Out of Pearidge
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My Football Life
"Pitch up and tackle" was my favorite game during elementary school. Some might say that symbolically I continued to play the game throughout live: I generally have been the one against the group struggling not to be brought down. Of course, being from Butler High, I would've said, "I'm a rebel." However, I also enjoyed tackling the person with the ball.
Everyone knew I'd go out for football, and I did. I played in the 65 lb., the 80 lb. and the 120 lb. divisions. I was in the peewee system through the 8th grade, a total of 5 years. Even with the limits, I was generally among the smallest players; still, I was a guard. By the 8th grade, I weighed 105 lbs. putting me above the average for the first time. I was also among the most experienced players in the league.
The coach selected me as one of our captains that year and I made all-city. The all-city award was a large letter H with a football in its center, suitable to sew on a coat or sweater. Being from the county and heading to Butler High, I couldn't wear an H even if it was blue and the Huntsville High's H was red.
That 8th grade year, we played one of the city teams for the league's championship at the old city stadium. It was an exciting experience for us. We scored first, but our run for the point after was stopped short. We had no experience with kicking a PAT. From that point until late in the fourth quarter, it was a defensive battle. Then, they scored on a long pass and kicked to make it 7-6. We gave it our best in those closing minutes, but their defender picked off a long pass. He came back all alone. I ran across in front of him and executed a classic open-field tackle. I heard the announcer credit me with the play. It was in a losing effort, but, had I not known it before, I certainly knew, hearing my name then, that I enjoyed recognition.
With some success in peewee ball, I began to think about playing football in college. I started at Bradley Junior High, which used Butler's system. I began drinking protein supplement in a blend of vitamins, milk and raw eggs in an attempt to gain weight.
By the time I reached Butler in the 10th grade, I weight 135 lbs. However, it was all muscle. I could do set ups all day. I had good lower body strength. I also knew how to play my position, both offense and defense, in the Butler system. In the early days of drill with the B team, I stood out from the heavier boys who were competing with me. After practice one day, Coach Godsey called me aside and told me that, based on what he had seen, I would be a starter for him that year.
That evening, 30 minutes or so before dark, a group of neighborhood kids came by my house and said, "Let's go! We're going down here to play hide and seek."
I went. We enjoyed ourselves for more than an hour. It was dark, but we didn't want to stop playing. Hiding was easy. I just lay on the ground. When the seeker went past me, I charged toward the base. I was flying. Then, I went flying through the air. An antenna guide wire caught me at the toe. I skid across the ground with the right side of my face.
All the next day everyone was saying to me, "I see you're out for football." All around my right eye the swelling was dark black.
By lunch when someone observed that I was a football player, I just said, "Yes, I am."
"Of course, I can't let you play with that eye," said Coach Godsey when I reported to the club house that afternoon.
By the time my eye was healed, the other players knew the system and had high-school game experience. I may have known at that time that my playing days were over, but it had been, for too long, too much a part of my life just to walk away from it.
Still at 135 lbs, I went through spring training, and the two a day's under the hot summer rays. Clayton Travis and I soon became something of partners in all this preparation. Clayton may have weighed a wet sweatshirt more than I and was also vying for one of the guard positions.
Apparently, in Coach Nichols' mind, Clayton and I were one and the same. He tended to call each of us, "Clayton."
He saw how hard we were trying. "If you other linemen had the guts of these two," he would say of us, "we'd have a grade A line."
Yet, guts and effort didn't compensate for weight and power. Neither Clayton nor I played much that year. Coach would think of us, sometimes, when the game was out of contention. Generally, as he did in practice, he would call, "Clayton."
Clayton was always near when the call came. He was counting every down he played as a game quarter toward some magic number that would mean he would letter.
We upset Decatur that year. Coach Hamilton was voted coach of the week. It was only later that we learned of player problems forcing disciplinary action by the Decatur's coach that week. It was our only win. We went 1-9. When we said it quickly it sounded like, "won nine." We had a little fun with that.
I'm fairly sure it was in the loss to Huntsville High that the field was so muddy. When the game was over, some of our fans, seeing my completely clean uniform, said things like, "He's so bad they wouldn't even put him in this disaster."
The next week, Coach Nichols stopped me between classes. "I really meant to play you Friday night. Thought I had. I guess I sent Clayton in twice; I know I called you Clayton all year. I'm truly sorry that you didn't get to play."
"No need to apologize, Coach," I said. "If I could have made a difference in the game, I would have wanted to play. I had no need to be out there just to say I got to play in that game!"
Before that fall semester was over, Coach Hamilton assembled a group of us Juniors. Clayton told me that we were the ones who didn't letter that year. Coach Hamilton did an excellent impression of a drill sergeant. He had with him a typed, unsigned attack of his system for awarding letters. He knew that one of us must have written it and told us of his plans to punish all of us unless he got a confession from the person who wrote the letter.
No one admitted to writing the letter. I believed then, and believe to this day, that the writer wasn't among us. Several Seniors who hadn't lettered the previous year had been most disappointed. Some of them had secretly attacked Hamilton's system throughout the season. However, even if the writer were among us, in America, you'd think that he had the right to express his opinion. And, the remainder of us had to be innocent. However, Hamilton, a government teacher, that day didn't believe in innocent until proven guilty. He served as prosecutor, jury and judge.
The semester was almost over when my bother in law, David Phillips, took me hunting. We didn't hunt much that day. He perceived that I needed to talk. I told him that I didn't think that I wanted to play football my senior year but I didn't want to be a quitter.
"Don't think of yourself as a quitter. You have just ended a period of your life. You've had success in football and now it's time to move on. It's going to be that way many times in your future. I could have stayed in the Air Force; it was a good life. It just wasn't the life for me. I didn't quit; my term was up. Your year's over; your term in football has ended. Usually, the sooner you realize that you've done enough of something, the better it is for you."
On Monday, I told Coach Nichols that I wouldn't be in the football class during the Spring Semester, in effect, I was leaving football. He reinforced what David had said.
David's principle has served me well over the years. I haven't always walked away when I should, but I have moved on multiple times thus far. Sometimes, I've moved forward with tears in my eyes. However, I have never regretted the decision to hang up the ole shoulder pads.