by Bud Finlayson
Varsity at Last, Injury, and Romance
I bid farewell to Dave and the rest of the crew on a Friday afternoon in mid August, for two-a-days were scheduled to start the following Monday at 7:00am sharp. That summer I'd been more of a stranger to the field house than before but now had arrived my senior year and varsity ball and I was ready to reap the gains of my previous years of hard work, sacrifice, and long hours invested.
I'd also been a stranger to the barber's shears and I boasted a flowing mane halfway down my neck that curled up behind my ears. It failed by a long ways to reach my shoulders, the standard desired length of a bonified "Longhair", but it grossly violated the Lamar dress code. The code stated that along with being clean and neat, the hair could not touch a regular shirt collar nor could it touch the ears, and sideburns could be no lower than the bottom of the ear lobes. So, on a Saturday prior to two-a-days when Coach Lucky laid eyes on Marc and Robert (who'd let their hair grow too) and me. He didn't like it. Highly unamused, he announced, "Yall better get that shit cut, baby dolls, or they won't let your cute little asses into the school house." We ignored him for we knew that until school started, he could do nothing about it.
That afternoon we had smoked 3-4 joints and were in no state of mind to let his crap bother us. Being stoned, we had no serious intentions of working out. Robert had not wanted to come due to Lucky's indifference to him playing. "Why ruin a good high being around that SOB," he said. We persuaded him though, saying, "C'mon man, it's a free country. He can't stop you from going. We'll just go play some pass." So we found ourselves out in the middle of Mustang Stadium lazily passing footballs back and forth, while Lucky and a few of his assistants watched on, sitting in the shade up against the field house wall, underneath the MUSTANG COUNTRY sign. There was movement and activity of varsity hopefuls trying to impress Lucky. Sounds echoed all around us, feet clattering up new aluminum bleachers, iron on iron clangs of weights banging together and the huffing and puffing of short breathed sprinters.
Robert suggested that I punt him a few, so he jogged down to the goal line closest to Lucky. Marc set up at mid-field to snap the ball to me at the opposite 40-yard line. I'd never punted stoned before but undisputedly I would be the varsity punter and I could use the practice. The first ball Marc zipped back to me was to set me into motion. When the ball hit my hands it was like throwing a switch, and a pre-programmed list of commands instructed my body to perform as a robot working flawlessly on an assembly line. I became a punting machine. Arms fully extended, ball cradled softly parallel to ground, laces up, head down, start stride left-right-left, swing leg, release ball level, lock knee, point toe, boom, and follow through.
I watched in amazement without consciously thinking, as my leg swung pendulum perfect time after time and the balls shot upwards in impeccable spirals without fail and repeatedly soared 60 yards down field. We had three balls and I told Marc to keep them coming, "hut;" catch, stride, drop, swing, boom; "hut," catch, stride, drop, swing, boom; "hut," catch, stride, drop, swing, boom. Robert kept backing up till he found himself at the back of the end zone. After about 35 incredibly consistent 45 to 60 yard punts, we called it a day. Exiting the field, we had to walk past Coach Lucky who'd been watching the exceptional punts. He sat up straight and with excitement in his voice said, "Oooh baby, you sho' looked good. Punter extraordinaire!! You keep that up and my problems are over. You're my first-string punter and you've got to produce." "Yeah, it felt pretty good today," I replied.
Boy, did I love to punt a football. I could punt a ball as far as a pro, but I'd always been prone to inconsistency, which was mostly mental. My punting had never been so automatic and concise as that day. Had the marijuana made a difference? I do believe it relaxed me just enough and cleared my conscious thoughts to let my body simply perform its task, uninhibited by emotion, that it had learned since childhood punting in the backyard with Uncle Chuck.
Punting can be like hitting a baseball. A muscle bound brute can swing like a madman, but if the ball doesn't strike the sweet part of the bat, it has no carry to it. A football also has a sweet spot. If it is hit just right, you know the instant it leaves your foot, as it spirals upward, seemingly propelled by a rocket booster, and then at the crest of its flight the nose turns over and it continues to travel forward while downward, too. I had the mechanics down pat but my emotions tended to be pumped up more times than not and I usually forced the ball by trying too hard. Regardless of my success under the influence, I wouldn't dare smoke pot before a game. I made a personal pledge to give up getting high for the duration of the upcoming season.
Bright and early that Monday morning, I went through no suspense hoping to find my locker where it never was to be, for that year I knew it was in the varsity dressing room. The atmosphere was festive with shouts of encouragement, new unabashed optimism of going all the way, and smells of never used equipment drifting about the room. My locker was there alright, but suspiciously it was the one located adjacent to Lucky's office door. He could easily watch my every move and hear what I said while sitting comfortably behind his own desk. Just for extra measure, he used his son Bobby as a spy, placing his locker right next to mine to report of any subversive, negative, non-football talk coming from my lips. Lucky would be keeping a very close eye on me that year.
