The weatherman had threatened early snow unsuccessfully for more than a week now, so it comes as no surprise when the early morning rain turns to wet snow. Still, the first snow always startles, and I pause in observance before entering my cherry red Z-28. I imagine slippery conditions as I pull from the Camaro from my driveway, but by the time I travel the more than twenty miles to the field, only a faint rain precipitates from the clouds.
The fullness of fall could only mean football, a ritualistic pastime beyond the understanding of most of those who play – and impossible to fathom for those who don’t.
* * *
I can’t remember when self-doubt originally entered my mind. Certainly, years of hard work and long office hours had usurped my once steady diet of the game. Without the ability to locate other players in a consistent fashion, I fell in with the Bandits – a flag football team of some standing and tradition. Adult flag football was like tackle football, only without the pads. Instead of a helmet, we wore a baseball cap. The team I joined had members of the old Rochester Mustangs semi-pro football team. Were they tough? You be the judge. Today, one continues to serve a life sentence for murder. At least one is dead, and probably more. I’ve always thought of them as my personal version of Teddy Roosevelt’s rugged North Dakota cowboys.
At the first practice, I promptly dislocated two fingers on my passing hand. The first season saw me as a crippled back-up quarterback.
I remained the insurance policy for the rest of my Bandit career. It had to be. That’s just the way football is. While second string players in other positions have the luxury of openly challenging their betters, the substitute quarterback must try extra hard not to undermine the team’s confidence in the starting quarterback. I smoothly accepted the role of cheerleader and clipboard carrying play coach, offering to QB only in practice when the starter needed rest. That task, however, numbed my realization of what being a quarterback was really all about. In my zeal to promote the Bandits, I forgot the training I had had on previous teams. I forgot, essentially, why I had only met success playing the part of quarterback, not running back, not end, not linebacker nor defensive back.
In practice with the Bandits, I often filled in as fullback, tailback, or split end, depending on who failed to show up on that particular day. Lack of speed as well as a lack of aggressiveness became apparent. As I missed blocks and constantly failed to turn the corner, I began to question the reality of my desire to play football. Clearly, I believed I was in way over my head. After all, these guys used to be semi-pros. Quite possibly, I could never again be as good as I thought I had been. Worse, I wondered if perhaps – gasp! – I had never been that good to begin with.
My motive slowly changed from engaging in competitive sport to merely having fun. I knew my training dealt with finesse. I could never transform into a hard hitting linebacker. My arm could no longer throw bullets, and I began to doubt its distance potential. Simply put, I had no usable talents. I could add no value to the team. I could only cheer loudly in hopes of inspiring my teammates, just like any other spectator.
The coaches did nothing to encourage me. I found myself passed over in the depth chart. The team assumed practice could not carry on when the starting quarterback did not show up. I could only conclude the years I had spent behind the center represented an aberration. I guessed I had no real talent as quarterback, just a few lucky passes. I accepted my lot.
* * *
Exiting the muscle car, I put my cleats on in the morning rain. The weather smells of football. As I walk toward the muddied field, my mind floats back to the 1964 Mudbowl Championship between the Packers and the Bears. Real football always had lots of mud, just like we have today. I feel a part of that tradition, although, I know my uniform will never get muddy. As back-up quarterback, I am called upon exclusively in the event of an injury to the starter. That never happens; consequently, I have the cleanest uniform on the team.
Still, the coach told me earlier in the week to expect to see some action. The game itself doesn’t matter as the team has already earned its play-off position. That fact comforts me. No matter how bad I do, I know I can’t hurt the team. I am nonetheless attacked by a thousand worries. I fear fumbling the snap. I fear fumbling the handoff. I fear throwing an interception. I fear not reading the defense on the Wishbone. I fear the Bandits will finally discover I’m a fraud. Above all, I fear discovering that myself.
With the game firmly decided, the coach tells me I’ll play the entire fourth quarter. At that point, I’m so excited; I forget every play in the book. I ask him what he wants me to run. He says to run up the middle. I take a few practice snaps and loosen up my arm. I wish I had a chance to run plays in practice more often. Anxiety returns, but I promise myself to maintain the facade for as long as I can.
The defense gets the ball back and I run onto the field. The tailback has been told to help me, which makes me feel good. He calls the first two plays – simple off tackle plays. I don’t fumble the snap and the exchanges go well. The straight forward process gives me confidence. We execute the transactions during the third down power dive flawlessly. Yet, we do not have enough for a first down. We must punt.
