by Bud Finlayson
Off-Season Urgency and Indifference Goes to Pot
Things didn't skip a beat, as the week after the final game we commenced off season drills. Lucky said we couldn't afford to let up. We had to persist and make sacrifices and not rest till we won district. His enthusiasm reflected his fear of losing face and his job.
I, however, went into that off-season uninspired. Previously, I'd been busting my gut trying to impress coaches with my unquestioned dedication and unrelenting effort but that year I had nothing to gain. I had no varsity position to show for three years of hard work and now I would be promoted merely for the fact of being a senior. I just didn't care anymore for I'd seen too much hypocrisy and had heard too many lies. The thought of quitting never entered my mind though, for no matter how bleak my post high school football career looked, the magical feeling and honor of playing varsity football had never diminished, and now I was assured of it.
So Lucky pushed on harder and harder. I saw freshmen with spacey looks in their eyes who clung to his every word and who would go up against a grizzly bear to prove their toughness, if they were told to. I saw myself in them and I felt sad. Would these kids' spirits be snuffed out too, in a couple of years, if they didn't figure into Lucky's plans to produce a winner? Would they get chewed up and spit out by the system after their usefulness was gone? I only wanted to complete the year and play varsity the next, but I wouldn't kill myself doing it. I was beginning to realize that football was only a game, and not a religion worth the sacrifice of one's life.
Lucky emphasized the weight program. "We got to get bigger and stronger," he'd say. Some were catered to individually, with more time in the weight shed and specialized workout schedules. We were even given vitamin pills to build us up. Some got specialized attention with special vitamins that were kept under lock and key. They'd just tell Doc Montoya they needed their pills, and he'd open the locked cabinet in the training room and pass them out. We were even offered a powdered protein milkshake that we could order from a catalogue, but not too many went for that because you had to pay for it.
Things dragged along as usual in the off-season training. We were given the same speech as the previous years: "Don't none of you darlings slack off, thinking just cause you started last year, that your position is secure. We got lots of fresh meat that are after those varsity jobs and if they show me the desire and hustle I'll give 'em to them." When I was a freshman I took those words in earnest but now I knew them to be pure hog-wash. I never could understand why established varsity players would risk their honorable rank by dogging-it during the off season, but now it was perfectly clear. Lucky really would never demote a proven player that could help him win, just because of lack of effort during off-season.
Especially not his son, for Bobby's chronic "bad knee" wouldn't allow him to work out. He spent most of that off season sitting in the training room, applying ultra-sound to his knee. After about an hour he'd emerge with it all taped up and punch the speed bag a little and then mosey over where we were running grass drills and watch. By then, we'd gone through the weights and bleachers, and run a few laps. He seemed to bear up alright though, having a good rapport with the assistant coaches, and always smiling. Fortunately he'd be back and ready to go by next season's first game, all healed up.
Unlike the past years when I entered off-season with my nose passionately to the grindstone and my mind tightly focused on making varsity, I began to see the folly of those work-outs. There were the leaders and yell-guys that sustained a superficial spirit up, but most varsity standouts and shoe-ins like me, just were going through the motions to get through till the upcoming season. As a freshman I recall flying up the bleachers and touching the top first and come gliding back down in full view of the coaches, and feeling so proud that I'd out hustled varsity players and that surely Coach Lucky had noticed and would promote me any day. He never did. As a junior then, I was out-hustled by freshmen, but I didn't mind for I knew that my place on varsity was already a certainty.
One day during wrestling drills I couldn't hold back my insolence. It has to be understood that there is wrestling as most people know it and there is wrestling the way a Texas high school football coach knows it. The Lamar coaches liked to see action, acquiring their expertise and knowledge of the sport from Saturday night professional wrestling. Two people going at each other tooth and nail, no holds bared, and if blood results, so much the better. Pinning a man's shoulders was not the primary objective. I'd had some instruction in wrestling as a kid at summer camp and I knew some basic moves.
