Friday, April 29, 2011

Football Adventures

 When a boy grows up in Texas, he is exposed to the sport of football from the time he can walk. After he is walking and talking, the first two toys he usually receives are a gun and a football. I don't remember that far back, but I'm pretty sure it was the same with me. In my hometown, the dream of every little boy is to one day to be a star player for the Crockett Bulldogs.
Most little boys are playing tackle football without any pads by the time they are in the first grade. There is a game of football going on during recess at every elementary school in the state. In large towns, they had organized pee wee teams for kids in the fourth and fifth grades, but Crockett was too small for such programs. It wasn't until the sixth grade that a boy could go out for the football team. Like most of my friends, I could hardly wait.
For several years prior to entering the sixth grade, I suffered from asthma, and it wasn't until my freshman year in high school that I was getting over the problems. It didn't help any that I was allergic to just about every tree and variety of grass in East Texas, as well as a lot of common foods. Mother took me to a specialist in Tyler and he put me on a series of injections to combat my multiple allergies. Our general practitioner in Crockett, Dr. Goolsby, always told my mother I would probably grow out of it, and I eventually did. God only knows what kind of drugs I would have been given if I had grown up in the nineties. More than likely I would have no natural immunity to anything.
I had two things working against me when I went out for the sixth-grade football team. The first was the fact that I still suffered somewhat from the asthma and got winded easily. The second thing was I was already known as "the boy with asthma," which sealed my fate as far as ever being taken seriously as an athlete for the rest of my life in Crockett. Once you got a label with the coaches in Crockett it was yours forever, good or bad. The kids on the team were the same ones I grew up playing sports with and I could hold my own with them all, but I had a hard time even being allowed to practice at any position, much less get any serious consideration. I spent my time on the sidelines watching friends I played football with on the weekends start every game. The only attention at least half of the "unannointed" players such as myself got was to be told to get back on the bench by the coaches if we ventured to close to the sidelines to view the action. The starters got to stand between us and the field, so we had trouble even watching the game. At the end of the season I realized my place in the caste system of the coaching staff and decided it would be pointless to bother with it in the seventh grade.
The fact that I was doomed to never make the team in no way affected my love for the game or support for the high school team. As far back as I can remember I attended every home game and a lot of the away games of the Bulldogs. The entire town was focused on them each fall. It remains so today all over the state; especially in small towns where Friday night football is the main source of entertainment for the community. Local legends are created each year and are forever remembered.
The summer before my freshman year, John Mattox asked me if I was interested in being one of the trainers for the football team. He was a year older than me and had already committed to the job. The appeal of being a part of the team was too much to pass up, so I told him yes. We went on vacation in late August and I missed the first week of summer practices, but I reported for duty as soon as we got back to town. Charlie Christian had also joined up to become the third trainer, so we were fully staffed when I arrived.
Until my first day on the job, I never had a clue what the trainers actually did. Over the years I had seen the kids walking the sidelines during the games performing a variety of duties, most visibly taking water bottles to the huddle during time outs. It didn't appear to be that taxing and it looked like fun. I would get to go to all the games for free and travel with the team. What more could I want?
It was soon apparent the fun and excitement of the game made up about two percent of the job, with the remaining ninety-eight percent being hard, sweaty, stinky and for the most part thankless work. We got there before the players and made sure all the equipment was ready when practice began. Each player was issued all the equipment and uniform parts needed for practice, yet half of them would be missing something on a daily basis. When practice started and the players were on the field, we had to sweep and mop the entire field house. Unpaid janitors was a better description than trainer.  It would be the equivalent of training monkeys  not to crap in their hands and throw it at one another.  In other words, we didn't train anyone, ever.  For at least half of the season, the game field would be irrigated daily. In addition to everything else, we would have to take apart the long water pipes every half hour and move them over about twenty feet and put them back together. After turning the water back on, we would rush back to another job we had been in the middle of and try to complete it before we had to move the pipes again.
The practice uniforms were washed once a week, on Thursday evening. By then they were soaked with four days of sweat. The stench cannot be described by the written word. There were many times John and I were on the verge of hurling when we were taking the uniforms from the baskets and loading them into the large washing machines. Charlie Christian always seemed to be missing in action when any of the dirty work was being performed.
