by Bud Finlayson
Unwelcome Home, Surgery, Drugs,and Final Deception
Thursday and Friday, I rested at home, wanting to have enough energy to attend the last varsity football game of the season that Friday in Mustang Stadium. It turned out to be anti-climactic, for they had lost to Brazosport and thus were out of the district race, with two district losses. A win would bring their record to a respectable 7-3, for the fifth year in a row, but it would not erase the humiliation of Lucky's inability to win a big game. I wanted to go, to watch good friends play their last game ever, having shared dreams together over the years of blood, sweat, and toil. But most of all, I wanted for people to see what football had done to me.
I made my way to the student section of the stands but felt out of place. The month and a half away from this scene, seemed more like years, and it had changed me. I felt like the grim reaper amongst an orgy of the living, my presence being unwelcome. My schoolmates attended this game with the gleeful expectancy of a party. A Texas high schooler's idea of prime entertainment, is one of these Friday night affairs. There is an electricity in the air at the prospects of victory on the field, and merriment and flirtation in the stands. The freedom to be out late with the week behind you, cavorting and reveling with the unspoiled optimism of youth. Now into that throng of excitement, I trespass with my hostility and the embarrassment of my physical affliction; the brace like a warning flag to censure me. I was no longer a player on the field, and I recognized then, that with the brace I couldn't be a part of the joviality in the student bleachers either. Feeling shunned. I decided it was a place I didn't wish to be part of anymore.
I sidled over by the main crowd, but still remained separate from either group. Their anger with another hapless season was evident. Lucky was being degraded with merciless cursing and players were jeered for any imperfection. I shared the criticism of Lucky but was sickened by their intolerance of the players, knowing how hard each one was trying to gain the approval of these patrons. All my life I'd envisioned myself as being regarded with a hero's status by such fans, but now hearing their dissatisfaction first hand, I saw how fickle they could be.
I had always held the idealistic perception that high school football fans were bound by an undying loyalty to their respective schools. That they were obligated by an unspoken code of ethics to unconditionally support and encourage their athletes; win or lose alike but it was clearly not so. They wanted nothing less than excellence and a team that could produce victories without fail. The players weren't vulnerable kids, to these greedy fanatics, they were the town's reputation staked against all rival municipalities. I was able to understand better why we, as players, felt so much pressure to be triumphant. They must have crucified me in Lufkin.
The Calhoun Sandcrabs, from Port Lavaca, were the opponents, a team they'd seldom lost to. That night was no different and they coasted to an easy Lamar victory, 19-6, but many bench warming seniors never got to play a down. I really felt for them, especially James, for Lucky didn't even have the compassion to let him play in the last game of his life. Avoiding the risk of further embarrassment by going 6-4 was more important to Lucky than his "bench" players' feelings; like he once said, "I ain't running for no popularity contest. My job is winning football games." I was furious, and at the conclusion, made my way to the field house to ask coach Gorka, my former JV coach who I respected and thought would understand, why James hadn't been put in. He seemed in a hurry, reluctant to stop and talk with me, and said quickly, "It's not up to me. Gotta do what the big man says." He rushed off in Lucky's direction before I could reply, leaving me bewildered that his integrity had eroded enough to yield to the indignity of Lucky's corrupt system, in merely a year's time.
Monday I returned to school, still an outcast of football, but things were different. The season was over and with no accomplishments to boast of, everyone was resigned to putting off hopes until next year. Football was no longer the predominant force behind student life and school activities. I thought the neck brace might stir some strong reaction, but my situation was old news, just like the passing of football season. Not many seemed to notice or care, but it was just as well, for I didn't want to have to tell "What happened?", too many times. People shied from me, for the brace also marked me as being physically impaired, and thus an intimidating blemish on our high school society that was very unforgiving towards anything less than perfect. But my true alienation came from the fact that I'd been hurt playing football.
The brace and my broken neck were symbols of the negative side of football. The side that cripples and destroys; the side that loyal patrons of the game don't like to admit exists. I was a tangible, damaged, "loose end" lingering about after the season, as physical evidence of football's violence. My affliction represented the injustice and ignorance of Lucky's system. I was a visible reminder of his deranged policy to disregard human suffering for the sake of a game, but I was offered no condolences or atoned for befittingly. An honorary varsity letter would have been some compensation, but verily, I was unworthy of that. There were no apologies to me, or admissions that oversights were made, for to do so would be admitting his system's fallibility. He could not confess his shortcomings to someone he'd so adamantly exiled from the team, so I merely remained a disreputable victim.
It wasn't the first time an injury wasn't heeded and turned out life threatening, but unlike Warren, I was a living casualty that couldn't be buried and forgotten. If I would have been the star of the team, the brace would have been proof of my noble sacrifice, and I would have been adored, but since I was banished from the squad I was beheld with disdain. I sensed people's unwillingness to face me, because they couldn't deny that their system had done me wrong. First it maimed me and then it expelled me from its ranks. Like automobile drivers avoiding the beckoning stare of a hitchhiker, their guilt caused them to look the other way when they saw me coming, and I felt like a stinking pile of refuge that a litterbug looks past. I became invisible to them, but I welcomed the anonymity.
I didn't want any part of their superficial, phony, hypocritical world that had given me so much pain. I was shamed by them with my eviction from the team but then my injury made it different, in that they had to have felt a certain accountability for my suffering the broken neck. Nothing was said out-and-out, it was just something I could discern in them, like the burden of guilt on America's conscience for the savage consequence of mangled and deformed, dead bodies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Teachers weren't so quick to call me down on hair length violations because of the brace and I was given great leniency for my six weeks absence from school by not being required to make up missed lessons. I became defiant with that knowledge and acquired the spirit of a rebel.
