On Football

My Life in Football

It’s football season in America. Football tackles my mind. I want to write about it. I want to tackle the subject and then give it a helping hand up so it can return to the huddle. Wait, they don’t huddle in football anymore. That says a lot about the country these days. In huddles, players confer, encourage, and yes, excoriate. I’ve been in huddles where I witnessed the gamut of human emotions and intelligence. I’ve been in huddles where players cried. Not huddling anymore is sort of like the way we mostly communicate with each other these days—signals, not face to face.

Recently, I drove by a practice football field, an abandoned one, with an ungodly, absurd crown (you have to really know football to know what that means), a crown practically three feet in height, (this is where the phrase running downhill comes from, now lost for all time because of flat artificial turf surfaces). The field once belonged to a now-defunct school district, a bumpy, dandelion-ridden gridiron, where sons of farmers, loggers, roofers and fishermen once drilled.

The goal posts were rusted, peeling and tilting. Blackberries had engulfed ancient blocking sleds. Someone was still mowing the field, but why? Perhaps it was for a secret dog park. The dogs had taken over and thundered their shits with glee where padded and helmeted teenage gladiators once tried to damage each other, but rarely did. That came later.

I could see faint traces of yard-lines on the forlorn field, from decades of applying lime. Oh for the return of lime on a football field! I want to write a book about called, “The Last Limed Football Field in America.” It might the one in Elkton, Oregon. Or Eddyville. Or Alsea. What football fields they are! The elk come right out onto the field during a game! They’re great defenders for the long passing game.

These fields are also known to receive the occasional salmon washed up in the end zone if the rivers adjacent to the fields flood at precisely the right moment. I’ve heard stories of players taking them home after practice and frying them up for supper. That means something in Oregon.

Recent news reports have documented a dramatic decline in the nationwide participation in youth, junior high and high school football. What does that augur for the sport, the business, our popular culture? I’ll let others sort that out and either lament or jump for joy. I do find it interesting to witness up close when a once-popular cultural pastime begins to fade, ultimately to near or total extinction. Drive-in movies, bowling, record stores, mixed horny doubles, writing postcards, fondue, jello desserts, crocheting doilies. Is football going the way of fondue in the next 25 years?

I have fond and unsettling memories of football, playing and coaching it. Let me revisit a few of those memories during football season and I will write about football in non-linear fashion and as if I were play calling a long offensive drive, slyly mixing run and pass, and perhaps throwing in a gadget play—or two. Gadget plays are fun! More gadget plays in our lives! Non digital ones. Sometimes gadget plays succeed. But the point of a gadget play in football is that you are willing to call them and must go deep into the creative mind of the players and coaches. Timing is everything.

The drive begins. Here’s the snap. First play—power sweep, both guards pulling. It’s starting to rain. They’ll expect us to stick to the ground. Sure we will.

Football was by far the favorite sport in my youth and I was very good at it. I loved to hit people during football, and if that sounds bad, then chalk it up to atavism, the cave, the fire, the hunt. I never cheap shot anyone.

I wasn’t very big. I used my brain to be a great football player. It worked.

We played football every month of the year but of course, preferred it in rain, mud or snow. Those snow games in the parks and back yards were the greatest. Football on a dry sunny day is a remarkably ordinary experience for a kid. Most of my football was unorganized, meaning adults didn’t organize it. Almost all of my best moments came from unorganized football. Do kids get to experience that anymore? I haven’t seen kids playing football in a park or field or street or on the beach in 20 years.

In every unorganized football setting in my Oregon City youth, I designed every play when my team huddled. My friends never contested my authority. They knew I knew football and trusted me. I quarterbacked us until the organization came. The systems of coaches and the oceans of cliches. That’s when football began to suck.

As I kid, all I read were military and sports biographies. I read about all the football greats, but only pro: Bart Starr, Bronco N, Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Gayle Sayers, George Halas, Jim Brown (they left out the activism), Ray N, Joe Willie Namath, Vince, you name it. I accrued an encyclopedic knowledge of professional football history and draw upon it all the time, like right now!

My favorite childhood toy was an electric football game, where the metal field vibrated, and the players went everywhere except where they were supposed to go. I never completed a pass. I used to sprinkle baby powder to simulate snow. I never once played with another person. It was always me against me and the Dallas Cowboys always seemed to win. My pet beagle used to chew the heads off the players if I left them out and wasn’t around.

Note to self: I’d love to bust Paul Ryan up in a “touch” football game. He’d reveal his true character after he came across the middle and I was waiting for him with my cousins ready to coverage. We’d go Jack Tatum on his ass. The return of the clothesline.

I never had a romantic, sexual, or vandalizing experience on a football field. These have become the staple of books, movies and TV shows since football has been played. Think Dazed and Confused or The Virgin Suicides or Catcher in the Rye or Friday Night Lights.