There would be no contact those first two weeks before school started so only socks, jocks, T-shirts, shorts, and cleats were issued that first day. Everything was laid out brand new, folded neatly, not wadded and wrinkled like on sub-varsity teams. I dressed with pride for it felt good to be a part of the varsity, part of the elite. I would try to put my past behind me and be the best football player I could be. Those practices were mostly conditioning and strength building like off season but there was a more upbeat pace to them. Next season was right there and then, not a year away. There would be no more off-seasons after those three months of football and most of us seniors would never don a football uniform again. It was time to let it all hang out and go for broke.
Mental conditioning was stressed through skull sessions and dry running through plays half-speed to memorize the numerous strategies. I was being drilled at defensive nose guard and on specialty teams. Several juniors were trying for the nose guard spot but I felt confident I could prevail. As a senior I stood only 5'10" and weighed 170 which was small for a 4-A high school varsity lineman. I had the experience and quickness and couldn't wait till we put on the pads to prove I belonged at first string nose guard. It would have to wait one more week though, until school started. Five more two-a-days to go and it would be time to strap on our war bonnets and start getting serious, for our first game would be in two short weeks.
That second week of two-a-days was more of the same with maybe a little more emphasis on the mental game. We were rehearsing plays on offense and defense, and the specialty teams were coming together as a unit, learning their assignments. "We got to execute without a hitch! Nobody gets to State without no smarts upstairs!" Lucky would constantly remind us. Thursday morning of that week, we ran through different phases of the kicking game on the dew soaked turf of the stadium field, with wet blades of Bermuda grass sticking to everything that touched it. Of course I was on the punt team, as punter, but I failed to be chosen for the other special teams except for the on-sides kick. Actually, that was encouraging, for those teams usually consisted of aggressive, under-sized, non-starters, and I fit the description perfectly, unless they'd planned on starting me. My hopes for first string noseman were strengthened, but first we had to run through the on-sides kick a few times.
An on-sides kick is 99% ineffective and seldom used. But in desperate situations when time is running out in a game, sometimes that 1% chance can turn a defeat into a victory, and Lucky wanted us ready for anything. So, I lined up on the left side of the field, and was assigned, along with Johnny Juarez, to go after the ball. Johnny was a junior that should have been a senior, built stocky and quick, and was always smiling. He was extremely strong for his short stature and carried with him the confidence of a much larger person. Only the two of us,would go for the recovery, while the rest of the team would fire off down field pretending toshield off an imaginary receiving team from the ball.
Davila, Lucky's pampered place kicker, sent the ball spinning on its point like a top the necessary 10 yards and it then began to curve back towards us like a boomerang. I got to the dancing pigskin first and methodically, as I'd been taught since my youth, I slid feet first beside the ball, like a base runner sliding into second base, poised to draw the ball into the safety of my bosom and throw my bent knee over the top, to protect it. But, as the ball bounced sharply off my chest and shot away from my grasp, I laid in the fetal position for a split second and thought, 'What a stupid way to go after a fumble,'...then, BAM!
FINLAYSON! FINLAYSON! I heard my name echoing angrily somewhere outside of my consciousness. Confused, I rolled my eyes skyward and there, hovering above me, was Coach Johnson's red face commanding me to get up, "C'mon Finlayson! Get up! Get off the fucking ground! It's nasty! It's dirty! It's got germs on it!" I realized that I was at football practice and laid out on the ground, the most forbidden of sins.
My head and neck felt like a dump truck had just driven over the top of them. My body, faithfully following instinct, rolled over and began the struggle to rise, even though my head lagged behind trying to sort everything out. Kneeling, but bowed like a Muslim praying to Mohammed, I pushed upward with arms and legs as hard as I could but I couldn't lift my leaden head. Again and again I strained with trembling muscles but my head wouldn't budge, as if Lilliputian men had staked my locks solidly to the field. I must have looked like an ostrich, trying unsuccessfully, to pull his head out of the sand.
For the first time in my life, l honestly could not get off the ground under my own power. Coach Johnson, who'd been looking on disgustedly, finally said, "OK. OK. Just lay there like a goddamn pussy, you pantywaist. If you'd caught the damn ball, you wouldn't have got your head kicked in." Along with confusion and terrific pain, l felt guilt from missing the ball, and ignoring my conditioned pride I relaxed wonderfully, sloshing down limply on my side and l heard Coach Johnson halfheartedly tell somebody to go get Doc.
