I have not spent much space in this blog on regaling you with tales of my athletic prowess of bygone days, and for two good reasons. First, I am all-too-aware of how pathetic it can be to listen to some middle-aged (or older) guy trying to recapture the glory of his younger days, and I don't want to inflict that pain on you, who might still count me as your friend. And second, I just don't have all that much in the way of Stories of Bygone Athletic Prowess. I suppose, in order to tell Stories of Bygone Athletic Prowess, it helps to have actually had some Athletic Prowess, once upon a time. . .
And yet, this time of year, I am always reminded of one particular football game from my high school days; you all would be very kind to indulge me. . .
In Michigan, for purposes of athletic competition, high schools are divided into four classes, according to enrollment. Class A schools are the largest, and Class D are the smallest. In the northern two-thirds of the state, which includes the town I grew up in, there were only five Class A schools, in my high-school days (there are a few more now), and my school was one of them. Which presented us with a bit of a challenge, when it came to competing against similar-sized schools. Typically, we wound up playing the other four northern Class A schools, maybe a Class B school or two, and then travelling 'downstate' for the rest of our games.
Another thing which we did, to save some travel costs, was to have our JV team play against the varsity squad of a few of the Class C/D schools, of which there were several, within an hour's drive or less of us. On this particular night, I was on the JV squad, and we were playing the varsity of a Class D school about a half-hour up the road.
I was the center for our team (that's the guy who initially lines up over the ball, and 'hikes' it to the quarterback to begin the play). Over the course of the season, the center and the quarterback develop an intimate, close relationship; I'll just say that Molly, and whoever changed my diapers when I was a baby, are the only other people in my life whose hands have spent so much time on that part of my body.
Anyway, before the game, our coaches were reviewing with us what to expect from our opponent that night, and how we were intending to deal with it. Speaking to our defense, the coach said, "Basically, their offense consists of one guy, and his name is Godfrey; they've only got three plays - Godfrey left, Godfrey right, and Godfrey up the middle." So apparently this Godfrey guy was quite a horse.
My best buddy (who was also my backup center) and I, being conscientious fellows, raised our hands, and asked, "This Godfrey - does he play on defense for them?"
The coach paused for a second or two, before saying, "I think he's their noseman, but I'm not sure."
Well, now, the news that Godfrey, who was already morphing in my brain into something out of a bad horror movie - more like Godzilla than Godfrey - might be the noseman - the defensive player who plays across from the center, and who I'd thus stand to spend virtually the entire game trying to block - might be the noseman, but my coach - my coach, who was charged, among other things, with assuring that I be safely returned to my parents after the game - wasn't sure. . . Well, this news suddenly became a matter of grave concern for my young life. Bearing in mind that I was a 14-year-old sophomore, and Godzilla was a senior. He might've been the only decent player on his whole team (as it turns out, he was a Class D all-stater), but he was gonna be my problem for the next 2-3 hours. . .
Our team won the coin-toss, and received the opening kickoff, and then our offense, including me as the center, took the field. And sure enough, there he was. I broke the huddle, turned and trotted up to my position over the ball. And there was this. . . this huge THING there, waiting for me, his malevolent breath panting over my ball. Red glowing eyes stared evilly out at me from inside his helmet, and a three-day stubble adorned his chin. "Senior, hell!" I thought to myself. This guy's a freakin' Vietnam vet, who's been beheading communists with piano wire, up until last week.
"What's your name, kid?" he grunted at me.
Figuring that he was trying to intimidate me, I gave what I thought would be a suitably 'tough' response - "What do you care?"
"I need to know what to put on your gravestone."
I wanted to congratulate him on his wit; you know, "Touche! Good one!" or somesuch, but before I could get the words out, he charged out of his stance and drilled me, sending me ass-over-teakettle about five yards into the backfield, taking out my quarterback as I flew past. The referees blew their whistles and threw their yellow hankies, and duly marched off fifteen yards against Godzilla and his teammates for the Unsportsmanlike Conduct of kicking my ass before they told him it was OK to do so. But the message had been sent, and, you can be sure, received. I was in for the ass-kicking of my life that night; my young manhood was about to receive its sternest test to date.