I quit playing organized football my sophomore year in high school. I broke my ankle in a JV game and that was it. A short time later, I started writing a novel about my high school football experience. I never finished it and don’t think it had a title. This fragment was lost decades ago, but it had a Holden Caufield kind of narrator, a defensive back, who loathed everything associated with high school football, except for the actual playing of the game and the chess of being a smart defensive back and trying to outguess the opposition quarterback.

My first regularly paid professional writing job was covering Nestucca High School football for a Tillamook newspaper. I truly enjoyed it and loved roaming the sidelines, finding the little epiphanies here and there. I’ll never forget the season-opening game after 9/11. For a moment, it was America the Decent. That all vanished, though. We punted that unique opportunity. Three downs, loss of 25 yards, kick. I learned how to write on deadline and in the active voice as a sportswriter. I also loved supplying the headlines that offered subliminal conservation messages ….such as Bobcats Clearcut the Loggers.

I coached junior high football with my father for two seasons back in the 1980s. We often reminisce about this experience and consider it one of our best times together. I coached the backs and he coached the lineman. I called all the offensive plays and defensive sets. My greatest joy came from rolling out gadget plays on offense and the players loved the bravado even more. Sometimes they even worked. I frequently would call the same gadget play two times in a row, provided the first take didn’t result in a touchdown or disaster. That’s unheard of in football coaching.

We finished 3-3 and 4-2 and had several memorable victories, including one over a Woodburn team whose star player was a girl, undoubtedly a farm tomboy. She played fullback and middle linebacker and in the first half, ran roughshod over us. None of my players wanted to hit her and we trailed 6-0 at halftime.

At halftime, I gave the only fiery speech of my brief football coaching career. It just wasn’t my forte and I never responded to them as a player. But this one time, as my players knelt in the end zone around me, I delivered the Hollywood goods. It basically came down to this: YOU HAVE TO TREAT HER LIKE A BOY AND HIT THE HELL OUT OF HER! RUN HER OVER, THEN PICK HER UP. It worked and we won the game 12-6.

I was once knocked out during a football game. I caught a punt, started running right and got smashed out of bounds by three tacklers. I was revived by smelling salts and went back in the game. I was an eighth grader. No concussion protocols then and coaches rarely allowed the drinking of water during games or practices! They thought it made you soft.

I once separated the shoulder of a player I tackled by swinging him out of bounds and into the pole vault pit.

Football on the beach where the incoming tide serves as one sideline makes for some novel playcalling opportunities that can utilize the retreating tide for huge advantage. Moreover, you have sand at your disposal to draw up the perfect play and everyone in the huddle can see how it will work.

I have the distinction of scoring a touchdown in every way a touchdown can be scored: running, receiving, kickoff return, punt return, fumble return, interception return. I also threw a touchdown pass.

It used to shock my students when they learned I played and coached football. Several refused to believe it. I suppose my personality, dress, cultural interests, personal mannerisms, writing life, and room décor didn’t match their image of what a former football player might look like. I always won points from the athletes for my football credentials and talked the jargon with them on game days.

I recall some really great dates where all we did was throw the football around and talk. You get to know a lot about someone doing this.

In 1993, I watched the Super Bowl in a deserted hotel bar in Bodrum, Turkey, on the Aegean Sea. It was three in the morning and my Turkish girlfriend I was traveling with arranged with management to allow us to watch the game. There we were, freezing in the unheated bar, drinking beers we had brought along, and we watched the game and I tried to explain the rules and objectives. She thought American football incredibly boring but liked the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. She told me she wanted one of the outfits!

I often used the football fields at various teaching jobs as a place for writing instruction. Sometimes we just went out to the field on a nice day, spread out, sat down or splayed on the grass, and wrote in our journals about clouds or whatever floated through our minds. Sometimes I gave specific football-related prompts, such as moments attending Friday night games or, far, far more interesting, non-football stories related to the field. It was fascinating to later read how so many students (the non football players) used the field for late-night hi jinks that involved everything from sex, stripping, drinking, poetry, vandalism, witchcraft and forbidden meetings. I could have published a scandalous literary review of these stories!

My fifth and sixth grade flag football coach at Mt. Pleasant Elementary in Oregon City was the best and kindest football coach I ever had. What an innovator! It was from him that I got the idea to run the same gadget play twice in a row. We had so many things going on offensively that we bedazzled our opponents and were 11-1 in those two seasons. This coach taught me a lot of football and about sportsmanship. Other coaches taught me football but very little about sportsmanship. It’s a strange thing as a kid to see an adult running up the score on another team. I had coach in junior high who was particularly notorious for doing that, and once ran up the score on my father-coached team at a crosstown rival. I scored three touchdowns in that game, against my Old Man! We beat him 50-0. On one of the touchdowns, I ran right past him on the sideline and sort of nodded in apology.

