“Well this is another fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into,” I said as I stepped into the huddle.
And it was. We had let the football roll because we thought it would have trickled into the end zone and we would have been able to take the ball out to the makeshift twenty yard line, but it didn’t. The ball took an awkward bounce and rolled out of bounds about five feet in front of the end zone marker and we were pinned down inside the mouth of our own goal line.
I looked around at my teammates as steam rose from our sweat drenched foreheads. Hot mist was pouring out of all of our mouths as we fought for oxygen. With each inhale, the cold breeze created little tiny icicles in our mouths and noses. It was painful to take a deep breath but because our work wasn’t done, we had to put everything in the back of our minds. The pain could wait.
“We got the wind in our face and the ice under our feet, we have to be smart,” I said as I caught my breath. “Anyone got any ideas?”
The gusts of wind were smacking us in the face. If we tried to air the ball out and go for a deep pass, the wind would knock the ball down or hold it up long enough for anyone from either team to grab it. It was a risky proposition and one I wasn’t willing to consider this late in the game and this deep in our own end. We had to be methodical but more importantly, we had to protect the football at all costs.
They all looked at me with their hands on their knees and their eyes sunken towards their chins. This wasn’t a time for discussion. This was a time for leadership, so I didn’t wait for an answer to my question. I rubbed my hands together and barked out the play. “Dave on a quick slant if I think they’re coming on a blitz. Clear out and run fly patterns if they aren’t, so I can run a quarterback sneak and try to get us up to the twenty. Listen for the audible; otherwise, clear out so I have some room to run.”
After a number of years of playing together, we had worked out our own language on the line of scrimmage. The number “seven” meant pass, the word “stack” meant to max protect. The number before or after the word “stack” indicated exactly how many receivers should stay on the wing while everyone came into block. The word “blue” meant to clear out and the word “free” meant I wanted an extra blocker. The mention of any State meant the play was a run.
As we broke the huddle and made our way to the line, I surveyed the defense. We were tired, our bodies ached, it was cold and the next score would win the contest. At this point in the game, everything came down to the team that had enough willpower left within themselves to muster up the fortitude to take the physical punishment the other team was constantly doling out and move the ball forward.
As I came under center, the defense was pretty static. They only had one man in the face of my center and I knew Mark could handle him easily. The corners were playing five yards off the receivers and they had two deep. They weren’t blitzing but I wanted another blocker for the sneak. “Fifty-three free, fifty three free…”
As I barked out the signals, Pat moved down the line and went into a three point stance next to Mark. His defender moved toward the center of the field with him but he stayed five yards off the line. I didn’t like the extra defender in the middle of the field but I wasn’t worried because I had two strong guys in front of me to open up space when I ran. “…eleven green, eleven green, Omaha, set, Omaha hut…”
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw something. I could’ve sworn I had just seen one of their corners flinch in my direction and reset. ‘They’re coming on a blitz,’ I thought to myself, ‘they’re coming on a blitz!’ I stepped back from the center, looked around at the field in front of me, went back under center and said, “Blue seventeen, blue seventeen, hut, hut, hike!”
The ball was snapped into my hands and I took three quick steps backward and like a stampede, three defenders ran full speed at me on a blitz. I set my feet and threw the ball in the direction of Dave as three sets of hands all made contact with my body and pushed me backward. I caught my footing just in time to watch Dave catch the ball. He lumbered forward for about two or three yards before he was tackled by one of their guys who was playing deep.
We had bought ourselves a little breathing room as the field remained silent. We were too tired and worn out to even get excited about a nice play that any of us had made and as we all started toward the huddle, we were all eerily cognizant of how silent it was. This was a classic battle of “school yard” ball. No pads, no fans, no referees; it was just a group of men who played for the love of the game.
As I strutted up the field, I recalled how this game began about a week ago. I had been telling Carl, who was the captain of the other team, about a game that my team had just played in. He instantly started taunting me about playing “geriatric” football. He really pushed the envelope when he started boasting about how I must have played in an “old man’s powder puff league” and that I had no idea what a real football game was all about. He then went on to brag about how his team was a real team of former high school and all-state football stars that would mop the field with a bunch of “old guys” like myself.
I gave Carl a little shove as I walked past him toward my team and smiled as he made some quick remark in my direction. I wondered for a moment if he thought my band of “old men” played geriatric football anymore but I let the thought quickly exit my mind because there was no way he could have thought that after tonight. For the past three hours, we had been running, throwing, tackling and pushing our bodies to our physical limits just to prove that age was a state of mind and although they all might have just turned twenty, they were no match for this rag tag group of twenty-six year olds. Our egos took over and we were all going to fight until one of our teams was able to score a final touchdown and end this game once and for all. Quitting wasn’t an option now!