As the trainer was summoned, Lucky sauntered over and asked Coach Johnson if I'd gotten my bell rung. Johnson said, "Yeh, got kicked in the head." Lucky said bitterly, "Laying like a snake in the grass for a little 'ole bump on the head? C'mon Bud!," Juarez kneeled beside me and added, "Sorry man. You OK?" I still didn't know exactly how I was but I answered with the customary, "Yeh, I'm OK." Montoya arrived from the training room where he'd been treating Bobby Lucky's "bad knee," and he shooed Juarez away from me. "What's a matter sweetheart?" he asked, (In reference to my untrimmed hair). "I don't know. It's my neck," I weakly answered. "Got kicked in the head by Juarez," Coach Johnson informed Doc.
Lucky had already moved the team ten yards down the field, and was running the on-sides kick again, with a new replacement in my spot, as Doc helped me to my feet. I rose successfully that time but with the effort and grace of a ninety year old man. My neck burned with unbearable pain, as Montoya poked and examined. He tried to bend and twist it, but my traumatized muscles clenched tightly and my neck held rigid, like my spine was a two inch iron pipe wired to an electrical current. The burning would intensify ten-fold with movement or manipulation of the neck, as if voltage in the wires was being sharply increased. I stood very stiffly, trying not to move my neck while working to balance my head, as if it were a bowling ball perched, unattached, atop my pipe neckbone. Doc figured that it was a severe strain, nothing more serious.
Montoya accompanied me off the field as my legs responded sluggishly to commands from my brain to move. The solid field undulated under my feet as if I walked upon a giant water bed in a dream, without consciously using my legs. I was laid face down on the padded training table, where Bobby Lucky had been applying ultra-sound to his knee; with a sizable bag of ice on the back of my neck. An hour later when practice ended I had to be helped back up to a vertical position as my neck felt even more numb and my head more weighted.
What had happened was at last related to me in detail. As I slid and muffed the recovery, Juarez was right behind me and he immediately went after the loose ball but my head happened to be in the way. He dove over me and hit the back of my head with the top of his knee and lower thigh and my neck whipped sharply forward. It seemed like not such a terrible collision but I'd never experienced such debilitating pain.
I gingerly made my way home and tried to rest for the afternoon workout, but no matter how I laid or sat, I couldn't find a comfortable position. The throbbing, burning pain persisted all day and I pitifully labored through the second practice like a three legged dog, favoring my neck but trying not to show it. I could bear the pain running dummy plays but if it had been full contact I doubt if I could have endured. That night I tossed and turned for hours before sleeping but once I dozed off, I no longer felt pain. I began to relish the thought of sleep, for it was the only time void of pain. Friday I struggled through the two workouts with every move a chore. Lucky watched me with suspicion but couldn't reproach me for I was out there trying, even though I was obviously not a hundred percent. I was thankful that I'd have the whole weekend to recuperate before we started school and working out in full pads on Monday.
Saturday we reported to the field house for pads and uniforms to be issued for team pictures. Having the varsity jersey and pants passed to me was a revered moment. The mesh polyester jersey was lightweight and tight fitting, made of brand new fibers supple and stretchy, not shrunken and discolored from countless years of washings. The satin navy blue pants clung tightly, without a wrinkle, supporting firmly our muscled legs. And exclusive to varsity, baseball type leggings and white shoes were also handed out. My only complaint was my number, 76, worn the previous year by a tackle that I never cottoned to; the one Robert had broken his collar bone on. I would have preferred a number in the sixties, but with Coach Johnson in charge of equipment you took what you got, not what you wanted.
Johnson gave me a helmet that was a size seven and I told him it was too small. He said that I'd have to make it fit because it was all that he had left. I tried it on immediately for it was so beautiful. It was brand new, just taken out of the box, and was still enveloped in a plastic bag. Removing the bag released that intoxicatingly marvelous smell of newly molded plastic that I had never experienced in sub-varsity years. The clear shell made the metallic, silver-blue paint inside shine like a precious gem, and the horse-shoe insignia stood out boldly with ner a blemish or scratch.
Inside, the new foam padding was a brilliant white, soft and inviting. I started to slip it on but its bad fit was apparent at once. The force necessary to get my head in, put pressure on my neck and the pain was almost unbearable. In front, it rode atop my forehead, instead of down above my brow and the ear pads squeezed my ears, folded and crimped flat instead of resting comfortably below them. I told Coach Johnson that it felt a little tight and he pounded on top using his fist as a hammer. I nearly dropped to my knees from the shock on my weakened neck and he told me that it would fit fine once I got my damned hair cut.
