There’s an old joke that a tourist in New York asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is, “Practice, practice, practice.” But what if you’re afraid of the spotlight; afraid you’ll screw up in front of your Father or someone else you’re trying to impress? Or worse, piss off that someone who could hurt you BIG-TIME?
I’ll never forget that decisive moment when I was a 14-year-old sophomore at Allentown High School and was trying to make the football team as a defensive lineman or linebacker. There was a guy my age, George “Eskimo” Joseph, who was outstanding in our first practices, showing up the older boys, making tackle after tackle.
Whenever the coach called for volunteers, “Eskimo” jumped forward while I hid shyly in the background hoping to make the team but scared I wouldn’t measure up, especially next to a great player like “Eskie”. Then the bad thing happened. One of the older players illegally punched “Eskimo” in the eye with an elbow.
Commentator John Madden would describe the result as a “slobber-knocker”. That sounds cute but to see a guy walking in circles in a daze with snot and blood pouring out of his nose is not cute, it’s horrifying. This was before we wore facemasks and they would have saved “Eski” but that was his last football play because doctors would not allow George Joseph to ever play football again.
George “Eskimo” Joseph lifted weights instead and became a champion at that sport and went on to train and condition other athletes who became champions in football, wrestling and weightlifting. I went on to become a “Practice Player”, someone who is never put in a game unless the outcome is no longer in doubt.
Some call these players “scrubs”, a lower life form that bottom feeds on football teams and barely earns a “Letter” by being on the kickoff team in their senior year; someone to be used as a tackling dummy or to be pushed around to hone the skills of the “better” players. I was not that. I was better than that.
I was more like what race horsing calls a “Morning Glory”; a horse that runs great times in the morning but for some psychological reason, when the crowd is watching, shrinks into a loser, a stud with low self esteem. I am proud to say that I am a “Practice Player” and a “Morning Glory”.
First, I must say, I was not born with this pride, that it took many, many years to separate the truth from my fiction: the truth is what happens, the fiction is the story I make up about it: that I was a failure, someone you couldn’t count on.
But the truth is, I can be counted on to do my thing, no matter what. The lie was that I made me wrong for just being myself. A self that was constantly changing, seeing life from different perspectives and finally making peace with its football past.
This whole thing came up when I overheard Tom “Slam” Barrett making a point at his favorite diner’s daily “breakfast team meetings” where everyday is “Monday Morning” and every man is a quarterback; really just a bunch of old guys with one foot in the grave, reading the obituaries, a kind of sports’ page for survivors: the losers are all dead.
“Slam” was almost shouting, “There are ‘Practice Players’ who are great at practice but you put them in a game, in front of a crowd, and they can’t do anything!” And I thought, he’s talking about me.
I was really good at playing football. I was not tall but I was compact and strong: if I got a hand on you, eventually you were going down. But my best asset was my quickness, fast draw quick. I played inside defensive line and could get my shoulder past any blocker’s shoulder and instantly be in the backfield feasting on running backs and quarterbacks.
I made more than a third of the total tackles when I scrimmaged, most for no gain or a loss. I did this day in and day out for 2 years in high school football practices and never played a single down when a game was still in doubt. I always wondered why but never asked the coach, Why? Now I don’t care.
Years passed and when I thought about my unheroic football past, it was with apology for not making the grade. But I have finally realized how absolutely perfect my life in football was, that being only a “Practice Player” was the best of all possible worlds for me. And it all has to do with fairness and not cheating.
If civilized people were allowed to walk up to friends or strangers and pop them in the eye or jaw with an elbow, the beasts would rule the earth. Somehow, in competitive sports, an elbow is considered no worse than a handshake.
I discovered this in junior high school when two people I knew personally, they hung out at 8th and Gordon in Allentown where my brother’s buddies lived and I used to visit, these two guys punched me in the jaw with an elbow on the first play of our games.
I knew these guys from the neighborhood! I even thought Ralphie was my friend! If they had come up to me in the hood and thrown a punch at me, there would be hell to pay from brothers and friends. Somehow, they could do dirty stuff like that on the sports field of dreams and think it was acceptable behavior. I can never think about those two guys without feeling “friendship betrayed”.
“Slam” pointed out the truth to me. He had been a starter at my position and only played in games when the outcome was still in doubt. He told me,” You can’t worry about the dirty stuff. It goes on. You ignore it. You do your own. You get even … if you can”.
It’s hardball out there, the real world, where Santa’s suit is a rental. It’s no longer a game of rules, but a war where breaking the rules is part of the game. I’m sorry but that is not a world I care to play in.
How blessed was I then that I played football in an atmosphere of camaraderie, even friendship. We were teammates practicing our craft. It was clean, hard fun. No one ever blasted me in the eye at practice like poor “Eskimo”. But after what happened to “Eskie”, I waited till I was a junior before I showed what I could do, when I felt comfortable and knew most of the guys. On the other hand, I was a weekly victim of physical abuse at home and didn’t need more at school.
A neighborhood buddy, my adopted “kid brother” and former star halfback, Jack Cameron, recently described my football style as “tenacious” and finally understood why when I told him about the weekly abuse at home, less than a block away from Jack’s house. He never knew or guessed. Maybe the reason I was good at a vicious sport was that I had a lot of unexpressed anger and resentment.
The practice football field was an appropriate place for me to cleanly work off that steam by striking back with every tackle I made. I never beat my chest, I just returned to my position on the field and waited for the next play. No one kept stats. The ball usually returned to where it started. This was play for play’s sake. It was pure. It was deserved pain and pleasure.
I did have one run in with a senior when I was a junior. He played center and I played nose guard right in front of him. He became frustrated at not being able to stop me from making tackles around him, so he started punching me and I punched him back.
This went on for a few plays and I thought they were blowing the whistle to end our boxing rounds instead of ending that particular play. I finally kneed him in the groin and he flew ass over tin cups over my head and landed somewhere behind me. He never punched me again and I continued to make tackles around him.
When I went to Muhlenberg, the football coach, Ray Whispell, stopped me in the hall in my freshmen year and offered me a half scholarship if I played football for ‘Berg. He may have witnessed my “tenacity” at our practices, but I was going to play first string in the theater as an actor where the action is faked and so are the blood, sweat and tears.
Gene “Muzzy” DeFiore told me he saved “Eskimo’s” life one night when they ran into the guy who threw the elbow at “Eskie”. “Eskimo” wanted to hit the guy with a ketchup bottle but “Muzzy” talked him out of it, saying, “You’ll kill the guy! Then you’ll go to jail! It’s just not worth trading your life for his. And if he survives, you’ll still go to jail! It’s just not worth it.” “Eskimo” cooled off and walked away.
Thank God for “Muzzy” and all the old teammates who still care for each other no matter what their position or rank was in that sporting life or in this fading one.