by Bud Finlayson
Birthright, Heroes, Sandlot, and God
Football is a game played between two groups of eleven members each, a sporting event.
To a non-American, it can appear confusing and is often times regarded as silly. For Americans it can become an obsession, an important factor in many lives. Sometimes too important. The strength of football's influence has become concentrated into certain geographical regions of the country, being a major power in some and practically non-existent in others. For reasons not understood by me, the state of Texas has become synonymous with the game of football.
As a Texas native, I became part of the game, as it too, became a part of me. I was intensely involved, and football carried me to the brink of insanity, as I dealt simultaneously with growing up and trying to fulfill my dream. A dream of being the best football player that I could be.
Football was around me, affecting me, before I could consciously recollect. It's been theorized that a fetus can hear and be influenced by sounds while inside the mother's womb. If that is true, I listened to lots of football conversations and heard the play-by-play announcement of many games on radio and TV, for the 1955 season was already a month old at the time of my birth in October. Not that my Mom was such a fan, but I know my Dad was following his teams closely.
On the night of my birth, as my Mom labored painfully to give me life, my Dad paced the waiting room floor nervously as any father would do. But his thoughts weren't totally on becoming a daddy again, he was worried about possibly missing the Tyler Junior College football game for which he had already purchased tickets. And there I was holding him up. Eventually I emerged into life, and was reported as a healthy eight pound baby boy to my anxious Dad.
After checking briefly with my Mom, he hurriedly drove to the stadium, and caught most of the game. As he watched the players battle it out on the field, he more than likely thought about me. It wasn't so much that I was just born, it was the fact that I was male. I was his first and only son. At last he had a boy. After two girls, he now had a football player.
A son born to a Texan is special, like a son born to an Indian chief. Just as the son of a great chief is destined to be a brave warrior, raised with only that in mind, so are the sons of most Texans, destined to be warriors of the gridiron. As a young Indian gains respect through various rituals to prove his manhood, so does the young Texan, through the ritual of football.
I am sure my Dad sped up the time clock to try and imagine what kind of a football player I would be. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it, I was already signed up. Every baby of the male gender viewed by a Texan, is quickly given the once-over for those certain physical characteristics that would qualify him to be a great football player. A fat chunky, ruffian, is praised for his size, "That boy'll make one hell of a linebacker!" But, a frail, undersized infant is seen as a sissy, looked upon with pity, almost shame. He would be predicted not to play the game, thereby losing face.
Recruiting starts early in one's life. Playing football to a Texas born son is as mandatory as wearing pants, and if he lacks the desire to participate, then he is viewed upon with the same suspicion as if he were to sport a dress.
Yes, my Dad fathered a son to be a star football player. That thought was surely in his mind that night. From that night on, football would prevail in my life.
The first hero that I can honestly recall, was my Uncle Chuck. Being my Dad's only brother, my only uncle, and not having children of his own, he spent much of his time with me. I looked up to him, and loved him like a father. He was also the athlete of the family. My Dad grew up in the shadow of big brother and didn't reach the same heights of fame while growing up as Chuck did.
Chuck was president of his senior class and captain of the football team in high school. I spent many hours while visiting my grandparent's house leafing through his old yearbooks from Tyler High. They smelled stale from many years of hibernation in the bottom drawer of my grandma's bureau. The pages were stiff and yellowed, and the bindings creaked when opened, but inside lay proof of Uncle Chuck's greatness.
After flipping directly to the section for sports, I would quickly locate number 49 in the football team's picture, and tingle with pride. In individual shots, I could see a younger, slimmer, Chuck, with his fair skinned face framed by a funny looking, outdated leather helmet. It was the face of an 18 year old kid, but I saw him as a tough, hard-nosed, man. A football player. A folded yellow, newspaper clipping showed number 49 crashing through the line as blocking back, leading the runner through the defender's line, during an important game. I dreamed that someday, I could become as recognized as him, for everyone agreed on how tough he was.
