The first time I touched a football, I was in second grade, living in Huntington, West Virginia. My family was living with my maternal grandfather for a little while, in a neighborhood rife with small bungalows on a hilly street which climbed upwards, through the neighborhood, to the elementary school I attended for my second grade year, and then wound further up the hill to a park on the summit. Our family weren’t really sports folks, although Dad ran track in high school and played basketball with the guys living in a small town near which he lived. Before my second grade year, my family traveled…..a lot! We were part Christian gypsies, part travelling minstrel show, but mostly itinerant evangelists, inviting people across the nation to know Jesus. I attended a school for kindergarten, and then my first grade year was spent on the road, taught by my mother, so change was routine. Grandpa Young’s house was a one-bedroom, one bath house packed full with Grandpa, Mom and Dad, my brother, Bill, and me. My sister, Connie, was married earlier in the summer, and moved with her husband to Mogadore, Ohio, just outside Akron.
If there was one sport that was part of the daily routine in the house, it was baseball. Bill was a Dodger fan, but Grandpa was a die-hard Cincinnati Reds fan. Mom and Dad slept in the home’s only bedroom, and Grandpa slept in an added bed placed in the dining room, which had no doors for privacy. At the foot of his bed, next to the door leading to the kitchen, he placed one of those old-school lawn chairs, with reclining back, a frame of aluminum tubes, and woven plastic straps for sitting. Each night, or afternoon, Grandpa would get his small transistor radio, plug in the ear phone, and listen to the players his son-in-law, Jimmy, helped to scout and sign for the Reds. This was the historic Big Red Machine, with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Davey Concepcion, Tony Perez, George Foster, Cesar Geronimo, and Joe Morgan. Grandpa would stretch out in that chair, with the ear phone in, don sunglasses in a darkened room (yeah…..um….the sunglasses…..uh…. Ok, I got nothin’), and utter a soft grunt every so often when the Reds did something good.
I don’t really remember Grandpa and Bill talking about baseball very often, which is understandable, because the Dodgers and Reds became huge rivals during that era, and Grandpa could be a little cantankerous. The only other “sport” I remember him to watch was “wrastlin'” on TV every Saturday. Grandpa was a certifiable hillbilly, and he would watch wrastlin’ with great vigor. It was one of the few times I remember him smiling and laughing. Every so often, he would say to me, “Let’s go watch wrastlin’ on TV.” As he said it, I would notice a twinkle in his eye, and slight smile on his face. So we would go into the living room, turn on the TV, wait for it to warm up, adjust the rabbit ears antenna which sat on top of it, and watch the melodrama.
My love with football began on the front porch of Grandpa’s house sitting in his porch swing. Across the street from his house was a white house which was mostly obscured by a line of large pine trees. Most of the houses on the street were elevated above street level, with a concrete retaining wall running along all the properties behind the sidewalk that bordered the street, and broken only by consecutive concrete steps which allowed access to the yard, and front door of each property. The only thing visible of this particular house was the front door. I don’t remember much activity around the house. I often looked at that house which was surrounded by the tree-wall while sitting on the swing, and wondered about the many stories behind the wall and within that door. In my imagination, it was an abandoned fortress, or a castle on a hill.
One day, I saw a boy emerge from the door and make his way along the sidewalk away from the house, and down the steps to the sidewalk along the street. The boy was much older and larger than me, and was dressed in pseudo-armor. His shoulders seemed unnaturally large under a large jersey which had a large number on the front tucked into large pants which sagged a little with thick pads on his thighs and knees. He held a white helmet in one hand, and a football in the other, and his shoes made a funny clacking sound as he walked on the concrete, and also when he impatiently shuffled his feet while waiting for his mother to get the car out of the garage and back down the driveway. As soon as she positioned the car on the street, headed up the hill, he flung open the passenger-side door, jumped in, and slammed the door. She then accelerated up the hill to a destination unknown to me.
My curiosity grew as I watched the scene, and I knew that I wanted to talk to that kid…
As I remember, one day I shouted at the kid when he returned from practice and asked to talk to him about what he was doing. I walked across the street, and I entered into a new world. His name was Mike Johnson, and he seemed worldly and wise to me….
he was in seventh grade…..
Mike taught me how to throw a football. He showed me how to position my fingers on the laces so I could throw a spiral. I learned how to catch it, too. He showed me how to get into a three-point stance, and fire out of it into a pass pattern….whatever that was… He let me try on his helmet, and chuckled by how it jangled around on my head when I ran, which made seeing the thrown ball difficult, let alone catch. His chuckle grew to a full-blown laugh when the ball struck me in the head and spun the helmet half-way around my head, so I was looking out the ear-hole rather than through the face mask. Mike seemed to enjoy teaching me football, and also other things a guy in West Virginia should know…like how to box.
I remember going into a sparse room in the basement, which had a door into the back yard. In the room, there were all kinds of sports equipment scattered around the room. Mike walked to a corner and picked up four boxing gloves, and helped me put two on. We then began a sparring lesson, which ended with him hitting me in the stomach, and me doubled over, unable to catch my breath. I kind of panicked for a second. He told me to lie down on the floor.
