The game has come to define my life. You won’t find my name in any record books or even on many rosters, but the game flows through my very blood. Indeed, the fact I don’t appear within any organized log tells you most of the story. But this, this is a different story.
Gary Trudeau once said we have become a nation of play-by-play announcers. We see life as a narrated live action event. It therefore doesn’t help things that, among the many paths I’ve taken, includes that of actually serving as a play-by-play announcer. But, rather than dwelling on a “voice of God” describing the action, what stands out in my memory remains the visions of modest, yet self-satisfying, glory. Picture not the booming baritone of NFL Films, but the dramatic slow-motion dénouement of a Hollywood picture.
It’s the littlest things I remember: The enormous body floating silently above me that missed and landed on his own teammate. The view from the defensive backfield as the line of skirmish parted like the Red Sea to reveal our blitzing lineman victoriously swinging the small – but very speedy – quarterback with one arm like a knight swinging a mace. I’ll never forget racing down the open sideline with that intercepted pass. Of course, I remember in vivid detail down to the laces watching the overthrown ball pass just millimeters from my agonizingly outstretched fingertips. Far more notable remains the appearance of the ball spiraling from those same fingertips, threading perfectly through an overconfident defense and into the waiting hands of the receiver.
I’m sure, as my feeble memory allows, I’ll chronicle the full retelling of these particular adventures (I’ve already done one, Rediscovering the Fighter Jock). But, this narrative belongs to a different era, a different field, a different hero.
Living in a small town often means not having the critical mass to create the experience one desires for one’s children. In order to prevent such loss of opportunity, the parent finds it necessary to volunteer. “Want your kid to participate? Then how’d you like to coach?” In my case, it was football and assistant coaching. I gladly took the mantle, The Game being such a part of my psyche.
And so began a stretch of five years watching, helping and encouraging my son and his friends to develop various gridiron skills. I sometimes felt my coaching might have had a negative impact on my son. Not that he held back or felt privileged or anything. Rather, I may have made too much of an effort to insure he didn’t find himself in any undeserved high profile position.
Of course, his natural abilities helped with that. You see, he was born two weeks after his due date. Every once in a while we’d let slip a “Pokey Peter” comment. (But not enough so the nickname stuck. The one that stuck was “Rock” – and you ought to know why.) Sure enough, he’d always finish either last or towards the rear in any running drills. The only time he’d win a sprint was when the fastest kids let him. His lack of speed made it easy to keep him on the line. No one would ever accuse him of receiving undue favorable treatment.
But this last year I didn’t coach. And then something weird happened. He kept winning all the running drills. At first I thought it was the same old thing – the faster kids let him win. But then I spoke to the coaches and they told me he was the fastest kid on the team. I figured two things happened: He had a growth spurt (meaning his legs got longer); and, he played on the track team in the spring (meaning he learned how to run).
My son didn’t want to play tailback, all he wanted to do was punt. He didn’t join the modified team precisely because of that. Still, as a result of several key injuries (remember that critical mass thing?), he had to play tailback. In practice he ran like a pro – or so everyone said. I went to several of his games and, well, he got a couple of good runs, but, well, maybe I’m just being too critical. His punting, however, impressed me. He was named the player of the game in the first game of the season – for his punting.
His team didn’t have much of an offense so he was called to punt quite a few times. Mind you, I’m always nervous when he goes back to punt. I still remember he had a hard time catching the ball when I was coaching him. Indeed, in the last game I coached the year before, I encouraged the Head Coach to have my son punt. It was a rainy muddy game. He couldn’t handle the slippery mis-snapped ball and had to fall on it rather than kick it.
It came to be that one Sunday that I decided to forgo a business opportunity in order to see my son play. By this time the regular running backs had regained their health and my son was relegated to defensive line. He didn’t mind. After all, he really wanted to punt. His coach sent him out early in the game. As usual, I fretted. To stoke my worries, the center got off another poor snap. My son barely had time to take a few steps and boot the ball.
But boot it he did. The ball sailed through the air with the greatest of ease, eventually hitting the ground some sixty yards down field.
Was I a beaming father? You don’t even have to ask. He had diligently practiced punting in the off-season (did I tell you all he really wanted to do was punt the ball?) and his hard work paid off!
Later during the second half I strutted down the sidelines and ran into an old head coach of my son’s. He’s the coach who taught my son how to punt. As I congratulated him on his fine handiwork, I turned to the field as the play was unfolding. The line parted like the Red Sea. The rushing lineman caused the quarterback to drop the ball. In one smooth motion, the lineman scooped up the ball with one hand and raced down the open sideline with accelerating speed.
“Boy, that kid is fast,” I instinctively mused.
“Say, isn’t that Peter?” asked the former Head Coach.
I took a closer look at the boy’s number as he completed his 80 yard sprint for what would turn out to be the team’s lone score. It was my son! And he was the fastest kid on the field.
Like I said: Greatest game ever… So far!