Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What It Wuz Wuz Football

What It Wuz Wuz Football *

[*The title refers to a hilarious sketch by Andy Griffith.   It’s now available on U-Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNxLxTZHKM8]

         When I entered Reagan Junior High School, I discovered football.  It was love at first sight, and the flame burned bright until I retired, after 34 years of officiating at age 63. Subsequently the coals glow occasionally, but the fire is out.  I thought I would never forget that first day of football practice.  Now, I have only a vague recollection of the pain and torture.  It was the fall of 1936 and I had just turned 13 a month earlier.  I was a cotton-headed, fat little kid with absolutely no experience in organized athletics.  The pile shoved at me at the Equipment Room window was daunting.  I had absolutely no idea what any of it, other than the helmet and shoes, was for or where it belonged.  However, I tried to appear knowledgeable as I dumped it on the floor in front of my assigned locker.

1936 Texas Football Gear
            I undressed slowly while watching the veterans from the previous year's team gird themselves for combat.  The equipment was cumbersome and, by modern standards, unsafe.  The helmets were leather, with earflaps, and collapsible when not in use.  There were, of course, no face masks, but "nose guards" were made available while recovering from a broken nose.  Teeth were expendable because no one had thought of making the mouthpiece used in boxing an item of football equipment.  The shoulder pads were literally pads rather than the modern suit of plastic armor; their location was obvious and I probably would not have put them on backwards.  Although I had never seen a jockey strap, its position was obvious even though the need for it was unclear. Hip pads were a separate article and were tightened like cinching a saddle and worn beneath baggy canvas pants.  The cotton jersey was loose fitting even after being pulled over the shoulder pads.  The shoes were stiff leather and had oblong leather rather than round rubber or plastic cleats.  As an umpire for many years, responsible for the legality and safety of player's equipment, I often thought that I would not have permitted a player with any, let alone all, of our equipment to participate.

            Once encased in all that exotic paraphernalia, we carefully, like pack horses on a mountain trail, made our way outside.  The "practice field" was bare ground, totally devoid of grass and packed to cement-like hardness by countless generations of recess softball games and baked by the north Texas sun. First item on the agenda was calisthenics, ostensibly to loosen us up for the real practice to come, but I found the side straddle hops, deep knee bends, pushups, and leglifts ["down slowly, don't bend your knees, and hold it with feet just off the ground"] exhausting in themselves.  Then there were the "wind sprints" accompanied by excruciating chest pains.

 When we finally began real football, the blocking and tackling was duck soup compared to the preliminaries.  It was cathartic to hurt someone else rather than yourself; I quickly learned that the one who hit the hardest hurt the least, and if you knocked someone down, they cushioned you from the hard ground.  After surviving that first practice, I hurt in places I had never even felt before.  I must have lost ten pounds in two hours; all baby fat was gone and I didn't have  a belly again until I was 26 years old and an assistant professor.  Our head coach was Mr. Gibson, a lean, leathery faced man, who taught mechanical drawing and shop.  I don't think I ever knew his first name because everyone, of course, called him "Hoot."  Joe Reed was the assistant coach.           

        We played several junior high schools from nearby towns, but our season concluded with a best two out of three series for the city championship with Zundewich, the other junior high school in Wichita Falls.  There was a permanent trophy, awarded at the conclusion of the final game, that the champion was allowed to keep in the school trophy case until resumption of the series the following year.  Three successive city championships and the trophy would become the permanent property of the winning school.  For many years the two schools had alternated championships, so we were the traditional underdogs because Reagan was the defending champion. 

I remember little of that first year.  We repeated as city champions and I earned my "letter", but I can't even remember the scores.  However, I do vividly recall a friend of mine, Abe Corona, writhing on the ground, clutching his knee and groaning.  He was clipped on the opening kickoff of our first game, against Electra Jr. High.  His knee was so badly damaged that, even after surgical repair, he was never able to participate in any athletics.  One play and the end of an athletic career.  Two of Abe's brothers were fine amateur boxers, winning several district Golden Gloves championships and probably a state championship or two.  Their father was the fingerprint expert for the Wichita Falls Police Department. 

The following season is more clear, but I'm surprised at how little I remember of what was, up to then, one of the most important experiences of my life.  Mr. Gibson was gone, and Joe Reed became the head coach and "Scotty" Williamson was the assistant coach.  I played guard my first year and most of the second.  Frank "Fat" Moore was the center, Dale Howard, an end, was a star of the previous year's championship team.  Billy "Two Gun" Anderson was the star running back, R. C. West was also an end and my best friend Emmitt Lee "Chief" Defer, a full blood Shawnee was another guard.  Leon "Boots" Foster, who lived two houses from us on Travis Street, was a year behind me in school but was athletically precocious despite being fat.  I think much of his  athletic ability was inherited; both his older brothers were stars and captains of the Wichita Falls Coyotes, and Boots eventually was the same.  

