Reluctantly lined up for his first football play, Keith Stewart would come to understand the true meaning of sports and create some life-long friendships.
I have only played one football game my entire life, Pledge Bowl, my freshman year of college. For some unknown reason, the Greek community at Transylvania University (yes, it’s a real school) thought it would be swell if the freshman pledges to each fraternity played each other in a football playoff-type tournament every year. This was a big deal to the members of Phi Kappa Tau, my fraternity.
It was our first chance as newbies to prove our loyalty to the Greek letters we proudly wore on our chests.
I was reluctant to play, and voiced my concerns to anyone who would listen that I had no experience playing football and didn’t even know the rules. The fraternity was adamant I not sit out, but no one ever explained to me what to do or how to do it.
Perhaps they thought the ability to play this game was inherently found in the genetic makeup of male DNA. They were wrong. All I knew about football was to be tough and mean, talk smack, and occasionally pat my teammates on the rear.
The morning of the Pledge Bowl was a brisk, fall morning. The trees on campus were bursting with color, the sun was shining, and there was the scent of autumn in air. Everyone seemed pumped and ready for action, everyone except me. I had a deer-in-headlights look and an upset stomach. I didn’t know how I was going to pull this off.
Finally seeing me in my near panicked frenzy, a couple of the upperclassmen brothers, Chip and Jay, took me aside. They said, “We understand what you’re going through. The best thing to help is this,” holding up a bottle of bourbon and two shot glasses.
At that point in my 18-year-old life, wine coolers and an occasional beer was all the alcohol I had drunk, but the brothers seemed to be sincere, so I took them up on their offer and downed two quick hits of Makers Mark. As the liquor warmed my insides, it numbed the negative thoughts in my head.
I didn’t care if I knew the rules or not, I was going to win this Pledge Bowl for my fraternity! Roll Tau Roll! Bring on those Pi Kappa Alphas!
Our team started the game playing defense. As we lined up on the field against Pi Kappa Alpha, everyone looked serious. Game faces were on, except mine. I had my big grin face on and a case of the giggles. I then decided to talk some smack.
“Hey Pikes, I bet you throw like girls. Hey Pikes, today I am giving out free lollipops and whoop ass, and I’m all out of lollipops,” I yelled to the other team inches from my face waiting for the ball to be snapped into play. Since no one had seen me downing the whiskey shots, my teammates looked at me with confusion and most of the Pikes were equally stunned.
When the ball was hiked to the quarterback, I just started running for any player on the other team. As I ran, I let out a primal scream that sounded like I had been speared by a hot poker.
In my defense, no one ever explained to me that there was a difference in flag football and regular football. Had someone said, “The reason we are wearing these long, flowing streamers out of our shorts is that in order to tackle someone, you simply grab his streamer,” I would have done that very thing. But, no one had explained that to me.
In my bourbon-fueled rage, I rammed into an unassuming Pike pledge that was watching his quarterback try to find someone to throw the ball to downfield, and tackled him with all the force and grit I had in me. We were both airborne for a few seconds then landed on the ground and rolled three full rotations before coming to a stop, my scream the only noise on the entire field.
I stood up and looked around, proud of what I had just done. The poor guy I tackled was crumpled on the field, trying to regain his breath. The two referees pulled their yellow streamers out and threw them into the air. I didn’t know what that meant, so I pulled my streamers out of my shorts, threw them into the mix, and for good measure, patted one of the refs on the butt.
A bit of a skirmish between the teams ensued and was quickly broken up by college administrators. I was still oblivious to the fact this was all due to me and my actions. It was then made clear to me by one of the referees that I was being thrown out of not only the game, but also the entire Pledge Bowl.
I can’t say that I wasn’t happy with the news my football debut was over after only one play. I was, however, bewildered with the reasoning behind the decision. I kept telling my brothers I had told them I didn’t know how to play, but they just kept laughing, patting me on the back, and telling me that I was a legend in the making.
Having been banned from the game itself, I found Chip and Jay, and sipped bourbon and watched my brothers play from the sidelines. It is probably no coincidence I ended my college experience as president of the fraternity.
In the years following that historic day in college, I have continued my friendship with these same men. Our love for each other now extends to wives and partners, children, and even a grandchild or two. I owe this circle to the sport of football. Even if I still can’t tell the difference from a fullback and a halfback, I can still be found on crisp, fall afternoons, sitting at some tailgate with my brothers, sipping on bourbon.
The first question often asked after mentioning a sporting event is “Who won?” But sports are so much more than a competition where one wins and the other loses. Sports give grown men the chance to paint their faces and wear horns or cheese or clown wigs on their heads in public without ridicule.
They offer us a way to connect not only with teammates and opponents, but to magically bond with 30,000 people all wearing the same color and yelling the same chant. The true benefit of any sport, whether it is a small college football pledge bowl, the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, or a t-ball game at the local park, is the relationships forged that stay with you the rest of your life. Because there is nothing like being with an old friend and hearing the words, “Remember that time…”
Photo: Flickr/ Brandon I.
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