“You’re ok,” he said, “you just got the breath knocked out of you.”
Easy enough for HIM to say, I thought. HE can BREATHE!
He then reached to my waist and grabbed my belt, pulling my hips up.
“This is what the coaches do when you get the breath knocked out of you. It happens all the time. Just breathe normally.”
Eventually, I caught my breath, and we began to talk about other manly things…..like how the cheerleaders would hang around the practice field until after practice was over, so they could talk to the players. My eyebrows shot up!
The football seed was planted……
The next year meant another move, another school along with my first job:
delivering papers in the apartment complex in which we lived….
I also began to grow….mostly in weight. By the end of the third grade, I graduated into a new weight class: Chunky.
Then another move in the summer to Elkhart, Kansas; a small town in Southwest Kansas with a population of around 2000 people. It was there that I played organized sports for the first time. I played baseball, and while I enjoyed it and was pretty good, I found a greater talent. The seed of football began to take sprout and grow in fourth grade. During recess, my new classmates taught me a new game: “Kill the guy with the ball!” The game began when someone would throw the football straight up in the air, and everyone tried to catch the ball. Whoever caught it, would immediately begin running while the rest of the crew tried to tackle him…and I do mean TACKLE….no two-hands touch….this was elementary survival of the fittest. Since I weighed more than all the kids in my grade, save one, had a pretty low center of gravity, and ran aggressively; I was terribly difficult to bring down. Actually, that was a foretaste of my football career, and maybe in the rest of my life, come to think of it: I didn’t go down easily. Further, I found that I LOVED the physical contact of that game, and while I came to also love basketball and baseball, neither came close to my love for football. The game energized me!
In fifth grade, we got our first opportunity to play competitive football in full pads. The experience of football season each fall begins with checking out equipment. Even now I remember walking into a musty gym, locker room, or equipment room in the late summer, and making my way to each area designated for shoulder pads, helmets, jerseys, etc. Coaches are close, to make sure each piece of equipment fits properly.
My first year was hilarious. I had no clue how all this….stuff…. went together to make a suit of armor like Mike Johnson wore. There were helmets, shoulder pads, thigh pads, knee pads, and…..girdle pads? All fifth grade boys snickered at the name “girdle pads”…. which consisted of a garment similar to briefs made of stretchy material with pockets covering the hips and tail bone. The first difficulty was learning how to put the pads in the girdle, and to make sure you put it on right so the pad meant for your tailbone was in back and not the front….
The second thing to know was how to put in the thigh pads correctly. At the top, thigh pads are taller on one edge, so it covers the outside of the thigh. The main point to remember when putting them in the pocket in the pants, is to make sure the taller side is pointed towards the outside rather than the inside. To point them inward, is to incur possible damage to future fatherhood plans. Some coaches would point this out when you first put the uniform on, but as you got older, the coaches allowed evolution to take its course….
We only played one game in fifth grade, and it was against the sixth graders, if I remember correctly. I don’t remember much about the game, what position I played, or who won; but I remembered practice, and that I felt invincible with that uniform on. I fell in love with the game.
In sixth grade, we moved again just outside of town. But Elkhart sits right on the Oklahoma border, so since we were suddenly Okies, I had to change schools again. Now while Elkhart is small, the school I moved to, Yarbrough, was tiny. Yabrough was a little country school surrounded by a smattering of houses, in which most of the teachers lived. My class was the largest in the school, K-12, and we had 13 in our class. The size didn’t change the cultural priority for football, though. It just changed the scope. We played 8-man football, on an 80-yard field, instead of 100-yards in 11-man. Because there were 3 fewer players per team, the game was much more wide open, and there were more big plays, and higher scores. It was a fun brand of football. We also played other schools in sixth and seventh grades, which meant travel on a bus to other small communities. While the talent level didn’t match larger schools, the work ethic of the players did. Those kids were farm kids, used to working long hours in the summer and hoisting bales of hay, and wrestling calves. The downside for me, however, was I would eventually move back into Elkhart, and need to learn the 11-man game again.
Eighth grade was a pivotal year for me in football, not because of the season that fall, but for an incident at the end of the school year, in the spring. I guess it was some brilliant administrator’s idea to put eighth grade boys’ PE class at the BEGINNING of each school day, so the coach that taught the class had to end class early so we could take a shower, or…what usually happened… kept class the same length, so we had to get dressed in our school clothes while we were hot and sweaty, and the rest of our classmates and subsequent teachers had to put up with the body odor of adolescent boys for the rest of the day…. Since the junior high was on the same campus as the high school in Elkhart, we had PE in the high school gym, first thing in the morning. Our group of guys would go over and hang out just outside the gym, while we waited for the gym doors to be unlocked. As we waited, we would kibitz around, shooting the breeze about everything eighth grade boys talk about, and on this particular day, we started talking about football the next year. For some reason, and I have never quite figured out why, I mentioned that my goal for the next year as a freshman, playing on the high school team, was to start. As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I suddenly realized what a bold statement that was. My friends erupted in derision at my assumed faux pas. Looking back, I understand that my statement was true: my goal was to start on varsity. Did I believe I was capable? I honestly didn’t know enough about high school football to know if I was capable or not, but my goal….what I would strive for…was to start on varsity.
