by Bud Finlayson
Justice Prevails and Undefeated Frosh
Monday's practice found everyone upbeat, with angry coaches, spirits determined to avenge the blemish on our record. It went as usual Haven first string, me second. In a meeting afterwards, we were passed out new sets of plays, about 30 offensive and 10 new defenses. At the top of mine read: "B. FINLAYSON, left guard-offense, nose guard-defense." We were instructed to take them home and memorize them front wards and backwards. I became excited at the proposition of learning nose guard, for up till that time I was a linebacker on defense and didn't like it one bit. There were too many decisions to make, plug the hole, rush the passer, move to the outside and contain the end run, follow the motion man, or fall back and cover the running backs going out for the pass. I couldn't get the hang of it to save my life. Maybe the new position would spring me into getting some action.
That night I crawled into bed about nine o'clock with my new plays. I was determined to memorize and know them so well that I wouldn't even have to think to execute them. The clock read 1:30 when I was satisfied that I knew them, and I put myself to sleep with the plays programming themselves into my brain for recall the next day. I awoke with nothing in my head but those new plays. I'd retained them well and all day long I reviewed them, just waiting to show Coach how hard I worked to learn them. By the time practice was ready to begin, the plays could be recalled instantly, and with an accuracy that even surprised me. I didn't have to wait long to show my stuff, for after calisthenics, we were called together and it was announced that there were going to be some changes made in the starting line-ups due to a lack of effort, by the first teamers. Immediately I began to pray that I'd get my chance. Before I could say 'Amen' my name rang out, "Finlayson! nose-guard , Johnson! Left-tackle, Roy D. Right tackle (Roy D. Ellison, one of the few they called by first name) That was about all I remembered, the two men flanking me. I was stunned with humility, they'd picked me, confided in me to be their starter. Finally I was number one. Now to produce.
A dummy offensive line was set up, Haven included, and Coach Cox called off the new defenses one by one. As if by an inborn instinct I maneuvered into my correct positions. Head up, slant right, slant left, in the gap, fire the hole, it fit me like a kid glove, just hit and go for the ball. I knew then I'd found my spot. Coach Cox smiled and congratulated my astuteness, as if he , too, knew it felt right for me. I was so proud, there lined up alongside Marc and we consented that we'd knock 'em dead together. On the other side was Roy D., a lanky black kid nicknamed "Bones" that was a second string running back for the eighth grade B team. Well he wasn't so bony any more and he turned out to be a real stopper at defensive tackle that year. After the defense had been drilled we switched to offense and I had another surprise waiting for me there.
Being so elated over my starting job on defense, I didn't expect to be named to the first offense, but coach Cox saw different. After Haven had taken his place at left guard to go over the new offensive plays, he was called to step out and I was put in his place. I almost howled with joy, as Haven removed himself, seemingly not perturbed, as if it was temporary. I went through my well rehearsed plays with ease and apparently was in to start both ways in our upcoming game with Victoria Stroman in Victoria. Another long bus ride, but one that I couldn't wait to take.
The whole week was one of ecstasy for me. How grand to be a starter again, to know that you're the best, to know that you're going to contribute, to feel important again. I was literally walking on air. The day of the game I proudly donned a tie and sport coat, and walked the halls with my head held high, attending our pep rally seated with the starters. There was still the task of proving my worth and the uncertainty of failing, but I felt confident, and all the way to Victoria I remained reserved and serious contemplating my performance. We arrived early to a different field. An old stadium, not very sizable, but one that showed signs of witnessing many a football game with players clad in leather helmets, canvas pants, and high-top cleats. Walking out on the grass field one could sense the past lurking about, the dried planks of the stands looking down, and the heavily painted, silver goal posts that spoke of years of rust. I reviewed my duties with the former starting nose-man to make sure I'd forgotten nothing, then we inhabited the ancient brick dressing rooms under the bleachers and readied for the game.
My jersey number that year was 63 which I never held with any particular fondness other than it being the same as Dallas' Larry Cole, or Green Bay's Fuzzy Thurston, who were no great celebrities. After that day though, it would always be revered in my heart. The game turned out to be a laugher, with us leading 44-0 at half-time. Coach Cox wasn't laughing though, he chewed us out for being sloppy and out of shape and claimed that we should have been leading by 144-0. I don't think he was that disappointed though. He was just being a Coach keeping his team from becoming too over confident. I didn't play a whole lot in the second half, and for the first time in a long time I didn't feel so degraded standing on the sideline. We'd done our job, and now it was time to let Haven and the rest of the second, even third string, do their thing and get in some hitting. The final score was 73-0 and the ride home took no time at all. The inside of that bus was total commotion and elation. Non-stop boasts of the fantastic, and near fantastic feats everyone had achieved, even guys that hadn't played all year, myself included. A win like that allows even the most unruly behavior to be tolerated, and we sang, shouted, and carried on all the way home.
