I think Coach Puckett saw it as a lark. It was the last game of the season for our 5th grade intramural football team, the Steelers. Being short and scrawny, I had spent most of our games on the sideline except for various kickoffs and short stretches as a defensive back or flanker. But Coach Puckett, a burly bearded man who resembled the sea captain on The Simpsons who always goes, “Arrrrr”, probably knew how desperately I dreamed of and yearned for gridiron glory.
“Alright guys,” the coach said as he entered our huddle (coaches were allowed to join us on the field in pee-wee football to call plays). “We’re gonna do an end-around to Libby.” I clearly remember Puckett with a tongue-in-cheek smirk, but for me it was as if Carmina Burana was suddenly blaring between my ears. After months of sweaty, bruising practice and years of daydreaming, the moment—my moment—had arrived.
It was late in the game and our team had a safe lead of a couple touchdowns. We had the ball deep in on our opponent’s territory, maybe the 10 yard line or so. I lined up in the flanker position (a quasi wide receiver) on the left side of the line of scrimmage. When the quarterback hiked the ball I proceeded to run to the right, and as I came around he handed me the ball.
In countless football games over the years during recess at school, I’d come to think of myself as an above-average talent at football. Although undersized, I had very good balance and could zigzag my way around defenders. I scored a lot of touchdowns on the unmarked Newby Elementary playing field just beyond the playground. I also could throw tight spirals after hundreds of hours playing catch with my dad and various neighborhood friends like Joe Czekalski and Jeff Briscoe.
Football also dominated my interest in books and, of course, on television. I idolized Terry Bradshaw, “Mean Joe” Greene and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who at that time in the late 1970s were in the process of winning a then-unprecedented four Super Bowls. I memorized the score, most valuable player and stadium for every Super Bowl. I’d challenge people to pick a number between one and fifteen and I’d then register all the data like a robot.
“Super Bowl XIII? Why of course that’s Steelers 35, Cowboys 31. Bradshaw got knocked unconscious by DD Lewis and Hollywood Henderson, but he held his ground and threw the winning touchdown pass. Super Bowl VII? Gotta be the Dolphins over the Redskins 14-7, the one where the kicker tried to pass and threw an interception.”
I remember taking the dog for a walk with my dad and making my case as to why playing quarterback in the NFL was a viable goal. People often tell kids they can accomplish anything they set their minds to, and as a naive white middle class child from a stable small town family, I never had or saw any reason why I couldn’t be the next Terry Bradshaw. “I know I can do this,” I pleaded to my dad as the dog sniffed the sidewalk-abutting shrubs of Fleishauer Lane.
When the chance came at age 10 to play organized football with pads and helmets, I’d already been waiting for several years. But it was a rude awakening.
I didn’t recognize the uneasy feeling that came when we were outfitted with equipment. I was so excited to have, for the first time in my life, the helmet and shoulder pads that came with membership on a real team. These were the accoutrements of my heroes, and to strap on this battle gear could only be a right of passage into the field of dreams for which I was destined.
But the helmet felt heavy on my head. How could I fire off a pass with this giant bubble weighing me down? Ditto for the shoulder pads. How was I supposed to lift my arms with this weird fusion of plastic and foam on? And even back as a 5th grader I always had an acute eye for aesthetics. Why did players on different teams all have white helmets on? Where are our logos? Hey, the Steelers don’t wear red jerseys, they wear black! Hell, there’s not even a stripe on the pants!
Then there was practice. For years I’d spent not only just about every recess, but every afternoon following school playing tackle football. But that had consisted of, say, three against three with two receivers and a quarterback facing three defensive backs. Here they wanted everybody to line up right in front of each other and knock one another down, using our helmeted heads as projectiles.