My opponent that day was Fred Green one of my previous summer's hay hauling co-workers. Fred was strong but not real aggressive and before he knew it, I had him pinned and unable to break my hold. I had my body perpendicular to his with my legs spread and one arm hooked around his neck and the other hooked around the back of his thigh. We wrestled by time for 3 minutes and it took me less than a minute to pin him so I just maintained my hold for the remaining time. Coach Johnson noticed our lack of movement and began to holler, "What's a matter with you Finlayson!! Do something!" I just held on and made sure his shoulder blades were down.
When the whistle blew Johnson was livid, "You're supposed to be wrestling, not laying around doing nothing!!" "Well I had him pinned, what more do you want?" I replied. "Bounce him around a little! Make it hurt him some!" he answered back. Lucky, who'd been watching another pair of wrestlers, took notice of our conversation and said, "What's wrong with Finlayson, Coach, he lost his nerve?" Johnson added, "Fred and him were laying around taking it easy like a picnic at the beach." I couldn't hold back, I told Lucky that I'd pinned him and that where I came from the object of wrestling was to pin your opponent and that that's exactly what I'd done. Lucky, with a look of disbelief, shook his head slowly and said, "Baby, you sure are a nice guy." Once again I was totally mystified by their reasoning. When I got the quick pin I thought I'd receive praise for a good job, but instead I was chastised for a poor effort. Maybe Lucky was right, for I didn't want to hurt Fred as I probably would have an opponent in prior years. I shook my head in disbelief too.
That year Lucky got a new play-toy that he probably had read about in some coaching magazine. It was a contraption to improve our speed by stretching out our leg muscles to their fullest. It consisted of an iron bar welded horizontally, near chest-high, on a bracket protruding from the back of a '59 Ford pick-up. The object was to grab hold of the bar and keep your legs churning fast enough so as not to fall flat on your face as the truck pulled you 100 yards in an instant, down the cinder track of Mustang Stadium. A lot of us were apprehensive at first, but once you got the hang of it, it was an exhilarating rush. You'd feel as if running faster than a bullet and indeed your legs became very limber. There were a few mishaps, like people being dragged or doing terrific headlong somersaults, but no major injuries occurred.
The only drawback was that it was time consuming, and we already worked out an average of three hours without the pickup. Running only two abreast, it would take another hour to let everybody run a couple of times. So Lucky started his own off-season two-a-days by calling a 7am practice before school in the dead of winter solely to run behind the truck. None of us knew it, but Lucky knew he was violating UIL rules and so did the father of two brothers that ran cross-country. These two distance runners were loners of sorts and had every right to work out at sunrise for the track season was just around the corner. Their dad, and also self appointed coach, always accompanied them through their paces and he noticed us football players unlawfully practicing. Being an educated man, and an adversary of football, he realized the immorality of what was transpiring and threatened to blow the whistle on Lucky to the UIL.
So, one cold morning after a week of workouts, Lucky gathered us all around and without going into any detail he told us to lie for him. He just said that if any stranger ever came snooping around and asked us what we were doing, for us to answer that we were working out for track, and under no circumstances were we to mention football. I never saw any strangers and never heard anything else, but I swore to myself to tell the whole truth if anybody ever approached me. To no avail, the morning sessions continued without a hitch.
Arising every day before the sun did and often times scraping ice off my windshield to go run behind that stupid truck was starting to get old. So when February rolled around and baseball try-outs began, I was long gone from football. But it wasn't that simple, for first I had to go talk to Coach Cox to ask if I could re-join since I'd quit the year before. It wasn't a real heavy discussion. He just asked me if I was serious about playing and that if I ever quit him again that I'd regret it the rest of my life. I swore that I'd have no reason to quit that year and I was in.
Marc didn't bother to try out that year, for he knew Lucky wouldn't allow him to make the team anyway, but another would be varsity football player did make the team. Ronald David, whose fine blonde hair gave him the look of a beach-bum/surfer, had been my friend all through sub-varsity football. He'd never made varsity football, but if Lucky had known that he would need him the next year as a starter, Ronald would never have played baseball.
