As a sportswriter, I have one of the best seats in the house.
At football games, I prowl the sidelines, camera and clipboard in hand, with a great view of the action. This leads, of course, to the desire to overanalyze--and criticize,even--every play and every decision the coaches and players make. I hear folks in the stands doing the same, especially if things aren’t going as well as they might.
I’m well aware that a lot goes into those plays and decisions, just as I’m aware that timing, talent and circumstance don’t always let things happen the way they’re supposed to for the players and coaches involved.
I’ve been there.
Back in the fall of 1965, I was on a Galva fresh-soph team that was challenged, indeed. My classmates and I were “in the middle” between a great group of athletes from the class before us and some more quality players coming up through the class ranks. We had a few standouts on our squad, but many of us were basically undersized and overwhelmed.
I was the quarterback.
Quarterbacks in those days called their own plays, which resulted in some truly boneheaded decisions on my part. In my own defense, there were times when it seemed nothing would work anyway, but that was no excuse for running a dive play on third and 11 or calling for a pass on one of the few times we were inches away from a score. I can still see my coach standing on the sidelines, turning grayer by the second and wondering, no doubt, if anyone would really care if he murdered me with his bare hands right then and there.
But I topped them all one night while in a game against a school from a nearby town.
It was, naturally, all about a girl.
I met her at an area swimming pool the summer before and she had, I thought, encouraged my attentions. Looking back, I realize that encouragement was probably limited to the fact that she had not actually laughed out loud the first time I revealed my then-skinny bod upon entering the pool area, but remember...I was 15, and all things were possible. She was probably dating a Harvard Law student who drove a Ferrari, while I was struggling through first-year geometry and didn’t yet have a driver’s license, but I was convinced all it would take would be some football heroics to totally captivate her.
It was a cold, rainy night. The field was a churned-up mess of frost-layered mud and big, icy puddles.
I don’t remember the name of the play I called. It probably had some esoteric-sounding name like “Zulu red 78-12” or some such hard-to-remember nonsense. I remember it, simply, as this:
She was, of course, a cheerleader.
I wasn’t even sure she knew I was a football player, much less THE QUARTERBACK, so I decided to abuse my signal-calling responsibilities by calling a keeper around right end, directly in front of her and her friends.
“Wasn’t that the handsome, yet intelligent, guy from Galva you met at the pool this summer?”
Those were the words I was sure she would hear from one of her gal-pals as I zoomed past them up the sideline.
Energized, I took the snap, faked to the fullback, then tucked the ball and scampered toward their side of the field.
Meanwhile, on a nearby highway, the driver of a Mack truck lost control of his vehicle, careened through the fence surrounding the school area, and sped onto the football field.
Or, at least, that’s what it felt like when a linebacker, who had read the play perfectly, met me helmet-to-helmet as I crossed the line of scrimmage.
John Madden would have loved the lick that sucker laid on me. He would have probably put his picture on the side of his bus. But Madden wasn’t there, so the linebacker had to be satisfied with the mass groan that arose from the Galva bleachers as I flipped and flew through the air...
...and landed in one of the icy mud puddles.
As I crawled from my watery grave, I glanced at the sidelines.
There she was. Looking right at me.
Not for me. For the hit.
A few games later, I suffered a knee injury that all but ended my football career. And a few years later, I was lucky enough to meet a beautiful girl who has continued to love me for all the things I am, not caring about the football hero I never was.
Like most guys my age, my personal sports highlight reel generally features the high points and skips the violent trips to cold, deep mud puddles. Even so, as I stand at the sidelines, I think back to that night once in awhile, especially when an especially hard hit scuttles a play right in front of me.
I know how you feel.