by Bud Finlayson
JV Humility, Promotions, and Football Taketh Away
During the three month vacation, I visited the field house less frequently than in prior years. Every so often, Roy D., Fred, and I would stop by after work and run a little or just hang around to see who was there. I tended not to socialize that much with Lucky. I didn't mean to be disrespectful, but later on I would be accused of that because of my lack of cordiality. I just figured it was not proper conduct to indulge in insignificant chit-chat between player and coach.
Lucky said it was serious business and a serious game, so I always tried to show him I was serious. It didn't help in my bid to make varsity that year, for once again, my name was no where to be found in the varsity locker room when the two-a-days had ended. Two weeks before school, when the UIL allows organized practices, I showed up faithfully twice each day. Regardless of the negative input that I'd absorbed over the summer, my deeply ingrained instincts toward dedication prevailed and I still aspired to gain a varsity position through hard work. Apparently that wasn't enough for I remained down on the JV.
The realization I was a junior and a member of the JV was humiliating, even more so than being a sophomore on the sophomore team. Some people are merely late bloomers and graduate from being a sophomore, up to varsity and put in two years of solid, if not exceptional, play. It makes the memory of the crummy sophomore team disappear, and fans, including college scouts, seem to never remember either. But being a junior and still unable to make the varsity squad, one is considered a real dud just sticking around for the free chicken fried steaks and a letter jacket their senior year.
Never in my wildest dreams did I ever picture myself as a junior on JV. It was a scientific impossibility. It was mixing oil and water. I figured it wouldn't be long before Lucky would recognize his error and move me up to where I belonged on varsity. Either it was no error or he failed to recognize it, but for whatever reason, I began play that year as a JV.
There were some somewhat suspect appointments to the varsity. A number of sophomores jumped from their freshman teams, right up to varsity. The most questionable was Bobby Lucky, the coach's son. He had talent and size but was used sparingly due to injuries and the simple fact there were a number of better backs who could run him into the dirt.
Johnny Phillips, a returning senior and an all-district starter, who was being scouted by all the biggest colleges, was one. Darrel Royal from UT had already shown interest and traveled to Rosenberg for a personal visit and a first hand look at Johnny. Roy D. had deservedly made the varsity and he, too, was clearly a dominate runner. David Bell, my freshman teammate standout, was bigger, stronger, faster, and tougher and was already receiving recruitment letters from universities state-wide. He was placed questionably as Bobby's backup. Bobby was up there cause he was the coach's son, and everybody knew it.
Other sophomores were up there and I didn't like it, but at least they were needed and contributed to the team. One was Greg Zulkowski. Greg was about 6'3-4" tall and weighed close to 300 pounds. He was just an overgrown baby when he showed up as a freshman, and could barely run a lap around the track. But his size had the Lamar coaching staff watering at the mouth, eager to get a hold of him and mold him into an all-state prospect. During his freshman year, Coach Cox one day reported enthusiastically that Zulkowski had sweated all the way to the top of his shoulder pads, as if that astounding feat really had any significance. For weeks to come, it was all the coaches could talk about. They were like children with a new toy.
They went to work on him with lots of personal attention. Extra running to build up his wind, agility drills to sharpen his coordination and quickness, weights to turn his baby flab into muscle, and lots of talk to encourage and get his head into their frame of mind. By his sophomore year he was ready for varsity, with two more years to improve. He was still pretty pudgy and slow but he was so damn big, he didn't have to do much on the offensive line but to fire out a little and set a pick for our backs to slip by. He could lay out half the defense if he was in the right position. So he stayed on and continued to start and Coach Lucky was bustin' his buttons, just to think that "ZULO", as he was more affectionately known, would be around another two years.
It made me a little nauseous to see how they pampered and bragged on, and doled out so much special attention to Zulo. If I, or any other ordinary person, would have had the coaches' undivided time and attention concentrated solely on my betterment, then I, too, may have been promoted along with such ease. The coach's old saying, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight., It's the size of fight in the dog!" got shot to Hell in Zulo's case. His size was what gave him opportunity, and they polished and honed him into a success.