At the first practice after the first game in the championship series, I was moved to end and replaced the star, Dale Howard, as "first string".  No one on the team, including me, could understand that move.  "Fat" Moore, who was not one of my best friends, made no secret of his opinion of it.  I vaguely remember that prior to the first game we had been warned that "Zundy" had been successful all year with a "hideout" play featuring a minuscule end named Washington.  On the hideout, long since made illegal at all levels, one substitute would report to the referee and two players would leave the field. One would cross the sidelines and the other would lie down inbounds on or behind the line of scrimmage.  When the ball was snapped, the "hideout" would get up and go downfield for a forward pass.  Sure enough, Tommy Washington caught a long pass with no one within 30 yards of him for a 6-0 Zundy win.

 That "may" have had something to do with my move to end, especially if the "hideout" had been Dale's responsibility.   On one of the first plays from scrimmage in the second game, Tom Bill Arthur took a handoff from the Zundy Quarterback and started around my end.  As I moved in to tackle him, I learned one of the facts of football life; Bill Bell, the Zundy Fullback, came from nowhere on a beautiful crackback block and totally wiped me out.  Tom Bill Arthur went 64 yards, untouched, for a touchdown; I was embarrassed and we were behind by a touchdown.  We eventually won the game, the championship, and permanent possession of the Trophy without major contributions from me but I didn't let anyone around me for another long touchdown.

That year, 1937, the Wichita Falls Coyotes won the District Championship, and advanced through the playoffs to meet Longview in the State Finals in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas.  I rode the Fort Worth and Denver Special train to Dallas, on a pass, of course, to see the State Championship Game. The Coyotes were heroic; Boots Foster's brother Erving was the quarterback and captain, "Preacher" Fleming, an All State, the tailback, Odell Dammerall, another All State, the Center and linebacker, Art Goforth, a guard who made All America at Rice and "Indian" Pritchard, a full blood Indian who was purportedly so dumb that he wrote his play assignments on his pants, was an outstanding end.  The Coyotes led most of the game, playing conservatively, but well; I remember Odell Damerall taking a lateral after a short pass to the left end for a long touchdown run (Jimmy Castledine did the same thing on the same play from a lateral from me in the 1940 Playoffs against Amarillo).  However, in the closing seconds Wichita Falls punted, and "Dandy" Dick Miller of Longview ran it back for the winning touchdown as time ran out.  IT WASN'T FAIR and it was a long train ride back to Wichita Falls.

            The Annual Football Banquet also included the two Junior High Schools.  Because we had won the permanent trophy, along with the City Junior High Football Championship, and the Coyotes had made it to the AA State Finals, I HAD to go and go in style.  I asked Virginia Smith, a pretty little brunette girl whose family was as poor as mine, to go with me on my first formal date.  I don't know how I got to her house, but we rode the bus to Wichita Falls Senior High School for the banquet and awards ceremonies.  After a forgettable meal, during which my date and I tried to appear sophisticated by watching to see which item of silverware was picked up by others before we began each course and attempting casual conversation, the Awards Ceremony began.  

The Junior High awards came first: the Zundwich letter winners were awarded their letters, then the Reagan letter winners received our letters, followed by the award of the Championship Trophy "to become the permanent property of John Reagan Junior High School." It was a heady moment. 

Saving the best for last, the Master of Ceremonies then introduced Ted L. Jefferies, Head Coach of the Wichita Falls Senior High School football team, to make the individual awards to members of the team: all letter winners were called up individually and awarded a letter jacket, complete with notation of District Champion, Bi-district Champion, State Quarterfinal Champion, State Semifinal Champion, and State Finalist modestly inscribed on each.  Everyone in the room, and there were hundreds, would have died or at least killed for one of those with their own name on it.  Mr. Jefferies then made such individual awards as "most improved player," "most inspirational player" and other recognitions of immortality.  The next to the last award was to the Team Captain of the year, an award the Fosters had a lock on.       

            The Final Event was the announcement of the Team Captain for the next season.  He was elected by secret ballot of returning lettermen, and it was a lot more important than being elected mayor, even to the movers and shakers of the community.  In Texas towns with one High School in the 1930's and 1940's there was NOTHING more prestigious than being Captain of the Football Team. 

After the naming of the Captain for the 1938 Season, Mr. Jefferies turned the podium back to the Master of Ceremonies who, instead of wishing everyone Godspeed and Goodnight, announced there was one more award.  Turning to Ted Jefferies, he said something like this, "Coach, in appreciation for leading the Coyotes to their best season ever, the Coyote Booster's Club has a present for you," and as he handed Ted Jefferies a set of car keys, the doors at the back of the room were opened to reveal a brand new Cadillac.  I wonder what they would have given him if he had won the State Championship. 

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