I felt defiant that pictures would be taken and my hair still remained long and the coaches couldn't make me cut it yet. So with flowing locks and my varsity uniform, I proudly took the field to line up for the team group picture. Then as solely a varsity privilege, we took individual photos, with a professional photographer telling us how to pose. Traditionally, a varsity photo shows a scowling, serious, figure; but I instinctively smiled, no longer wanting to be mean.
All day Sunday l lounged in front of the TV trying to rest my neck and of course there was pro football. I watched the contact, with special regard to the neck, and the thought of going full speed in full pads the next day was not reassuring. With the helmet and face-mask as a player's primary weapon, and my neck as sensitive as it was, it frightened me to imagine tolerating such blows as the ones I was watching. Some of the tension and swelling had subsided, but to rotate my head naturally was still an impossibility. Any attempted movement produced an audible grinding sensation like two giant mill stones rubbing together, with a constant, burning, electric-like shock. While I didn't look forward to Monday as the first hitting practice, it was also the opening day of school and I decided to challenge the system by leaving my hair uncut.
Hair length had become a big issue with everybody, not only athletes. It was a sign of the times; bucking authority and exercising one's freedom to "do your own thing." One of our favorite arguments was, "if God had meant for men to have short hair, then he would have made it to stop growing." We would also state that Jesus Christ had long hair, for most teachers, principals and coaches were God fearing souls and wouldn't dispute Him but were nonetheless, uneasy at hearing of God having any association with long hair. Where as I burred my head in the eighth grade out of dedication to the sport, now I knew that dedication was worthless and hair length didn't make a person bad, or lessen his physical prowess. Besides, it was a way to defy Lucky's oppressive bull. As a winning college coach once said, "If short hair made young men better athletes, then Army or Navy would be the number one team in the nation every year."
Coaches were posted at every entrance of school that morning to inspect students for possible dress code violations and send them to detention in the auto mechanics shop. Marc and I were together and we elected to try Coach Cox's door, figuring he'd be easy to slip by, knowing of his respect for us since our fine freshman season. He greeted us with a sly grin and his elastic waist-band slacks hiked up over his belly button and reported to me, "Tiger. That ain't gonna' get it! Bud, you know that hair's too long and Marc, them sideburns need a trim." So, instead of going to homeroom we found ourselves in the vocational building's auto garage fiddling with screwdrivers and waiting to be dealt with individually by our assistant principal, former football coach, Mr. Watson.
With over a hundred guys in there it was going to take a while to see every violator and I was about halfway back in line. There were about fifteen football players altogether, five of us varsity. Shortly after the first period bell rang, Coach Lucky appeared and singled out all us gridironers, "Ain't this a pretty little bunch! It don't look too good for the team to have you varsity athletes in here." And with that he called my other four teammates, "Marc, David, Ronald(David), Glasscock.(A junior who had made varsity as a sophomore) Ya'll come with me." He then addressed Watson, "I'll take care of these four personally, Mr. Watson." Watson replied, "That'll be fine, Coach, but what about Finlayson?" Lucky answered, "I think he's better off in here. You take care of him for me."
Lucky got them into school before the end of first period. Marc and David shaved there in the auto shop bathroom, and cosmetology students trimmed Ronald's and Glasscock's hair under Lucky's direction. I wasn't even good enough to get the special treatment others got for being on varsity. I felt very unimportant.
During second period I was called to see Watson. He had the demeanor of a drill sergeant with short black hair combed straight back and oiled heavily. He told me that my hair length didn't abide by the code and read to me from the student handbook, "The hair must be kept clean and neat at all times ...etc., etc." I thought that over and replied, "I may well be in violation for length, but you too could be considered guilty for that filthy grease in your hair. That's not my idea of clean." He smirked evilly and informed me, "You'd better not concern yourself with me, you'd better start thinking about what you're going to do to get into school." He gave me the option of detention or a haircut, and I settled on the latter. I was released and drove the five miles home where my mom trimmed the back and a little around the ears and I was checked into school after lunch with only one period till football.
Coach Lucky awaited us outside the field house in a state of euphoria, for today we would begin to hit. Like a cowboy anticipating a hot bath, clean sheets, a bottle of whiskey and a good whore at the end of a cattle drive, his excitement was unrestrainable. There was a spring in his step as he anxiously paced to and fro, "Alright! Alright! Alright Baby! WE GONNA' DO SOME HITTIN' TO-DAY! Everything is loverly! The sun is shinning! The birds are singing! And we gonna strap on the pots and separate the men from the boys! YESSS SIREE!!" When he saw me he stopped short and fell silent, as he sternly inspected my haircut. I could tell he didn't approve but he let it go that day, assuring me that it would be cut again before the season began. He mainly wanted to know if I was ready to hit. Of course I told him yes, even though I was doubtful, for a football player never admits consciously to any weakness, no matter how severe.