The next day, to our pleasure, we found out that the Blue team had lost 14-6 to Stroman. We were supposed to be equal, but there was an ongoing competition to see who could compile the best record, and their loss had put us clearly at an advantage. Then some of them began making claims that we had played a weaker "B" team and that they had faced the better or "A" team, saying that Stroman didn't divide their teams equally. Furthermore, we shouldn't be so proud of a 73-0 win over a "B" team. We outwardly denied their comments and stressed that we were merely a superior team. Inside though, I knew that we'd played a poor team and that my worth had not been truly tested, but the following week would prove different.
We were scheduled to host the El Campo Ricebirds and everyone knew that they would come ready to play. Teams from El Campo were always tough. I remained as a starter, and after the first few minutes of play, I realized what kind of a battle it would be. We managed to maintain a 6-0 lead into the last quarter but they eventually tied us and elected to go for a two point extra point conversion. I was finally beginning to understand the importance of conditioning and the ability to draw on ones inner strengths when physically you are ready to fall on your face from exhaustion. I had been on the field since the opening kickoff and it was now fourth quarter and the game rode on that one play. Marc, Roy D. and I fired out low at the snap of the ball and we pounced on a man diving off tackle. He failed to reach the goal line and a referee right behind me whistled the play dead, signaling no score. Meanwhile, the quarterback, who had not handed off the ball, pitched it out wide to a trailing back who walked into the end zone untouched. The ref. on that side of the field threw his arms up indicating a score. We were already celebrating having stopped them, by the time we realized that we'd been so badly fooled. I immediately protested to the ref., that had called the ball dead, that we had stopped pursuing the instant he blew his whistle and because of his error, the score should not be allowed. The two officials conferred and the game remained 6-6 instead of 8-6. That was also the final score of the game, but we had given our best effort and weren't ashamed of it ending in a tie. I literally dragged myself off the field and barely had the strength to undress myself and take a shower but I was feeling ever so proud that night. I'd struggled through that fierce battle alongside comrades that I came to know and understand during its duration and we'd come out together unscathed and with our lives.
The following day I woke up feeling the blows of that war. Purple bruises appeared overnight on battered forearms, and knuckles were swollen, fingers stiff. I made it a point to don a short sleeve shirt for school, so as not to hide the battle-scars I'd earned the night before. I don't know who ever really noticed but I imagined that everybody did. What a great time to be alive, my game behind me, Friday night, varsity game, girls, and I was first string. I couldn't have asked for anything more. The rest of that season was my dream come true. I continued to start every game, and I even gained a reputation from my coaches of being pretty dang tough.
They began a system to reward a persons outstanding play, by awarding stickers to our solid white helmets. A blue decal of a mustang horse in full gallop was the prize. I succeeded in getting one for each side, and on a third outstanding game, I was given a red stripe that ran down the center of my headgear. I don't know what they would have given next because I, nor anyone, ever received anything more. I was really overwhelmed by that recognition, and was so proud of that helmet that I wore it knowing I was one of the best. On a few occasions the head coach, Coach Lucky, even complemented me on my toughness and willingness to hit. Hearing him tell me I looked good, was approval from the highest authority. Being an All-American was looking more than likely, but first I would have to knock off the state championship. I had everything to look forward to and nothing to hold me back.
We ended the season with only one loss and avenged the tie to Victoria by beating them soundly in a repeated game. The loss was even not a loss for us but a victory, but it stands recorded as a loss. We were scheduled to play Bay City, the Black Cats. They fielded only one freshman team, and we had two. The arrangement was that our Blue and White teams would alternate playing offense and defense by quarters. For example, White plays only offense during the first and third period, and defense second and fourth. Blue played defense 1st and 3rd, while playing offense 2nd and 4th. Well our 'White' offense scored one touchdown, and our 'White' defense allowed no points. We win 6-0. Wrong. The 'Blue' offense scored 0 and the 'Blue' defense gave up 14 pt's So the final score reads Lamar 6 - Bay City 14. We felt inside though, that we'd of beat them if we had played them by ourselves, and it was another reason to scorn the Blue team for their inferior squad.
So, we finished the season boasting of being undefeated, a goal that a few of us, including Marc, had secretly sworn to achieve. David had proved to be even more dominant than he looked. He started at fullback and was like a man playing amongst boys. Sometimes he'd get plays mixed up and run where the blocking wasn't, but it didn't matter much, for he'd just run over or out run would be tacklers; and if any did hold on to him he'd drag them effortlessly along until 5 or 6 defenders would combine to pull him down. I would also never have to worry about the likes of Haven Young. He had quit before the season ended, and would never be seen in a football uniform again.
