At the age of nine, I had the honor of being one of two second graders selected for the Manley Falcons grasscutters football team.
As a Falcon, I played at Manley Elementary back when Morristown was home. As a second grader on a team composed mostly of third and fourth graders, I was relegated to special teams but only permitted on the kick off team on the remote chance that I might, if placed on the kick return team, mistakenly believe that I should ever attempt to touch the ball.
I wasn’t bothered by this. My father was thrilled to see me play and almost every night after practice, I was guaranteed a Coke icee at the 7-11.
Plus, being on the kick off team meant I got to tackle people. That was a simple enough concept for my nine year old mind to understand. Coach, in a booming voice that would startle even Chuck Norris, would iterate and reiterate to us: “Find the guy with the ball and put him on his back!” Simple. What had not quite clearly occurred to me yet was that while I was attempting to follow these perfectly clear instructions, others with similarly clear instructions would be attempting to prevent me from fulfilling mine.
One particular practice, I drew the short straw and managed to get lined up against the coach’s son on the receiving team. The coach’s son, Brad, was an enigma to everyone else on the team. Twice the size of even most of the fourth graders, it was like lining up against Lou Ferrigno before they began applying the green body paint.
I had seen numerous other boys, older than me, get carried from the practice field looking through the ear hole of their helmet and crying for mamma after taking a hit from Brad. Rumors had even permeated the team that his dad had altered his birth certificate and that Brad was a grain fed 12 year old who should really be in the sixth grade.
Needless to say, I was less than thrilled at the idea of spending this practice session playing blocking dummy for this Incredible Hulk wannabe. But I would persevere. After all, there was a Coke icee with my name on it waiting across the street.
All I had to do was survive.
My ability to do that came into question after only two plays. I was getting slaughtered and for the first time ever I had seen what I believed were stars. This called for drastic measures. Brad was taller than me, bigger than me, stronger than me and faster than me. My only option was to utilize the one area where I may have an advantage.
As we stood up after the second play, I gave him a look of complete disdain and spewed out, “That is twice you have missed your blocking assignment!”
Brad recoiled from my outburst and looked at me with confusion. “You’re not my blocking assignment?”
“Of course not! Patrick has run right down the field untouched twice now and you missed your assignment both times!” Patrick was the only other second grader on the team and, at the time, my best friend. Unfortunately for him, Patrick was lined up next to me in the only position I felt I could possibly convince Brad that he was responsible for. I would have told Brad that Shirley Temple was his blocking assignment if she had been in Patrick’s place. Not convinced that my efforts to persuade him were working, I threw in a final shot, “Now get back down there, get lined up and stay focused!”
The next play culminated with a teeth grating crack that only a helmet on helmet impact can make. Fortunately, neither of those helmets were mine. I ran over to help Patrick up as Brad climbed off of him. “Great job!” I said to no one in particular hoping Brad would receive it as encouragement for nailing his perceived blocking assignment and Patrick would think I was impressed with his durability.
I scraped Patrick off the grass and walked him back to his position.
Patrick survived yet another play and as I helped him up a second time, I barely had time to consider the ethics of my actions before we were all startled by coach’s booming voice, “#32, who is your blocking assignment?”
Coach never called us by our names when he was angry. Though he knew everyone’s name, when he was frustrated, even his son was simply a number.
Brad, growing ever more confused pointed hesitantly at Patrick. “No, sir!” his dad responded with disgust.
“This!” and he emphasized the word by stepping behind me, placing a hand on each shoulder and pushing me back and forth slightly to ensure there was no confusion. “This is your blocking assignment and he has marched down field untouched twice now. Do you understand me?” This was starting to sound all too familiar.
Brad’s eyes locked with mine in a glare so hot it could melt butter as he meekly responded, “Yes, Sir.”
“Then get back down that field, get lined up and stay focused!” I was having some serious déjà vu and began to wonder if my brain was already shutting down in anticipation of the upcoming violent collision.
From a distance of several yards, I could see the anger on Brad’s face. The redness of embarrassment and frustration was pulsating across his cheeks and did not subside as the ball began its arc into the awaiting arms of the return man. It was like staring down the grill of a Mack Truck coming at you at 90 miles per hour. In the few short seconds I had, I resolved that I had lived a good life, made right with my maker and took time to mourn that I would never savor another beloved Coke icee again.
In no time at all, my uncertainty was resolved. Those were definitely stars. As I stumbled off in search of my mother, I marveled at their beauty and was amazed at how clearly I could see them, even through my ear hole.
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© Michael L. Collins
*Published as “Youth football memories: Coke Icees and earholes” in the January 13, 2104 edition of The Mountain Press.