But the most questionable appointing to the varsity that year was that of Manuel Davila. Lucky discredited himself in one clean swoop with that move. Ever since I entered organized sports as a child, and then under the instruction of Bill Lucky, I had always been indoctrinated with a hard work ethic. "You have to learn to crawl before you can walk", "No pain, no gain!", and other such expressions were to impress on me the importance of hard work and dedication. What one lacked in physical size or natural ability, one could make up for with heart and desire.
I was suckered into that at an early age, and it made good sense to me. I thought if one put out 110% effort during practice, leisure time, and games, that he could not be denied success. Lucky and his coaches preached long and hard about if you don't practice, you don't play; nobody gets a free ride, you got to work for it; they don't give out positions cheap, you got to earn 'em; and similar anecdotes of not getting something for nothing. Well, for some reason none of that applied to Manuel Davila.
That year Lucky found himself without a place kicker, and therefore no extra-point or field goal man, and therefore no district championship. He was desperate and had to work fast. His memory had served him well though, for he remembered a kid that was a junior that could place kick, but had quit football after his freshman year. Davila was heavy and played in the line, but was not very intimidating, for he had a very inward nature about him. If you could get him riled though, he could inflict some pain, due to his strength.
He was not big like Zulo, standing only about 5'9", but tipped the scales at well over 200 pounds and a lot of it was in his tree-trunk legs. His thick feet possessed nub-like toes that were proportionately wide like the rest of him. The big toe on his right foot was clearly misshapen, curving sharply upward and inward. It had been hammered into that position from kicking a football barefooted straight on, not Gogolak style. Team mates would grimace at the sight of that deformed toe and the thought of it punching into the side of a pigskin, but Manuel would shrug his shoulders proclaiming that it was painless. And he could propel a football a far ways with that toe.
Even though being an above average kicker, his ferocity on the line was next to nothing, and he played hardly any as a freshman. He wasn't into the game with the real strong emotional impetus to make whatever sacrifice in order to excel, so he wasn't too concerned when he had to quit. His daddy owned two little neighborhood grocery stores, Davila's #1 and Davila's #2, and Manuel had been recruited to go to work in one of them. So there was Lucky's kicker sacking groceries after school.
Lucky made a deal. After approaching the senior Davila, and appealing to his Hispanic sense of unconditional giving and great pride of family by relating what a fine son he had and how badly the team needed him, things were worked out so that everybody was happy, and all Lucky's ethics were thrown out the window with it. Manuel, after a year's lay off re-joined the team on varsity, and was named the first string place kicker.
To please his dad, it was arranged that he would be detained in practice not one minute after the regular school hours, so that he could get in his duties at the store. Therefore, Davila wasn't required to work out with the rest of the team per se. During seventh period athletics, when most everybody was busting their gut working out, he was kicking tee'd up footballs at a goal post. After about thirty minutes he would head for the showers to get cleaned up and changed, so he would be ready to catch his bus home to go to work. We would remain another 2-3 hours more.
That arrangement held up all year, and in the off season he just waited around for his bus and would go to the store. At the awarding of letters, he received his letter jacket as a full varsity member. I had nothing really against Davila, but now I resented him for making varsity so easily. I would have cut my right arm off to make varsity, and here they go and serve that guy up his cake on a silver platter, and give him the unheard-of opportunity to eat it too.
As usual, I had to get off that brooding and concentrate on playing our JV season. The team was basically the same as the previous year's sophomore squad, except for a few freshman standouts that had been promoted. So, as usual I had no problem in making first string; nose guard and left guard as the previous two years.
Our coaches were an unlikely pair. The line coach was a former Lamar Cons. player and star from the dynasty years of the early sixties. His name was Coach Gorka and he was still unspoiled by Lucky's brain-washing, which made him a pleasure to work with for he didn't choose favorites and gave everybody a fair shot. The backfield coach, Lewis William's, was a redneck alcoholic, that took his orders straight from Lucky, and wouldn't dare differ with him. Our first game was at home against our rivals from Sugarland, the Dulles Vikings. Since eighth grade we had not lost to them in football, and we went into the game with confidence.
Things went our way and we jumped out to a quick lead and it looked like our perfect record against them would stay in tact. Muchie and Warren were chalking up the yardage and scoring points. Late in the third quarter there was a play that anyone who saw it would never forget. I remember seeing it from the sidelines because we were receiving a punt and I was not on that specialty team.
