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Blow the whistle and play

A View From the Press Box (Football Preview)

It’s truly odd what the mind retains.

I’ve always found it fascinating how something as simple as a sound or smell can trigger an emotion or memory.

I was reminded of that Friday night when walking off the City of Clinton Field following the Norwood Middle School-Clinton Middle School game. There’s a smell, a scent if you will, only players (or as in my case, former player) recognize. 

I’m not talking about the disgusting locker room odor. That’s a column by itself and not very appealing.

The smell I refer to is freshly churned soil and grass.

Maybe it’s because I spent so much time on the ground as a player but just a whiff took me back to a time when my world centered on Friday night, the guys on either side of me, and the pride I took in wearing my blue and white jersey.

Those were the days when I would have been happy to be called “number 68” as much as my own name. It was my number. It’s who I was.

And you know what? It’s still my number.

I’m just an old man now and long past my playing days but I still remember what it felt like.

I knew what it meant to me then and I know what it means to me now.

I’ve said it before and some people laugh, but there are times when I go to sleep, I still have dreams of playing football.

More often than not, the people who laugh never played the game.

I played on a team that won a grand total of nine games in my four years of high school. We won four of those my freshman year — a year in which I never set one foot on the field. In fact, Lone Jack High School never made the playoffs in its brief football history (1976-1983).

Our school never had a Division I player. Very few of us went on to college and even fewer played at the college level. We had some talented players but not nearly enough and most of us played both ways.

So why did we bother?

We bothered for the same reason so many young men spent their winter and spring in the weight room and their summer in the sweltering heat.

We were brothers in helmets. We loved each other — even if we didn’t realize it or acknowledge it at the time. I was reminded of that last month when two of the guys I played football with passed away within a week of each other, bringing the total to five we’ve lost since high school.

Of a team of 30 players, five is a huge number to lose so soon.

I have a friend, James Sheppard, who lined up next to me every Friday night for our last two years of high school. There’s a bond between players one cannot explain -— it has to be experienced.

He recently sent me a message regarding missing the game. I simply replied, “You hold him up and I’ll hit him.”

He thought it was hysterical. It was a phrase we uttered back and forth more than a few times. And like me, he hasn’t forgotten it either.

We also loved our school.

We might not have won often but it did not stop us from trying and did nothing to lessen our pride in playing for the Mustangs. We literally left blood, sweat, and tears on a field washed out on a semi-annual basis by the flooding of the Cumberland River.

Our coaches - we had only two, a head coach and an assistant - wore white knit shirts and blue polyester coaching shorts in warm weather and blue polyester pants in cold weather.

Sunscreen was whatever strip of shade one could find in the the goalposts and water break was tiny cups filled with water from a hose and heated by the sun.

We were told cold water wasn’t good for us but salt tablets were and if it couldn’t be fixed with cold spray and white tape a doctor was needed.

A sprain meant work through it and a severe sprain meant ice and lots of it. Following practices and home games my senior year, I sat with each foot in a pair of office trash cans filled with ice. And that was after tape was cut from each ankle and said tape was painfully removed.

I’ll be honest, I really don’t miss that part at all.

When I went to bed at night I would regularly wake up with cramps in my calves. Try walking off a cramp with sore ankles and a brother sleeping on the other side of the room telling you to go back to bed and let him sleep.

Why did I suffer such discomfort and inconvenience?

I loved high school football -— and I still do.

There’s nothing like the passion of the Friday night game and the brotherhood only teammates will ever experience.

Football has changed radically since my last high school game on Oct. 30, 1982. It’s not the game it once was but one thing hasn’t changed: It’s all about the team.

I hope the guys on gridirons across the country appreciate this brief moment in their lives and what it will mean to them in years to come.

Starter or benchwarmer, naturally gifted or not, always remember you’re part of something special.

Now, lace up your cleats and buckle your chin straps.

It’s time for kick-off.