Why I’m Thankful for The Sandlot

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Take a step out into the fall air. There’s a faint rustle in the stillness. Falling leaves flutter to the Earth’s floor. Their slow decomposition releases an arousing aroma. It’s the smell of autumn. It’s the smell of coming things. It’s the smell of football.

There comes a time in the late school day afternoon, when the homework is finished, that the smell beckons. When this siren calls, the boys come out.

Or at least they used to. There was once an age, well before organized youth sports, when neighborhood boys would regularly convene. Together, they would decide the game, the boundaries, and the rules. Then they’d play. Sometimes deep into the darkness. The score never mattered. The camaraderie did.

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We played football on the street in all kinds of weather. Called “Dortmund Circle,” our road arced from the busy highway before ending abruptly into a long straight dead end. Apparently, the owner of the wild fields beyond the “Dead End” sign refused to sell to the developer. The street should have been more appropriately called “Dortmund Semi-Circle.”

The home builder’s bane became the boys’ boon. The neighborhood held just shy of a couple dozen houses. Within those snug suburban residences lived enough late baby boomer boys to man opposing teams in a variety of sports – football, basketball, hockey, and a very modified form of baseball called “300” (others called it “500,” but I guess we could never count that high – or we just liked quicker games). Today we nostalgically refer to our games as “sandlot” sports. There were no adults. There were no referees or umpires. There were no organized leagues. We played for the love of the game.

Sportsmanship and fair play were on the honor system. Those who violated this unwritten rule soon found themselves ostracized from the games. At first, they simply weren’t passed the ball. If the behavior failed to improve, we stopped asking them to play. In an ironic twist to the self-esteem movement, participation really was the only reward, and banishment was the ultimate penalty.

Needless to say, this strict playground self-regulatory system proved quite effective. And it was only possible to achieve precisely because we didn’t have adult supervision. There was no higher authority for a fast-talking sinner to appeal his case. The decision of the ultimate “jury of your peers” was final, but not without compassion. The group allowed you to atone for your sins, but atonement meant much more than merely saying “I’m sorry.” You had to continue to demonstrate it during a sort of probationary period. To permanently expel repeat offenders kept everyone else in line. Actions had consequences. Bad actions had bad consequences.

It took a lot of trial and error, but over the years, the rules stabilized, and traditions soon formed. We also realized many sports relied on ideal weather. Hockey needed sub-freezing temperatures, which limited its season and only added to its allure. Basketball could get rained out and wintery conditions prevented its play. Plus, it became boring after a while. Baseball was a sunny summer day sport and required a much larger playing surface than our neighborhood offered. Additionally, given the proximity of the dwellings (in particular, their windows) and our inability to confidently guide every hit ball, it carried with it that stereotypical liability every little boy fears.

In this pantheon of sports, only football reigned as the all-weather king. Best of all, we had a ready-made field – the straight section of the dead-end street. The flush curbs represented the out-of-bounds limits and the mailboxes identified both the goal lines and the end lines. It was as if God had created this portion of the universe solely with two-hand touch football in mind. Furthermore, the narrowness of the street meant we could play with as few as two to a side and as many as five to a side (although sides of three were most common). It was the perfect field (and it gave all that “L-Pattern” practice in the basement of our old house greater relevance).

Still, boys being boys, we continually sought greater perfection. One summer we decided to build our own field. We measured out a near full-size playing field in a relatively flat and treeless portion of that undeveloped woods beyond the Dead End sign. We figured, long before it was popular, if we built it, they would come. And by “they” we were thinking kids from other neighborhoods. We knew there were teams in other subdivisions and, just because there was no organized league, it didn’t mean we couldn’t pretend there was a league.

We took our picks and pitchforks, and our shovels and sickles, and began an old fashion “barn-raising.” You would have thought a group of teenage boys doing their best to impersonate the Amish might have created an inspirational scene. Well, it so happened that as “we built it,” “they” didn’t come. “He” came. And by “he” I refer to the owner of the land, the very same property owner who spurned Dortmund Circle’s developer years before.

In no time we went back to playing two-hand touch football on the street.

Except for one special day of the year. It was on this day that no one had homework, no one had to go to work, and everyone was home from college. This day was Thanksgiving Day. On that one day of the year, my father let us play in our backyard. It so happened that our backyard and the adjoining back yard made a fairly sizable football field. With me and my brother from our house, and the two brothers from the neighboring house, we easily amassed teams of six or seven players each.

Oh, the games we played! Oh, the lawn divots we made! Oh, the mud on our clothes how it stayed!

For hours we punted, passed, and kicked. If the game became too lopsided, we shuffled our randomly selected team.

We ran, rumbled, and rough housed. We kept score until we forgot the score.

And then the turkey was ready to come out and our mother called us in.

Once.

Twice.

Then dad hollered.

We figured it was a good time to wrap things up – it was starting to get dark anyway and we didn’t want to risk (finally) knocking down the telephone lines by hitting them with a punt for a third time. Also, we didn’t want our father coming out to see the divots. That would leave an ominous cloud hanging over Thanksgiving dinner. Better he discovered them over the weekend or, better yet, after the snow had melted in the spring.

The mud and mom, that was another thing all together. The minute we opened the front door and took a step into her pristine foyer, our mother yelled “Stop!” My brother and I froze. We waited. Soon, mom appeared with a new set of clothes for each of us. We had to strip right there in the foyer, put on the clean garments, and bring the muddy apparel directly to the basement and into the waiting washing machine.

Over the years, we all developed our positions. I evolved from “The Mad Bomber” to “The Interception Kid” to “All-Time Quarterback” (but only when we had an odd number of players). We eventually did play teams from other neighborhoods (on neutral fields of nearby grade schools). We’d even pick up “free agents” – kids who weren’t part of any neighborhood but loved to play football. These wouldn’t be two-hand touch games. They’d be tackle games. And no one wore equipment of any kind. Unlike my father playing for his high school team, who as right guard broke his nose (despite the newly adorned facemask) and as defensive lineman suffered a severe leg sprain making a touchdown saving tackle his senior year, no one ever got hurt.

Not that no one cried, like the time I ran a QB sneak in for a winning score by bulldozing my way through the only defender standing between me and the endzone. He cried. I felt bad. I also felt good. We won. For these games, we did keep score. It was all about neighborhood pride. We remained undefeated throughout.

The images of those games remain fresh in my head, as well as the memory of my favorite shirt being ripped to shreds (remember, there were no refs). Although these “sandlot” games may sound trivial, they helped shaped each of us into the men we became. It wasn’t just about learning the game, improving our athletic skills, or even developing a winning attitude. It was about doing everything that allowed us to achieve all these things – learning how to work with others, improving our organizational skills, and developing an awareness of common sense justice and fair play.

For me, who knows? It may have put me over the top with the Yale Admissions Office. With no persuasive pedigree, I was just a dime-a-dozen in the applicant pool. But I know they looked at what I wrote about these neighborhood football games. How do I know? After I got accepted, they asked me to speak to the football coach.

As a firm believer in “a man’s got to know his limitations,” I never did. Instead, I would answer another call.

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