My two grandfathers were both veterans of the game, but I recognized it only from antiquated photographs of unfamiliar times and a different game. I saw my grandpas as strong young men, unknown to me, decked in baggy canvas knee high pants and heavy, long sleeved sweaters supporting their school's letter on the chest.
I knew my mother's dad only by these pictures, for he passed away when I was five. But my grandmother used to tell me how bold and dashing he was as quarterback of the gridiron, when playing for Main High in San Antonio and Trinity College in Waxahachie. She repeatedly told how he refused the protection of a head-gear because it bothered him and hindered his vision. I upheld him as being supremely courageous to risk the possible punishment to his head. His heroism inspired me.
My dad's father, whom I knew as Pop, was a white-haired old man that used to slip his spare change to me behind my grandma's back, always on the sly. The 50 year old newspaper clipping that pictured him and named him to the all-city high school team in Denver, Colorado impressed me greatly. But that was my grandpa then, and it was difficult to visualize him as a fit, strapping football player.
Known to stretch his stories at times, he once gained my utmost admiration by telling me about the time when Jim Thorpe knocked his front teeth out. The part about the teeth was true, I know, for they were missing. Yes, it was THE Jim Thorpe, the famous athlete. It seems that Jim played on a semi-pro team of all Indians that traveled around playing whomever they could.
After arranging an exhibition game with Pop's high school squad, they played on a freezing, snowy day. He said the Indians were all much older, but by giving his all, grandpa broke through the line and tackled Jim. Proud of himself, he readied for the next play, trying to find a foothold in the rock hard frozen turf. As the offensive line broke to the ball, the Indian tackle opposite Pop warned him not to try that again.
Still charged up from his previous sack, he shot off the line, but the blocking tackle simply stepped aside. Pop peered up and Jim was coming after him like a locomotive full of steam. One of Thorpe's driving thighs thrust his knee right into my grandpa's mouth, with a crunching blow. Jim went down, but from then on, my grandpa would be minus a few front teeth. As Pop lay on the icy ground spitting out blood and teeth through a split lip, Jim leaned over to say a few words. He advised, "Next time Big Jim have the ball, let Big Jim run!" And that type of intimidation, my grandpa claimed, was how Jim Thorpe accumulated so many yards rushing throughout his football career.
Both of my grandfathers became inspirations to me as football players. But my Uncle Chuck was closer to me, more of a real hero. He blessed me with my first official football at the age of 5 or 6. I can't be certain of the exact year, but I can still picture and remember the feel of that ball. I had to use both of my small hands to hold that football as it seemed gigantic in comparison to me. The coloring of the leather was orange, not the usual brown; and it was white striped at each end for night games. I would wander down the neighborhood block with my ball, where the big kids played and I would watch the excitement, wishing so much that I could play. I couldn't wait till the time came when I could grip my ball in one hand.
A year later Chuck presented me with a football uniform. It was red from the helmet, to jersey, to the pants. The shoulder pads were even red. Being a youth model of the kind they made in those days, it was not highly protective equipment. The plastic shell of the helmet was cushioned from the head by sponge rubber pads in front and back. The top of the noggin was suspended away from the shell by two cotton straps crossing perpendicular to each other, forming a cross. At their point of intersection was a round disk of leather, held in place by the straps threaded through slots cut in the disk. The shoulder pads were cardboard, corrugated and hardened by pressing and glue. They were lined with thick felt padding. The kidney and thigh pads were of the same build also, but the knee pads were merely double quilted material, sewn into the pants. But to me it was the real thing. I would get suited up even when not expecting to play, for to me, the pads were such a thrill to wear. They made me feel invincible, like a knight of old clad in armor, shielded safely from the mightiest aggressor. I could then fetch my ball, find a place to myself, and pretend I was the greatest footballer in America.