I am ashamed of my participation in bullying a player on my eighth grade football team. He was too poor to afford cleats and played in hand-me down black loafers! This bullying was aided and abetted by a coach. I never allowed this sort of harassment during my tenure as a football coach. I intervened aggressively to stop it.

A couple of years ago, when I was in extreme crisis, I returned to a football field of my youth to try and makes sense of my demolished life. On this field, I grounded myself, and figured out a football metaphor to employ to get back in the game of caring and creating.

I see flag football is coming back for youth. It should have never left. It’s way more fun than tackle and no one ever leads with their head. None of us ever got hurt. I imagine pro football going that way in the next 25 years.

One of the more curious cultural developments in recent years is the meteoric rise of American women becoming serious football fans. I dated two football cheerleaders in high school and they both dumped me in short order. One of them has the distinction of being the only person besides myself to write in my journals. Decades later, we read her entries together and laughed. I’ve written a lot about her and plan on writing more. I don’t think she’ll ever know how large she loomed in my life. The uniform may have had something to do with it.

As a preacher’s kid, I had access to the big lawn in front of the church. It was shaped like a football field and my friends and I would play there for hours, with Dad quarterbacking for both sides, tackling, stiff arming, huddling, running, scoring touchdowns, all under the watchful eye of a huge metal cross affixed to the front of the church. My friends and I also played football in the spacious basement of the church, on carpet, tackle. We once tried to make coffee in one of those towering church percolators and failed.

There was something else interesting about being a preacher’s kid. I often skipped the Sunday sermon because I wanted to watch the Dallas Cowboys play and this was long before ESPN an endless replays. If you didn’t see the game live, you never saw it. My parents were perfectly fine with my absence and I look back today and think that was pretty incredible. I never had to lie and say I was sick. I just said I wanted to watch football.

I sorely miss Howard Cosell’s commentary on Monday Night Football. You won’t hear the words “scintillating” or “pejorative” coming out the mouths of contemporary announcers. You’ll also never hear sophisticated analysis of civil rights issues as they pertain to players, which Howard could provide at the drop of his hat. Howard would have loved Colin Kaepernick’s stand and become his fiercest advocate, just like he was with Ali.

Woodsmoke is the smell of football. I just caught a whiff of it wafting through the neighborhood and wanted to go out and throw the pigskin around.

I long to see my foolishly discarded football card collection. They were good friends to me. I once chose my “All NFL Name Team,” which was a lineup of the best football names at each position. Dick Butkus made the team every year. He probably had the best football name of all time.

Let me now consider something else about football that I noticed a couple of years ago, something vexing and quite revealing about American culture. It is the now widely accepted practice of college and professional (high school?) football players of celebrating routine plays, such as making a first down on a running play at midfield early in the second quarter, or making a special teams tackle while trailing by 28 points in the fourth quarter, or scoring a meaningless touchdown with seconds to go in the game. You see this all the time and you used to never see it. I doubt coaches allowed it, but more to the point, players would have never conceived such absurd self aggrandizement for something as trivial as making a first down on a seven yard run with nothing at stake on the clock.

Why this shift?

I see nothing wrong with orchestrated celebrations after exciting touchdowns, although I much prefer the simple spike or nonchalantly handing over the ball to the official, like the way Barry Sanders always did. It was no big deal—he’d be back.

Again, why the change? It does coincide with the rise of social media and the general self aggrandizement of all aspects of American life, but there has to be more to it than that. I wish announcers would talk about this habit and call it out or ask about it. But nothing is ever mentioned, not even in passing. Maybe they don’t even notice. Maybe we’ve become nearly immune to this sort of beating on our proverbial chests to get people to notice us and our accomplishments, like tackling a punt returner for no gain. I fear in the past I may have been like this in my creative life, but never again. I like the Barry Sanders way of celebrating.

The greatest of all my football memories was a family affair. I’ve published multiple versions of this story before but I now realize it fits into a larger context of my life. Thus, it makes perfect sense to include it here.

On Thanksgiving day 1979, my family played the last of its “Turkey Bowl” football games. It was a generational affair pitting the male cousins (Matt, Darin, and Kirt) versus the uncles (Karl, Dan and Dale) as Grandfather watched. The tradition began in the early 1970s as a diversion from the boring half-time show of the Dallas Cowboys game broadcast on Thanksgiving afternoon.

