The start of high school football practice this time every year makes me think back to my lone, frustrating season on the gridiron.
The Charles Town High School freshman team gave me the opportunity I fantasized about growing up. Coach Kent Shock didn’t cut anyone, so there was even a place for a kid who was just five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds.
I wouldn’t say I was the worst player on the team—I give myself credit for showing up for practice, not feigning illness and sticking out the entire season—but I was likely the most ineffective.
My memories of those long, hot practices are of getting run over by my teammates, struggling to keep my over-sized pants from falling down and being perpetually thirsty. (This was back before coaches fully understood the importance of hydration or belts.)
Despite a shortage of players, I was a benchwarmer. One learns humility on the bench. It is a place that signifies to your teammates, your opponent and the few fans that might watch that you are not very good.
And I wasn’t.
At least I had a uniform and I was relatively safe there on the bench. Then, one day in practice late in the season, something completely unexpected and miraculous happened.
Coach Shock was experimenting with using a big tackle named Mike Jones as a ball carrier. Mike hit his growth spurt early. He had to be six feet and over 200 pounds.
I was in the defensive backfield, mostly straining to see over the line while the guys up front took care of the tackling. But on one play, Mike got through the line and steamed toward me.
If I had had a moment to think, I would gotten out of the way. Instead, I lowered my head, put my shoulder into his knees and brought him down. It was like one lowly hyena landing a giant wildebeest on the Serengeti.
At first, the practice went quiet; then cheers erupted as coach Shock pulled me off the ground, and shouted, “Look who made the tackle… the smallest guy on the team!” He immediately named me a starter at defensive back for the next game.
It did not take long for the coach of the opponent in that next game to notice that the right side defensive back was an elf in over-sized pads. Great walls of blockers and running backs rumbled toward and over me all night.
I believe we were losing by more than 30 points when Coach Shock, his inspired experiment having failed, mercifully returned me to my secure and appropriate place on the bench.
The irony was that making a good football play in practice caused my inability as a player to be revealed in a game.
Several of my teammates went on to play varsity football. One teammate, the late Pat Dorsey, even played at Shepherd University. My football career, however, ended after that season.
I have always loved football, and envied those who could play the game. Sometimes I still think back and wonder if I had been bigger and stronger, if I had hit my growth spurt earlier, whether I could have played more.
It’s a pointless fantasy, but it gnaws at me, as though I have some unfinished business from my youth. My reality, however, is that I can follow football closely through my association with the WVU Mountaineers and MSN.
If you can’t play the game, the next best thing is to be near it.