Each Thursday night there would be a junior varsity game while we were doing the laundry, so one of us had to serve as the sideline trainer while the other two worked in the field house. Needless to say, we spent more hours there than anyone else, including the coaches. John and I each had a key since we were the first ones in the door and the last ones out. On Saturday mornings we were at the field house early to wash the game uniforms from the night before. We would spend four or five hours working while the players were at the barber shop or the Dairy Queen telling tales of their heroics.
The Crockett Bulldogs went through the sixties with a winning record each year, or at least all the seasons I am aware of. When I was in junior high school, Monte Jack Driskell became the head coach. He spent several years as the head coach in Groveton, Texas, which is about twenty-five miles from Crockett. The population of Groveton is much less than Crockett, and in most cases they were unable to compete, successfully, head to head with us. During the years Coach Driskell spent in Groveton his teams gave several superior Crockett teams all they could handle. This no doubt led to him getting the job in Crockett when it came open.
When my first season as manager got underway in the fall of nineteen sixty-seven, the expectations were high. Texas Football Magazine had us ranked fifth in the state before play began. Everyone was cocky and confident. Our first game was at home against Navasota. They kicked our ass and injured two of our starters and shocked everyone into reality. They beat us by one point, but we considered it an ass kicking.
Win or lose, our workload never changed. Since none of us had any previous experience as equipment managers and trainers, we were just wandering around the first few weeks trying not to screw things up. We were holding our own, mostly due to blind luck.
The second week we traveled twenty-five miles to Elkhart. It was a very small town that in most cases we would have beaten 60-0 and cleared the bench by the third quarter. We beat them 15-6, which to us was an embarrassment.
As equipment managers, we were responsible for everything that was transported to an out-of-town game. We had extras of everything. The Elkhart game was our first test and we didn't make any big errors. Just before we left Coach Driskell came to us and said the Bulldogs were going to be wearing the home blue jerseys for the game. It seemed the Elkhart managers had left their jerseys in the dryer too long after their first game and burned them up, so they needed to borrow our white jerseys for the game. John and I just looked at each other and said nothing. We had almost done the same thing on several occasions and could have easily turned ours into cinders. A coach from Elkhart had driven down earlier in the day and picked them up.
On Saturday morning John and I were at the field house washing all the game uniforms, including the white jerseys that had been worn the night before by the Elkhart Elks.
We had only washed game uniforms one other time, and the jerseys and pants had all been dark blue. We didn't know squat about washing clothes, but we did realize that it wouldn't be smart to bleach them. The second week we had a load of white jerseys to deal with at the same time. The next week we were traveling to Gladewater, so we had to wash the white jerseys right away. The home jerseys could wait a couple of days. We promptly threw the blue pants in the two machines along with the white jerseys, filled them with scalding hot water and went out to move the sprinklers. The machines weren't on any kind of timer, so they would run until we stopped them. The same was true of the dryer. After moving the sprinklers we locked the field house and walked over to Corbitt's Grocery for some junk food. The white jerseys and blue pants spent about an hour swishing in the hot water before we returned. When we removed them from the machine something was definitely different. The jerseys that went in white were now baby blue. We were panicked.
With five home games and five away games during the regular season each set of jerseys would get washed at least five times; more if the team made the playoffs. John and I washed the white jerseys five more times that afternoon, and we bleached the hell out of every load. They were still heavily tinted. We came back on Sunday afternoon and washed and bleached them several more times. They were starting to look better after going through two years worth of washings in two days. We decided we had done all we could without turning them into white bath towels with blue numbers. We tried to convince ourselves all was well and nobody would ever know.
The following Friday night we were in Gladewater. The lighting was poor in their dressing room, so for the time being nobody noticed anything. Once the players took the field for warm ups it was a different story. Players were starting to ask one another if their jersey looked strange. Gladewater had just installed new lights in the stadium that cast a blue hue on everything. Coach Driskell called John over and asked him if the jerseys looked blue to him. John immediately blamed it on the lights. Coach Driskell was too focused on game preparation to press the issue. A lot of the players were asking us what in the hell we had done to their jerseys. They weren't buying the stadium lighting theory. Gladewater beat us 19-13 in a heated game, so the jersey problem wasn't talked about again. We were traveling again the next week, so another five or six more long wash and bleach cycles and nobody ever knew the difference. We admitted it the next season.
