The Play of the Game
I’m in eighth grade. It’s Pee Wee football season. I’m in the ninety five pound and under league. I weigh ninety four and a half pounds, when I just get out of bed, after a light supper the night before. (If you think I was going to play in the other league with the, no kidding, two hundred pound eighth graders, you’ve got another think coming.)
My team is Alabama. We are pretty lame. Our record is zero and four. Red jerseys, white pants. All the guys have white helmets except me, with my royal blue one (how did that happen?).
Over the years I have played a few different positions in Pee Wee. The hardest: punt returner. My god — you’re standing down at the end of the field, the ball is coming from high in the air, and twenty one guys are running as fast as they can towards you. “Now,” says the coach, “keep your eye on the ball” (not on the lunatics careening towards you at top speed, half of whom want only one thing out of life in that moment: to maul you beyond recognition). Your job is to catch the ball and start running INTO the pack of on-coming youngsters, threading your way through the melee, finding any free space you can, trying to make good yardage for the team. Yeah, right, coach. Whatever you say. “Fine,” he says, “play defensive tackle.”
So our fifth game is just beginning, and I am on the sideline and the other guys have the ball and it’s second down. And I’m holding my royal blue helmet (I just can’t fit in) and all of a sudden the coach says, “Go in at left tackle,” so I run on to the field while trying to get my hat onto my head. (This is never easy under the best of circumstances [i.e., when I’m standing still], because the parts that cover my ears are too narrow for my head so I have to struggle to pull the helmet apart and slide it on without causing too many nasty abrasions.)
Our huddle has already broken, the coach has waved the other left tackle back to the sideline, I’m trying to find my place in the formation, the other team comes up to the line of scrimmage, I’m trying to get my chin strap buckled and get into my dominating three-point stance, the QB is calling the signals, the ball is snapped, and I’m off the line of scrimmage in a flash, and somehow I am past my blocker and in the offensive back field, and the play is moving in my direction, the QB and the running back are moving in my direction, and suddenly (really, as best as I can recall, I didn’t even see most of this; it’s mostly just a blur of sensation), the QB pitches the ball, intending for the running back to catch it and run for good yardage (everyone seems to always want to make good yardage) but somehow my body finds itself in between the QB and the running back (that is to say DIRECTLY in the flight path of the ole’ pigskin) and somehow (have you noticed all of the somehows in this little yarn I am spinning? This literary device should give you some idea of the stupefied state I am in as the story unfolds…) when the ball, directed by all kinds of forces which I suppose are governed by physics of one kind or another, collides with my totally unprepared chest I manage to wrap my arms around it, and fortunately, I am already pointed in the proper direction (that is to say, toward the correct end zone) and I run, I run, I run as fast as I can and all I can see (if you can call it seeing which really you can’t because I was so numb my eyes weren’t functioning normally) is green, which is rare on a football field, which is usually so filled with bodies, and the next thing I know I’ve crossed the plane of the goal line and I am in the end zone and I’ve scored a touchdown and I’ve stopped running and my teammates are jumping all over me and I’ve fallen to the ground and I can’t stop panting and I’m too much in that state that I’ve been trying to describe to feel the exhilaration that one would expect to feel in such a moment.
With the score now, ahem, six to nothing, Alabama in the lead, we try for the two-point conversion and we don’t make it. I remember thinking, “my god, our offense sucks so bad we can’t even make a lousy two-point conversion.” And then, a few hours later, after a long, hard-fought defensive battle, when the final gun sounds, Alabama wins the game, you guessed it, six to nothing.
Afterwards, the coaches take us all out for pizza. (“Victory is ours. Order the vanquished to bring us the finest ‘za in all the land.”)
In the weekly Pee Wee newsletter, there was the usual write up of all the games. I don’t remember any of it, except for this phrase: “and then (my name misspelled) made the play of the game.”
The play of the game. Music to any red-blooded American’s ears.
We ended the season with one win, four losses, and a tie. (The tie game was scoreless.) I’m pretty sure our record put us squarely in last place. The following year I went to high school, where the ninety-five-and-unders and the ninety-five-and-overs came together onto one team (count me out, fellas).
Seasons come and seasons go. Eighth graders move on to ninth grade. A new crop of sixth graders arrive, and Alabama’s roster gets totally re-shuffled. Today’s Bad News Bears may become tomorrow’s heroes. The sun continues to rise and set.
But no matter what happens, I’ll always have my play of the game.