August 20, 2012 10:04:56 AM
High school football started this week, and I found myself thinking about my own experience playing high school football. It has been 36 years since I last wore the Gold and Blue of the Tupelo Golden Wave. Somehow, they have managed to press on without me.
I suspect that anyone who ever played high school football, no matter how much time has drifted past or how indifferent he might be about the game now, is reminded of his own playing days when a new season begins. I am certain former band members and cheerleaders are similarly stirred to recollection as well.
You know you are getting older when the schools and the places you played don't even exist anymore. For example, every year, we made the trip to Columbus to play in the Magnolia Bowl, either against Caldwell or Lee. The Magnolia Bowl, like Tupelo's Robin Field, exists only as a relic now, sort of a poor man's Collosseum, without the tour buses, of course.
But the memories of my high school football days are pleasant ones, and so this time of year I permit myself to indulge them.
I bet you are thinking that I am going to regal you with my recollection of some heroic feat I performed in the final desperate moments of a critical game that the folks in Tupelo still speak of in reverent terms.
If I were Lea Paslay or Felix Rutledge or Tommy Payne, that might well be the story I would tell.
But even highly selective, much embellished memory does not permit me to tell such a tale. My teammates refuse to die, which means I would risk being exposed as a fraud.
So, the story I will tell, while much less heroic, is interesting in a different sort of way.
The year was 1974. The game in question was against Pine Bluff, Ark. This was a momentous game for the Wave, not only because it was a game against a team from a neighboring state, but because it marked the first - and only - time in my football career that we actually got to spend the night at an out of town game.
Because Pine Bluff was a long bus ride, it was determined that we would bus over Thursday afternoon so that we would be rested and ready for the game on Friday night. A rumor floated around town a few days later that several of the players sneaked out of our Holiday Inn rooms and walked a few hundred yards to a Pizza Inn, where they bought pitchers of beer and played the juke box for a couple of hours. I suspect there was some truth to this rumor, mainly because I was there.
In 1974, I was not considered a key cog in the Wave football machine. I think I was third or fourth team at about five positions.
So, for me, the trip to Pine Bluff was not accompanied by anything resembling performance anxiety. I figured I would do what I almost always did at games - convince a friend in the stands to sneak me a bag of popcorn, which I concealed in my helmet. I figured I would munch on popcorn and watch the game and the cheerleaders; my attention being equally divided between the two.
Let me pause here to discuss the cheerleaders of my generation. Unlike today, cheerleaders of that era were generally not chosen because of their athleticism. They were selected primarily because they were attractive, energetic and could be convinced to shout, with great zeal, such inane things as "Two bits. Four bits. Six bits. A dollar. All for Tupelo, stand up and holler!''
I liked the cheerleaders a great deal - and from a great distance. It was my primary diversion during the game, to be honest.
But an odd thing happened on that two-day trip. Friday morning, players started getting sick, and I found myself inching precariously up the depth chart at several positions.
But at game time there were sufficient numbers of healthy players for me to reasonably assume I would spend the game in the manner in which I was accustomed.
Then things started happening. Rob Mosely, who was playing outside linebacker in the absence of the starter came up limping. He made it through the first half, somehow. But about three minutes in the third quarter, he went down in a pile and had to be carried off the field.
I was not initially aware of this new development, my attention to the game having long since waned. (The cheerleaders that year were especially fetching.)
Then I heard the booming voice of Fred Davis, one of our defensive coaches. Coach Davis was a wiry little man with an enormous afro, a thick mustache and bird legs that stuck out of his coaching shorts like a pair of dark brown popsicle sticks. He had some sort of speech impediment, which made him difficult to understand. He compensated by yelling very loud.
"Miff" (Smith)," he bellowed.
I look down the sideline at his direction. He was jumping up and down on those little popsicle stick legs and waving his arms as if there was some urgent matter he wanted to discuss.
"Miff!'' he yelled again, as I was trying to ditch the popcorn.
That's when I saw Rob stretched out on the sidelines and realized that I actually going into the game.
Sprinting toward the middle of the sidelines where the coaching staff prowled, I quickly snapped my chin strap.
"Miff!'' Davis bellowed.
"I'm here coach!'' I said, ready to sprint out onto field, trying to remember formations, assignments and all that boring stuff the coaches had said during our pre-game meetings.
"Good!'' Davis barked. "Gimme your helmet.''
So, I gave coach Davis my helmet, who handed it to Benji Ross, who turned out to be the next in line at the position.
I just sort of slinked back down to the end of the sideline. It was embarrassing. Not only that, I didn't have anything to eat popcorn out of.
We bused home after the game. I walked in the door about 3 a.m. and mama was sitting in her chair in the living room. Mama just couldn't sleep until her boys were home.
"Who won?'' she asked sleepily.
"We did,'' I said. "24-16, I think it was.''
"Oh, good,'' she said. "Did you play?''
"Nah,'' I said. "... but my helmet did.''
That was my sophomore year. Fortunately, I got to play a bunch my junior and senior years. In fact, I scored a touchdown against Lee High in the Magnolia Bowl my senior year. Or was it Caldwell? I forget.
I figure I played in 22 high-school football games in all.
My helmet played in 23.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.