Chuck served as teacher and coach, along with my Dad. My Dad knew the game and was a proficient athlete. He was always good for a game of catch; if the news or a football game wasn't on TV. His football career ended early after suffering cartilage damage to a knee in junior high, but I never begrudged him for it. His punting and kicking skills were high and he instructed me in the art with the eagerness of a boy. Like most ex-players, my Dad regained his youthful liveliness when a pigskin spiraled in the air towards him.
But with Chuck it was different. Just knowing he was coming to visit, would spark a joy inside me. Besides being an athlete, he was a genuine joker. I could always coax him outside to toss around the football with me. He instructed me seriously on my techniques, but always kept my funny-bone tickled. His high sailing punts overwhelmed me, challenging me to someday equal his feats. During TV games, he clued me on strategies and tactics, giving me an early understanding of the game. I reckon that those informal sessions were my first taste of actual ball handling, and the thrill that goes with it. To me, though, they were a test. I was already proving myself.
My first real encounters where I could measure myself against others were with what is commonly known as "sand-lot football", a football skirmish between the neighborhood kids, held in the best yard or field that was within range of a bicycle ride. First grade was the point when the big guys started considering to let us join into their games, or all of us the same age would organize games ourselves. By that time, I already understood football with its many rules, and I could handle a ball without instruction. It was never a subject I spent time studying. It soaked into me effortlessly. Like a child learning to speak, it became second nature to me. My one drawback was being a chubby, big butted, youth not blessed with very fast moving legs. I could never pass up a game of sandlot though, no matter how slow I moved. The thrill of football had captured me.
There wasn't anything like walking home from school on a sharp sunny autumn afternoon and coming across "The guys" setting up a game in the designated best field. With total irresponsibility, I would dump my books under a tree and discard my hard-heeled shoes beside them. Then, with full disregard of my school clothes, I would get into the game. We always played tackle, touch was sissy. Ignoring grass-stained, torn britches and socks, and minus a shirt button or two, I would play with a heightened zeal. Twisting and dodging defenders, or chasing a fleeting friend to throw him down, gave me unspeakable pleasure. The cool fall air would drift in unnoticed, as the sun too, would leave the sky, but it never slowed our play. Eventually the different kids went to their homes till not enough were left to play. When I realized the game was over and that it was time to go home, only then would I notice the ruined clothes, late hour, chilly weather, and runny nose. I knew I would be in for it at home, but that fear passed quickly though, as I walked home, recalling my earlier play.
Weekends were extra special and I anticipated the whole week long how I would spend the time. During the fall, my entire weekend would be totally devoted to football. My buddies and I would plan a big game for each day. I knew ahead of time what I wanted to wear, when I was to rise in the morning. The night before Saturday I pictured putting on my favorite jersey and dreaming how the next day would go. I often couldn't get to sleep, just thinking how I would play.
At first grade age, like many kids in my upper-middle class environment, I went off to summer camp. Instead of going to one of the usual Texas camps that most of my friends attended, I went to one in Missouri called Kanakuk. It was right outside of Branson on the southern edge of the state, in the Ozark Mountains. Beside the typical activities of most summer camps, like canoeing, singing around the campfire, camping out, making handicrafts, studying nature, and practicing archery, all tied together with an Indian theme; this camp was geared mainly towards athletics and the building of character through the spirit of rigorous competition. Its counselor staff consisted of college athletes from all different sports, and even some professionals.
The living was clean. We got haircuts every week, no candy or soda water, three home cooked meals a day, early to bed and early to rise, run almost in military fashion. There were calisthenics before breakfast, cabin inspections, and beds made with taut hospital corners. A favorite saying was, "You don't have to, you get to."
The sports were unlimited. There was football, basketball, baseball, track and field, archery, badminton, tennis, water skiing, canoeing, sailing, weight lifting, horseshoes, swimming, trampoline jumping, washers, ping pong, darts, gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, volleyball, and on and on. It was fair play and wholesome fun. As the saying goes, it wasn't whether you won or lost, it was how you played the game.