Warren was deep to run back the punt as it came to him short and in a low, line drive fashion. Coach Williams shouted from the sideline to let her drop, but to no avail Warren ran up to catch it and the split second he touched the ball, he also caught two of the opposition's headgear right in the gut. He miraculously held onto the ball but he went down hard and did not rise. Nobody really seemed alarmed, they just routinely waited for him to get up, for according to a Lamar football coach, "nobody ever gets knocked down bad enough to stay down." Apparently, though, this was going to prove to be the exception.
As I trotted onto the field I saw Warren curled up on his side holding his belly and crying like a baby. The referees couldn't continue the game with that body in the way and called for our coaches to come out and do something about it. You see, Warren's mistake was that he went and got his spleen ruptured, but that was inside of him and therefore there was no obvious evidence that he was really hurt. So when the coaches arrived, they quickly diagnosed his injury as just having the wind knocked out of him. And to their disgust he still refused to arise on his own power so they got help and carried him off the field to get the game resumed. During a football game, the intensity level is so great that no one wants to be annoyed by piddling injuries that cause delays. I myself was not even concerned about him, only winning that game mattered, which we did 40-12.
At home after the game, my mother related to me how Warren fared after being pulled off the field. Apparently my mother didn't know any better that an injured one should be ignored and to keep one's mind on the game. From her viewpoint in the bleachers; she had watched his every move. Sam Montoya, the trainer, jokingly known as "Doc", ministered to Warren and confirmed that indeed the wind had been knocked out of him. His treatment was to sit him on the bench, but Warren had not the strength to sit upright and would slide off the bench to the ground in a curled up ball of pain. Montoya would return him to the sitting position only to have him drop back to the ground. After several of these unsuccessful attempts at having Warren sit, Doc just left him to lie on the ground, and the game went on uninterrupted.
After the game Warren did make it into the locker room under his own power, somehow. He showered and went home and that seemingly was the end of it. But he had a restless night and in the morning he arose urinating and spitting blood and his belly was slightly swollen. He went to the field house instead of the school house that morning, and after seeing the blood, Doc figured he best get a second opinion and took Warren to the hospital in Richmond.
It immediately was discovered that his spleen was ruptured and he had been bleeding internally overnight. The real doctors wanted to operate right away but due to a very rare blood type, O negative, it was impossible, for there was none to be found or donated even in the vast blood banks of the world renowned Houston medical center located but thirty miles away. Announcements were sent over radio waves, and in newspapers, searching for anyone with the same type blood to donate. A day and a half later, ironically, some inmates at the state prison farm in Sugarland answered the call with the right type blood to give.
After the necessary 8 pints were procured, surgery was performed, but due to the delay things inside him were a real mess. His abdomen had grown to the size of a tightly inflated basketball from the internal bleeding and one of his kidneys had been rendered unfit. When he was finally opened up, blood gushed everywhere and after cleaning him all out and removing the bad kidney and spleen, he was reported to be in stable, but guarded condition.
The coaches encouraged us to go visit him, but he was a depressing sight. He was still in a great deal of pain and his spirit had hit rock bottom, for he had been told that his football playing days were over. Besides the excruciating pain, he couldn't bear to think of a life void of football. He hardly acknowledged anyone's presence, and words of encouragement went unheard. But, regardless of that one team member's terrible plight, we still had the rest of our season to contend with. As Warren suffered through his ordeal in the hospital, we continued to play the game that had put him there.
We traveled to Houston, to play some city boys, from the affluent Weschester school district. Improperly, a lot of our thoughts were on Warren, instead of the game; and we were humiliated by a score of 8-20. It didn't even seem important though, compared to the battle our team mate was fighting at the time.
The next week, reports on Warren were improving, and he even looked better. He seemed in less distress from the pain, but his enthusiasm for life was still low. I remember going to see him that week with another team mate, Mike Witt. As we entered his room, he sparked up a little, for us being there meant he could leave the confines of that cell and go for a wheelchair cruise. He called the nurse to bring a chair, and a stern, white clad White woman shortly came. She sized us up quickly with a suspicious glance, and reluctantly decided we could be trusted to escort him from his room. Her only instruction was that when we returned, under no circumstances was he to get back in bed by himself, we were to call for her first.
