A few years back I got a copy of Leatherheads in my Christmas stocking. If you don’t know the movie, it is a light-hearted historical interpretation of the beginnings of the National Football League and starred George Clooney. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as much for the visuals and period costuming as for the script and acting, but as I watched the various game scenes I was amazed at the way players would hit so hard with such little protection.
When I finished watching the DVD I tuned in a current NFL game, and as I watched it I was amazed at the protective equipment in that broadcast as well. The helmets, pads and equipment all seemed as far advanced over the gear we used in high school as our gear seemed advanced over the 1920’s football pads of Leatherheads
…and then I remembered about the time our helmets and pads didn’t do us much good at all…
Kenai Central Highs School played its inaugural football season in the fall of 1968, joining the Cook Inlet Conference as the smallest AA school in the state of Alaska. We were not a rich school and the district had notoriously tight purse strings – a good portion of the money for equipment came from student donations which meant the best we could get was second-hand gear, an option with both good and bad aspects.
On the good side
- The gear was cheap
On the bad side
- It was already pretty beat up from use by the original owners
- It used older, less effective design
As the resident yokels in the conference we were never expected to achieve much by the Anchorage sports writers but surprisingly enough we tied for second place during that first season. We tied for second again the next year, but were not expected to do well in our third year. Supposedly all our real talent had graduated and third place was the best we could expect – which made for quite a surprise when we beat the league favorite in the season opener.
This upset insured that as we went into our first “away” game for the season we were VERY confident. It was a night game with Dimond high school and general consensus on the team was that we were going to fly up to Anchorage, thump the Dimond Lynx, then swoop back home covered in glory to spend a weekend basking in the adulation of parents, class-mates and (especially) girlfriends.
Reality started creeping into this vision as we boarded a bus to Anchorage on a day of the game – and it wasn’t a comfortable long-distance people transporter like Greyhound. It was a regular school bus and from the pain and dislocation the seats were causing it was a kindergarten bus rather than one for high school students. It was a painful four hour drive and as personal stereos were ten years in the future and the bus had no radio we entertained ourselves by quoting dialog from The Smothers Brothers show or Warner Brothers cartoons (my favorite being Yosemite Sam). The trip was so painful that even with a mid-trip break to walk off the cramps we arrived having difficulty simply walking much less engaging in full tilt athletic completion.
Nevertheless we were confident, from the head coach down to the assistant team manager for towel control. As we drove to the stadium we were both optimistic and curious – while this game was one of the few wins predicted for us the Lynx ran a novel defense formation called the “Monster Man”. One very capable defensive player was designated the Monster and had full freedom to line up/position himself anywhere on his team’s side of the scrimmage line, the rationale being that the designated player was large enough, strong enough and smart enough to make a significant difference whether he set up as a defensive lineman, a linebacker or defensive back.
Dimond’s Monster Man looked to be all that on paper. While not too terribly tall he was dense, tipping the scales at 245 pounds but reportedly could run almost as fast as a sprinter and could bench press his own weight plus 25 extra pounds. As we drove and watched the Lynx warming up he certainly didn’t look to be all that formidable, but our coaches weren’t taken in. “He’s putting on a show” one of them muttered “He’s running and drilling at half-speed to throw us off….”
No sooner were those words out of his mouth when we were rushed off the bus and into the locker room. Our bus trip had taken longer than expected and kick-off was going to happen very, very soon – and to complicate matters the maintenance crew was just finishing reworking the line work on the field. Back-to-back games the previous weekend combined with heavy autumn rains had obliterated so much of the yard, sideline and end-zone markings that the stadium crew had had trouble getting enough of powdered lime to do the job.
We got dressed and headed for the field and as usual I was the first guy through the paper hoop, after which I ran to the end of the bench to sit down to play guard and tackle (I was to guard the water bucket and tackle anyone trying to drink out of it who hadn’t just come out of play). The inactivity of “riding the pine” got on my nerves so started in with my Yosemite Sam imitations …but I also got a chance to study the game at close distance and it was evident that this game was not going to be the walk-over we had expected.
I learned that lesson first hand when it came time for me to go into the game with one of the special teams. It all went like clockwork:
- I lined up in correct stance
- The center hiked the ball
- I looked up to see Dimond’s Monster Man heading towards my side of the line
- The lights went out.
When the lights came back on my first thought was “when did they plant a tree in the middle of the field?”– then it dawned on me that the Monster Man had been doing exactly what our coach had surmised: he had been sand-bagging during warm-ups but went full-tilt during the game – and was knocking the stuffings out of us.
Not that he was doing it alone, but at the end of the game Dimond had beaten us 28-12. Never one to be shy and retiring, our head coach proceeded to chew us out from one end of the locker room to another – and while I am not a fan of negative reinforcement, I do have to admit that given the cocky attitude with which we went into the game some of his comments were well deserved. However, the pain of that dressing down paled into comparison with what was to come.
Remember the last minute effort to re-line the playing field? In their haste to get the job done by kickoff time the maintenance crew had somehow gotten their hands on industrial-strength lime which formed a caustic paste when mixed with the water left on the field after the previous week’s rainfall. For once I was glad to have spent most of the game on the bench, escaping with minor burns around my ankles. Other more active members of the team weren’t quite so lucky, particularly the starting center, guards and running backs who’d spent most of the night grinding yardage out in the mud.
The worst case was one of our halfbacks who was badly burned across his posterior from playing with this shirt tail out which allowed the lime to work its way down the back of his pants. I will never forget the sight of him hopping and howling around the shower room with the coach chasing behind him armed with the spray-can full of analgesic foam. I will no doubt burn in hell but I couldn’t help but whisper “My biscuits are burning! My biscuits are burning” in my best Yosemite Sam voice as that young man bounced around the locker room trying to avoid the additional pain of the analgesic spray.
It was the kind of thing that would probably bring on a lawsuit in this day and age but back then we just dealt with it as a cosmic comeuppance for our pregame hubris. It was a stinging blow to our collective adolescent ego, but some good came out of the defeat. Emphasis changed from grandstand plays to good solid technique, making us a better team, eventually tying for first place. ..and while I didn’t play much that night it prompted a change in me as well. I went away from the game a little wiser as well, remembering to add a bit more caution to decisions I made later in my life.
…and I still can’t watch a Yosemite Sam cartoon without thinking of Mike hopping around the locker room and trying to dodge that spray can….