Friday, July 29, 2011

The Boys of Fall

It was August, 1974 in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the inaugural football season for ECS was drawing near.  We had traveled from Cordova, Tennessee to Little Rock for the preseason football jamboree.  The teams in our league were each there to play one quarter so we could assess how well we had prepared during two-a-day practices, and so the teams could get a look at their competition.  We had worked hard during the previous weeks, and were ready to get on the field and hit somebody other than our own team.

It was drizzling rain, and the Arkansas mud was so gooey it was referred to as Arkansas gumbo.  Our cleats created a sucking sound as we walked through the mud.  I had come down with flu symptoms that morning and had a fever of around 102º, but I wasn’t going to miss this.  I didn’t wear contacts then, and my eyesight was so poor, all I could see were colors and lights.  I felt like crap, but I wanted to play.  There was no way I was going to wimp out and tell the coaches I was too sick to play.

My brother, Mike, was built to play football.  He was 16 years old, stood about 6’1”, and weighed in around 230 lbs. He was as strong as a bear.  In fact, that had become his nickname … “Bear”.  He played offensive and defensive tackle, and was tough.  I was 14, stood about 5’10” and weighed in around 140 lbs.  I had wanted to play quarterback, but instead, I practiced at tight end and defensive end.  I was pretty fast, but I didn’t have my brother’s natural strength.

We were approaching the end of our quarter and our opponent had the ball on our two yard line.  I had been on the sideline the entire quarter, when all of a sudden I heard the coach yell, “Berry, get in there at tackle!”  Now even though I couldn’t see, I knew my brother was already on the field, and I had never even thought of playing defensive tackle.  I asked, “Do you mean me?” to which the coach replied, “Is your name Berry?  Get on the field!”

I jammed my helmet down on my head.  As I ran to the huddle, my head was spinning from the fever.  By the time I got there, the huddle had broken and the defense was going to the line.  Disoriented, I started to line up with the opposition’s offense, but I heard my teammates yelling at me to get on the right side of the line.  By the time I got in place, the center was snapping the ball and they ran right over me for a touchdown.  I heard the coach yelling at me as I went to the sideline, and I remember thinking, “Why did you put ME in at defensive tackle?”

The following week we practiced to get ready for our first game of the season.  I didn’t make it through the week.  I took a helmet to the abdomen and ended up in the hospital for ten days, recovering from surgery.  My season was over.  The coach granted my request to let me wear my jersey on the sideline and serve as the team’s manger.  I enjoyed watching my brother play, and my adrenaline would start pumping before every game, as though I was going to play.  Mike was the team captain and had a great season.  At the end of the season, he had made all conference tackle on both side of the ball.

The next fall, I started two-a-days, ready for a comeback.  I didn’t make it through the first week before I had a foot injury.  I decided that I wasn’t built for high school football, and thus ended my career.  Mike went on to have a great senior season, and I got to watch him from the stands.  That was fine with me.  I knew when to quit.

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