We only had one more mishap that season. The next Friday we traveled to Marlin. John and I were determined to have everything run smoothly after the issue with the white jerseys. We packed even more supplies than usual. One of the items that was always a big priority was the medicine kit. It was a huge case containing all of our first aid supplies and athletic tape as well as repair parts for helmets, shoes and other accessories. We paid special attention to it at all times.
Marlin was nearly one hundred miles away, so the team bus left a couple of hours earlier than it normally would. The medicine kit was packed and ready to load into the team station wagon that Charlie Christian was to drive behind the team bus. John and I both told Charlie to be sure it wasn’t forgotten..
We stopped at a restaurant when we first got to Marlin to drink a Coke and rest from the long bus ride. As soon as the bus rolled to a stop someone asked John for an aspirin. As the team was walking into the restaurant John was digging through the car looking for the medicine kit. It wasn't there. He yelled for me and we began searching the bus without success. We found Charlie and asked him where it was. He said, "I thought one of you were going to get it."
Coach Driskell was very focused on game day and didn't like any distractions or problems of any kind. He was sitting in a booth going over the game plan when John walked up to him looking sheepish and guilty. Coach Driskell looked up and asked if there was a problem. John said, "We left the medicine kit in Crockett."
Coach Driskell looked like he could kill both of us. His only statement was, "Well no shit!" Charlie had conveniently disappeared. He kept his cool and told one of the assistant coaches to ask the Marlin coach for some supplies when we got to the stadium. After Marlin beat us 15-13 and our backup quarterback had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance, the medicine kit incident was forgotten.
The season ended with the Bulldogs winning district and bi-district before getting pounded by Kountze in the regional championship game. John and I spent more hours at the field house and worked harder than any of the previous equipment managers had done, so Coach Driskell decided we were worth our salt.
The next season we knew our jobs and had everything under control. It was also one of those seasons we would never forget. The Bulldogs went 9-1. We had won nine straight going into the final home game. We played Lufkin Dunbar High School for the district championship. They were 9-0 as well. We lost the game and our season was over. Coach Driskell was so devastated he didn't come back to school for a week.
When the last game was over each season, the players would clean out their lockers and were free to finally go home after school or otherwise spend their free time elsewhere. The coaches would be required to start actually paying attention to their duties as school teachers. John and I would spend another three or four weeks at the field house after school taking inventory, cleaning, washing and getting things ready for the next season.
My third year as equipment manager brought about a lot of changes. After many years of having two separate school districts, the Crockett school system was finally integrated. Ralph Bunche High School had the newer and bigger building, so our high school was done away with and we all moved out to the new facility. Neither student body wanted the change, so nobody but the federal judge in Tyler was happy about it. Whenever a decision was made, at least half the students opposed it. The name of the high school became Davy Crockett High School, so the Ralph Bunche students were pissed off. Coach Driskell was named head coach and athletic director. Coach Andrew Hopkins was the former head coach of the Ralph Bunche Lions and became the assistant head coach of the Crockett Bulldogs. It virtually guaranteed that each time our team took the field, at least half the students were actively supporting the other team. It was a tense situation.
When the focus is supposed to be on winning football games, all the distractions didn't help. Someone was always bitching about something and the family atmosphere of old was no longer there. While the school itself was having a lot of problems with fighting, our coaches at least kept that under control. Unlike the politically correct lawyer-driven atmosphere today, the situation was dealt with quickly. Any small infraction that occurred in the normal heat of practice went largely ignored, but a major fight wasn't. Coach Driskell or one of the assistant coaches would take the offenders in the office and paddle the crap out of them. It didn't take many sessions like that to settle things down.
In those days it was normal for every male to carry a pocket knife of some kind on his person at all times. After the schools integrated, it became an object of concern among the coaches and faculty members. No weapons were ever used in an altercation that I know of, but verbal threats of violence were thrown around liberally. Coach Driskell told everyone a couple of times to stop bringing knives to school, and having them at the field house would not be tolerated. Given the tension in the air on a daily basis, I chose to ignore the request, as I figured everyone else would. Before practice one afternoon, Coach Driskell walked into the dressing room with the other coaches and searched each locker after the players were dressed in their practice uniforms. Unbelievably not a single knife was found on anyone. John and I were in the laundry room and didn't know about the search.
The players took the field before John and I left the laundry room. We were sweeping and mopping the office when Coach Driskell and Coach Hampton walked in. Partly as a joke Coach Hampton said, "We forgot to search the managers for weapons." I looked like a deer in headlights. Coach Driskell said, "Boys, empty those pockets."
