IN HONOR OF A FOOTBALL SATURDAY
I am avoiding returning a phone call to a friend and former coaching and teaching peer. This is not a “Hey, how are you doing, whatcha been up to?” kind of call because we have been keeping up with each other. I know what it is. This is the fourth time that I have retired and for the fourth time someone is going to try and get me to UN-retire. “Why won’t you just let me slope off into the sunset and enjoy the cigar and beer?” Why do I keep saying, “Yes?” Not this time! It is enticing with all of the interactions: team building, being a part of something bigger, the comradery with the players and the coaches that you just don’t find anywhere else short of a foxhole…and those Friday night lights. I have always missed football Friday nights. There is something about that green field with sharply laid down lines that almost glow they are so bright. There is probably nothing better in life than taking the field for your first home game…Well maybe one thing but that was so long ago…. What I have not missed yet are the practices, especially those that begin on July 31st… in South Carolina. It looks like they are going to catch a break with temps in the nineties and lower than normal humidity. Oh no! The early week looks bad for them. I say they and them because I am finally going to turn someone down. Sorry, Robbie.
I’m not the first to compare football in the South to a religious experience but that is not going to stop me from talking about it or turning the job down. It is just different and better in the South. There are a few cathedrals to the gridiron gods throughout the rest of the country but those don’t compare. I just don’t think Buckeyes, The West Coast Condoms or Irish Elves can display the trappings for the football sacraments as well as those teams south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of New Mexico. Tailgating, bands with majorettes, cheerleaders…welllllll, I might have to give the nod for cheerleaders to Oregon. I don’t like the Green and “Yaller” but they wear so little of anything there’s not a lot of it showing…colors I mean.
I began my worship of football at a Clemson game in the early Sixties when invited by a friend to go with his family to watch his brother play at Death Valley. I guess that is when I became a full-fledged Tiger fan and began to worship before the altar that is football. It was not the cathedral it is now but it sure did beat the heck out of Indian Land on a Friday night. I got to meet the “minister” of the gridiron Tigers legendary coach Frank Howard, and could not help but remember our introduction later when I went to a coach’s dinner that featured him as a speaker. The man was a riot and I had a hard time reconciling that this Frank Howard was the same man I met earlier. I guess it was his pregame jitters. A different time in 1976, Howard told a joke on Willie Jefferies, a hall of fame coach for the predominately black South Carolina State University Bulldogs. Howard joked that he had attended a State practice trying to pick up a nugget of information that might lead to a victory and noticed that all of the footballs were painted dark green with lighter green stripes. When asked about them Jefferies responded with a question, “You ever seen a black boy drop a watermelon?” The laughter was lead by Jefferies, a black man himself with tears rolling down his cheeks. My playing days were different from my coaching days. I never played with or against anyone who was a different color. When I coached I found out that there was but one color that mattered on a football field and that was the color of the jersey that you wore. An avowed racist of any color would help, hug, stand up for and drink after members of the other races during their entire careers. I hope that this carried over into their lives after football, as well. Things that were said inside of the locker room might get you beaten severely or worse if they were said to anyone other than your teammates outside of that locker room.
To bring locker rooms into clarity, many activities had nothing to do with dressing and would not be considered religious unless we were talking about the Inquisition. Managers or younger players were sometimes wrapped like mummies and secured to benches with athletic tape. Cramergesic analgesic ointment was applied to heat hip pads or jockstraps of the unsuspecting. And the absolute worst torture known to man, was being told that Atomic Bomb was the best cure for Jockey Itch! Yeeeeeowwwwwwww! I coached a particularly salty group of young men that must have decided that Voodoo should be the religion of choice. Adopting the book Helter Skelter as their bible and Black Sabbath as their choir, this team employed hangmen’s nooses to hang dead birds and snakes around the locker room. A dead squirrel hanging from a noose was presented to the captains of one team to celebrate Halloween. I don’t know if they sold their soul to Beelzebub but they did win ten football games in a row.
I have memories galore associated with football. Most were happy and not blasphemous but there are a few…mostly revolving around practice… which to me were akin to the self-flagellation practiced by certain religious sects. On the practice field behind the gym where we did all of our drill work, morning worship began with the fog evaporating from a copious dew that transformed our heavy elastic and cotton practice gear into individual saunas as our exertions increased. After “Down-Ups,” “monkey rolls” and “Bull in the Ring” our practice uniforms were wringing-wet and ten pounds heavier. We were also a bit bruised. By the time practice was over, the field had dried out so “Sahara-like” that the only place more arid was the inside of our mouths. During those days there was no time limit to practice and water was withheld to make you tougher. Coaches can’t do that now and I am glad. We were kids who grew up without air conditioning and spent our summer days outside working or playing because it was actually cooler there than inside our homes. “You chaps get outside!” shouted by my grandmother was the order that kept me “acclimated.” If you did that to a kid today he would simply die from heat and dehydration. Even though we thought we were dying, it was just a form of heat “castration”…from sweating our balls off! I remember nursing on the edge of a bloody sweat-soaked towel in hopes of getting a single drop of moisture.
