From a box in my late parent’s dusty attic come memories. Old football programs and yellow brittle newspapers. A naked bulb gives me light to read as the roof turbine creaks, a squeaky metronome ticking away the seconds. Time. How easily it leaves us in the dust. These programs, ten cents each, colors fresh still, amount to time capsules. Right away I open the 1965 Greensboro Tiger program and see youthful faces. Thirty-three players filled the 1965 roster. We’d win eight games, tie one, and lose one.
I looked through each program. Memories flooded over me … Bus rides to games, wearing white shirts and dark ties. Getting off the bus, ready to conquer all. Inserting thigh pads, lacing up the shoulder pads, adjusting the chinstrap. Taking the field, and more often than not taking the game.
Afterwards, coming home through the dark countryside I gazed at yellow lights in houses as I replayed the game in my mind. It was important to remember these rare experiences ultimately to be forever taken away. Pulling up to the gym late at night in the legendary red-and-white school bus. Weary and sore, we retrieved canvas bags holding our uniform, shoes, pads, and helmet from storage bins below.
Home games were ritualistic. We’d eat pre-game meals at Jacksons’ Home Café. Each meal was the same, a hamburger steak. Then we’d go to the gym and idle away time. Then dress in the locker room. Go through pre-game warm-ups, punting and catching, running plays … then back to the gym for a final team meeting.
Game time. We’d line up in pairs and rush onto the field beneath those legendary Friday night lights. The cheerleaders formed an allée of legs through which we ran. Pom-poms shaking, “Go Devils go.”
A medley of smells come to me. Fresh-cut grass, the salty smell of sweat, the musty smell of soggy uniforms, the breath of an opponent smashed against you in a pile, the greenish-dry smell of lime. Of all the smells, fresh-cut grass was best. To this day a new-mown lawn brings back Friday nights. I remember, too, August and two-a-day practices. Taking salt pills and drinking from a water bag. Relentless heat.
For a moment we were celebrities. During my four-year career I played first unit on the junior varsity and started three years on the varsity, right safety and halfback. We played both ways back then. Most of all I remember the games. The plays. The injuries. And silence.
People talk about crowd noise at big games. I can’t recall hearing the fans … not once. The sounds I remember were calls in the huddle, the clap of hands as we broke, and the thud of punts. Oh, and the officials’ shrill whistles. Everything else seemed to be in a dream, like some old movie without sound.
To play was to get hurt. On my very first play, the opening kickoff against a rival, an opponent missing cleats spiked my left leg. The team doctor cut a hunk of meat out, stitched me up, shot me up, and I went right back in. I got knocked out twice. Covering a punt, I got blocked. As I got up from the grass a player tried to leap over me. His knee hammered my forehead. Out cold. A back destined for greatness at Georgia Tech planted his helmet in my chest, bruising my sternum. The pain lasted six months.
My senior year a guy speared me. I had run a sweep around left end and after I was down he dove into my lower back helmet-first. Broke three vertebrate. Had to wear a brace the rest of the season. Was he flagged? I can’t remember. Broke a toe and a finger and spent time in the whirlpool. But here’s the thing. I’d go back and do it again. Playing the greatest game of all did good things for me. It instilled a desire to stay in shape. And it shaped how I perceive other men. Over the years, I’ve seen how some men who never played football seem soft and difficult, like spoiled babies. Playing on a team and having a part to do on every play instills an appreciation for discipline and execution. And toughness too. Life hurts. There’s no avoiding pain.
Even though we were winners, I view my career with disappointment. We didn’t go undefeated and I didn’t play as well as I should have. A 70-yard touchdown and an interception provided senior year highlights. The angle of pursuit works. I ran a back down from about thirty yards back and across the field, saving a touchdown. That was it. The disappointment gave me reason to be motivated, to make sure the rest of life would not be as disappointing as a career record of 22-6-2 was. My school, you see, has won fourteen state championships and had fourteen perfect seasons. We were losers.
Football. It’s behind me now but sometimes I dream I’m playing again. The dreams seem to be in color but what stands out in those nighttime apparitions are black nights, white helmets, and glaring lights. I hate waking up. It’s worse than the end of another season because it’s the only way I can play now. I’d give anything to play again and even at my age I’d suit up for a game given the chance.
I hear the boys back home don’t care for football much now. I hear they don’t go out for the team. I hear they like their iPhones and social media more. They sound like sissies. They should wear pink skirts and paint their nails. Wear earrings too. I bet some do, the sissy Susans.
Someday when they are cleaning out their dead mom and dad’s attic, maybe they’ll come across a box of old cell phones and earrings. That won’t summon up memories nor resurrect any kind of glory will it. Let’s just hope they don’t grow up to be difficult, soft crybabies. If they do and they well might, a few fleeting years of sweat, pain, and teamwork could have worked miracles for them. Small-time glory beneath the lights? Feeling like a celebrity? It’s something you carry the rest of your life, and I feel sorry for the boys who will never know just what it feels like or how it would have changed their life.