Baseball turned out to be a great release. For one, I only made JV but that was fine with me. Since most emphasis was trained on football, not many cared or worried if the varsity baseball team won or lost, so even lesser expectations were put on JV. We just went out and played for fun and I was under no pressure to follow in Babe Ruth's footsteps. I handily started in center field and maintained a respectable .305 batting average, except for one slumping period when I struck out quite frequently at the plate.
After one of those strike outs in Wharton, I let flee an angry curse in frustration. "Aw fuck it!!" The umpire begged my pardon so I repeated it for him. "Fuck it!" Upon this clarification he swiftly booted me out of the game. I had to leave the dug-out and watch the game from atop the front fender of the bus. If that would have been a football game, I would certainly have had to answer to Lucky the next day but nothing was ever said about it, except for the praises of my teammates. The only contact that I had with Lucky during the season was when he saw me at a home game knock a homer out of the park, and the next day he lovingly referred to me as Casey Stengle.
Ricky, my friend since 8th grade, had long since discontinued playing football but now was one of my baseball teammates. His season was shortened by a too-hot-to-handle grounder that he caught right square in the eye. The bone was shattered around the socket and surgery was required. The eye was saved but playing was out of the question, and he stayed on as a manager. There was extensive swelling and he had quite a shiner but his humor kept him smiling through it all. As did he keep us smiling through the year with that same sense of humor. Rick and I had always been friends and now as teammates we were in each other's company a lot. While hanging around off the field with Marc and Robert, Rick would bring up the subject of getting high on marijuana.
I was repelled by the thought for I knew that it was only used by no-count individuals and besides, as an athlete, it was just incomprehensible. As he talked more I listened more. A lot of his information was contrary to things I'd usually heard. He pointed out other guys that got high and were still top athletes of Lamar, who functioned perfectly well and hadn't gone insane from smoking a few joints. But I knew that it was immoral and basically wrong. I began to appeal to my conscience.
I no longer knew absolutely what was right or wrong. I'd grown up learning a certain etiquette about sports, but every concept and idea I held to, was turning out to be false. It was like some great deception had been planned against me and I was being told the ugly truth by a fiendish grinning jester, named Bill Lucky. Dedication, persistence, honesty, desire, sacrifice, punctuality, wholesomeness, they were all cruel hoaxes, for those words held no truths. I'd started young, planning my life on those ideals and I was destined for triumph; there was no possible way to fail. And even if my physical stature lacked, I'd make up the difference with my bigness of heart like David slaying Goliath.
But I'd failed terribly. I was a pesky bug that the giant system merely stepped on, to be rid of. I'd never been told as a youth, "break any rule and do whatever it takes to win at all costs," but now I knew it as the truth. Wining was all there was; but I had lost. So if right was wrong and wrong was right, then give me wrong from here on out. If I'd been such a fool and so badly confused wrong and right, then I couldn't humiliate myself any more or be a bigger fool if I got high on pot. And I'd been told the sensation was so blissfully tranquil that it was too tempting to pass up.
I told Rick that finally I wanted to try and in a few days he scored a lid and we ventured out to the refuge of a country road. There was nothing in sight but a star filled sky and the flat, black horizon of the rice fields that surrounded us. I nervously watched as Rick rolled the joints, like a kid smoking grapevine in my tree house, I knew it was wrong but felt no guilt. I puffed, inhaled, sputtered, and coughed and I don't know for sure if any THC actually reached my brain, but the suspense of indulging in such a devious ritual was electrifying in itself. So I took my first step downhill according to the establishment, but I felt for the first time that my life was real.
Marijuana offered no false hopes of greatness, or recognition, that obliged me to prove my worth to partake in it; it merely soothed my tortured soul from the painful betrayal of football. I enjoyed getting stoned, and didn't turn into some quivering, babbling, three headed monster. It slowed things down and gave me a chance to catch my breath and observe small things as I did as a child. It dulled the harsh world around me and exposed its superficiality. It allowed this bad-ass football player to soften his tone. I liked myself more when I was stoned and wanted to share it. Before long all my close friends were turning on, Marc, James, David, Robert, Bearden, Ronald David and new friends were made with whom I shared that same interest. I was a typical weekend user who couldn't even roll a joint, and I practiced extreme caution at first.