I owned an impressive collection of knives. That particular day I had the biggest one in my pocket. I slowly pulled it out and placed it one the desk. Since we had all been warned a couple of times before, I was pretty sure there were going to be some official consequences attached to any infraction. The look on the faces of both coaches was priceless. I was probably the last person they expected to find armed and dangerous.
Coach Driskell looked me right in the eye and I started to cower. He picked up the huge pocket knife and said, "How do you write with a pen this size? Take this thing home and don't ever bring it back." I think my knees may have buckled just a little bit. He probably knew how hard it would be to find anyone else who worked as hard as John and I did. People that dumb and gullible are hard to find. I swore to myself I wouldn't do anything to attract attention to myself again. I was wrong.
About fifty feet behind the field house was a fifty-five-gallon barrel we used to burn trash. When it filled up with ashes, the maintenance men would haul it away and bring us an empty one. Every couple of days, we filled it with paper from the trash cans as well as wood scraps and cardboard. That combination resulted in a very hot fire. Early in the season when the weather was hot, everyone would go out of their way to avoid the barrel. As the weather turned colder later in the year, things changed. We usually started the fire at the end of practice when the players were leaving. It would be dark, cold and humid. After getting it started, John and I would walk back out to the barrel and toss in more trash from time to time. The sight of one of us going out to the barrel went unnoticed by everyone.
One evening it was particularly cold when I lit the fire. The barrel had been replaced the week before, so it was relatively ash free. A wooden stand had broken in the office and Coach Driskell told me to burn it. I had a lot of cardboard stuffed into the barrel as well as some paper. In other words, it was going to be a big fire. I love fire. I made sure it was going good and went back inside. A few minutes later I looked outside to check on it. It was roaring by then. John found a couple of cardboard boxes and took them out to the can.
The next time I checked, a small crowd of players had gathered around the fire. It was getting colder and the heat was a welcome relief. It was too hot for them to get closer than four or five feet. As luck would have it, I was holding a large can of Tuff Skin. It was an aerosol substance used to spray on an ankle or knee before applying athletic tape. It was about ninety-percent alcohol and very flammable. It was a new can and it was completely full. The nozzle was broken when I took it out of the case, and I was about to throw it in the box that contained items that wouldn't burn in the barrel. The crowd around the barrel gave me another idea.
I told John my plan, and naturally he said, "I'll bet you a Coke you won't do that." Bruce Bennett walked up about that time and dared me. It was time to act.
John and I both had taken something to the fire several times since I first started it, so nobody even noticed when I walked up with a couple pieces of cardboard. In the center of it was the aerosol bomb. I tossed it into the middle of the barrel and walked away. I had just enough time to get back to the door and join Bruce and John. There were six or seven players with their backs to the barrel taking in the warmth of the fire. Just after I turned around there was a tremendous explosion. I had no idea the can would have that much power. It blew fire and trash twenty feet into the air in the shape of a mushroom cloud. Kids were yelling, cussing and hauling ass in all directions. It had clearly scared them all. A couple had some small cinders in their hair. Players close by put out the little hair fires. People had been too shocked and stunned to even think about what might have caused it. John, Bruce and I stomped out some of the small patches of burning grass.
Word of the blast reached Coach Driskell after a few minutes. He rounded the corner and saw we had things under control. He did ask what happened, but when he saw the look of guilt on my face, I think he decided he didn't really want to know the answer.
In spite of all the trouble, we ended up playing for the district championship the last game of the season. We again faced Lufkin Dunbar. They beat us convincingly, but we were closer to being a team than at the start of the season.
My fourth year I was sort of on my own. John had graduated and was at Texas A&M. Smitty Dean had been a manager with us the previous year, but he elected to spend his senior year at a private academy in San Marcus, Texas. For some stupid reason, he wanted to finish with a real education. Crockett had been placed in a new district with bigger schools from the Houston area, so we weren't given a chance. As usual we played the final game for the district championship. Like the previous two years, we lost.
At the athletic banquet my senior year, Coach Driskell presented me with my fourth letter for being equipment manager. He had me stand and told me how much he appreciated all the hard work and the long hours I had put in. I almost cried. I suddenly felt the four years had all been worth it. A lot of the players told me the same thing after the ceremony. Maybe I had been one of the Crockett Bulldogs after all.

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