In a way this is a story of extreme local interest to the denizens of Owensboro, Kentucky and almost no one else. My hometown, Owensboro is a sports-mad town with a legacy in the state of Kentucky as something of a traditional athletic power. No team in the state has won more State High School baseball titles. Just last year they won a very competitive, basketball-crazy state’s Championship in basketball. Two of the city/county’s other 3 high schools have also won baseball championships – Owensboro Catholic High and Daviess County High. The 4th, Apollo, has actually come close. When I attended there, we won state Track and Field honors regularly and, as many who know me realize, we won the first of 6 eventual school titles in baseball with me patrolling shortstop as a 10th grader. Bear in mind, this was all in open competition with no “subdivisions” based on school size. In other words, we competed with all the teams from Louisville as well – yet another sports mad city, just 10 times larger.
Basketball and football were king, with baseball and track being increasingly popular due to some fairly outrageous successes. Football in Owensboro has consistently produced individuals who competed at the next – and even higher – professional levels. The Friday Night phenomenon so popular in Texas and down South included Owensboro as a preferred local Friday Night recreational ticket, so often followed by dances and mingling events hosted by the school following games. Yes, as always, football was a pageant….a literal pageant, with our crackerjack band, lovely cheerleaders and 5,000 rowdy fans cheering it all.
It was into this matrix where I evolved into a reluctant participant. In my day, kids with some talent played every sport – it was, frankly, one of the secrets to Owensboro’s long legacy of success. Players like Bobby Woodward, Richard Anderson, the incredible All American duo of Dickie Moore and Frank Chambers who I practiced against daily – one, Dickie leading the nation’s small colleges in rushing 3 years in a row and having an evemtual career in the CFL, and the other – Frankie, attending Alabama, along with our coach……… Kenny and Dwight Higgs, Frankie Riley, Gigi Talbott, Ike Brown, Sam Tandy, NBA Hall of Famer Cliff Hagan – it’s a long list – played every sport they could. It was just what we did. You could see many of the same athletes doing well at each sport in their own rights. The coaches were cooperative for the most part and the new muscles required at each sport created a sort of 2 week No Man’s Land of conditioning for each kid, developing and discovering new muscles and pains relative to their sports.
The feeder system of junior high schools fed dollops of players into the matrix, featuring the raw athleticism and sometimes dominance of certain star-quality individuals into a hard-fought mix of competitions. This is where my individual story as an “accidental tourist” begins………..
It was in the 8th Grade at Southern Junior High where I began my march to cooperating with talented mesomorphs and psychotics in the sport of football at both the coaching and playing level. I recall the first days of football camp – begun a week or two early, prior to even school openings. It was a bumpy career ride.
Another of my friends saw the wisdom of an early retirement from football, especially after enduring the humiliation of being youngest on the club and getting an unbelievably embarrassing set of football tools, complete with the hazing of the team’s managers whose laughter at the stuff they were reduced to handing out was bully-like but real, unfortunately deep laughter – it was that bad. The helmets handed out to the 8th graders were literally from an earlier era. What we referred to as “’47 Crash Helmets” – real leather helmets, ha ha, and more experimental, weirdly-shaped types of modern helmets (are you reading, Steve Bare, ha ha ha?) provided a completely embarrassing look for each of us as we dredged up equipment handed down from decades of predecessors. Inasmuch as this was my first football since a tentative experience one year in Little League football while living in Bowling Green…………………….
…………………..I actually quit the sport after a few days.
(An angry Father of mine intervened somewhat dramatically. Football was his sport, having played it at Eastern Illinois University in the 30’s and attracting attention with his speed and ability, thus earning the title of “Flash” which my friends teased him remorselessly about. “Flash” actually came from a headline or two celebrating “Freddy The Flash”, who made football look almost easy. He did not agree with my quitting – and did not agree most forcibly, one of his few interventions as a sports Dad. Needless to say, I reported back out to the field in rapid form. The moment did not increase my respect for the sport. I always viewed playing football as a survival sport not particularly suited to my skill set. Yet, there I went, learning the game, playing for 5 straight years at a program well-known for its superlative players.)
