Bruises and spraining that felled my teammates—nah, I didn’t pay much attention. I never saw anyone go unconscious either, and suffering a concussion without being knocked out was not something that existed.
I was not very well coordinated and I was a little on the fat side as a kid, but I was rather fast. My junior high gym teacher thought I had the right stuff to make the high school football team. My mother thought it was a bad idea. She said she knew many men who had chronic pain related to sports injuries they’d suffered in high school.
My father was the quarterback for his high school team. I asked him if he had any stories from his glory days. He said he really couldn’t think of any, that he was only the quarterback because the guy who’d earned the starting role had gotten injured.
When I decided to listen to my mother, my father offered no objection.
I didn’t lose my love for the game, however. I just pursued it informally. I played tackle football with friends. We didn’t wear helmets or any protective gear at all. It was a different game than the one they were playing in high school.
We usually played among ourselves, but one time we did entertain a team from a neighboring area. Their high school team was the main rival of ours. None of them were on their high school team, though. Their players all used the same rules we did.
We were the home team. They swaggered onto our field and began their pregame ceremony of passing around a whiskey bottle. We took the game soberly. They won. I don’t remember anybody getting hurt. The closest we came to injury was related to the officiating. All close calls were decided by negotiation. Replay wasn’t instant. There was no video tape to review, just oral debates as to what had happened during the last play. Some calls were upheld to avoid somebody getting punched.
It was these friendly games that caused the most injury. I was damn lucky. I took a hard hit to the head once and a slimy substance trickled from my nose. I had “seen stars” before from head blows, but this slime was something new. I thought it might be serious, so I didn’t say anything. Turned out, it wasn’t serious. To this day, I don’t know what that was all about.
I never caused anybody to be injured by my aggressive play on purpose. It was all accidental. One time, we were playing on wet grass. In place of a groundskeeping crew, we had an attitude that varying turf conditions added to the excitement of the game.
My friend was already down. If we’d had a whistle somebody would have blown it. If the grass hadn’t been wet, I would have been able to stop in time. I had never seen so much blood before and have been lucky to never see so much blood since. The doctor said wounds to the forehead do bleed a lot. My bloodied friend thought the whole drama of being helped off the playing field and driven to the emergency room was exciting. No, we did not resume play after this time out for injury. It had gotten late and our field did not have lights.
The other serious injury I caused was mainly my fault, but not really. My best friend Bill was not in the mood to join us that day; he wanted to keep watching a baseball game on television. The New York Yankees were playing the Boston Red Sox. I shamed him into changing his mind.
“Why sit on your ass being a spectator to a great rivalry when you could be participating in one with friends? Bill we really need you, man.”
Bill knew what he had to do.
Bill fought for that loose ball with everything he had. The guy who lost the ball fought harder to get it back. This guy’s teammates helped him recover. Fumbling away the ball is embarrassing. Bill was ashamed by what had happened to him.
Bill’s fractured collar bone was pretty bad. He went from the emergency room to a hospital bed for a couple of days. When I went to see him, I said I was sorry for my role in putting him in the position he was in. Bill told me not to worry about it. Then he motioned that I come close; he had something he wanted to whisper in my ear. He said that what he was worried about was the fact his testicles were black and blue and one was the size of a tennis ball. Now, he may have been exaggerating, but I wasn’t about to check. I didn’t know what to say, so I just grimaced and nodded my head.
Bill recovered. He chose not to play football with his friends anymore.
Other than that, I saw two broken arms. I was not in on those plays. I don’t remember all of the bruising and sprains, because I didn’t pay much attention to them. I never saw anyone get knocked unconscious. Suffering a concussion without being knocked out was not something we knew existed.
I remember fondly, the smell of grass and mud in the crisp autumn air. I was never out for blood, but I was excited by the danger of injury in the air.
My mother wasn’t in the stands to watch these games. There were no stands. Even with her visiting Bill in the hospital, she never insisted I stop playing. I think it was because she was glad I didn’t try out for the high school team. She did suggest that I do some chores around the house instead of going off with my friends to play football. My Father told her that chores could wait until I came home.
I never wished that our games would attract some young women with short skirts to cheer me on, because their was little chance of that, even in my fantasies. Adolescent fashion wasn’t as revealing in those days, anyway. This was over 40 years ago. Cheerleading outfits were as revealing as it got. Female dance moves were very tame by today’s standards. A cheerleader doing a split was a sight to behold. Pom poms gave at least partial permission to look where my eyes wanted to go. I knew that our games wouldn’t attract any female attention when we were playing. It gave us no status in our high school’s hallways either. When it came to football, we were a collection of failures and high school football team “wannabes.”