And, continuing from my first snap, it proceded apace. Godzilla, who outweighed me by something like 50 pounds, and out-meaned me by a much greater margin, whipped me up one side of the field and down the other. I became intimately acquainted with his right forearm, which smashed across the bridge of my nose on every play, within milliseconds of the ball smacking into my quarterback's hands (I should mention here that this was also our first game of the season, and we hadn't yet received all of the best equipment that was on order; so my facemask, instead of being a 'lineman's mask' with a vertical bar protecting my nose, was a simple 'two-bar' facemask, which afforded a space slightly larger than the width of Godzilla's forearm between the edge of the helmet, and the top bar of the facemask. So Godzilla's forearm, which I think was made of weapons-grade steel, or maybe depleted uranium, hammered the bridge of my nose on each and every play, the entire game long; by the end of the game, my nose was approximately triple its normal width).
After the first few plays, I was past the point of trying to block him. On a couple of occasions, Godzilla, who also had the reflexes of a nervous jaguar, was past me, into the backfield, almost before the ball. I only tried to get myself between him and where the play was going, hoping to slow him down a little in the process of steamrolling me. It very quickly devolved into a Rocky-esque scenario of just taking my beating, and staying determined to do what I could, and not quit until the game was over.
And that's pretty much what I did. By the third quarter or so, I was pretty much shell-shocked, and my coach took pity on me and sent my buddy, the backup center, in for a series. But my buddy was 50 pounds lighter than I was (which had something to do with why I was the starter), and Godzilla treated him like a chew-toy. But at least I got a few minutes' respite from the hailstorm, before I had to go back out into it.
Now, it really was true that Godzilla was virtually the only decent player on that team - I don't think they had a single other player bigger than 175 pounds, much less 200, and these weren't wiry-athletic skinny guys, either. Godzilla was pretty much playing us 1-on-11, and I was designated to absorb the full brunt of his fury.
One of his teammates, the defensive tackle who played the next position up the defensive line from him, was a tall, skinny guy - maybe 6-1 and 145 pounds or so - and as nearly as I could tell, his role on the defense was something like the Heckler. He had a whiny, nasal, high-pitched voice, and every play, as I once again assumed my position and steeled myself for yet another onslaught of Godzilla's rage, he would commence with the performance of his duties. "Center!" he'd yell, in his sing-song, nasal whine, "center, you're gonna get killed, man! He's gonna kick your ass, man! You're gonna get killed!" And he repeated that same song before every snap. Which, in a perverse way, motivated me to keep going. If this skinny dork wanted me to quit, he was having the exact opposite effect on my psyche. And pissing me off, besides - HE wasn't the one kicking my ass, but he was the one crowing about it, and I just wanted to say, "Bring it, Stick-Boy! Let's see how bad you are when it's you and me!"
And so it came to pass that lo and behold, for one play, late in the third quarter (and alas, it was the only such play the entire game), just as I was beginning to question my own sanity for continuing to submit to the every-30-seconds beatings, the clouds parted, and a light shone down from the heavens. We broke the huddle, and I trotted up to the ball, and lo! Godzilla was not there! Oh, Hallelujah! They were in a different defense, and Godzilla was playing a middle linebacker position, a couple yards off the line. And my skinny Yakker was across from me! At that point, I completely forgot what the play was that we were running, or what my blocking assignment was. For one play, my eyes flashed red and glowed. My voice dropped in pitch by at least an octave (even though I said nothing; strange how that worked), as I glared across the line. I snapped the ball and fired out, right through the chest of my erstwhile tormentor. I knocked him on his back, and ran up his chest, on my way downfield to find someone else (preferably, someone not named Godzilla) to block.
The next play, Godzilla was back across the line from me. But the Heckler was quiet for the rest of the game.
We actually won that game, narrowly - Godzilla couldn't whip our whole team all by himself, but he sure wreaked a lot of havoc by the time he was done. I was able to join my teammates in rejoicing over our victory, even while I absorbed some good-natured teasing over the ass-kicking I'd taken (not unmixed with a sense of relief on their part, that it hadn't been them). Even just by willingly taking my whipping every play, I'd made my contribution to our victory, and my teammates, and my coaches, were duly appreciative.
And, within a week, my nose was even pretty much back to normal. And I got my lineman's facemask. . .