Inside the locker room there was more of the same emotion buzzing around. The yell guys and coaches supplied the noise as everyone suited up, with each one's own expectations of the afternoon showing through. Some grinned or even laughed outright at the anticipated pleasure of knocking heads, while others were more deliberate and composed, but regardless, all carried a distinct coldness in their eyes. I would usually have been grinning but the pain and doubt that gripped me inside wouldn't allow it. Even my pads went on reluctantly as I stiffly worked my way into them. With one more deep breath, I forced my helmet on as far as it'd go and departed from the field house.
Still right outside the door, Coach Lucky took one look at me and announced that my helmet didn't fit. I told him that I already knew so, but that there were no larger sizes left according to Coach Johnson. Without hesitating, he headed straight to the door I'd just exited and said, "Come with me. We'll see about that." He stopped at the equipment cage and told Coach Johnson, "Bud needs a bigger headgear." Johnson wavered, "But coach, I don't think we ha..." and Lucky sharply cut in, "Find him another hat. He can't wear this one." Johnson turned and scanned over a few helmets hanging neatly on the wall and shortly located a seven and three-eighths which was a perfect fit. Coach Lucky agreed and said, "Now you're ready to hit!" I felt like hitting alright; giving Coach Johnson a punch in the nose, but a hateful stare was all that he got.
The emotional high of just standing in place on the varsity practice field, ready to perform routine calisthenics, had my adrenaline flowing, and the torturous throbbing in my neck was barely detected by my soaring consciousness. I could only savor the ecstasy of being suited up as a varsity member and knowing I'd made it to stay. Despite past letdowns and slim hopes of future football, I was where I wanted to be right then and it felt good.
I briskly maneuvered through the preliminary exercises as I'd done over the previous five seasons but the neck bridge exercise was almost unbearable. The burning and grinding in my neck couldn't be ignored as I suspended my body upon the three points of my head and two feet. Then I rocked myself to and fro, using my head as a pivot, to strengthen the neck, but I moved cautiously as the pain held me back. Damn my neck! As I arose from the neck bridge, it was hurting more so and frustration served to diminish the glory of being on varsity, for the reality was that the hitting started right after grass drills and I knew I was way below a hundred percent.
The ninety degree August heat added to my discomfort as I struggled through the grass drills with the agility of Frankenstein. The forward rolls gave me the most trouble for I couldn't tuck my head and make a tight ball of myself. I flopped over miserably with the inefficiency of a square wheel trying to be rolled. And most drills, like Bear crawl, I couldn't see where I was going because I couldn't arch my neck and look up. Lucky had been watching but only shouted encouragement, "C'mon Budreaux! C'mon Budreaux!" for I was usually bringing up the rear.
Lucky had worked himself into a mild frenzy along with most everybody else as the workout moved to its climactic hitting drills. I'd normally have been sharing in the revelry for I had immensely enjoyed hitting and roughing it up, but that day I was quiet for I didn't know how I'd perform. As everybody figured, we went straight to Lucky's favorite, the blood drill. I hung back in line as a sophomore hopeful volunteered to go first, and that tickled Lucky even more. He took his best shots before I got to him so I was able to protect myself by popping him with a forearm and glancing off to the side, keeping my neck safe. I kept that form until it was my turn to take on everybody else.
In the hitting position of a linebacker, back straight, butt low, I fended off the attackers of equal size by meeting their shoulder pads with mine and knocking them aside, but the big guys were different. Their height didn't allow me to meet them shoulderpad to shoulderpad but rather my face mask met their shoulder pads and a forearm and therefore my neck sustained some formidable blows. I recoiled from the contact as my head was shoved back time after time, and the pain would shoot farther down my spine. Coach Lucky saw my reluctance to hit and called me on it, "Finlayson, you turned yellow or can you just not go?! You used to be tougher than a wood hauler's ass but right now you look about as tough as a pimple on a tough man's butt!"
So with new determination I tried to finish the onslaught and return myself to wood hauler's ass status but it was futile. Each collision weakened me and as they came from both sides I had no time to recover from each blow, to the succeeding ones. When the drill ended, the grimace of pain didn't leave my face and my wobbly legs were barely able to hold me up. I worried that something serious was wrong with my neck, for I'd had strained and twisted necks before but they didn't handicap me the way that one did.
