic when he found out and he withdrew his permission for me to play on the junior high team.
When I started high school two years later, my father wouldn't budge when I asked him to sign the permission slip for me to try out for the junior varsity team. I was relegated to the status of a fan, but by that time, I loved football so much I almost didn't care. If I couldn't become the next Bobby Cox, I could at least enjoy watching the high school team play.
The Benton Harbor Tigers had a fairly mediocre history in football. Most years we were lucky to finish the season 5-5, but my senior year we had the best team in a some time and finished 7-3.
The credit went to a strong defense and two good offensive players. Ed Froelich was a skilled option quarterback in the mold of my football hero Bobby Cox. He ran well and rarely threw interceptions. Halfback Andy Corcoran was what was later called a "scatback," meaning he was very short and very fast. He had a delightful habit of breaking loose for long touchdown runs that made the hometown crowd go wild.
Watching the last games of the season in our open-air stadium was no picnic. By December, the night temperature was below freezing with an icy wind blowing off the nearby river. Fans huddled in the stands beneath blankets with their teeth chattering, but I never missed a game.
For me one bonus was watching a cheerleader named Leslie I was crazy about. She and I thawed out on the dance floor of the heated gymnasium at school "sock hops" held after every football game. Between dances I sometimes went outside to drink a quick beer with the bad boys. When I returned, Ed Froelich was usually dancing with my girl. I would have resented it if he hadn't been a star player. That's how much I loved football.
To this day I can't get enough of the sport. I'll watch a high school game on TV if there is no college or pro game being broadcast at the same time.
My father-in-law died at the age of 73 watching the Rose Bowl on TV. Someone scored a touchdown, he stood up to cheer and collapsed from a stroke. As far as I'm concerned, it was a fitting end for any fanatic football fan.
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa