Remembering the Faces Of Neighborhood Football

Irode my bike through the crisp October evening, trying to make it home before the sun went completely down, the headlights of the cars glittering like speeding jewels. Up ahead I could see the bright-white glare of the park's field lights, and under their gauzy illumination, dressed in sloppy black practice jerseys and grass-stained pants, a congress of Pop Warner-aged local football teams ran, slammed, push-up'd, and wind sprinted their way to the end of practice and hot meals at home.

I stopped to watch because I couldn't help myself. Just seeing those young gawky bodies going through their drills, their pads balanced precariously on thin shoulders, brought back a rush of memories from other autumn evenings when my parents huddled on the sidelines with other parents waiting for us to finish up so that they could bring us home for the day.

Those were good days, memorable and, in their roughshod way, innocent because the kind of football we played at that age (most of us were sixth- and seventh- graders) lacked the fierce machismo of high school ball. We just wanted to have fun, whether it was tag, flag, two-hand touch, tackle with pads, or without.

We'd gathered at the field at the end of the dead-end street by Bob Casagrande's house, a rectangle of land neatly sectioned by a swamp on one side and the highway on the other. Two or three or seven or nine footballs would arc through the air as we ran posts and flat-outs, and those guys who fancied themselves princes of the backfield would practice their slashes and jukes on imaginary open-field tacklers.

Then the games would start. Albert, an eighth-grader who attended a Catholic school and was a born stage manager, organized us into teams. Because we all hung around each other all the time, he knew our capabilities pretty well, so he'd assign people to the teams, looking for balance and fairness.

For some reason we always accepted his authority - perhaps because the games ended up being pretty good, with lots of close calls and vintage maneuvers. Because only a few of us had pads, we opted for two-handed tag - at least at the beginning. But before long, with a mutual agreement brokered by Albert, we graduated to an amalgam of football and rugby where we'd mildly tackle each other. In most encounters we'd end up like rodeo riders wrestling young steers to the ground. After a fluid four quarters of this, with a few dings and dents for glory, we all retired to someone's house for post-game snacks and revelry.

I played my first organized ball at the age of 12 for Mac Donnelly at the Boys Club. Every afternoon when school rang off, I'd trot myself home and, like some medieval knight donning his armor, array myself in shoulder pads and cleats. Then I'd hop on my bike and book it down to the field. There I would join two dozen or so similarly gangly kids, pre-pubes all of us, our shoulder pads threatening to swallow us up. Mac, big-bellied and jovial, would trot up and get us started on calisthenics, and our low-voltage voices would shout out the numbers as we counted our squat thrusts and jumping jacks.

The Boys Club didn't have a lot of money, so they supplied the clothing, the helmets, and some pads, and the families had to supply the shoulder pads. I didn't get in line fast enough to get thigh pads, so I taped together two Readers Digests for each leg and slipped them in my pants. Our hips pads were curved plastic inserts about as big as a pair of mittens and gave about as much protection. The helmets were old, acquired from some local college upgrading its own program, and miraculously every head found a helmet that fit.

Thus accessorized, we met each day for an hour or so, and Mac took us through the drills, stuffing about 10 plays into our heads and running them until we thought we knew them. (We'd inevitably forget one or two facets of each play on game day.)

At the end of practice we'd all get on our bikes and head for home, sweat-stained hungry, happy, and shouting dumb jokes.

It all turned out to be great fun. We ran reasonable facsimiles of football games for the squads of parents who showed up, and we all ate pizza afterward. At the end of the season we had a rubber-chicken awards banquet where Mac handed out gilt-painted plastic trophies for most-improved player and the best volunteer parent. We dressed up in unaccustomed shirts and ties and mashed the cranberry sauce into a mess with the peas and potatoes and giggled like the children we were.

But as I watched these kids knock through a linebacker tackling drill, I remembered other aspects as well, darker-edged. I remember what fear tasted like as I faced a kid at least 50 percent larger than me who had no trouble railroading over me into the backfield. I remember the fatigue as Mac, extremely upset for some reason over our most recent loss, made us run wind sprints until our legs jellied. I remember none of us really liking to hit or get hit. We always compromised, ducking out of the way at the last minute, softening the impact where we could.

But over all, the experience was not as much good or bad as thick with detail, resonant, ambiguously delightful. As I got back on my bike I hoped that these kids were also having the same experience, that all the adults had a light touch about the matter and didn't sober all the fun by laying on the heavy hand of "being a man." As I left I saw them all break into a trot around the perimeter of the field. Last laps, I thought; soon they'll be warm at home and full of dinner.

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