Coach Lucky kept me aside as the others moved on to two on one drills, "Baby, if you can't go, there's no sense in you being out here." He called Montoya over, "Doc! Find out who Bud's doctor is and tell him we need some neck X-rays." Boy, was Lucky getting soft by actually sending me to a real doctor, or had Warren's death made him think twice after all?
So with practice not even halfway over, I was headed for the showers and to a fate that seemed filled with uncertainty. If something really was wrong with my neck, then what might it be that hurt so bad? Would they be able to fix it and what would it take? But even worse, what if it was just a sprain and I couldn't hit because I had lost my balls? Maybe I really had turned yellow. All that went through my head as I showered and when I was dressed in my street clothes Montoya had already talked to my doctor. I was to go immediately to his office for the X-ray.
Dr. Beavers had been our family doctor since we moved from Tyler four years previously, and we knew of him as a regular member of our church, and therefore a fairly familiar person to entrust my fate to. He successfully took my tonsils out when I was fifteen, so I felt perfectly comfortable with his abilities as a doctor.
Shortly after my arrival, I was given the X-ray by a technician and after a half hour wait I was called in to see Dr. Beavers. He had the picture of my skull and upper spine on a viewing screen and after salutations he began to feel around on my neck and shoulders, pressing at certain precise points. He told me to move my head, forward and back, side to side, but he didn't aide me as Montoya had by forcing it. He noticed my almost complete lack of range of motion and asked me about pain and I described as best I could how agonizing it was. After another quick feel and a glance at the X-ray, he announced, "The X-ray shows no abnormalities so I can confirm that it is a severe strain, but it's also accompanied by intense muscle spasms." That didn't sound too bad. All I wanted to know was how long before it stopped hurting; and was it alright to hit. Adamantly, the first thing he said was no contact whatsoever and maybe in two to three weeks, depending on how treatment went, I could start to hit again.
My conscience was cleared, for indeed there was something wrong. I didn't understand exactly what a muscle spasm was, but it absolved me of any cowardice, and it didn't sound so bad as to make me miss too much action. In two weeks I could be ready for the second game of the season against Lufkin, but if not, undoubtedly I'd be ready for district. I was sent home with a collar type brace like a whiplash victim would use and told to wear it at all times and to remove it only when lying down. Its support seemed to lessen the pain, but it was awkward after a while. Dr.Beavers also prescribed pills and set up therapy sessions for me to attend every morning before school at the local hospital. The one where Warren died.
At seven thirty sharp, the next morning, I arrived at the hospital and was led to a windowless therapy room. A therapist sat me down in a chair. Above the chair hung a hook attached to a metal boom which slanted down out of an opening in the ceiling. He then removed my neck brace and strapped a heavy cotton harness under my chin and around the back of my head and hung it from the hook. I was going to receive intermittent traction the therapist informed me, "Just relax and let the machine do the work." He flipped a switch and the boom began to slowly raise, pulling my head upward and painfully stretching my neck. It was hard to relax during that lifting pressure, and I instinctively tightened my neck muscles against the pain. The boom held steady for a few counts at the height of its ascent, and then slowly lowered, releasing the pressure. Then it was back up, to start another cycle, and for the next 20 minutes I endured that up and down, up and down stretching. I imagined it to be some medieval torture and upon finishing my neck felt even worse.
I went stiffly on to school and hadn't anticipated what a big to-do I would cause by showing up in that neck brace. Everybody wanted to know what happened. People that usually wouldn't even bother to tell me "hello," were now flocking around me with their superficial concern. Girls, especially cheerleaders, that wouldn't dare address me in the past; were now eager to give sympathy with their sweet little voices, "Does it hurt real, real bad? I hope you feel better soon!" I resented the newfound popularity for it was only the novelty of the brace that brought it on. Did I have to seriously injure myself to be recognized by my peers? By the time seventh period rolled around, everyone in school knew my neck had a muscle spasm, and I'm sure Lucky did, too.
When Coach Lucky saw me he inquired nervously, "It ain't really too bad is it?" "Well... A muscle spasm? I'm not supposed to hit for a couple of weeks," and I handed him a note from Dr. Beavers that explained everything. He read it with concern and looked up cautiously, "But this don't mean you can't punt, does it?" "I guess not," I offered. Then with conviction I said, "Yeh, I can punt." "Then you best get suited up," he instructed in his normal condescending tone, "This don't give you no vacation." So, I was out on the varsity practice field, lined up for calisthenics like the day before, as if nothing had happened, but the emotion was absent for my courage would not be tested.
