Well, of course, the obvious answer is that I am 63 years old, overweight, out-of-shape, and haven’t touched a football since Brian was 14 years old.
Then there is the fact that after sitting on the Junior Varsity bench for my Freshman and Sophomore years at King Philip High School, I didn’t even make the Varsity team when I entered 11th grade. I was cut after three practices.
There! I’ve finally admitted it publicly after 50 years of keeping it a secret. I have always told everyone that I chose, of my own free will, to leave the team because I wanted to concentrate on my academic studies.
BAGMAN: “Yeah! And did you really think anybody ever believed that for a minute?!”
Hanging my head in shame. But my failure at football did have something to do with my brain even if it wasn’t academics! My brain has always been addicted to thinking way too much about stuff. Somehow, later in life, I managed to turn it off while practicing martial arts, but in high school I intellectualized football and it was an abject failure.
I was a pretty decent athlete. But I was 16, a lean 195 pounds, in good shape, and touched a football daily. I played pickup neighborhood football games with a vengeance. But when I first started playing in high school, I fell in love with the playbook. It was like a board game or a maze of X’s and O’s and arrows. A Rubics Cube of mud and grunts. I studied and memorized everybody’s blocking assignments. I knew exactly what my “O” was supposed to do to which “X” on each play.
But when we lined up for the hike, my “X” didn’t always line up in the right place. And he seldom followed his assigned arrow. As soon as the ball was hiked, everyone would launch out every which way! It wasn’t fair, dammit! I’d stand up and try to figure out what I was supposed to do and I’d still be there working out my strategy when some “X” who was supposed to be on the other side of the playbook would level me. And I’d give him a dirty look. Unless I was too busy trying not to throw up.
I still remember my number – 81. I was a tight end. Now I realize that this was the kiss of death. The position of tight end in football is like right field in baseball. Coaches put their worst players there so they have less chance of screwing up too often.
I was a tight end because I was too small to be a lineman, too slow to be a running back, and too lousy at catching passes to be a wide receiver. I might have made a good coach because I could map out plays on paper really well. Once I spent an entire algebra class drawing up a quadruple reverse, double lateral hail mary play and showed it to the coach.
I should have shown it to the art teacher.
It was cold on the bench; I confess I used to secretly hope that the starting tight end would get hurt so I would get to play. When this finally happened one Saturday in November, I ran out on the field determined to show everyone what a star I could be.
The first play was “Hook pass, Harry.” Harry was the other tight end. It could have been “Hook pass, Mark” but that play ran the risk that I might get my hands on the ball. For “Hook pass, Harry” my job was to run five yards past the line of scrimmage, turn and throw my hands up, faking, as if the ball was coming to me, then turn and run to block anyone trying to tackle Harry.
Okay, I thought. I might not get the ball, but I’m going to knock anybody who gets near to Harry on their butt!!! Hut one, hut two. I race out, turn, jump up, then – like a rocket, I’m on a collision course to where Harry has just caught the ball. Blind with rage and determination to make my presence known, I miss the fact that there is absolutely no defenders anywhere near Harry.
So I leveled Harry.
On the sideline I could see the coach talking to the first string tight end that I had replaced. I could almost read his lips, “I don’t care if it is broken, you’re going back in! We can’t leave Mark in there!”
But time was running out. We were down 3 points. We were on our own 10 yard line. It was, as they say, crunch time. The last play of the game was a long sideline pass to our wide receiver. My job was to run out and block the safety. Amazingly, the safety lined up where he was supposed to on the playbook. I was set.
Hut one, hut two! I’m off like a rocket, following my allotted playbook arrow. Maybe I’m not quite like a rocket, because the wide receiver who started out five yards behind me is already ten yards ahead of me. This confuses me. I’m also confused because the safety I’m suppose to block is no longer standing where his “X” is suppose to be but is starting to chase the wide receiver.
I panic! I was suppose to block him!! My entire life flashes before my eyes and I know that even if my heart explodes, I’m going to catch this safety and block him.
The three of us are racing down the field. Or up the field. I never could figure out which was which. But our wide receiver was ten yards ahead of anyone. The safety, my target – my salvation – is behind him and I am gaining ground!
Our wide receiver catches the ball!! And I catch up to the safety!!!
In retrospect, I caught up to the safety because he had stopped running. He had stopped running because he was watching our heroic wide receiver who was just about to cross the goal line for a miracle last minute victory.
And I was ecstatic because I finally had a chance to slam my “O” on the correct “X” at full speed. Which I did with a delightful crunch and splat. Even better, I saw that I would be performing my act of perfect violence directly in front of our coach on the sidelines.
Again, in retrospect, I might have been better off performing it somewhere less obvious.
And in even more retrospect, I should have realized that, if my target was looking at our wide receiver, I would be crunching and splatting directly into his back. They used to call this a “clip” although they now call it a “block in the back” – in fact it might have been my textbook version which gave them the idea for a better definition.
It is amazing how many yellow penalty flags can cover you when the referees are really pissed off. Actually, I think the coach picked a couple of them up and threw them at me a second time himself.
But I still love the Pittsburgh Steelers. And I’ve learned a lot watching them on television. I wonder if it is really too late.