Wednesday, August 18, 2010

MPR's Peter Smith on high-school football: "We stunk and we knew it."

Brett Favre is here and Minnesota is rejoicing—and perhaps remembering how Al Franken totally called this last week.

We've got football on the brain (and not to mention cautious hopes at a Super Bowl championship). In honor of the season, we are happy to share an essay by Peter Smith, who remembers with "fondness" his days of high-school football. Smith is a weekly contributor to MPR's Morning Edition with Cathy Wurzer and author of the forthcoming essay anthology A Porch Sofa Almanac.


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For a while there—most of freshman, and all of sophomore, junior and senior years—my high school football team was mired in a losing streak. Once a year, we might tie someone. Or even eek out a win. The sad truth was that, for a variety of reasons, we just weren’t very good, and from the start of practice in late August to the day we turned in our equipment in early November, the deepest bruises and contusions were the ones inflicted on our hearts and souls. We stunk and we knew it.

Other teams greeted the new season with fresh hope and surging spirits. They jogged out there with enthusiasm that first day of practice, and they launched into their calisthenics thinking this could be the year. Not us. We walked onto the field ruefully, the smokers among us stubbing out their last cigarettes before going into training. We slouched into our drills with a shrugging, “Here goes nothing,” resignation.

Ours was a tradition rich with abject failure and adolescent nihilism. Around our program, the stench of futility was as pungent and pervasive as the smell of the last owner’s sweat inside your just-issued helmet.

I doubt Coach could have spelled nihilism, let alone define it, but he knew it when he saw it, and, year after year, he saw it in us. Undaunted, he coached on, trying to instill character as he installed his offense and defense. More than just building a football program, Coach wanted to build fine young men—upright, resolute, stout-hearted young men. Young men who would preside over the Student Council, give the Valedictorian speech, and win the two hundred and fifty dollar college scholarship from the local American Legion. Handsome, community-minded types—like Frank Gifford, the much-admired New York Giants’ halfback.

Sadly, no. Most of us were more in the mold of the Baltimore Colts’ enigmatic Joe Don Looney. Joe Don had been known to run the wrong way on purpose. He played when he felt like it. He didn’t play when he didn’t. He once told his coach he couldn’t go into a game because his karma wasn’t right. When his playing days were over, Joe Don spent several years tending elephants for a Hindu swami.
All this in that post-Elvis, pre-Beatles era. Bob Dylan had not yet pronounced it, but you could feel it—the times were a-changing.

Coach, a straight-shooting, flattop-sporting character builder, had his hands full. Just fielding a team in time for the regular season was a victory.

The losing began when the season began, and went on and on, week after week. In cities and towns across three counties, we were that one game on everyone’s schedule that the old timers could circle and count as a victory long before the game was played.

Even when things were going good, something would go bad. Someone on our team would “cheap shot” somebody on the other side. First and ten would become first and twenty-five. The thin veneer of success would crack. Failure would reemerge and, with failure, an oddly reassuring sense of normalcy. We were losing again. All was right with the world.

When the chips were down and our backs were against the wall—which was pretty much every week—Coach brought in a nervous little man with a clipboard to deliver an inspirational speech before we took the field. The nervous little man had been student manager on Coach’s college team, and he shared Coach’s belief in God, America, and the character-building power of football.

Week after week, the nervous little man would look to the ceiling. The fluorescent lights would glint off his glasses and he would take a deep breath, fix us with a righteous stare and start his speech on an innocuously low key and obvious point.

Something like, “Well boys, this is it. The Barrington game…”

Referring to his clipboard now and then, he would begin to build steam. He would recall every slight, real or imagined. Every missed call, every Barrington cheap shot and lucky break, and every opportunity to beat Barrington that we’d fumbled away on the one yard line. He would pile bad break on top of unlucky bounce, injury on top of indignity, working himself slowly to a crescendo. He would pace back and forth and chew and jawbone and snarl and seethe and scrap and yap like a Jack Russell terrier on a rag doll, building a righteous, Elmer Gantry-like indignation.

Then, suddenly, clipboard high overhead, he would pause in mid rant, as if struck by some new and incredibly more important thought. The clipboard would come down. So, too, would the tone. Where only fifteen seconds before it had been ringing, now it was confidential. Cajoling.

“I don’t have to tell you this one’s important, boys,” he would wheedle. “This is Barrington, for goodness sake. Bare… Ring… Ton…”

He would begin to build anew—a series of, “I don’t have to tell you’s.”

“I don’t have to tell you how bad Coach wants this win…”

“I don’t have to tell you the whole season is riding on this one…”

When he finished telling us everything he didn’t have to tell us, he turned his attention to the memories we were making for ourselves. These were the best days we would ever know. So let’s go out there and make the kind of memories we could be proud of in the future.

His voice always broke on the word, “proud”. This was our cue to stand and put on our helmets. He would use “proud” three or four more times – “Go out there and make your parents proud. Your school proud. Your town proud.” If the game were big enough, he even would even manage to make himself cry just a little.

And we would huddle up and lean in and give a big, albeit false-hearted cheer. And we would clatter out of the locker room on our high-topped football cleats. Smelling of fresh athletic tape, pine tar and a mentholated substance called “Atomic Balm,” we would push down the hall, out into the brilliant autumn sunlight. We would stride across the parking lot and through the gates and take the football field – our home football field – with a gritty-but-thinly-rooted sense of purpose.

And we would lose. Week after week, we would fail Coach and our parents and our school and our town. We would send the nervous little man back to the well for more tears and more inspiration.

“Well, boys, this is it. The Crystal Lake game…”

“Well, boys, this is it. The Woodstock game…”

“Well, boys, this is it. The Zion game…”

Our record my senior season is etched on my heart. 0-7-1. We battled to an uplifting 0-0 tie at Homecoming—a rainy moral victory that echoes down through the ages.

August again. I long since quit smoking, but part of me longs to light up a Lucky Strike if only to drop it and grind it out under a cleat, slide a stinky old helmet on and walk out onto the practice field once more—to make everyone—Coach, Mom and Pop, the school—the whole town—proud.


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Read more essays by Peter Smith in A Porch Sofa Almanac.

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