The overall effect this camp had on me was strong. It gave me hope to achieve in life, and to me, that meant football. They made a person believe in themselves. It didn't matter how big or how physically unable you were; if you wanted something badly enough, anything was possible. It was possible through determination and dedication. Try your best to achieve your goal and never let up. Those who were honest about it would reach their dreams.
Christianity was emphasized along with sports, and I was taught that the two were equally important in developing the total athlete. Every Sunday we heard testimonials from the counselors about how necessary faith in God had been for success in their individual sports. Sermons were full of hopeless underdogs achieving their dreams through dedication to hard work and to God. It was impossible for a person to stray off the straight and narrow path of a Christian's walk in life and hope to honestly achieve success in sports. I was inspired by all of that, and I truly believed that was the only route to follow to reach my goal of being a football player. The six summers I spent at that camp had a great impact on my thinking. I would carry those ideals with me later in the quest for my dream.
On the Christmas of 1965, when I was ten, my grandparents gave me a book. It was titled, "The History of Football" by Robert Leike. I must have read and looked through that book a thousand times discovering and learning about the game and its past. I came to know all the former superstars and men that influenced the game. There was Walter Camp in 1869, the father of American football, the one who started it all. Then came the others: Knute Rockne and the Gipper, Alonzo Stagg, Pop Warner, George Hallas, Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, Bulldog Turner, The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, Sid Luckman, Sammy Baugh, Marion Motley, Dick Lane, Big Daddy Lipscombe, Crazy Legs Hirsch, Jim Brown, Paul Hourning, Chuck Bednarik, Paul Brown, Otto Grahm, and so many more beyond recall. I revered that book as a preacher does his Bible.
Any other books I could find about football, I picked up and read. Everything about the game, I wanted to learn. A book my Mom gave me, titled "Get in the Game" by Bill Glass, confirmed the teachings of Camp Kanakuk. He was an all-pro defensive end for the Cleveland Browns during their dynasty of the late fifties-early sixties and was also a born again Christian. His book was a testimony of the way the power of Christ helped him through his struggles in life and on the gridiron. Again, I was convinced of God's association with football. I believed it was truly a sport void of all corruption and evils present in the outside world. So I made sure I was on the right side of God. Church was already mandatory at my house, but I went with a new open-mindedness, asking for His forgiveness and praying nightly that I would grow stout and tall. I figured with God by my side, nothing could stop me.
In the spring of my fourth grade year, fast food was introduced to Tyler, with the construction of a "Hardee's" hamburger joint. It was difficult to believe the astonishing rumors that claimed one could place an order to a talking menu sign without leaving your car, and in the few seconds it took to drive around the building to a window on the other side, your burgers were cooked, sacked, and ready to eat. We found out later that this speed detracted from the quality, but the grand opening promotion with two live Dallas Cowboys attracted hordes of anxious customers; including myself.
In Tyler, if someone was not a Cowboy fan, they'd most likely be dubbed a Communist, so naturally I grew up worshipping the Dallas team. Upon hearing that Bob Lilly and George Andre would be signing autographs at "Hardee's", I jumped on my bicycle and pedaled furiously for two miles to meet them.
There was already a large crowd outside when I arrived, mostly younger fans, but in the middle of that mass towered two giants decked in suits and ties. They were the biggest men I'd seen in all my life. Both, solidly filling their garments, and standing well over 6' tall. After waiting 20 minutes in line, I trembled with exhilarating awe as they each asked me my name, then personally signed and handed me 5X7 black and white photographs of themselves; autographed, "Best Wishes To Bud." They also gave away 5X7 photos of their teammates; Jethro Pugh, Pete Gent, Bob Hayes, Mike Gaechter, Don Perkins, Chuck Howley, and Willie Townes.
I cherished those pictures and the memory of meeting the two pros in person, hoping to someday grow to their stature. Their introductions spirited my dreams with new vigor, to someday join their ranks. Imagining myself as them, I played my sandlot games faithfully and participated in football at recess in grade school, but those games were just for the fun of it.
End of Chapter 1
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