It was in the Fall of 1973 that I started my football career with the Cowboys. Being a Cowboy was all that mattered.
We had to practice for about 3 weeks before we could eventually play our first game. Before that we had to get fitted for our uniforms. It was a very sophisticated process. Line up in single file and wait for your turn. When they finally got to you, you get to step into a cinder block outhouse that smelled of sweat, mold and decay and they thrust your equipment at you. So much for ‘fitting’. Before you could set foot on the field, you had to have a mouthpiece. To properly fit a mouthpiece you had to boil the plastic guard for 3 minutes and then place the lava-like piece directly into your mouth and bite down. Gradually over the next couple of days you would regain your sense of taste.
After 3 weeks it’s finally time for the opening game of the year. We lost the pre-game toss so we were going to kick off first. I was lined up on the outside of the line. I loved wearing the uniform, in spite of the musty sweaty smell that crept up from my shoulder pads. I start rolling my head a little for the last time to make sure I was good and loose and could ‘keep my head on a swivel’ so no one could blind side me.
The kicker is setting the ball on the tee. One final scan of the crowd and I can see my Mom in the stands. Her last words to me ( God knows what she has said to my Dad ) were to be safe.
“Mom this is football!’ You just have to worry about the other guy.” was my quick retort.
She is sitting on the third row, on the edge of the what can only be described as a spotlight effect from the bug engulfed field lights. My Dad was on the sidelines with the rest of the coaching staff. He certainly wasn’t going to be far from the action.
The ref blows his whistle. The kickers’ hand is raised high in the air to signal the beginning of the first attack. There is an almost reverential silence. Then the other ten of us on the line start hitting our thigh pads. War drums, if you will, giving the Vikings ample notice of our presence on the field. Rat a ta tat a ta tat a ta tat.
Then the kicker takes off towards the ball. We wait a split-second later to make sure we aren’t off sides. Then……….we’re off. Eleven 7 and 8 year old boys take off to tear the head off the poor kid that decides to pick up the ball.
“Stay in your lane!” my father yells. “Turn him inside where your help is!”
I am screaming on my way down the field. Arms and legs pumping in unison with a purpose. The 3 weeks of practice leading up this finally worth it. All the legs lifts, push ups, laps, walking through the plays to make sure we knew our assignments were about to pay off. Two kids come up to block me, but only give a half-hearted shrug. That’s no way to block! It must be the sheer determination on my face, striking fear in their very soul that is giving them pause.
Crap! The chicken is headed the other direction. Our first guy missed him, but there were 3 more to bring his jaunt to a quick end. Even though I wasn’t in on the play, I had already established my presence on the field. They knew I would be there all day.
The next Saturday morning we were to meet at 09:00 as a team to watch game film. We all crowded in the Living Room of Lamar McNeil’s house to see how good we looked. His dad was the head coach and actually had a movie camera. At first I was a little miffed that I wouldn’t get to see Scooby-Doo, but I quickly got over that as they started setting up the projector. The lights go out and the projector lights up the screen on the far wall. All that can be heard is the tick, tick, tick of the projector. I think this must be exactly like the pros do it.
We then see a few wormy squiggles dart up and down the screen. The cameraman had positioned himself where he could look straight down the line of kids getting ready to take off after the ball. I can almost hear the refs whistle blow. The kicker’s hand is raised high, you can see us drumming on our thigh pads. Everyone is silent awaiting the kickoff. The kicker drops his hand quickly and runs toward the ball. We are starting just after him. I am front and center on the screen. There I go……
“Dag! Look at Hanson’s head! It’s wobbling all over the place! “
“What’s wrong with his neck?”
“Look at his arms and legs. Where did you learn to run like that?”
“It looks like he has to take a crap! Why are you making THAT face?
Sure enough I looked like a freaky marionette in the hands of some demented puppeteer. Legs flailing, arms gyrating in an inexplicable manner. And my neck looked to be about a foot long. My fierce warrior’s face looked much more akin to that of someone being chased by a pack of wild hyenas. Either that or it really did look like I was rushing away to take a crap. No wonder the blockers kept their distance. They must have thought I was rabid. All I could think about was maybe they wouldn’t notice if I climbed behind the brown and white Colonial motif couch and died
“Quiet, focus on the game! Maybe next time you won’t miss your tackle!”
Thanks coach. That will shut at least one of them up. Sure enough our, as of then undiagnosed, ADHD had kicked in and they started razzing the kid who missed the tackle. My shame had been short lived.
I never did make it to pro sports. Hell, I had quit football, basketball and baseball before my senior year in high school. But I still go back to the ’70’s whenever I go to a football game. The bugs swarming the field lights. The smell of the hotdogs and popcorn in the air. Anxious mothers and proud fathers hoping their kid will be the next whoever and still come home in one piece. There is just something magical about it.
I learned over time to use my awkwardness to my advantage. I could do stupid things to make people laugh. I didn’t have the skill set needed to be a superstar in sports, but I could make funny faces or walk funny or say stupid things to get some attention for myself. I had found my niche. And while I never made it to the NFL, I was proud that eventually my moves would make it, in the persona of Merton Hanks. For those of you not familiar with who this is, I have added the link to a video for your viewing pleasure.