The neck bridge was still torture, despite the neck brace wedged into the opening of my shoulder pads. Lucky spied me and about swallowed his wad of Redman as he rushed over, "BUD! What in the hell do you think you're doing!" I raised up on my knees and said, "Neck bridge," a bit perturbed. "Baby, you got a muscle spasm! You don't need to do no neck bridge! All you got to do is punt," he barked out. "I just thought I was doing what I was supposed to. Yesterday you didn't stop me," I informed. "Yesterday I didn't know you had a muscle spasm, either," he admitted plainly.
I removed myself from line and along the out of bounds I punted footballs to the water boy as the remainder of the team continued the regular practice. It was a bit unnatural with the brace on, for I couldn't lower my head to see the ball real well, but instinct guided my foot and I could still spiral them down the field. After about thirty kicks I felt warm and just hung around watching the hitting and listening to play instructions until the punt team would go through its drill, so I could be the punter. At times in the past I'd felt practice was dull or drawn out, but now with lack of involvement and my bum neck the workouts were an exaggeratedly hot, painful bore. I tolerated that lax routine all week, though, up to the Alvin scrimmage on Friday, for it was but a small inconvenience to endure to be a part of the varsity. Every morning I was going to the hospital to have my spine stretched and every time I felt no improvement, but they said it would take time, so I tried to keep the faith.
Something did happen good that week, which lifted my spirits and distracted me from my pain. I learned from Rick, that Lori Levy, one of our Lamar coeds, liked me. I was both elated and reserved by that news. She was one of the best looking girls in school, but her beauty was so mesmerizing that I doubted I could sustain my composure while facing her. Her sandy blond hair hung straight and silkily below her shoulders, blending voluptuously with her healthy olive complexion. She played tennis and her athletic body was firm and well toned, yet amply rounded in the right places; not muscular and hard. I had admired her from afar since I was a freshman and she was an eighth grader, but after four years I still couldn't muster an introduction.
To say I was green when it came to the opposite sex would be an understatement, and that lack of experience didn't help me. Growing up, I got the idea somewhere, that success in football required relentless dedication to the sport alone, and therefore, girls were always a secondary concern. Not that they weren't pleasing to admire, it's just that football was my first love, and I wouldn't jeopardize my dreams by mixing the two. By the time I reached puberty though, I discovered that the two did mix quite well. In fact, you couldn't have one without the other, they both went hand in hand. However, I had also found out that my adeptness at wining girl's affections was no better than if I were to try wooing a fence post.
In Texas high schools, the most sure-fire love potion for any young lad is to merely don a football uniform, especially a varsity one, and girls become spellbound with passion. For Texas high school males, football is an orchestrated mating ritual. As a dominant male of an animal species performs acts of prowess by fighting off weaker suitors to gain the right of mating with receptive females to assure survival of the strongest bloodlines, so too does a high school male. His stage is a football field. There he can display his strength and virility against his opponents in front of hundreds of females, as from the bleachers they arouse themselves with the eroticism of this gridiron foreplay. An all-district standout, especially if he is a quarterback or ball carrier, is unlikely to retain his virginity throughout a season.
I didn't really care why or how, just knowing she liked me was enough. Two days after getting the news I still hadn't made a move. Rick prodded me to do something, "Just walk up to her in the hall and say 'Hi'. There'll be nothing to it, but if you wait too long she might think you don't like her and it'll be too late." I knew it was up to me. The morning of the Alvin scrimmage I gathered all my courage as she stood talking to her friends in-between first and second period and I came up from behind, squeezed her on the shoulder and said, "Hi." She turned back and upon seeing me, she smiled coquettishly and returned my "Hi." Her smile melted all my tension and we exchanged some high school chit-chat, vowing to see each other later and talk some more.
I walked away from there with the most lighthearted adrenaline rush I'd ever experienced. It felt even better than knocking heads on the football field. I did have the scrimmage to go to, but I would only be along for the ride since a scrimmage has no kicking game. And besides, Lori's smile was more pleasant to think about that day. I got to see that smile a few more quick times between classes, then it was out to the field house and on the bus to Alvin.
We looked sharp against the Yellowjackets(Alvin) coming away with a 4-1 touchdown advantage, but they were 3-A and weren't supposed to be any kind of a threat to us. I stood in my blue jeans and number "76" jersey and watched the varsity nose guard play and wondered if I'd ever get another shot. Lucky was in good spirits and talking was permitted during the post-game supper at an Alvin restaurant. Standard fare was served; chicken fried steak covered with cream gravy, mashed potatoes, string beans, rolls and iced tea. I felt the role of a true 'Chicken fry' that night, for that was the label put on bench warmers who know they will never play, but they stay on the team anyway, in order to eat that free chicken fried steak dinner every week. Next week I would at least be punting and Lori would be watching from the bleachers.