“Nice catch,” I said as I stepped into the huddle.
Earlier in the week, it had rained for three days and when it stopped raining, a cold front moved in and stalled over the neighborhood. The water froze and every step we took was a hire wire act. One moment, we would be running on the crunchy, frozen grass and in the blink of an eye, we would be sliding along a ten foot sheet of ice. The lights above the field were dim and knowing exactly where the ice was at any point on the field was impossible. I realized as I stepped into the huddle that Dave had caught my pass on a patch of ice; he hadn’t lumbered forward, he fought with every ounce of his body to stay up as long as possible.
“I want to run a sweep to the right. I want two receivers left, Pat on the right wing blocking and John in the backfield running the ball; on three.” As we broke our huddle, I knew it was a suicide play. We had three plays left to get to midfield and the thirty yards was looking like a mile from where I stood, but I had to give my receivers a chance to catch their breath with a running play. Besides, John could run like the wind and although the field was frozen, if he got one good opening, he would take it the distance and this game would be over in an instant.
As I stepped up behind the center, I noticed the defense was playing us honestly. They lined up in a man to man defense. Carl was cheating down from a safety position to spy on John in the backfield. As I started the cadence, I knew that John could turn this into a solid gain if he could make a move and get around Carl, “Fifteen green, Omaha, fifteen green, hut, hut, hut!”
I took the snap from center and in a split second, I pitched the ball out to John who caught the football mid-stride and continued running to the right. Pat matched up his guy on the wing and stone walled him. Mark put the defensive lineman on his back after the snap and the other safety was clear across the field helping out with the two receivers I had lined up to the left. It came down to John being able to make a move on Carl on a frozen field. The odds weren’t in our favor.
As John started to make a move around Pat to take the outside, he caught sight of Carl coming around the corner to make a play on him. So John wisely squared up his feet and cut back to the inside of Pat who had stood up his defender and was pushing him backward. Carl saw the adjustment, changed direction and committed to his angle in order to make a tackle. As he got close to John, he dove at him and as he was about to wrap him up for a short gain, I ran through Carl at full speed and hit him as hard as I could. As we both went flying to the ground in another direction, John made a cut behind my block and took off up the field for a twenty-five yard gain before being brought down.
“Nice hit, old man,” Carl said to me as he slowly got up and started to jog back to his huddle, “didn’t think you had it in you.”
Carl had been hitting me pretty hard the entire second half of the game. We had the wind at our back during the first half but when we switched sides, we had the wind gusts in our face. The gusts were strong and because of it, I couldn’t throw the deep ball anymore. We had to switch our game plan from deep passes in a wide open field to shorter, finesse passes and because of this change in our game plan, we needed more time for the routes to develop. The extra time was just what Carl needed to spend the second half of the game sacking me or throwing my body into the frozen ground. After an hour of being sacked, hurried, and knocked down, it felt good to give him a little punishment in return.
I popped up and trotted back to my huddle with a smile on my face.
“Nice run,” I said to John as we stepped back into our huddle.
“Couldn’t have done it without your block.”
“It was nothing,” I replied. It was my job to spring him loose but as I looked around my huddle of “has been’s”, “never was’” and “wannabe’s”, I realized that our age wasn’t a factor anymore. I was looking into the eyes of warriors. We weren’t going to quit and my block had placed an exclamation point on what we were willing to do to win this game.
“Let’s stack the line and run this ball up the gut. Four guys on the line, Pat and I in the backfield. Mark direct snap it to Pat on two. I’ll lead the way and when I find the hole, Pat run it up the gut behind me and punch it through for the first down,” I said as they all stared silently back at me. As we broke the huddle, I knew this play would be the one that broke the will of the other team. This was old school football. Man on man, body on body and we were going to run it right at them and move the pile by sheer determination. This was going to be the play that defined this game.
I lined up in the shotgun formation with Pat standing next to me. The rest of our guys went into a three point stance on the line. As the defense crowded the line of scrimmage and waited for the snap, I slowly screamed out, “Red eighty-one, Kentucky, red eighty-one, hut, hut!”
On the second “hut” Mark snapped the ball in the direction of Pat and as the ball passed me, I started forward to find an open hole for both us to run through for the first down. I was about to square up and dash through a hole that was developing on the left side of the line when I heard Pat scream, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuumble!”
(Friday Night Lights will be continued on Friday, April 11, 2008. Click here to read the rest.)