I drove by my high school the other day and caught a glimpse of my old practice field.
It’s funny, but these days I am much more gung-ho about the beginning of a football season than I was back then, in the mid-seventies, when I was an unwilling participant at tight end for our team.
Unwilling because to me it meant an early end to summer, for something as miserable and as unappealing as football practice, which always began that first day with humiliating probes and coughing at the group physical, for hernias and other such unlikely defects.
In those days football practice meant going one-on-one against the likes of Dave Voth or George Goodhart, both scary men-children, who seemed willing and eager to inflict severe and irreparable damage to any or all of my limbs.
But mostly for me, thankfully, it usually meant standing around, while the real football players got to practice the plays, because they were the ones who would be under the lights on Friday nights.
Those same nights when we, the walking practice dummies, would be demoted even further to that lowly athletic life form known as the “team player.”
You know the ones, who only get into a game with less than a minute and the team up by at least 40 points.
We were supposed to stand down on the sidelines, in our tattered jerseys and over-sized, under-padded helmets, feigning interest and enthusiasm, while the Goodharts and the Voths rode the brokenness of our frail bodies to the greater glory of the team.
My only question was then, and still is: Where was this fantasy “team concept” when the cheerleaders were crawling all over them at all those post-game parties?
My brief moment of glory did come however, when, as a sophomore, I had two receptions for touchdowns. Of course it was for the sophomore team, but hey, even Jerry Rice started somewhere.
My playing time had been so seldom that when on those rare occasions I did get in a game, anything was possible -- because as it turned out, I didn’t really know the plays all that well.
So my first TD actually came when I sort of ran the wrong route and arrived right in front of our flanker, Terry Brewer, at the same time the ball did.
So I grabbed it, and after spinning around a few times, managed to even run the right way before being tackled. But I was so tall that I had managed to fall over the goal line -- my first touchdown!
I handed the ball to the ref while envisioning my upcoming ticker-tape parade.
My teammates all seemed happy, all except for Brewer that is.
My second and last TD came a few weeks later at the end of a game we were losing 42-0. I did make a great catch over their fourth string safety though.
So after those small successes the coach finally had enough confidence in me to grab me by the shoulder pad in the next game, and tell me to run a post (I had learned the difference in a post and a flag after the Brewer incident). He said to tell our QB Johnny Dallas (what a great name) to throw it to me. I still remember the shocked look on Dallas’ face after I relayed the instructions from the sideline.
I had a lot of time to think about my route as I trotted from the huddle to my spot at the end of the line of scrimmage. Too much time actually. The cornerback was right on the line staring at me as I got down in my stance. Then suddenly some linebacker yelled out, “watch 87!” (my number).
Why would he say that I wondered? I wanted to stand up and yell back at him, “No you don’t need to watch me. I’m not the one he’s going to throw it to!”
Instead, I remained still and tried to look invisible.
But then my nerves got the best of me and all of the pre-play excitement caused me to bolt from my stance, just a bit prematurely and before the rest of my teammates. Now offside, I hesitated, wanting desperately to take it back, but it was too late, as the rest of our offense was now moving. I began running again as they charged off the line, and from the corner of my eye I could see the yellow flag drifting in front of the referee.
I continued with my route and the cornerback let me go as the safety picked me up. But when I made my cut toward the goal post my feet became tangled and down I went, only to look up just in time to see the safety catch Dallas’ pass, and then smile down at me as he ran the other way.
And just like that my future as an all-pro tight end for the Cowboys ended before it ever got going.