Sometimes bold statements are an attempt to cover over our deep insecurity. Other times they are strategically spoken to motivate us and the others around us….our teammates…to accomplishment, and the work necessary to make them come true. Still other times, they are innocent proclamations of a desired outcome for which we are willing to work. My intention, I believe, was the last one. So there it was….for my buddies….and the rest of the city….to see. My goal was to start on varsity as a freshman.
We had a new head coach my freshman year, which meant that everything would be new. We would run a new offense, a new defense, new special teams, and everybody would be on a level footing, for the most part. A new practice routine was also at play. Gone were the days when depriving water from players was a tool to create mental toughness. We would have one water break in the middle of practice….one. Coach Claxton was a quiet, good looking guy. He was a former Marine, and supposedly had experience coaching in larger high schools. But the most influential quality to my freshman buddies and me was the long zipper on one of his knees. This was in the days before arthroscopic knee surgery, and old-school repairs left their own road map on the skin. A knee surgery meant he had been a PLAYER!
For the most part, freshmen are too stupid to know how much of a bitch 2-a-days are. You are walking in, as a lamb to the slaughter. High school training camps were used to get guys in shape, and we had to go through 10 practices in shorts, shirts, and helmets before we could put on the pads. Older guys knew what those 10 practices meant: lots of running. However, with a new head coach, a new offense and defense had to be installed. Since most players in small high schools play both offense and defense, more practice time must be spent on learning each system, and teaching techniques specific to each. We were going to run the Wishbone offense, and the Okie 5-2 defense, and each was different than what they had run the year before. Since the program hadn’t been very successful for several years, the expectations in the community and league weren’t very high, and we had a fairly small group of senior players, so camp would be competitive.
I don’t remember anything significant during our first practice that year, but it felt really good stepping up into “real football”! The second practice in the afternoon, however, was disastrous for me. John Lujan, who later became my best friend for the next two years, decided he would try out for quarterback. While John was highly intelligent, and a good natural athlete, he had the arm of an offensive lineman. So much so, that he eventually split the difference between QB and OL and moved to tight end. On this particular day, John’s lousy arm affected me greatly. We were running a passing drill, and John and I were the next two in line. Me as receiver, John as QB. When he called the signal, I exploded off the line, went into my cut and he threw the ball….short and off-line. I cut towards the ball and instinctively dove, without pads, landing on my shoulder and side of the head. The landing knocked me out and broke my clavicle, I was later to find out.
I missed the next 8 weeks. I missed all of 2-a-days, and the first 3 games of the season. I didn’t really remember it at the time, but I made a bold statement in the spring, and got hurt the first day of practice. Not a good start. But injuries happen in football, and after I returned to practice that year, one of our senior defensive ends dislocated his shoulder and was out for the year. They were looking for someone to step in.
My first game back was a junior varsity game, and although they allowed me to suit up, I didn’t get to play. I was pissed, too. I wanted to play ball! The next week, they put me in at defensive end in the junior varsity game, and basically told me to find the ball and hit somebody. No real coaching about technique…just find the ball and hit somebody. So, I did. I must have done a good job, because the beginning of the next week, one of the assistant coaches came to me and said, “Don’t be surprised if Coach Claxton talks to you about starting on varsity this week.” Later in the day, in PE, Coach Claxton came up to me and said:
“Larry…..what would you think about going up against a 200 pound lineman?”
“It wouldn’t bother me any…” I said without thinking about it.
“Good. You are starting this week for Danny, at D-End. The position coach will bring you up to speed on your technique.”
At the time, I was 5’10” tall and weighed 169 pounds and ran about a 4.9-5.0 40. While those numbers aren’t impressive for a defensive end (which is really an outside linebacker, in the way the Okie 5-2 was structured) in a large high school, in a four year high school of 350, it was pretty good. While the opportunity I was receiving was a good one, their options were limited, and we were undefeated, tied for the league lead, and had not yet been scored on. To make matters more significant, the team we were to face that week was the other undefeated team in the league, and outweighed us on the line by 30 pounds per man. It would be a really good test for us as a team, but also for me.
We were listening to music on the bus as we drove into Lakin, KS. The Lakin Broncos were 3-0 and we were 3-0. The team that won would take the lead in the High Plains League, and as it turned out, make it into the playoffs. I was sitting in a seat by myself, looking out the window at the small town of Lakin, and a favorite song of mine at the time came on the radio: “Why Can’t We be Friends” by War. I began smiling at the symbolism of the song. Here I was, a freshman, starting my first game in high school on an undefeated team which had not been scored on, playing against the other top team in the league….I’m nervous….and the radio is taunting me!
(More to come…)