They had Larry, Tony, and `the train'

AT the foot of our street, the bough of a sugar maple shines out in Chinese red. The morning air, these days, is as tart as pie-apples; and the sun, slanting over sidewalks and under hedges, warms the afternoons with the scent of acorns crushed by the feet of schoolchildren. Evenings come early, full of wood smoke and stars, and the nights cycle down to frost. I suppose, being of a literary bent, that the season ought to remind me of Henry David Thoreau and Robert Frost and the rest of New England's poetic alchemists who have taken autumn and sublimed it into a state of the soul. I do think about them, to be sure. But I also think about football.

And that strikes me as odd. I'm not much of a sports fan. Now and then I get a kick out of watching part of a televised game. But I don't follow the rankings in the papers, and I would promptly fail any quiz asking for the names of the NFL teams. I never played on high school or college squads. So why, in this season of sere leaves, should I be reminded of football?

I suppose it's because, like most small-town boys in New England, I grew up playing the game. No one ever actually said, ``Do you like football?'' or ``Do you want to play?'' You played more or less the way you went to the Wednesday night dancing class at the gym -- because it was there, because everybody else was doing it, and because it never occurred to you not to.

We started playing, naturally enough, in backyards. I always liked hiking the ball and catching short laterals. But I never got the hang of passing. I suspected the others of spending the rainy days in their garages, secretly throwing footballs at Coke bottles. They could launch butter-smooth, perfectly rifled bullets. My passes always wobbled frantically, like a car out of alignment. I remember being greatly relieved when miniature, 6-inch footballs became all the rage. Here was something I could get my hands around and send sailing toward the rock garden with the best of them.

The rock garden itself, however, was another story. In those days the fashion in backyard landscaping was to break up every honest expanse of lawn with flower beds, quince bushes, flagstone paths, stands of lilac, rose arbors, and a hundred other hazards all calculated to trip up the unwary. More than once I can recall watching receiver and defender sail high into the air, hang suspended while wrestling each other for the ball, and drop completely out of sight into a shoulder-high stand of day lilies. Dreading the parental rebuke whistled smartly from the back porch, we would hastily lean the broken stalks upright against one another and call a couple of safe running plays.

After a while, when it became clear that football and horticulture didn't mix, we took to playing on the long, gently sloping piece of town common near the junior high school. It had a towering elm at one end and a rusting pipe fence at the other, and it stood next to the woods that led to Emily Dickinson's sister's house. We'd stake out the four corners with windbreakers and lunch boxes and get down to business.

It was there that we discovered, much to everyone's amazement, that at a dead run on the downhill grade I could catch Tut Hewlitt. Nobody could catch Tut Hewlitt -- or so it was thought. I think I only did so once or twice. But on those occasions I basked in all the glory that 10-year-olds can bestow, and for a while was among those picked near the top when we chose up sides.

Even then, however, it was apparent that some of that group were destined for higher athletic achievement and that the rest of us, lured into music or drama or hot rods or words, were obviously not. My future in football became unavoidably clear on the day our sixth-grade room played the other room up at the new high school field.

It was a stacked deck from the start. Our teacher, Mrs. Bartlett, was a strictly grammatical and pleasantly indoor type. Try as she would, she had little to say that could inspire us on the playing field. Mr. Edmonds's class, however, seemed to live and breathe for football. Besides, they had Larry, Tony, and ``the train.''

I got to know Larry later -- he was the drummer in our band and the soul of gentleness. At that time, however, his importance lay elsewhere. He was huge, fast, and solid as a sledgehammer. Tony, by contrast, was a wire-and-leather farm kid, smaller than I was but wily as a weasel. He could slip out of anybody's grip, and his sneakers fairly steamed as he tore past. And ``the train''? It was nothing more than Tony with the ball and Larry out front blocking.

On the afternoon of the big match I was playing defense. We were always playing defense, it seemed, and they were rolling over us like a mowing-machine through the rowen. Nor were they very imaginative. Play by play, they just loaded the ball onto the train and sent it steaming through our backfield. I remember my feelings going from astonishment to frustration to rage and finally to foolhardiness.

Finally, in a state verging on sheer vengeance, I vowed to do something. The next time the train rounded our line, I wound up like a spring and launched myself directly at Larry.

Even today I can feel the sensation. I ran, as near as I could tell, into the trunk of an oak, bounced gasping into the air, and came thudding to the ground. Larry never even changed his footwork: It was as though he had brushed me off like a barn fly. When I managed to recover my wind and roll over to look, he and Tony were specks on the horizon, greasing across the goal line.

Football was never the same after that. In later years I spent many an hour in the stands -- watching, cheering, playing trombone with the band. But I no longer had any desire to be out there on the field. Nor did I ever become, as I say, a ``real'' sports fan.

But somewhere deep inside, as the seasons change, the old spirit still stirs. So what if I'm not a fan: So what if I don't know the ins and outs of football. That doesn't mean I don't feel the game.

What else, after all, is a New England boyhood for?

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