Bring an old weathered football up to your nose, close your eyes, and take a good whiff. Can you smell it? Do images of sweaty muddied gruff men, caked with sweat and blood, move in slow motion within your brain? Do your muscles tighten in pleasant anticipation at the thought of the gridiron? If so, then congratulations. You are part of a dying breed, a member of a secret society that long ago closed its doors to new applicants.
Well, not exactly. Those doors remain open today and they will forever stay open. It’s just that, in an era of prefabricated microwave cooking, no one wants to go through the trouble of measuring, mixing, and making up rules on the fly.
Why is this so? I’ll leave it to another homily to delve into that answer. For now, and in the spirit of the season, I just want to be thankful for what once was, and for the lucky coincidence that I lived in a time when “make-up” (a.k.a. “sandlot”) games were the norm, not the exception. Who knows? Perhaps some young parents today will read this and encourage their own children to begin anew this hallowed tradition of yesteryear.
Marv Levy, Hall of Fame coach of the Buffalo Bills and leader of a team that did what no other team has done before and will likely never do again, has sad “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” From the time before I became a teenager and for much later than many would suspect, life was sleep, school/work, and football (yes, I played the game until I was thirty). As far back as middle school, I can remember how the neighborhood boys would emerge from their residential cocoons upon completing their homework, replete in rugged dungarees and ratty jerseys, to converge on the dead end street where we all lived. Among us, one always came bearing our favorite football (it smelled like cinnamon, but that’s another story), and an orange tee that lost its shiny luster to the grime of everyday use.
Each day we’d play. In the street. With mailboxes marking the endzones. And the street gutters signifying the “out-of-bounds” limits of the imaginary field on that narrow road. Because we played at the end of the street, few cars interrupted our game. Because we played on a street, the game wasn’t tackle but two-hand touch. Because the game was two-hand touch, we focused on the passing game instead of the running game.
As we aged, and the older boys got cars, every so often we were able to play games at the elementary school about a mile away. There, on the bed of soft grass, we let our bodies fly as the game demanded. Injuries? We had a few. But, then again, too few to mention.
Relocating our games to this remote site posed a problem. In the neighborhood, we had the full complement of available boys. To play a game outside this familiar zone, however, required parental approval, and such approval could not be reliably counted on. As a result, the biggest game of the year, the most fun game of the year, the game we all looked forward to, took place on Thanksgiving Day in the combined back yards of our house and the neighbor’s house.
And therein lies a tale…
The yards behind the houses on the other side of our street dipped dramatically into a drainage ditch we charitably called a stream. On our side, the two houses at the end of the street (including ours) the back yards represented the original drainage pond for the nascent subdivision. Together, they had the advantage of offering a fairly flat playing field. Of course, given their heritage, they possessed the disadvantage of sponge-like water retention. As the fall weather generally contains copious amounts of precipitation, you can imagine the soggy state of this ad hoc football field. Indeed, prior to every Thanksgiving Mudbowl, my father would warn us against playing in the backyard because of the inevitable scars it would leave on his neatly groomed lawn. Secretly, though, the man who once played through a high school game despite breaking his nose was proud his sons willingly joined that secret society referenced in the opening paragraphs.
Mom, on the other hand, made her displeasure well known. Whether from the amount of dirt we tracked into the house once we finished the game (that she would have to clean up), to the amount of mud caked onto our clothes (that she would have to wash), to the amount of time she spent calling our names to come in for dinner (that she so deliciously prepared). Worst, after our morning game was complete, we’d spend the rest of the day watching football on TV. To her, football was a curse that ruined every Thanksgiving.
To us, though, the Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl thrilled our inner core. It was how the game was meant to be played. Remember the smell of the football I mentioned in the opening sentence? That wasn’t the only aroma. While inside the house my mother busied herself creating the sweet smells of what would soon be Thanksgiving Dinner, outside, our backyard field sported its own fragrant perfume.
Have you ever smelled wet grass? How about freshly squeezed mud? Then there’s that unique odor of dried dirt coating your fingers. It’s a bouquet one can never forget.
And you’d think the damp cold wind of late November would put a chill in our game. At least that’s what my mother thought as she insisted, if we had to play, we should wear another layer. “Oh, ma,” we scoffed.
In reality, the longer we played, the greater the warmth that blanket of sweat and mud provided our bodies. The vigor of the game – we usually had only 4-5 guys on a side and had to cover a territory many times the width of the slim street we regularly played on – kept the juices in our muscles flowing. It was a happy go lucky time. We kept score, but the points didn’t matter. It was the game that mattered. It was the joy of gripping the ball despite the slimy film on our fingers. It was the exuberance of sliding five yards through the ponding water and making a muddy gash (the kind my father warned against and would eventually repair the following spring). It was the frantic mayhem when we all dove for that errant fumble, wallowing in the muck happily fighting for control of the loose pigskin (which, if you think carefully, is delightfully ironic).
So each and every year we played. Sometimes on Thanksgiving, but soon mostly on the day after Thanksgiving. The day and the time didn’t take away from the anticipation, the joy, and the manhood revealed by this reverent tradition. But the years took their toll. College. Work. Moving away. All that’s left now are the memories.
And the hope.
The hope that one day, across this great land of our, boys will once again gather together against the better advice of their parents, wearing too little clothing for the season, and proceed to pass, run, and flop in the mud.
And keep score.
Not that that matters.