Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Left Behind: The True Story of a Boy Playing Football (sort of)

Excitement surged through me as I stuck my hand out so that one of the coaches could write "4RG" on it with a green marker. Standing there in my football uniform I felt manly, although, I was only eight years old. I had admired the football trophies that my older brothers' had received from playing on winning teams. Now it was going to be my turn to gain such a coveted icon.

I glanced around at my teammates, a huge group with whom I had practiced in the heat of many late summer evenings. Almost every boy I knew played football in the autumn back in those days because there were few other activities available. The excitement among the group was palpable as we got ready for the start of our first game.

That was pretty much the high point of my football career. The "RG" part of the monogram on the back of my hand meant that I was assigned to play right guard, an offensive position. I didn't know much about it. We did a lot of running and calisthenics at practice. Sometimes we chucked balls. We hadn't done much scrimmaging. Or at least the squad to which I was assigned hadn't.

It turned out that I needn't have worried about knowing how to play my position. The "4" on the back of my hand meant that I was part of the fourth string. The coaches had ranked the team members and they (rightfully, I later understood) placed me among the dregs of the team. Heck, the kid that still sucked his thumb was on third string. But he could play football better than me.

The only way the fourth string offense would hit the field was if the team was way ahead. Not like one or two touchdowns ahead. So far ahead that the other team had no chance of catching up. Well, that never happened. I'm not talking about the first game. I'm talking about the whole season.

As the autumn wore on and evening practices went from hot to warm to cold, I showed up Saturday after Saturday in my perpetually clean game jersey. One of the coaches would write "4RG" on the back of my hand with a green marker. And then I'd sit on the sidelines, something at which I became very proficient.

The way our team played, the defensive line saw most of the action. Our offensive line spent so little time on the field that the second string rarely played. The third string offensive players occasionally saw a little action toward the end of a game. But the flotsam and jetsam of the fourth string were confined to the sidelines game after game.

One time our coaches promised to buy us milkshakes if we won the next game. Amazingly, we did. It was the only game we won all season. And when I say "we" I mean "they," because I never played. Or maybe my not playing helped the team win. At any rate, I was excited about getting a milkshake.

After the coaches broke the news, I ran to tell my dad. I sent him home and went back to the team gathering. Only nobody was there. I later discovered that I had failed to listen to the rest of the news. The milkshake party would happen after practice on Monday evening.

I looked around at the people that had gathered for the next football game. I didn't see anybody I knew. I had no money. I was dressed in an uncomfortable football uniform with cleats that made walking a chore. I looked north and could see the prominent mountain that was north of my home. Not knowing what else to do, I started walking in that direction. I didn't realize that I was more than 10 miles from home. Hey, I was only eight.

I lost track of time as I trudged through the urban area of town. People looked at me oddly, but nobody said anything to me or offered to help. Eventually I saw a building with which I was familiar, so I knew I was going the right way. I knew how to get to the main drag from there, so I was soon headed north on the busiest street in town.

For some reason it didn't cross my mind to duck into a business and ask to use their phone. Maybe I figured that kids weren't allowed inside businesses without their parents because I had never been inside a business without an adult. I was just a kid doing what I thought I could do. I never thought I was actually lost because I had a general idea of how to get home and figured that I'd get there at some point.

Unbeknownst to me, my parents had eventually wondered where I was and had called my coach, who had been home for hours. He had no clue where I was either. There was a lot of area between my home and the school where the game had been played. Where would they look?

I was still several miles from home when a car passed me and then pulled over to the side of the road. One of my friends from school and from the team (a really good kid that played good football) leaned out of the window and called to me.

Soon I was in the backseat of the car as my friend's mother listened to my tale with noticeable shock. A few minutes later she dropped me off in the driveway of our house just as my dad was about to pull out of the driveway to start looking for me. He was both relieved and angry.

To top it off, I missed the milkshake party two days later because my family had some kind of conflicting commitment that caused me to leave practice early. So I never got the treat that had been the impetus for the whole debacle in the first place.

The weather was rather chilly for the last game, which was played at a field not far from my home. Dad watched the game from the car so that he could stay out of the cold. Again I commanded a spot on the sidelines throughout the game.

Suddenly the coaches called for the fourth string offensive players to go to the line of scrimmage. Was this for real? We were losing and there was little time left in the game. So I guess the coaches figured that they had nothing to lose by sending in the goof squad.

I was soon lined up opposite another player. A whistle sounded and I heard the quarterback call some numbers. I wasn't cognizant of when the ball was snapped, but everyone started moving. I briefly pressed up against the guy I was supposed to block. Another whistle sounded and the play was over almost before I realized what had happened. Somehow we had kept control of the ball so we were to remain on the field.

We lined up again. Just as the quarterback was about to begin calling numbers the final whistle of the game sounded. I had spent an entire season practicing football and attending football games so that I could play in one single down of an official game.

After the team broke up, I excitedly ran to the car at the edge of the field to hear what my dad had to say about my play. He was asleep and had missed seeing me on the field. I never received a football trophy to put on the dresser in my bedroom. Back in those days trophies only went to the top placing teams. There was no such thing as a participation trophy.

Perhaps it's not surprising that I declined to play football during subsequent seasons and that I never developed much of an affinity for the game. But I did learn some valuable lessons. Like what to do when you get left behind.

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