We quickly left her presence with me driving. Warren wanted to go outside and feel some real air and see different surroundings. He was quiet and looked so down and out; we tried to encourage him, "Man, you'll be OK and out of here in no time running around like before." He moaned, "But no mo' football." I returned, "But you'll be alive and well, so what?" "Yall don't understand cause yall's white," he answered. "Yall're white and yall'll go to college aftu' school and be set, cause yall's foks'll pay fo' it. I ain't got nothin', not even folks, to sen' me to school. De only chance I had was football, to make somethin' outa' my life, but now I ain't even got dat."
Mike and I looked at each other guiltily, for Warren was perfectly right. How shameful that our society dictates to underprivileged black kids that their most likely opportunity at achieving a higher education, and thus a better lifestyle, is through excelling in sports; especially one as destructive as football. No doubt, it has and does benefit many, but when the option is exhausted by disabling injuries, as was Warren's case, the lack of other avenues to college leaves them with little hope to escape their poverty.
After being outside just a short time, he asked to go back in. As we made our way back, Mike and I reported the loss to him and he seemed to take the blame for not being there. We told him not to worry, that we'd win the next one for him. He would not be consoled though, and hurried us to return him to his room. When we arrived, he was intent on getting back into bed so I told him that I would call the nurse. Before I could do so he had lifted himself up and the wheelchair shot out backwards, and he fell forward against the corner of the foot-board of the bed, right in his abdomen. He rolled to the floor, clutching himself in the mid-section, and the vision of him going down in the game came to me all over again.
Mike immediately went for the nurse, but the fall had been heard out in the hall, and she was already on her way. I was trying to help him up, but the nurse screamed at me to get my hands off of him and get out. Mike and I waited nervously out in the hall, after three other nurses had rushed in to help. About half an hour passed and Warren's nurse exited the room calmly but apparently upset. She gave us a severe tongue lashing about letting Warren try getting into bed by himself but did conclude that he was resting easily, and she let us go in to just say good-bye. He was resting, but none too easily to me, and we quickly said good-bye, and to hang in there, and that we'd slaughter that week's opponent for him.
Warren was on my mind a lot that week and even during the game, as our promise was made good by defeating Victoria Stroman 16-0. The victory felt tremendous, since we'd done it for Warren, and we were hearing that he'd be leaving the hospital soon. Things were looking up and during those days I didn't even think about varsity.
That Stroman game was held on the 21st of the month, a Thursday, exactly two weeks after his injury was sustained. Friday there was no practice, and several of us visited the hospital to tell Warren about our shut-out win, accomplished in his honor. The news perked him up somewhat and I felt really good about seeing him look so well. Inexplicably, the next day, he passed away.
His death devastated me. I was not familiar with death, and the idea of his demise was inconceivable. I knew that his condition was serious but didn't think he'd have to pay the ultimate price. The association of football and death, football and death, was heavy. To realize that the game I'd made my life's dream, was contrary to life itself. It had taken a life away. And where-as the violence of football did play a part in that tragedy, there had actually been a murder committed by a bias and prejudice, brought on by a mind obsessed by football and a society possessed by ignorance. The manifestation of this in Lamar football coaches, empowered them to kill.
There were too many unanswered questions concerning Warren's death that didn't sit well with me. Why was his original blow not treated with any urgency whatsoever? There were several reasons. Initially, and very simply, football is a contact sport and injuries are a large part of the game. One's success is partly based on one's ability to endure and ignore pain, and continue to perform well even though something hurts. Early on in a young football player's education, he is conditioned to think that pain is good, pain is desirable. It is a gauge by which one's manliness is measured. The endurance of great pain makes one more of a man. "No pain, no gain." The sight of blood is cause for celebration.
Therefore, coaches tend to downplay, or even become mildly irritated, when someone comes up hurt. If they made a big fuss over every injury, you'd end up with a bunch of cry babies that were scared to hit anybody, and you can't win football games that way. So, it becomes a necessary tactic to neglect such obviously minor injuries like getting the wind knocked out of you. Part of me tends to agree with the need to down-play minor injuries, but no sane person would disregard the gravity of a ruptured spleen.