I had made it through my freshman season fairly unscathed, as far as injuries were concerned. After I began to start, I never missed a single down during the rest of the year because of being hurt. That was not to say that I didn't experience any pain that year. Pain and discomfort are part of the game. It is endured on a daily basis, with the only concern that by game time it will be tolerable enough to play with and go 100 percent. If it isn't tolerable then you just grit your teeth and play hurt, and try not to let anybody know. Along with the usual jammed and sprained fingers that are commonplace and not considered to slow anyone down, other than that they are a nuisance because the slightest movement or bumping will stop a person in his tracks with pain. I managed to pull a muscle in my back that did slow me down a couple of weeks that year. I never had felt anything like it and I don't know what caused it. One practice it just started to pain me. It was up high and it felt almost like a cricked neck, but lower. I kept wanting to pop something to relieve it, constantly rolling my neck and flexing my back, but the agonizing pain remained. Any contact or quick movement by myself would aggravate it and despite my efforts to hide it the coaches found me out.
Now when an injury is sustained while playing football, it's best if it is something detectable, something the coaches can see, like a bone sticking out of a bloody hole in the skin, so they know you are really hurt. When there are no outward signs to indicate a real wound, like a pulled back muscle, you are looked at with suspicion. If you are a starter, you are taken a little more seriously than if you were a scrub, and if you endure the pain and don't complain about it then you won't be labeled a "faker". I got through that first day of practice alright, but when I went home and relaxed, the muscle cooled down and stiffened up something awful. It was like a wet leather throng drying in the desert sun, tightening past the point of bearable tolerance. I lay on a hard wooden floor, trying to be perfectly still, and hesitating to breathe too deeply, for even to respire was to suffer. But mostly I was mad at the fact that I'd gotten into such a predicament and I didn't know how or when. A heat pad applied to the muscle helped dull the pain and relax the pull at night in bed, but a person couldn't walk around with a heat pad on his back so the pain was just endured. Heat balms and a whirlpool bath helped also, but mainly it was just something to put up with till the muscle healed itself back to normal. Pain has to be gotten used to, and that's what I did. I came to know the pain and learned to ignore it and when the whistle blew my adrenaline blocked it out completely.
As usual, basketball season always follows football, so I just moved myself over to the gym and tried out for the team. I only made 'B' team and didn't get to play too much, but I enjoyed the time I did play, and the traveling was fun too. I had no idea that I had done anything wrong in going out for round ball,(as the football coaches termed it, since it differed from the oblong shape of a football) but about halfway through the season I started feeling guilty. Rumors began to drift over from the field house that I was going to be in for a surprise when I rejoined the football team. I was accused of growing soft from spending my time in a heated gymnasium, bouncing a ball, while my football team mates were growing tougher by the day. They endured rain, cold, freezing temps, to run, lift weights, wrestle, stick fight, and box.
Stick fighting was the ultimate test of ones bravado and prowess. Both participants grasp a 2' Q-tip like stick, padded at both ends, and the first to let go is the looser. The trick is that no holds are barred, anything goes. Kicking, scratching, hitting, biting, are all ways to make your partner release his grip. It so happens, that one day, James Flake, who joined off season training to play football the next year, had been working out diligently, and was getting pretty lean and mean, whipped his partner (Joey Gonzalez) to a pulp in stick fighting. Then word got out that he wanted me next, and was feeling pretty confident.
Indeed I did worry that I was getting soft and on several out of town games, we would drive past the field house and through fogged up windows of the heated bus, I would see the sweatshirt hooded football players expelling great puffs of steamed breath from their lungs as they worked out in the frigid winter temperatures. I would feel even more guilty bouncing along toward a basketball game that I probably wouldn't play that much in. I knew I had no future playing basketball and I couldn't wait to return to the football program and continue the dedication to my dream. Basketball was soon over and I never returned to the court again as a member of a school team. There was no regret about that though, I was just happy to be back into football.
The first couple of days of "Off season" I was kind of a stranger, reacquainting myself with the routine of lifting weights, running up and down the stadium bleachers, doing grass drills, sprints around the track, stick fighting and wrestling, and jogging the miles of cross country routes around the school. The rumors of James wanting to fight me were just that, but he worked hard and out hustled me in several drills. I was clearly a step or two behind the rest who had been doing that every day, but it just made me try more and soon I was back in the groove, keeping up with the best of them. My dedication was superb for I truly believed that a 110 percent effort there, would pay off for me in the future. I was amazed at the lax efforts of some of the varsity standouts. They would dog through sprints and drills, skip weight stations, and some would even dive down behind bleachers on the top row out of the coaches sight. After we'd complete 20 or 30 trips to the top they'd pop up as we passed and return to the bottom without breaking a sweat. I despised their cheating but I never exposed them, for I knew when it came down to it next year that my efforts would gain me the success of making varsity or at least junior varsity.
End of Chapter 10
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