I made my claim to fame not on the playing fields and courts, but in the bleachers. In those days, there were no male cheerleaders either. I was very much on the shy side, but I knew how to make my voice loud, which I had discovered by accident as a high school sports fan. My reputation grew.
My high school’s mascot was and still is a “hillbilly.” I remember being the loudest responder to the cheerleaders requests that we chant along with them, “H I L L B I L L I E S. Go Fight Win.” I get a little rush even today when I spell out that mascot name letter-by-letter.
In those days, a senior class member was given the honor of wearing ragged clothing, encouragement to hold a jug marked with three x’s in one hand and a long rifle in the other to accompany them as they walked the side lines. I don’t remember the mascot doing any cheering. I do remember seeing signs of embarrassment.
The story as to how an ignorant, moonshine-guzzling, rifle-toting white man came to symbolize a school is simple. The original high school had been built on a hill. When they constructed a replacement building on some very flat land, the reason for continuing with the mascot was purely tradition.
I just checked and found the Hillbilly is still at my old high school. He is depicted sans jug and sans rifle now, but appears to be abusing steroids from the look of things. I hope I am wrong about this and that the massive muscles depicted symbolize dedication to weight training. I imagine the Hillbilly I once knew finally got an education and stopped feuding with his neighbors. I believe he only drinks in moderation when handling firearms. No more drinking out of a jug.
One year, in high school, they had a female hillbilly, long beard and all, but I don’t recall that choice being about female empowerment. I recall no one male wanted to fill those ragged overalls.
My cheerleading was executed strictly as a fan. I was dedicated to following the all female cheerleaders‘ moves very carefully. I did it for my school. My friends got on board with the yelling and even some peers who would not willingly associate with me elsewhere, joined the chorus I led from the stands. During my tenure as big mouth, every team I cheered for had a losing record. Just think how much worse they would have done without me.
The school used to have an assembly where accomplished athletic students were awarded fabric “Letters.” Our school’s letter was “F.” No reflection on the win-loss records of most of the teams during my years at that school, it was just the first letter in the name of the town where the school was located. This was common practice throughout the USA. You could have the big letter sewn onto a jacket or sweater, along with the school’s name. When you wore your Letter, you could walk proud.
I finally got my award my senior year at a separate ceremony. It was not in the form of a Letter. For the only time in my high school career, a small crowd gathered to honor me in the cafeteria. It took me totally by surprise. A friend said they had a trophy for me they thought was well-deserved for my contribution to school spirit as a sports fan. He said he had asked that it be presented at the sports’ award assembly. The high school principal said no.
The trophy I was given was fine, shiny and professionally made. I had never seen anything like it. At its top were the golden hind quarters of a stallion. The inscription read, “Hurray for Shaw. Hurray at last. Hurray for Shaw. He is a horse’s ass.”
This was the highlight of my high school career. I should have asked that it be placed in my school’s trophy case in the main lobby, because somewhere in the course of moving residences I lost “my ass.” The golden memory of its presentation endures.
Today, at the age of 64, I am worse for wear, but no worse from problems related to high school sports injuries. I look back on how stupid it was to play football the way I did, but still believe there is a strong down side to the organized form of the game. Shoes with cleats on a heavily-muscled form and covered in Kevlar armor make for quite the human missile. A similarly equipped target causes a helluva a collision. I have read brain tissue is the consistency of tooth paste. A good jolt to the body can produce a wave that can cause subtle to gross brain matter rearrangement, as neurons contort and rip. That doesn’t sound good. Such action is only good in producing a very entertaining football play.
We have many options we can use to teach boys the values of teamwork, endurance, strength training, practice, good nutrition and how to withstand short-term physical and emotional discomfort to achieve an award winning outcome, besides contact sports.
It might also be true that contact sports can introduce boys into the killing and willing-to-be-killed skills of military service. This might be better left to video games and target practice and later boot camp.
Contact sports from high school, to college to the National Football League are great for diverting public attention away from the activities of the military industrial complex and banking industry. They can be great for selling beer. Not so great for the bodies and emotional sensitivities of boys. As for organized cheerleading, well that may have an influence on maintaining old ideas about the relative roles of men and women in every sphere of life. We’re probably always going to have to “put up” with that.
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