Coach Puckett’s favorite practice drill was called “Root Hog”. The team gathered around as two players of the coach’s choosing got in four-point stances with the tops of their helmets just barely touching, faces looking at the ground. When Puckett yelled “Hut”, the objective was to drive your opponent backwards, with your back legs as the engine and your head the bumper. I had my ups and downs at Root Hog. Occasionally I’d overtake a player who dwarfed me in size, to Puckett’s enthusiastic if patronizing approval. Other times I was driven backwards in a kind of horizontal free-fall, my hands clutching at the grass as if it were a tree branch I could cling to before I crashed to the ground.
For much of the season, standing on the sidelines next to Coach Puckett, I’d alternated between frustration and denial. There was no getting around the fact that while my uniform stayed clean, Neil Dilper was happily getting his muddy scoring touchdown after touchdown. Deep down I knew he had something I didn’t: a physical fearlessness. It wasn’t just that he was bigger than me, but that he was as happy to knock you down if you were in his way as he was to dance around you. I just wanted to dance. Somehow I’d come to adore the game of football without ever completely acknowledging that the game consists of people trying to brutalize each other. I wanted to make the great plays but wasn’t willing to succumb to the sweaty, bruising side of the game.
Maybe it’s only hindsight, but when Puckett called the end-around play for me during garbage time of the season’s last game, I think on some subconscious level I knew scoring would be at best a consolation prize I could take away from an otherwise failed experiment. But football so utterly ruled my imagination at that age that it would take years before I was ready—or able—to willingly let the game slip from my grasp. I’d go on to play on various teams for another three or four seasons, routinely stuck at positions I didn’t want to play or on the sideline as bigger, better teammates snared the glory.
Perhaps it’s needless to say at this point, but my end-around didn’t make it to the end zone. Sometimes when recalling the moment, I tell people I was stopped just short of the goal line. But when I really try to see through the fog of memory, it’s possible that the defense swarmed me around me and I was tackled after no gain. Puckett sent in another player to replace me after the whistle blew, and on the very next play the team scored on a quarterback sneak. “Don’t worry,” the coach said. “We’ll get you another chance.” But even then I could do the math: the clock was ticking in the 4th quarter of the last game, and next year I’d have another coach. The season ended with a consolation of sorts: a pizza party at Shakey’s. But I never got any closer to scoring that elusive touchdown.
Although having scored on Puckett’s end-around call would have even today stood as one of the most satisfying achievements of my life, I now see it as the beginning of a long transformation in which I learned that neither football nor any other sport—and I played almost all of them at that age—would be my life’s pursuit. I'd routinely scored in the top two to five percent on achievement tests in school, but for many years it barely, if ever, occurred to me that using your brain was better than using your body.
I’m certainly not complaining about how things turned out for me. As I sit here writing about pee-wee football, it’s the middle of a weekday and most people I know are at work, while as a writer I can recline here at home in my slippers and sweat pants. I know I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have a career that’s more than a career, an endeavor that gratifies me far beyond the simple necessity of paying the bills. I more or less make a living by talking to people who fascinate me and then telling other people about it—hard to beat that.
After all, I think Neil Dilper, our team's star, has spent some time in prison.
Nevertheless, I place a lot of personal emphasis on that unscored touchdown, because it represents the first time in my sheltered boyhood when I had to really change course and learn to see opportunity in failure. If somebody had said to me then, “Look kid, you’re too short and not talented enough to play football, even at the very lowest levels of small town pee wee league fare,” I wouldn’t have been able to accept it. But it was true, and ultimately it was just the first of many hard truths I had to not only accept, but use as trial-by-error motivation.
And yet for all the deconstruction I’ve done of why that moment was a beginning as much as an end, I must confess it still eats away at me some twenty-three years later. I think one reason I’ve always loved football is that, with its well-marked yard lines and boundaries, it’s a simple, literal register of whether you’re successfully moving forward to your goal or being pushed back by the opposition. Sometimes I dream of that unscored touchdown as if it represents a life of failing to cross that golden line, beyond which all kinds of elusive successes lie. But perhaps not scoring is just the fodder I needed to start lining up in different formations on other, more far away fields.