In Junior High, I was a fullback/running back on offense and a cornerback on defense. Later, in high school, I became a wide receiver in a pro-style set, occasionally playing Tight End when personnel issues like injuries loomed. I never shook the unreality on the field, no matter what level. I often wondered just exactly why I was playing – what I had done right to earn the dubious distinction of occupying the same field as the incredible players we had who loved it all. That is how uncomfortable I felt with a sport I had zero natural feelings for.
Here are some of this tourist’s memories of the sport:
As an 8th grader, the season dragged on while I waited for my second favorite sport – basketball – to commence. We played 8th Grade football against other teams, so we had our equals to compete with, and it became interesting for that reason. Make no mistake, I really enjoyed my team mates, all personal friends already. And also make no mistake that this level of competing saw some very satisfying times – great defensive hits on my part, the sensation of “team play” where we sacrificed for the betterment of our record and witnessed, first-hand, what “team play” could coalesce into – a winning formula. I recall – vividly to this day – few truly embarrassing moments of incompetence as I watched Marvin Robinson streak outside for repeated touchdowns on plays where I – the cornerback – was supposed to “turn the play back inside” from the outside, whereupon I did not, ha ha. Marvin just ran around me, untouched for a couple of long TD’s. Learning from mistakes also took place on a visible level. Just like the embarrassment of incompetence provided an alchemy I adjusted to in my sporting life as time rode on, making me better, if addled..
But Fate had a new plan I would never have guessed at, even in the 8th grade. Southern had 5-6 guys kicked off the team for the abhorrent crime of smoking cigarettes – an unusual penalty in some ways, considering the wild number of farmers who grew tobacco in the lush Western Kentucky fields and the humongous warehouses that hosted tobacco auctions in a clearly tobacco-centered town like ours. But nevertheless, these guys were goners, and they were some of our best players, no less. Well, into the breach go I.
It was our final game of the year when I found myself starting in the backfield for the 9th grade – the “big” – team against traditional heavy rival, Daviess County. Yes, I fully admit my excitement at such a weird opportunity. I was most definitely “playing up” now. I felt a strange sense of destiny, warming up, for real. I had planned to do absolutely everything I could to help us win a pivotal, pennant-clinching game against our rivals and competing first-place qualifiers.
So we kick off and hold them enough to make them punt. I was not a defensive player in the game inasmuch as the defense suffered fewer scratches from their end. So out I went to join the first team offense.
Our very first play from scrimmage was for a screen pass from the excellent and very experienced Terry Tyler to yours truly, a young Walter Mitty. The surprise play took advantage of a very startled Daviess County defense and, catching the ball all I saw was a wide open field ahead of me. I was shocked at the crazy opportunity, the first time I had ever benefited from another team’s defensive mistakes. Naturally, I did what I was supposed to do – I ran like hell.
Well, I scored on that play – 65 yards long – our very first play from scrimmage. At the very end of the run, just as I crossed the goal line for the score, I felt the presence of a defender making an attempt at a tackle. To this day the name Barry Beck haunts my dreams. He launched himself at me in the “good old college try” – well into the end zone, no less – and I attempted to vault him, jumping over his sliding self but catching just enough of him to literally pinwheel me in the air, creating a sort of “flip” which I rotated a full 180, coming down hard from a substantial height of leaping momentum and tackler-propulsion. On my way down, I stuck out my left arm to cushion the fall and I heard my arm snap. Completing my fall, I lay there for a moment with the ball in my right arm, satisfied about the score with a warm feeling. I then took a closer inventory, lying there, of my arm and I suddenly had a sinking feeling that I was looking at 2 elbows. My arm had broken between the elbow and wrist, making a literal “L” out of the forearm. I mean, there was absolutely no doubt I had the first broken bone I had ever seen this close-up. I remember Roy Kennedy’s eyes as he looked at me through the tiny gap in his helmet, and then watched him turn to throw up.