Saturday at mid-morning I was bold enough to call Lori on the telephone and tell about the scrimmage and how bad it felt not being able to contribute to the team. She understood perfectly because she was a member of the varsity tennis team. So, besides being pretty, I began to know her as compassionate, wise, and talented, different from the immature bimbo cheerleader types that were usually the football groupies. Before saying good-bye, we said we'd see each other in school Monday, after the weekend, which I spent trying to keep off my feet. My neck felt better with a heat pad wrapped around it and my body flat than with the brace on and me walking around.
The week of the first game was upon us and things began to seem magical. Practices would go faster and easier. The school's interior would transform every week with banners, ribbons, streamers, cow bells, balloons and signs; a merriment of blue and gray everywhere. The message of all this festiveness was to destroy and annihilate that particular week's opponent. The week would culminate on Friday afternoon with a pep rally in the gym. The band's music would shake the rafters and bleachers while a sea of waving pompoms and color would dizzy you into a frenzy that could bring the impotent to orgasm. The game followed this exhilarating spree later that evening. We were going to play our biggest rivals, the Dulles Vikings, from Sugarland located just eight miles east on 90 Alternate.
There was going to be a lot of emotion attached to that game. Lucky was winless against them, a perfect 0-4 and he needed a win desperately. It was bad enough not to have brought Lamar a district title after four years but to never beat Dulles was almost a more shameful disgrace. If Lamar's win-loss record came out 1-10, but the one victory was against Dulles, then the season would be considered somewhat of a success and loyal backers at least had that to brag on till the next year. But Richmond-Rosenbergites hadn't had bragging rights for the past four years and it was getting to look hopeless.. That year we were confident, though, for every sub-varsity team I'd been on since eighth grade, had come out victorious against Dulles in football.
I especially sought a win, for Warren's lethal injury had occurred against Dulles a year prior. There was vengeance in my heart and a triumph over them would honorably memorialize the loss of Warren. It was important to win that game for his sake and it was going to be my first varsity affair, the biggest game of my life. Although I still didn't have the go ahead to hit, and only had the punting chores, I would be a part of the team that could restore glory to our town and Warren too.
Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday flew by as emotions climbed towards Friday night. Despite continued therapy and medication, the discomfort of my neck subsisted but I was growing familiar with the pain. Free of the brace, the vertebrae still crunched and ground when I turned my head; and with it in place, I tolerated it as a newly ordained priest would, his binding collar. It simply became part of my required dress. My movements became robot like, for any twisting of my neck ignited the constant burning to a roar, and thusly I was learning how to minimize the inevitable pain. Seeing Lori was the best remedy though, for her mere presence took my mind off the pain. I began walking her to class and feeling that we were the typical high school sweetheart couple and it was a great placebo.
Thursday's practice on the stadium field was light and short. No pads nor hitting, but with lots of whooping, hollering, and hate; phsyching ourselves to demoralize Dulles. Lucky's practice ending pep talk was followed by a rousing climax as was the custom. A team leader stood and belted out, "WHO WE GONNA' BEAT?!!" and that was answered by the whole team in unison, "DULLES!!" Again and again, "WHO?!!," "DULLES!!," "WHO?!!," "DULLES!!," each time louder and louder. Then an ear shattering chorus of yeahs, alrights! and yips exploded from our huddling circle as we scattered to the showers. I brought up the rear walking, deep in thought about Warren.
As I dressed at my locker, Coach Lucky appeared behind me through his office door, "You remember what I said about that long hair don't you Bud?" I well knew that he wanted it cut. "Yeh, I remember," I said. He added very matter of factly, "If it ain't cut by tomorrow, you won't be suiting up for the game." I never thought about going to the local barber shops for they cut only one style and that was too short, so I headed for home. On the way I stopped by Lori's house and we talked outside, in my pickup, parked in her driveway. We made plans to go to the post game dance on Friday, in the old armory building. I'd never been to a dance with a girl, so I would have to rely on my sixth grade ballroom dancing lessons to pull me through. She steadied my doubts by kissing me for the first time and I continued home, feeling no pain.
That evening, my mom cut my hair. She cropped about an inch off the back so that it cleared my shirt collar. But even though it did hang over the brace, I felt safe, for there was no mention of neck brace restrictions in the Lamar dress code. Some more trimming on the sides, above the ears and in front, completed the job. I took a quick shower and then went to bed with my thoughts and without the brace. My mind rushed with vivid images. I saw Warren being hit, his lifeless body, us avenging his death against Dulles, Lori's kisses, me dancing with her, me dressed in a Lamar Mustang varsity uniform, a football spiraling off my foot into the dark night sky, and the failure of a dream.
End of Chapter 17
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