Spring training had already started before baseball had ended and I regretted the few days missed because I'd be that much less accustomed to my pads. Those humid spring days could suffocate a person with the heavy oppressive air and in full pads it could be a sweaty inferno. Our practice field was a tropical sauna. The grass was lush green, dotted with fire-ant mounds, and drainage ditches stood full and stagnant, teaming with giant mosquito larvae. But according to coach Lucky, "Everything is lovely, darlings" with 2 or 3 mosquitoes tapping their suckers into his cauliflower nose, without being swatted away.
I fared no worse than the others as we all melted equally in those pads as the heat waves glimmered off the sizzling turf. Lucky was determined to stress basic fundamentals and therefore we ran a lot of drills. Grass drills, blocking and tackling drills and Coach Lucky's favorite, the blood drill. Thus gaining him the nickname "BLOOD DRILL BILL." One man takes on the whole team paired up in two lines coming at him alternately to deliver their best shots. If you can't stand your ground and fend them off they'll trample you down unmercifully and that's when Lucky gets excited. I always had a knack for looking sharp in drills and my spring training was looking good, but as usual Lucky wouldn't show his starting teams. Everybody worked out for one of two equal teams, the blue and gray that would scrimmage at the completion of spring training.
I planned on starting next year at nose guard, and did so for my blue team. The gray team also had its starter but I knew I could whip him if given the chance to play first string. Lucky even gave me some positive vibes, as he kept some of us lineman after practice one day. He was running us in 2 on 1 blocking drills and I felt extremely frisky fighting off blocks and reading the flow. I couldn't be blocked that particular day and Coach Lucky commented, as if he'd never seen me play before, "Why Finlayson! You're tougher than a woodhauler's ass!" I took it in stride, but secretly I floated on cloud 9. I knew he'd said it with sincerity and it was his highest compliment. Like a battered child I still longed for approval from an abusive parent. Despite all the bitterness his praise felt good.
It didn't last for long though. The sun was low in the sky as he set us to running sprints, and we knew we'd be in the locker room soon. Robert, who'd left football during the season due to his broken collar bone, was ready to come back. He came out to the practice field that day to solicit Lucky into letting him return. Robert approached Lucky as he watched us run, and before he could finish his request, Lucky blurted out, "Can't you see I'm busy working, I ain't got time to talk to you. Besides you don't need to be out here anyway!" Robert left dejected and never returned to football. Lucky toppled his lifelong dreams just like that, cause he didn't want to be bothered.
I was furious, for Robert was my friend and I knew of his love for the game and we had shared the dream of playing varsity together since eighth grade and now it was over. Robert was dispensable though. He was as tough as they came, but his size and background didn't fit into Lucky's plans for winning. His parents weren't influential and wouldn't cause trouble. Or was it that Lucky just wanted him out of the way? Robert had been one of the more outspoken crusaders for Warren's cause of injustice and was unappreciated greatly by the coaches. Whatever the reason, Robert was now conveniently gone.
The blue-gray scrimmage was held on a Friday evening in mid May inside Mustang Stadium. Lucky wanted to get a look at everybody, so a lot of substituting took place and a person couldn't get a good rhythm going. You'd get in for a series and just start to warm up and get a feel for the game and, zip, you'd be substituted for by another cold body. I made some tackles and didn't get whipped too badly by anybody and I figured I'd looked OK. Upon reviewing the films though, I seemed to stand around a lot but it was the first time I'd seen myself in a motion picture and everything seemed out of sync. I received little praise but at least I wasn't viciously degraded as some poor souls were. I don't even remember which team won or lost, I only cared that in a few weeks summer vacations would begin and I'd be free of Coach Lucky's ignorance for three months.
End of Chapter 15
CHAPTERS 1 2 3 4
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