Summer is retreating. Kids are heading back to class. On sultry afternoons, when the shadows are long, I can recall the sound of shrill whistles blowing, the crack of shoulder pads colliding, and the smell of grass in my face. Football season is here.
Every year, a new group of athletes gets to enjoy the excitement of pep rallies, the music of marching bands, and the thrill of competition. I'd never throw cold water on these traditions, but my interest in the sport is mostly retrospective. For me, the last good football year was 1963.
The recurring image in my mind is a photograph on the wall of the boy's P.E. office at Palo Alto High School. I looked at the picture quite often during my senior year. In the fall of 1970, I was a second-string player on a team that produced more losses than victories. This, at a school with a true football legacy, was sorely disappointing to everyone involved.
And when the coaches sat in their office, pondering how to reverse the situation, they'd inevitably gaze up at the wall and stare at the 1963 league champions. It was the team everybody liked to talk about. They went unbeaten and shut out their final six opponents. Big, bruising guys with crew cuts and rugged faces. At least one kid in the photo was missing front teeth. Standing in spotless game uniforms, they looked like a team and seemed to be staring down at us from their lofty perch, calling out "We did our jobs, so what happened to you?"
Dominating the South Peninsula Athletic League wasn't their only historic achievement. The San Francisco Chronicle named one of the running backs Northern California Player of the Year. Another kid went on to become a star at Stanford. But were they really great, or just far superior to the local competition?
That mystery makes their reputation more compelling. In 1963, there was no playoff system in the Bay Area. The season ended in November, players turned in their uniforms, and the school turned to other activities.
Nobody on my 1970 squad ever had his photo stapled on the coach's wall. The yearbook team picture shows a group of average-looking boys. We didn't resemble college players, and nobody was missing teeth.
Many things in America changed drastically after 1963. But my mental image of that championship team remains steady. I can clearly visualize those big, rugged guys still lined up, grinning into the camera. They're forever young, and always undefeated.
* Jeffrey Shaffer writes from Portland, Ore.