Monday, February 14, 2011

The true meaning of football

Professional football, if you include the betting activity, is a billion dollar business.  College football is a multi-million dollar business.  In some parts of our great USA, high school football is approaching the same status, maybe not with the big bucks, but definitely businesslike.  In the south, where I've lived for the last three and a half decades, high school football garners almost as much attention as the next level.  Many high schools now groom and recruit athletes for the field, cheerleaders for their acrobatics and coaches for their winning percentages.  Profits from high school football are growing.  But I want to talk about the "spirit of football,"  not the business of football.

I learned about the spirit of football on the old Erie Canal "bed"  in Ilion, NY.  When I refer to "bed," I'm talking about a filled-in area of the original canal.  The Erie Canal, which opened in  the 1820's,  was the main gateway to the West which allowed our country's expansion into international trade.  Ships loaded with merchandise from Europe and other countries sailed into New York City's port, up the Hudson River to Albany and then barges carried the freight across NY state to Buffalo where the goods were then transported across the Great Lakes.  Materials needed for our nation's expansion westward were imported and the crops and goods produced by the citizens of the frontier people were exported to world markets.

The canal's history is a magnificent story.  The politics behind this endeavor are amazing and the canal's engineering and construction are mind-boggling.  A major part of the canal followed the Mohawk River across upstate NY.  When the river didn't oblige, they dug it out, straightened it, widened it or built aqueducts to carry the waters over obstacles.  It was a brilliant feat.

My maternal great-grandfather moved from Canada to the Mohawk Valley and worked in the Erie Canal carpentry shop.  Much of the industrialization of the valley's villages along the route resulted from its location on the canal.  "Low bridge, everybody down, low bridge we're comin' to a town - fifteen miles on the Erie Canal."  The horses and mules that pulled the barges labored along the "towpaths" that sat aside the canal.  I was raised a block away from the canal "bed" and played on a stretch about 20 yards wide and stretched out to about 150 yards long.  As a young kid the other end of that 150 yards seemed like another world.  Today it could be a short par three.

As a young boy, the canal bed proved a challenge to me.  It was located between Canal Street on the north side and state Route 5S (which doubled as our Main Street) on the south border.  Hakes Road, where I lived also was on the south side and I wasn't allowed to cross Main Street, this ultra busy highway.  Other than shift changes at the Remington Arms, Main Street traffic probably added up to 20 vehicles an hour and this included bicycles.  However being the compliant child, I never crossed the road which was the number one reason I never ran away from home.  So there laid this enormous expanse of green grass beckoning to me like a siren to the sailor.  The village kept the grass mowed and trimmed and I knew that was solely for my benefit.   Some days I would walk to the corner and dream about all the antics I could perform on that wonderfully lush green acreage just out of reach.  As Roy Rogers, I could chase the bad guys and sing to Dale and other damsels in distress.  Because WWII was raging, I imagined performing tremendously brave acts of courage with my dad who served in the Navy or brother Bob in the Army or brother Bill in the Army Air Corp.  I could catch bank robbers and notorious criminals to keep my mother and sisters safe from all kinds of imagined danger.  It was all there,  just across the street.

To many guys certain dates in their lives stand out for significant reasons.  Some guys couldn't wait to be 16 so they could get a driver's learning permit or 18 when they wrapped their hands around the real deal.  Eighteen was also a big number back then because we could drink legally.  And we were ready - my gang had about six years of practicing.  But my first big number was five - I obviously was an early bloomer.  Turning five meant I started kindergarten and I had to walk to school which also meant crossing Main Street.  I anticipated kindergarten with a little anxiety, but the thrill of knowing I had access to the canal bed  superseded all other emotions.  My world was now open to all kinds of possibilities.

If my memory is correct, which is a 50-50 chance, the first activity I performed on the canal bed was as a pirate finding lost treasure while saving a princess.  Yes, I multi-tasked at that young age.  The part of Blackbeard was adequately played by Butch House, a neighborhood friend, and his younger sister Patti acted as the princess.  Butch brought along a cardboard sword to fend off me, the dashing pirate.  Not to be outdone, I crossed back over Main Street, scurried up the alley between Frank's Super Market, which was only super if you were five or under, and an old four-plex, two-story apartment building.  Behind Frank's I tore an orange crate apart, broke one slat in half and tied it perpendicular to another wooden slate with string, which I also found in the junk pile behind the store.  Through the years the trashy junk pile provided so many useful answers to various needs. 