The routine was: watch Detroit lose in the morning, gorge on a feast prepared by the women, watch Dallas play most of the first half, then at the two-minute warning, change clothes, toss the football around (the weather never mattered), play our 45-minute game on a muddy field, come back in, not change clothes, feast again, and settle into a game that invariably saw Cowboys’ quarterback Roger Staubach pull it out at the end.

As the years passed, the game evolved from a friendly Kennedy family photo op to an intense rivalry. Grandfather kept score as he prowled the sidelines, never cheering, thinking about pie for dessert, shooting bad photographs, and proud to see his brood on the field.

I played quarterback for the cousins and we lost every game, usually as a result of gimmick special teams plays or trick touchdown passes. We came close a few times, and after an especially aching defeat in 1978 when we lost on a Hail Mary with the score tied, we pledged right there on the field to go all out and win the next year.

That meant ratcheting up the seriousness of the game so that’s exactly what we did. We repeatedly talked strategy on the phone in September. In October, I recall at some family gathering Darin gave Dale, the younger uncle, a tube of Ben-Gay, saying “You’re going to need this when the next game over.” Dale didn’t think it was funny.

About a week before Thanksgiving, the cousins met and an incident occurred that made me realize just how serious we’d become in pursuit of victory. In a discussion on how to thwart Dale’s big-play capability, Darin set up a wooden folding chair, coiled into a perfect three-point stance, and announced, “This is what I’m going to do to Dale.” He then exploded into the chair, sent it flying into a wall ten feet away where it shattered into a half dozen pieces. We were in a church at the time.

It would almost be literature if I could write the game was close, hinged on a final play. I cannot. We blitzed the uncles from the opening kickoff and won 49-14 on a dry field at Ainsworth Park in Northeast Portland. We scored on every possession. We seemed faster, more into it. We never let up on the uncles as they had on us in the earlier games of the rivalry. When the rout concluded, we all shook hands, and I remember feeling great in a way that I had never felt before.

We headed back inside, I think the women might of asked “who won?” and the two teams gathered up a second big meal, and caught the rest of the Cowboys’ game.

In six months Grandfather would be dead from a heart attack, Darin off to college, my dad no longer part of this family’s holidays because of divorce, and I would get my driver’s license. We never played football as a family again.

I will close this meandering stream of consciousness on football, with a heartbreaking story of getting my teenage heart broken while attending a high school football game. It was the last game I ever attended as a student. The story goes like this:

It was my junior year. I’d retired from football the previous season after the injury and intellectual exhaustion with arrogant coaches (in plaid polyester shorts) who breathed bromides with every scream. I had a Super Bowl crush on a fellow junior, easily the most exotic female on campus: clothes, hair, makeup, moves, foreign born but not a foreign exchange student. Her signature look was matching or clashing headbands and leg warmers. She was utterly self-exiled from the popular crowd. I suspected they feared her. No one could fathom her. I no longer recall how we met or what established and eventually deepened our mutual attraction. We might have had a class together that first semester. I do remember our first and last date together—if date is the word. It transpired at a football game! We arranged to meet at halftime of the Homecoming game. Why halftime? Why not opening kickoff? She made the call. She was quarterbacking. We met near the concession stand. A light rain fell. As she approached, I saw she was wearing a red headband and red and white-striped legwarmers. Our school colors were red and white. We got close. Her face was flushed, crimson, and sported a crooked smile. She slurred a little hello and teetered. She gave me a big hug and I breathed in deep: hair, body, soul. It was all booze. She reeked of alcohol. I had never smelled it up close on a person like that, evaporating, damn near visible, but I knew what it was, even thought I didn’t drink in high school and had never been drunk. She told me she’d been drinking rum and produced a half pint out of her purse that was almost empty. She didn’t offer me a belt. In the background, I heard the marching band. I saw the glare from the lights. I smelled hotdogs and hamburgers sizzling on the grills. The PA was announcing some raffle or car wash. She took my hand and led me away from the concession stand, into the darkness of the nearby side streets. She asked where my car was parked. My 74 blue VW Dasher was a few blocks away. We found it and slid onto the back seat. She took a final belt of rum and the bottle somehow got stowed. We started making out. I think I got drunk on rum from kissing her. A rum makeout fog clouded the windows. We were probably in there until the fourth quarter. All we did was kiss. The makeout session concluded. I walked her back to the stadium. She disappeared into the crowd. She’d invited me to come along, wherever she was going, but I declined. I have no idea why. It might have been the dumbest decision of my life up that point and for the next 20 years. I never told a single person about this “date.” I recorded it in my journal where no one has ever read of it. We never had another date. We never spoke of what happened. There was never a look from her in the halls. Every time I see a Dasher, I wince. Luckily, Dashers are almost vanished from Oregon.

I am writing this on a Sunday morning. The NFL games are underway and the religious services connected to them are in full fervor. I won’t be watching because I don’t have television.