That brings up question number two. After dragging Warren from the field and seeing that he didn't recover his wind, why wasn't he tended to or examined more closely? Since his freshman year he'd been labeled as a complainer, for his frequent mention of every little bump or bruise. Like the boy that cried wolf, he was not believed by anyone about the severity of his condition. He was thought to be faking, and no one paid any attention to him. Also, we were involved in playing a football game, and didn't have time to be concerned with it. The school trainer did look at him, but his lack of medical training equipped him weakly for such critical diagnoses. His craft was chiefly taping ankles and knees.
At varsity games there was always a real doctor on the sidelines, and an ambulance parked right past the end zone, in case of serious injury. But all the sub-varsity teams down to seventh grade never had an ambulance attend their games, nor did they have a real doctor on the sidelines. I suppose that until you make the varsity team, you are looked upon as less valuable than varsity. True, sub-varsity squads are the breeding grounds for the future varsity players, but they are pretty much left up to the mercy of God to survive, until they can get there and wear white shoes and be attended by real doctors.
Perhaps it has something to do with money. Where varsity is concerned, no expense is barred to make them look good or make them a better team, to get that district crown. Donations from alumni help to outfit the team in brand new equipment, including white shoes. They ride to out-of-town games on chartered Greyhounds, and eat chicken fried steaks. But JV and on down simply get the refuse of varsity's worn-out equipment, eat hamburgers and are given an unschooled ankle-taper instead of a doctor.
Question number three is complex, as it relates to one and two, but could be answered simply. Why was Warren not rushed a mere thirty miles into Houston, where one of the largest and most advanced medical centers in the world is located? The only answer that I've been able to come up with is because he was black. Why go to all that trouble and expense for a poor black boy that lives with his auntie? I've already explained that no ambulance was at the game but the following day when he was sent to our local hospital, that has the dubious reputation for not making people well, he would have had access to one.
A week prior to Warren's injury, during a scrimmage, a white boy on varsity was knocked cold and was sped into Houston in an ambulance. He suffered a mild concussion and didn't miss even a single game. But, he was white, the starting varsity quarterback, and the son of a local restaurateur where the team would sometimes have their pre-game meals. Also, the school's insurance was going to pay the bill, and those Houston hospitals and big city specialists charge a pretty penny, and it wouldn't be necessary to spend all that money on a black kid. Tragically Warren had no one to defend his cause, for his demure little auntie wouldn't question the big boss man; she was of the old school where black folks sat in the back of the bus.
I couldn't stop running the questions over and over in my mind. Besides the tragedy of a sixteen year old loosing his life, there were too many questionable circumstances that could have been different, and maybe changed the outcome. I was mad. I did blame the coaches for his death. I blamed a football mentality, and I blamed a red-neck attitude. If Warren would have been white, or if he would have lived up north, or if he would have been a tennis player, he wouldn't be dead. If they would have sent him straight to Houston and procured his type blood right away, would he be alive? My newly gained wisdom towards blacks was being strengthened, for loosing Warren made me realize that we are all mortal, vulnerable human beings and every loss, no matter the color, is equally as great and tragic.
Monday morning in school, there were hushed conversations all through the halls, as each relayed their knowledge of what great injustices had been dealt to Warren. Only the cheerleaders didn't speak of him, for death is too grim of a subject for someone so cheery and sparkly to confront. Besides, cheerleaders probably don't believe in death, life is just an infinite cheer.
All day I wondered what football practice would be like. Warren's funeral was set for that Thursday afternoon and we had a game that same night against El Campo at home. When I got out to the locker room though, things were not bustling as usual, as everyone would have been rushing to be out on the field in the allotted 15 minutes. Things were unsure. The black guys just sat in front of their lockers doing nothing, and claimed adamantly that they'd not suit up to risk death the same as Warren did. They didn't want to become another victim of a system whose negligence could kill.
And the rest of us didn't know what to do. I hesitated long enough to realize that maybe a resignation from the team was the right course of action. It scared me intensely to imagine quitting the game I loved, but a clear injustice had occurred and I felt an obligation to champion Warren's cause. Before I could even think of not donning my pads and uniform, Coach Gorka bolted through the door, leading from the coaches office, in an outrage of disbelief that we weren't suiting-up. Coach Lucky followed close behind, having sensed our stagnation.
