Not the professional kind. Not even College. I am talking about those games Don and I played on the road in front of the house in Jersey in early Autumn. This time however it wasn’t just the two of us pretending we were a whole team. That might work with baseball, but football is another matter. For these games, all the kids from the surrounding area would partake. Guys like Fat Ray, and Skinny Ray (the easiest way to tell the difference), Phillip and Joseph from the houses behind ours, Georgie from the yellow and brown painted house down Sante Fe Trail; Michael from across the road. All joined in the game, a game that was supposed to be two-hand touch, but you know how that goes with young boys. Joseph was actually on his school team, so at least had an idea of the game’s fundamentals. The rest of us just knew it from watching the pros play, and of course, we emulated our favorite players. My only problem was, once again, I was the littlest kid in the group, so of course was a target for any of the other kids when I played against them. We would choose up sides; Don was always a Captain and would always choose me, Thank God, as he at least would be looking out for his little brother. Joseph was the other Captain and he, of course, would choose his cousin Phillip to be on his team. Georgie, Skinny Ray, Fat Ray, and Michael would wind up on different sides each time we played. Each had their own talents. As you can guess, Fat Ray was a great lineman and Skinny Ray and Georgie were good receivers, being thin and fast, and Michael…well, Michael was the wild card. The Captains were never quite sure whether they wanted him on their team or not. I know I have spoken about him before and had mentioned the little fact that he was nuts. He knew no fear; he would do wheelies down the road invariably crashing into a parked car; get up bleeding and bruised with a huge smile on his face. He would light a Cherry Bomb and then stand there, daring it to hurt him, which as you can guess it always did. But he always smiled. I don’t know what has become of him (in a previous post I guessed he might be a high powered attorney today), but if I were a recruiter for Special Forces that’s the kind of guy I would want on my team. Strong, fearless and unquestioning. He never thought of the “why” of anything. If it was dangerous, he was in. Like I said, for all I know the guy has a chest full of medals right now. So anyway, sometimes he was on our team sometimes not. If you were on the opposing team from him, you had to keep in mind he really didn’t get the “touch” aspect of two-hand touch football. He would hit you like a freight train and send you flying, just for the pure fun of it. The only ones he couldn’t budge was Don who was older and stronger and of course Fat Ray. No one could budge Fat Ray.
So we would have these epic games each fall, and we would always come home to Mom sweaty, bruised and bloodied. But that was football, right?
Most times, Don, having a great arm was the quarterback on our team. Me and whomever would either be receivers or offensive linesmen, waiting patiently as our opposing player would count down to ten Mississippis or fifteen Alligators or whatever we had decided on was the proper amount of time you could give the Quarterback before you began rushing him. When I was the lineman, Don knew to get rid of the ball quickly as being the weakest, I had no chance of protecting him. When I was the receiver, we were a good team. I would follow his lead and zig-zag around the road until I got open and could take the throw.
But ah yes again, boys will be boys. And we quickly realized that even though all sides had agreed on Ten Alligators, Phillip, in particular, would shave a couple of reptiles off that count and start rushing at seven. And most times when he did it, he did it against me, brushing me aside as one would a fly and jumping on Don before he got a chance to see the field…well, the road really. Something had to be done. And Don came up with a master plan. It was during a game when it was Don, me, Michael and Georgie against Joseph, Phillip, Fat Ray, and Skinny Ray. Joseph had put Phillip on the line against me as usual, letting Fat Ray run around a bit for a change. Plus he knew Phillip had my number. He always beat me, and always got to Don. Which made our plan all the more brilliant.
It was one of those early fall evenings when the light was already fading at seven o’clock. There was a chill in the air, and the smell of wood burning stoves and fireplaces was thick; that plus the boiled cabbage that Georgie’s mother made almost every night. I was on the line, Don behind me waiting for the hike. Michael and Georgie were poised and ready to run down the road for the pass everyone knew was coming. Don hated to hand off, he was designed for the long ball and everyone knew it. So he starts his count, Phillip starts counting Alligators (again ready to cheat), and I am waiting. He didn’t even tell Georgie or Michael of his plan. Only he and I knew it, and I was thrilled at the opportunity. For when I hiked the ball he grabbed it and backed up, doing his Namath shuffle, and for a second I stood there giving Phillip no clue as to what was up. And then I spun around and took two steps back; Don handed the ball off to me and shot up the road in a flash. Phillip’s mouth dropped in confusion, and I did my best imitation of Don/ Namath as I could. And then I threw the ball. And it was Godly perfect. A spiral the man himself would have envied and Don was right where he said he would be. He grabbed it and made it to the “end zone” (the ends of the neighbor’s hedges) and spiked the ball into the road. Phillip was still standing, the fifth Alligator stuck in his throat, a look of amazement and surprise on his face. Don hand off to me? Become a receiver? And me be able to throw a pass that good??? Unheard of!!
Well maybe before, but not anymore.
Even our own other teammates stood bewildered at what just had happened. Once again Don had changed the rules and sent everybody questioning everything they thought they knew about the usual game we always played on Sante Fe Trail of two-hand touch football. I remember running to him and celebrating. What a play! What a pass!! Who would have thunk? And I remember hearing some cheers from the front porch of our house, Mom and Dad always being avid watchers of our games.
Well needless to say that game goes down in Hopatcong folklore along with the perfect pitch at Bertrand Island. After that when it came time to choose up sides, Joseph wasn’t so eager to let me play with my brother every game.
And that felt good. We were a combination to be reckoned with if only in our little world of two-hand touch football on an early Autumn night on Sante Fe Trail & Squire Road in Lake Hopatcong New Jersey.