(Interestingly, (if you are a ghoul) my Mother reminds me that she had only just shown up to the game – it was that early in the contest. Walking into the stands to join my Dad, she asked “So how are we doing?” in all her innocent hopes, even before she sat down. My Dad pointed out a cluster of people standing and leaning into a player on the ground in the end zone. “Your son is on the bottom of that pile.”)
Well, I was driven to the local hospital where I remember seeing my rather breathless parents arrive. Walking in the door with a towel over my arm, I remember the sounds of my huge football cleats hitting the slick tile floor, then finding myself in the air again as I slipped and fell, right back onto my back. Finally lying down for a doctor’s perusal, I recall the sense of comfort that mom and Dad had joined me here. The doc told me to count backwards from 100 and I got to about 97.
I remember waking up in the Recovery Room, alone and quiet. I looked down and saw this cast on my left arm – a whole new deal. None of the implications for the future loomed at all. I was also merely the 3rd kid on that team who had broken his arm playing football that year, including Jerry “Jumbo” Elliot’s compound fracture – a “Kevin Ware” type injury with protruding split bone featured – just for an arm and not a leg – during a completely average play. It was my last visit to a hospital for sickness or injury until 2011, lol, a span of 49 years.
Mom and dad showed up, concerned and loving, God bless them, and even brought a magazine – a Sports Illustrated – a fave of mine back then. As we sat talking, here comes the denouement of the day.
Coach (Yogi) Meadors came into the room, all smiles and concern. After quickly getting the questions in about my state, naturally I asked him the results of the game.
“Steve, we got beat 27-0. Your touchdown didn’t count because we were offsides on the play. It was called back.”
Thus began my love/hate relationship with football.
The next season saw me in a far more prominent role. As starting fullback, I got a number of carries and learned quite a bit about twisting and turning, doing complete 360’s – spins – to keep balance and deal with initial hits. I began becoming a far more efficient cornerback, having learned my lesson about “containing” the play in front of me and learning to throw myself in some organized manner at ball carriers. It was a season of successes, actually, and I even had this 75 yard punt to brag about as the team’s kicker, a ball that hit the frozen ground of that day and literally received a prop boost as it bounded away down the ‘frozen tundra’ of that exceedingly cold day. The only real negative of the season was my bursting through the line on a dive play right up the middle and receiving a helmet in my face after 3 yards, hit by a large middle linebacker who broke my nose – yes, through the face masks. Bleeding on the bench at the halftime break, my coach was livid at how we played and he questioned my courage. It seemed like such an incongruous thing – after my broken nose, I still never missed a play. I recorded the humiliating event as yet another strike against the sport in my world. We won the game, 7-0, on a literally last second, 60 yard pass from Landy Lawrence to Gerald Woods, our athletic freak of nature
The next season was very real. Showing up at high school practice now, as a 10th grader, we endured summer two a day practices run by the local psychotic, Ralph Genito, who had played his own football at the University of Kentucky during their highlight season of all time on the Orange Bowl #3 ranked team and whose coach was the legendary Bear Bryant. Genito was a football-mad semi-tyrant who developed an animus towards me early on. Channeling The Bear, his view of the world was that there was football………………………and that’s about it outside of flirting at the local Country Club in his role as lifeguard, ha ha. But I digress.
The camp he ran that season, before school even began, was one of the most brutal experiences of my life. Later on, when I went through Basic Training in the Army, I found the process suspiciously easy. I wondered if I was somehow missing the difficulties others faced as I pranced through basic with a smile, never bothered in the least by the physical nature of the process. I credit Genito with preparing me for the military very well indeed. That initial set of practices saw our numbers of participants steadily decreasing as people quit, finally resulting in a football team consisting of 31 players only. Yes, it was that bad.
Next post – Steve discovers what a concussion is.