I hustle back to the sidelines to much encouragement. Maybe my teammates are just as surprised as me that I didn’t fumble. Excitement slowly supplants my nervousness and I ask the coach if I could run the Wishbone on the next series. He says simply, “All right.” His lack of hesitation reassures me.
An interception brings the ball back into our hands. I sprint out into the huddle. The tailback begins to call a play. I interrupt to indicate we will run the Wishbone to the short side of the field. The backs counter we should run it to the far side. A lineman of experience informs them to let me – the quarterback – call the play. We run twice to the short side for little gain.
On third and seven I decide to chance it. We’ll pass off the option. I call the play amid some dissent in the huddle. The defense calls a time out. I amble to the sidelines to speak to the coach. Without offering my suggestion, he tells me to run the same play I had just called. I can’t believe it! I had actually made the right decision. I dart back to the huddle brimming with confidence.
As I enter the huddle, I eye each and every player. I call the play again, “Wishbone Right, Pass Black, on one.” We break and line up. My cleats squish the mud as I stroll to the center. Flipping the muddy towel up onto his back, I set my hands and bark the signals. The defense hollers, pointing to the primary receiver. I fear they might guess the play.
I concentrate heavily, making sure I will perform my tasks crisply in the next few seconds. I must not fumble the snap. I must fake to the fullback up the four hole. I must sprint to the right in hopes to draw the defenders in. The tailback will be open, but for only a moment, and I must pass the ball precisely at that time. There will be no secondary receivers.
I yell “Hut!” The ball snaps into my open palms. I pivot to the right and place the ball into the stomach of the onrushing fullback. I ride him into the hole and quickly pull the ball out as he crosses the line of scrimmage. I look ahead of me along the line. No defender fills that gap, but one covers the pitch man. I continue rolling right but fade back slightly. I look upfield to the receiver. He hasn’t made his break yet, but three defenders surround him. Now too far back to break upfield myself, and the pitchman still covered, I have a mere moment to decide as the defense offers no pressure. I am upset they have discovered the play, although I attribute it to a case of dumb luck. I realize the coverage thwarts my original intention to float the ball into an open zone and have the receiver run under it. With three defenders, no open zone exists.
Something tells me my time has run out. I’ve been standing tall in the pocket long enough. I must pass the ball now. I must pass the ball differently than expected. I must decide now how to pass the ball. I instinctively judge not to try to force the ball – that would risk an interception. I conclude I must point the ball low – either it will fall incomplete or the receiver will make an outstanding catch, but no defender will have a chance to intercept.
I fling the ball effortlessly to the designated spot. The pass feels good, though I know it will in all likelihood fall incomplete. I follow the ball for only a moment. Even as it leaves my fingers, I sense thunder from my blindside. Instantaneously an arm wraps itself around my neck and yanks me, face first, into the mud, without question attempting to decapitate me. The rusher only succeeds in ripping my cap off.
Surprised but unshaken, I search for my hat, now soiled. I pick myself up and smile at the mud stains on my formerly bright white pants. I even have streaks of mud on my shirt. I know the pass fell incomplete, but it doesn’t matter. I trot off the field fulfilled. The coach looks at me as I walk by him. He says with pride, “What poise.” A fellow teammate congratulates me for staying in the pocket until the last possible minute. A voice inside me responds, “But isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? I used to always do that.”
I remember then what it means to act as a quarterback on the field. I remember why I have always played quarterback, and not running back, end, linebacker or defensive back. I remember then the contentment of having accomplished a purpose. Being the quarterback doesn’t mean being the best physically or the most aggressive. Being quarterback means stepping onto the field and leading the team by making winning decisions quickly.
In one inconsequential play I rediscover who I am, why I am, and what I am.
After the game, the pitchman tells me if I had thrown the ball higher, the receiver might have caught it. I casually explain that, with three defenders surrounding the receiver, a properly thrown ball had a good chance of getting intercepted, but only our man could have caught a low ball. The pitchman considers the logic and says, “That’s right, and that’s exactly what a quarterback has to think about.”
Hours later at the team lunch, I discuss the morning’s events with the center. He insists we should have gone to the far side on the Wishbone plays. He puts the question to the coach. The coach tells him the defense usually stacks the far side, so we typically run to the short side. Then he looks at me and says, “He’s a lineman, don’t pay any attention to him. You’re a quarterback. You know these kinds of things.”