My football career started in the front yard. We lived out at the end of Stonewall Street. Our nearest neighbors in those early years were Mr. and Mrs. Brooks. I figured them to be in their mid 80s, a little old for a quarterback or tight end. Besides, they worked all the time. That left me and Leon and David Mark. It didn’t take us long to choose up sides.
Leon was World War II older than me and Dave. We made him kick off and we’d run “buck-lateral” on the first play. Leon would shove me down as I tossed it back and then he’d tackle Dave Mark from the side before he could take three steps. The stadium was kinda small. Our front sidewalk was one goal line and the other was the Como Road. The house and the small oaks out by Stonewall marked the side boundaries. You paid a price to score. If you dove into the south end zone you’d bust your elbow on that hard concrete. If you got tackled in the other end zone the gravel on the road would tear your skin to shreds.
We’d beat Leon about once every two seasons. Size matters when he is 11 and me and Dave were 6 and 5 respectively. Leon could pass the football to himself. And it taught teamwork like you wouldn’t believe. It was our side’s only chance. I’d hit him in the kneecaps and Dave would jump on his head. He’d drag us a little ways before we could topple him.
It was the most fun you can have playing football!
Leon got interested in girls and David and I outgrew the field. We moved the games to Billy Gwaltney’s side yard and expanded the rosters. John Ingram and Larry Ridinger could both run and catch the ball. Yogi Brewer could play any position. Bobby Jackson was also a heck of a player. We’d play till dark or to someone broke an arm. There were no coaches. Just enough rules to give us an idea. And anybody could make up a play just as long as the rest of us thought it would work.
As the new football season kicks off, I watch those pregame shows with the ex-players in the $300 suits and I hear the predictions and I’m annoyed by the TV timeouts and the way over-analyzed breakdown of each play. I can’t help but think we’ve let something get a little out of hand. The pure joy and fun has given way to “sponsored entertainment.” Most of the preseason buzz is about Tim Tebow and the Florida Gators. And rightfully so – they are certainly a talented bunch. Most experts are all but conceding the National Championship to them. But I’m not crowning anyone before the chickens hatch. I still remember how me and David Mark could whip Leon on that “given day.”
And on a quiet Saturday afternoon just a couple of weeks ago I stood on W. Church Street in front of Billy Gwaltney’s house and recognized an old stump that is just barely visible in his side yard – and I remembered all over again what a great game it truly is.