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Slimantics: The joy of football

 

Slim Smith

 

The high school football season begins tonight when Caledonia makes the short trek south to play Heritage Academy. 

 

While Caledonia and Heritage are the only area teams playing tonight, most teams will commence the 2013 season Friday. High school football is a big deal in this part of the world, naturally. When you factor in the band and cheerleaders, as you should, hundreds of "our" kids will be directly involved in high school football as the season begins. 

 

As someone who played high school football back when the dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I feel a strong compulsion this time of year to share some thoughts on this subject, thoughts that have been refined by the passage of the various geological epochs. 

 

Slightly amending Kierkegaard's observation, while life must be lived forwards, it is best understood backwards. With that in mind, I offer this advice. 

 

Admittedly, I don't have much to say about the nuts and bolts of today's game, which has changed dramatically since the last time I stepped onto a field in uniform (November, 1976, in case you were curious). 

 

Today's players are bigger, stronger and more skilled. 

 

Our biggest player at Tupelo High School back then was Wayne Hereford, who is now a newscaster on the Tupelo TV station. Wayne weighed around 240 pounds and was considered enormous. Most of the other lineman weighed anywhere from 180 to 210 pounds. 

 

I played wide receiver and defensive back, which suited my small stature. (I graduated at 160 pounds.) 

 

Unlike today, playing wide receiver was not considered a "skill position," a term used to describe those who handle the ball often. As it was with most schools in the Deep South in those days, we ran the wishbone offense, mainly because it was the offense preferred by Bear Bryant and Jesus. You were more likely to see a ball in the air at a bowling alley than at a high school football game in those days. Mainly, a wide receiver's job was to block.  

 

I am amazed by the skill and sophistication of today's game, particularly when it comes to the passing game, which relies so heavily on perfect timing and precision. 

 

There was nothing glamorous about my position back then and I was not a great player, although I do find that somehow I have improved with each passing decade. 

 

So I can't tell you what it's like to be the star player or to have made the game-winning play.  

 

But what I can tell you is that I led the team in having fun, which I have come to realize is the ultimate measure of success, no matter what the coaches and the scoreboard say. 

 

Since moving back "home," I've had the chance to get together with some of my old teammates from time to time and what I have discovered is how little of the actual games we remember. Oh, there is a detail or two from a game that has endured, but more often than not, we cannot agree on what the final score was or who it was we were playing when discussing a play we all remembered. Those games, even the big games, are shrouded in the fog of time. 

 

What we have discovered is that some of the most enduring memories came from things that happened far away from the game itself. 

 

Like the time a couple of Tupelo Police Department squad cars rolled to a stop in the parking lot high above the practice field one August afternoon. We all looked up to see the squad cars. When we looked back, we saw our starting tailback sprinting across the field in the opposite direction of the police. We never did know if the police were really there for the tailback, but I assume he had a guilty conscience. At any rate, he wasn't taking any chances. "How come he never runs like that in a game?" one of our coaches asked with a sigh. 

 

There was also the road game when injuries forced a sophomore into the starting lineup. All week, the coaching staff worked on him, trying to get him ready for his big debut. 

 

But as the bus approached the stadium, his nerves got the best of him. He threw up all over himself and the guys in the seat in front of him, which naturally induced them to throw up, too. Before the bus rolled to a stop, probably a dozen players were heaving, a chain reaction of nausea. It was not the grand entrance we had hoped for.  

 

Chances are, whether you are a player, a band member or cheerleader, you'll someday have memories like that, too. 

 

You will find that the things you best remember and most cherish will not revolve around the games themselves or the outcomes, but of the funny things that happened in practice or on the bus or before or after a game. You will find that you will remember your teammates, but not much about how your teammates performed. 

 

Years ago, as a young sports writer I was assigned to cover a 10K race in Columbus. Among the competitors were quite a few track athletes from Mississippi State and Alabama. There was also a little old lady, who "ran" in the race every year. That year, long after the last of the competitors had passed the finish line, the little old lady still hadn't arrived and a police car was dispatched to locate her. They found her about a mile away, happily picking wildflowers along the road. 

 

She had forgotten the race for the joy on the journey. 

 

That's my wish for all the kids who take the field this week. 

 

It's the best part of the game.

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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