I believe the worst travesty ever perpetrated by a coach to his team was carried out by Bennett Gunter, our coach. On a particularly “crusty” day, he carried a bucket of water with ladle and covered it with a towel to keep the bugs out. It must have been the only thing we could think about because as a group we sucked. During the middle of practice he called us over to tell us that, and with the water bucket in the middle of our little circle, took the towel off, removed the ladle…and then tipped the bucket over onto the ground! As I watched the water-parched earth consume our water, I wondered how much trouble I might get into if I dove face first into the mud hole and tried to suck the liquid through my teeth.
During those August practices as soon as we had run our sprints, several of us would head to the boiler used by the cannery and drink the cold boiler water that seemed to be as frosty and tasty as a clear mountain stream, despite its metallic taste. I wonder what kind of health “time bomb” I have residing inside me from drinking that water.
I was fortunate to go to a small high school because fewer students meant that I got to play sports. Luckily, football, like most religions, accepts all comers, at least at the high school level. There were twenty-one bodies in my graduating class in 1968 and only ten were male. Of those ten, only seven of us played our entire high school career and that was a good thing for me. Timid, geeky in a non-geeky way, athletically challenged, clumsy in all other activities, and with an aversion to physical pain, I was not prime football material, at least early in my career. As a junior high player or even later, I would have earned the title “top water superstar.” Remember, cream is not the only thing that will rise to the top. Bobby Beechum, a seven-hundred and fifty-pound eight-foot-tall giant, taught me my first lesson. Throwing me like a bowling ball and making a 7-10 pin split, I learned that it is better to “give a lick than to receive.” I also remember running sprints one day when Coach Gunter exclaimed for everyone to hear, “Miller, I have to line you up with a fence post just to make sure you are making forward progress.” It could have been worse. A friend of mine who walked on at Clemson was told by Coach Howard that, and I quote, “Son, you are a wasted fuck!”
Most of my career I probably would have agreed with that assessment had it been made about me. With a series of injuries limiting my already finite abilities, I struggled through my freshman and sophomore years before getting “mostly” healthy. Still, my career up until my senior year might be summed up by my introduction to Pageland great, South Carolina standout and Hall of Fame Coach Al Usher. During a game my junior year we said our hellos at our five-yard line. I was high and he was low and leverage wins. Five yards later it was a touchdown for Pageland, just one of many that night that saw us embarrassed on our own field. During halftime, my coach RO Potts, slammed my shoulder pads and blew chewing tobacco breath into my face while yelling, “And you! How do you let someone drag you five yards into the end zone?” My brain reasoned, “Because that’s all he needed.” Luckily, I kept my mouth shut!
My senior year, hope sprang eternal, but it didn’t start too well. We made a road trip on a rainy night to Pageland, the self-proclaimed watermelon capitol or the world. Nothing good happens to me in regard to Pageland and, for some reason, I have had no success growing watermelons. I try to avoid Pageland at all cost. Driving rains kept both the worshippers and the offensive output down. Early in the game we drove for a touchdown but missed the extra point. For three quarters we moved the ball up and down the field without scoring. Deep in the fourth quarter and, in our end of the field, we lined up to punt, giving me the opportunity to break the football commandment – “Thou shalt not snap the ball over your punter’s head.” As the long snapper, it was my responsibility to spiral the ball to my punter. The ball was wet and heavy and my last thought was, “Keep your butt down and don’t snap it over his head!” I did neither. Our punter covered my errant snap for a safety and two points. The resulting kick from our own twenty gave them great field position and eventually a narrow eight to six two-point victory. I was probably at my lowest when “an angel fell from the sky” in the form of my coach. Coach Potts could have ruined me for life but instead placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “The game did not hinge on that one play. We had every opportunity to win that game and should have. We all share the loss.” “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” It is a religious lesson that I have tried to remember and live all my life.
Time limits, unlimited water hydration and lighter, less water absorbent uniforms are not the only aspects that have changed about football since I played and since I retired from coaching football. For the most part I think they are good changes even though it is sometimes hard to recognize the game today as the one I played as a boy. Bull and the Ring along with Oklahoma drills have been outlawed as has using the head as a weapon since we have become more concerned about safety. Do I think our brand of football was tougher? Most assuredly! But I don’t guess “three yards and a cloud of dust” was nearly as much fun as the new version. Parishioners have embraced the new version and still cheer that “My god is better than your god!” no matter how many times the ball is thrown. Congregations have swelled at the cathedrals throughout the nation – not just in the South. Even our most conservative “ministers” are throwing the ball all over the field and the participation of “acolytes” has definitely increased. Still I find myself worshipping at the altars of Georgia Tech or the service academies that still run the option, at least when they are not playing the Tigers in the much improved cathedral known as Death Valley.