I walked past a park on a late August morning. I breathed in the smell of fresh cut grass, we all know that smell and memories it brings back. I looked in the park and I saw a high school football team getting ready for practice. Thirty years ago, that could have been us, and for a while I was back in 1980, a senior in high school, and football season was upon us.
A week or so before Labor Day, we were at the school, having our equipment issued and claiming spaces in the locker room. After a few adjustments we walked across the schoolyard and down the hill to Faneuil Park for practice. Our captains, Smitty, Todd and Sully were all four year players. They were coming off of a co-championship season and there were high expectations for another good year. Some fine athletes were lost to graduation, but the younger athletes were ready to step up. Our captains led us in some stretching and loosening up and it began. Hit. Hit harder. Get tough. Learn the playbook and hit some more. For the next four months, for about two hours a day, football was our lives. We got through the dreaded double practice sessions of preseason and prepared for our season opener. We were ready.
We tried to hide the first game jitters and we able to burn some nervous energy during our warmups. Finally, it was kick-off and the game was on. It’s amazing how time flies when you are on the playing field. Seemingly as quickly as the game started, it ended and we lost, 28-0. We tried, but nothing seemed to go right. I wish that I could say that things got better as the season went on, but they didn’t it. As we headed into our final game of the season we had a record of 0-7. Still, every day we were on the practice field. Late summer heat gave way to Indian summer afternoons. Early sunsets led to practices ending in the dark. Still, we showed up every day. I don’t think anyone quit the team that year. We all stuck it out.
November rolled around. Early nightfall and cold practices. We all peeked ahead at the calendar at our Thanksgiving Day game against our rival, St. Pat’s in Watertown. We would travel there for the game. This game would make or break the season. A win would mean a successful season, regardless of our record. A loss would mean a winless season.
During the last week of practice, we were excited about the upcoming game. The workouts were spirited, we wanted to win so badly. Our final practice of the year on Wednesday was pretty much a walk through. We had done all we could. We were sent home and told be back at school at eight the following morning.
I can’t speak for the other guys on the team, but I know I didn’t sleep much. There was lots of tossing and turning. Finally, game day had arrived, and that brought nervous energy. The simple tasks were done several times. I think I tied and re-tied my cleats about ten times. The locker room was quiet. There was some whispering back and forth, but we were mostly focused on the game. We boarded the bus and rode to Victory Field in Watertown. It was a cold Thanksgiving morning and there was some snow on the ground. We went out to the field for our pre-game warm-ups and that got the blood flowing. The coaches called us back into the locker room for last minute adjustments and then it was time. It hit me then, as I pulled on my jersey and put on that green helmet for the last time. This was it, there would be no tomorrow. It was win or lose, do or die, for one last time. We lined up, waiting to take the field. It was noisy now, as we worked ourselves into that game time frenzy that would take us out onto the field. Todd and I pounded each other’s shoulder pads and banged helmets.
Smitty, Todd and Sully led us onto the field. Thirty strong we ran like gladiators into the Coliseum. We ran through a double line of cheerleaders, dressed in their green sweaters, adorned with green corsages, and green skirts. For the seniors on the squad, Lorelei, Rosemary, Mary, Karen, Linda, and Joanne, this was their final football game also. I’m sure they were as emotional as we were.
It was time. I don’t know who won the coin toss, but the game was under way. On every play, we hit them as hard as we could, and they gave it back in turn. There was no quit on either side. Each team, each individual player wanted this game in the worst way. I remember at one point looking out on the field as our coach called a play for me to run in to the huddle. There was Smitty, big #50, fist raised, calling for the huddle. I don’t think Jim saw the sidelines at all that year. He seemed to be on the field all game, every game. He was our heart and soul. Every play was a sell out for him, he didn’t take breaks.
Todd had a monster game, earning MVP honors for the day. On defense, he was all over the field making tackles. On offense, he finished his blocks and moved his man out of the way.
We scored late in the game on a long pass play, but it was too little too late. I’m sure the coaches had thoughts of letting the underclassmen play as the seconds ticked away. No way, not today. We’re football players, we’re seniors, you can drag us off the field, but we’re not willingly leaving this field. Not today. Win or lose, this is our day, there is no tomorrow for us. We stayed on the field and finished the game. One final whistle and the clock showed 00:00. We lined up to shake hands. It hurt for it to end this way. There was no looking at our shoes at the end of this game; we looked them dead in the eye. They may have won, but we never quit. We battled to the end. We left everything on the field.
There were some tears in the locker room and on the bus. Not because we lost, but, I think, because it was over. None of us were going on to play college football. We had just played our last game, our last down. Maybe some of us went on and played in a tag league or something, but it isn’t the same. Nothing compares to pulling that jersey over your pads, fastening your chinstrap and playing for your school, and more importantly, your teammates.
I learned a lot that year, and much of that knowledge has carried me through life. You don’t quit, ever, at least not until you hear the whistle. You put all of your trust the guy in front of you, or beside you, and he has that same trust in you. You don’t let each other down. And most importantly, when you get knocked down, you get right back up.
You might say it’s only high school football, but I would argue that it’s a lesson in life.