Clinton, South Carolina, Wednesday, August 12, 2015, 10:24 a.m.
On Tuesday evening, I sat in the Wilder Stadium stands at about the 20-yard line, right about where my late father once watched me play, to see the upstart Red Devils scrimmage the Berea Bulldogs, now coached by a onetime teammate of mine, Wayne Green.
A few hundred people were in the stands. The booster-club booth was open. The lads gave roughly as good as they got, though they’re far from ready for the season opener on Aug. 21. I watched with a bit of the “bah, humbug!” that often characterizes old men from a different age.
Clinton is modernizing. Most of the time, it’s running a shotgun offense that is a far cry from the wishbone once employed by my team. I’m glad they’re shaking things up. After going 5-7 and 2-9 the past two seasons, and having to outscore teams they once snuffed out, it’s good to see some changes. The new coach, Andrew Webb, is enthusiastic. They’re making progress. I’m upbeat. I’ll be enthusiastic when I see them make fewer mistakes. The stadium is not where Clintonians are accustomed to going for comic relief.
Not to mention Joannans, Mountvillians, Cross Hillians, and all the other Red Devils out on the rural routes.
Hank Williams: I left my home out on the rural route / Told my pappy that I’m stepping out …
A few junior varsity players were sitting below, listening to me hone my cliched exhortations: Go, Big Red! Gotta lock up! You’re better than that, 6-2! Hoddamighty. Way to go! That’s what I’m talking about! Gotta eliminate mistakes, boys!
I started out thinking about the self-preservational rules of football, the practical ones that might still work nearly 40 years after my last game, which was for the championship of the whole dadgum state, and which we won, 14-6.
(1.) If you get beaten, either try to block someone else, or dive to the ground. Do not — repeat, do not — trot back toward the quarterback who is getting squashed by the man you were supposed to block, particularly with your hands on your hips. It will make you an object of ridicule when the team is watching film (oops, video) on Monday.
(2.) The worst people in the world are the coach impressers, the underclassmen trying to make a name for themselves not because they are good but because they break the rules. A coach can clearly explain that the drill is not full-speed, and this is just for blocking assignments, and that’s when these little brown noses will pile into you at full speed, embarrassing you, and the coach will never bless them out. Oh, no. The best way to react is just grit your teeth and take it out on the little snotnose later. Life is tough that way.
(3.) The reverse is, never do something that will result in the entire team having to run wind sprints. I managed to do this in the first varsity scrimmage in which I ever participated, and Landrum High School’s entire team had showered and was heading home while our team, an hour or so from home, was still running up and down the field of their small stadium. It took quite some time for my teammates to forget this offense. (I started a fight. I never started another.)
(3-A.) Fortunately for the kids of today, there doesn’t appear to be any such thing as wind sprints anymore. I’ve got no problem with that.
(4.) Don’t forget to have fun. I played football more to fulfill my responsibility. I put unnecessary pressure on myself, and, quite often, suffocated as a result. It wasn’t until it was all over that I realized how much I missed it, and, in a sense, I have been trying to make up for it ever since.
(5.) Winning is worth it. Winning is fun. Losing isn’t. In part because I played, however modestly, on a state championship team, I have gone through life with a positive attitude ever since. I never give up. Even back when I played, after we had pummeled another team, on the bus ride home, I wondered how the other team emerged from that experience. Did they go forward expecting to lose? I think it may have had an effect. That’s why I so want the kids out there today to experience success.
(6.) Use your head. Study your opponent. Even if he is better, you can beat him by figuring out his habits and taking advantage of them at the right time. If you’re not very smart, someone else on the team is. Pick his brain. Coaches talk about team things. Football requires individual triumphs that, when in concert, produce simple beauty.
(7.) If you play defense, which I seldom did, you can excel by being a screaming lunatic. On offense, a screaming lunatic forgets the snap count, jumps offsides, completely misses his assignment, and, appropriately, is yanked unceremoniously from the game.
(8.) If the coach grabs your facemask and yells at you so angrily that you are blinking your eyes from the spit, wait until he is through, and then say, as calmly as possibly, “Oh, by the way, I have no feeling in my right arm.” At the very least, he will be taken aback.
(9.) In team meetings, if you must be funny, be so at a voice level only a few nearby teammates will hear. The sense of humor of most coaches is erratic, at best.
(10.) The notion of being “ready to play” is much more complex than most fans believe. Sometimes you tell yourself over and over things that yourself just doesn’t believe. When you’re a kid, it takes a little trial and error. It’s one of the reasons great teams often lose one game. That loss is a wake-up call.
In spite of the fact that this blog is too long to be on most social-media platforms, I hope at least one kid gets something out of it.
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