To any sane adult my sword resembled a makeshift wooden cross one saw tilting over a grave in a western movie version of Boot Hill.   But not to me, oh no.  To me, my sword equalled, if not surpassed, Sir Arthur's emerald-hilted Excalibur stuck so solidly in the stone.  I hurried back to the canal bed ready to duel the dastardly Blackbeard for the princess's freedom, but before the first blow landed, I was called home for supper.

The initial football game we played on the canal bed involved members of the Hakes Road Hackers (HRH).  This was a fine organization consisting of four neighborhood kids my age who either lived on Hakes Road or nearby streets.  We dug out a fort in the magical forest at the end of Hakes Road, which actually was the east end of Russell Park and covered it with cardboard from Frank's wonderful junk pile.   I was elected president; I think because I brought the shovel. 

The day I got a football for my birthday proved to be a day never to be forgotten.  I rushed out of my house, hurriedly called an HRH meeting at our dugout fort and surprised everyone with my new leather pigskin.  (I think that's an oxymoron.)   All eyes widened in wonderment and glorious expectations as I uncovered my prize.  We rushed from our clubhouse, out of the woods, down Hakes Road, across Main Street and as our feet hit the glorious turf of the canal bed, I flung my new ball spiraling into the blue sky to the waiting arms of Dick Phillips, my closest friend.  That pass, which traveled about five yards, was my first completion of many more to come.  I still remember it with a thrill.

The Phillips lived four blocks away, which, to me, approximated a universe.  However Dick's sister, Marilyn, palled around with my oldest sister, Norma, and Dick's brother, Bob, was in my sister Donna's class.  Norma used to meet Marilyn at her grandmother's, who lived on Canal Street.   During the fourth year of my rapidly moving life, Norma used to take me to Dick's grandmother's so my friend and I could play games together.  His grandparents were wonderful - to me an ancient old couple who always welcomed me warmly.  The big event of those visits, wasn't the games, but the popcorn.

Besides a brother and sister, Dick had a dog named Jan.  Now you have to understand, calling Jan a dog is like referring to a Mack truck as a tricycle.  This dog was a huge Great Dane.  The dog didn't tower over
us kids, but he stood eye to eye with me.  Well, we started our football game, Dick and me against Butch and Patti.  No gender bias here.  On the first play Dick hiked the ball to me, blocked out little Patti and I outran Butch, scoring my very first touchdown.  (In my future organized football years, I was always quarterback and Dick always my center.  Kinda ironic, don't you think? )  

We kicked off; actually I passed off cause I could throw the ball further than I could kick it.  Butch picked it up and with all possible speed raced toward the goal line we defended.  Dick unleashed a wicked flying tackle and Butch fumbled the ball.  I saw the shiny new brown sphere lying on the verdant green grass waiting for my young hands to clutch it and with fleet of foot, sprint resplendently for a second touchdown.  But my shining moment was not to be.  Jan, the canine mobile mountain, grabbed the ball in his mouth and dashed off.  I tried to tackle him but he had more moves than OJ Simpson.  I mean shuck and jive came natural to this beast.  Jan finally tired of toying with me and stopped, but cautiously eyeballed me as I stalked him.  As I stealthily neared, he slowly backed away - we looked like we were engaged in some cultural dance.  I decided I had gained the shortest distance separating us and suddenly lunged.  I grabbed on for dear life, but he threw me off like I was a flake of snow.  As I laid there, humiliated by a damn dog, Jan gleefully bounced across the street and disappeared behind Dick's grandparents' house.  I swear the gigantic mutt was grinning.

I played football in junior and senior high school, but quit after my sophomore year because I attained my goal, which was quite simple -  I dreamed of leading a scoring drive against our arch rival, Herkimer.  As a sophomore, I quarterbacked our JV team and the varsity coach called me up for the big game.  He must have suffered brainus interruptus because he put me in.  My dream realized fruition; in three plays I quarterbacked our team forty yards for a score.  I never played organized football again, but I did happily participate in another much less brutal, but more thrilling version of the game.

As a junior and senior on Sunday afternoons in fall and winter, our classmates gathered to play "touch" football.  Notice I didn't say the boys in our class gathered, I included the girls too.  In fair weather I suggested we play "skins against shirts" with the male team fully clad, but it never carried a majority vote.
So we had co-ed teams that frolicked on the football field and a whole lot of "touching" went on.  The competition wasn't all that intense, but personally, I never tried so hard in my life to "score."   Those were the games that epitomized the "spirit of football."

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