He began to bellow out, "What's goin on in here darlins?!, Yall decided yall don't want to play no more football?!" Everything fell silent, as no one replied. Could that man be so heartless as to not understand of Warrens death? We all sat limply at our lockers, with heads hanging, as Lucky scanned the room for signs of movement, signs of life. But only death occupied that room, and Lucky seemed to change gears. He spoke again, but that time a bit softer, maybe it was even compassion, I'm not sure for I'd never heard him speak that way.
He began to reel off clichés about death, "Yall have to pull yourselves together, Warren is dead alright, but we have to keep on living, the world don't stop turning because of one person's death, people die every day, it is part of life, everyone must die sooner or later, it was just his time to go." Years later I would realize those things to be indeed true, but at that time to a bunch of us sixteen year old kids unfamiliar with death, and worried that we too may face the same fate; those words did little to comfort us. In fact it only angered us for one of Warren's assassins to be trying to console us with that never before heard voice of calm.
Then he pulled out the stinger, "What would Warren think of yall moping around? He would not have wanted it this way. Yall got to keep playing for Warren's sake. Win yall's remaining games in his honor!" Well it worked once for Knute Rockne and it worked again for Bill Lucky. It struck home to all of us and one by one we began to look around at each other in agreement. Yes, Warren would have wanted us to keep playing. Instead of win one for the Gipper it would be "win one for Warren."
There were no cheers or dramatics, we simply began to suit up like any well conditioned laboratory animal; trained to perform a certain task. Lucky seemed pretty satisfied though, and began to shout in his regular condescending coach's voice, "Alright, alright, alright, that's the way I like to see it." And he humanely announced that the usual punishment wouldn't be inflicted for arriving late to the practice field, that day.
We all seemed determined to make a go of it as we gathered on our practice field and went through our warm up calisthenics. Everybody wanting to do it for Warren; but when we started our hitting drills things went flat. The energy ran out of us. We just didn't desire to hit any more. Warren was too much on our minds. We remembered the violence of the collision that'd burst his insides. The realization that a helmet and pair of shoulder pads could be used as lethal weapons, was scary. The fear that each one of us possessed those deadly tools, and thus the ability to kill, made us hesitant.
It was too soon to want to kill again. That is what is required to play football; a sadistic heart, a spirit of hate and anger, a willingness to hurt, maim, and inflict pain and suffering, and a fatalistic desire to kill one's opponent. A football player has to have a mean streak. He has to enjoy knocking the other guy's head off but none of us could muster up any hostile aggression toward each other. Nobody wanted to see anybody hurting. We didn't even want to see any blood, which was usually a highly celebrated event. The sight of blood always served to heighten the emotions and stir the adrenaline to a frenzy.
We'd experienced how a death felt, and it wasn't pleasant. We dared any coach to tell us to grunt the words, "DEATH GRIP" while tackling, as we'd been instructed in the past. We were like zombies going through the motions. Our spirits were broken. Football was death.
The coaches kept firing their anecdotes of death at us but they were ineffectual. Even the Gipper line started to loose clout. The Gipper died of pneumonia not football, and I knew it. We dragged through that day with great reluctance and when the uninspired wallowing about was over, we were severely chastised at the close of practice.
Williams and Gorka said we looked like a bunch off old ladies that couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag, and that we better get that sour-ass attitude out of our systems and quit moping around thinking about death and start concentrating on the next game with El Campo, who always played us tough. "They aren't gonna' come over here feeling sorry for us, just cause somebody died. They're gonna' come with their pots strapped on, looking to put the hurt to us, so yall better be ready to play," they warned vehemently, "The world doesn't cease to turn for one person's death, we have to continue the business at hand, and that's playing football."
As I drove home after practice my mind struggled to deal with that phenomenon that had newly consumed me. Surely Warren would want me to play despite his passing, but I felt a sense of betrayal, at continuing the madness that had killed him. I had buckled to my conditioning, 'just part of the game, baby'. My integrity had faltered as I passively submitted to Warren's assassins, and did not protest the injustice of his death. But, surely he would have wanted me to play.
End of Chapter 13
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