I procured a gray and blue "L" off of a friend's older brother's letter jacket, and sewed it to the seat of my favorite blue jeans to demonstrate my feelings towards Lamar athletics. I was never called down or reprimanded, although it was seen by coaches and faculty, for they were too intimidated by my broken neck. Only my loyal friends applauded such insurgence. That defiance fueled me and became a chip on my shoulder, just waiting for anyone to question my opposition. I had plenty of ammunition to plead my case, and I'd let them have it with both barrels.
I wore the brace for the following two months, through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, continuing my bitterness and rebellion. Lucky would have been able to truthfully accuse me of not giving a shit about anything anymore, except getting stoned and defying authority. That's one thing high school sports, football especially, taught me, was a healthy disrespect for authority. I'd trusted it and put my faith into it and it used me. It stampeded over me, kicked the life out of me, and left me smothering in a dusty cloud of guilt and self-doubt. I learned that it wasn't desire and dedication that made one a success, it was who you knew and if you were blessed with a potential for winning. There were too many diligent saps like myself, who never accomplished anything, despite their undying perseverance. I'd tried so hard to live right, to succeed at football and failed, that I welcomed the wide, wandering, path of non-righteousness, for at least it made no false promises.
The third week in January the brace was removed and I was back to a soft collar, to be worn another month. I was almost feeling normal again, for the collar was luxurious compared to the brace, and even though the neck muscles were weak, the vertebra didn't crunch and grind during movement. I thought my ordeal was finally coming to an end after five months.
In February, a chair was pulled out from underneath me, as a joke, and I fell for it and landed hard on my rear end onto a parquet floor. I laughed along with everybody else, when it happened, but the sharp burning soon returned, along with the dull grinding. The next day my mom took me to Houston to Dr. Moiel's office, where he took X-rays, confirming that the C-5 vertebra was again out of place. Moiel had a few choice words for the chair puller, but admitted that if my neck hadn't survived that two foot fall, then the vertebra could have popped out with any other similar tumble, and that surgery would be necessary. I was lying in a hospital bed that evening, back in St. Luke's, scheduled for the operation in the morning.
After two injections of morphine, I was out, and Moiel went to work wiring my C-5 & C-6 vertebras together with a length of stainless steel wire. Then he took bone scrapings off my pelvis and packed them in-between to make the two bones fuse together into one. I woke up with tongs back in my head, my neck swollen to double its normal size, and two new incisions in my body. A four inch zipper would adorn the back of my neck, and a three inch one was cut, horizontally into the back of my hip, for the scrapings. In two weeks the swelling was down, and they fitted the brace back on me, took out the tongs, and I was sent home to start all over again. I would be in the brace for three months instead of two.
I had escalated my usage of drugs to a daily basis. With the same intensity I had put into football, I now put into drugs. They became my new impetus in life, and most of my time was devoted to them. They soothed the discomfort of the brace and became my new love affair, for with the ungainly contraption confining me, I completely dismissed any new prospects of romance. I didn't believe any female could be attracted to me, but the drugs were all forgiving and were always there when I needed them. All the guilt of my virtues was stripped away and I began to imbibe as if by prescription, morning, noon, and night; feeling perfectly good about it. I was buying pot regularly, by the pound, to assure a steady supply to curb my addiction that was purely mental. I needed it to endure the chaotic hypocrisies of life.
By the time graduation rolled around, I had been wearing the soft collar for about two weeks, so as I accepted my high school diploma I wore that reminder of my football injury that happened nine months before. I celebrated my departure from Lamar Consolidated High by dropping some blue windowpane acid that night but it wasn't the first time. On Easter vacation to Port Aransas beach, I was introduced to LSD with some Purple Haze and during those hours of "tripping" I was taken to a magical place inside my consciousness, void of the violence of football and broken necks. I wanted to return there more and more and would jump at the slightest mention of a score. I got into Quaaludes, mescaline, and mostly, psychedelic mushrooms for their abundance and availability, growing wild in local cow pastures.. I found I could take that enchanting place with me to school, and it made things much more tolerable. To see Coach Lucky through eyes dilated by a mushroom that I'd picked out of a pile of cow manure, put him into a whole new perspective.
The fusion had held, but since the surgery, my neck and right arm were always burning with a numbness, but I still was able to work again with Dave that summer, for his Dad's construction company. I was given mostly light work, due to my neck, and the rest of the time was spent getting high with Dave. He had friends in Houston that were selling lots of Quaalude powder and I became a frequent buyer. I came to crave that gray powder for under its dosage, I could fall literally flat on my face and feel nothing but the marvelous sensation of feeling nothing. They took all the pain away.
My future plans were to attend college, like I'd been told I was going to do, all my life, but I just saw it as my chance to get away from Texas and all its redneck prejudices. I'd seen a picture of Montana in the World Book Encyclopedia and it seemed like a pristine paradise, perfect to escape to; a snow capped peak, pine forest, and a blue mountain lake. I was accepted to the University of Montana in Missoula and planned to study forestry, envisioning myself in the midst of that wilderness, far away from a football field or the blast of a coach's whistle. But school didn't begin at UM until the end of September, which allowed me the opportunity to attend the Lamar vs Dulles football game in Sugarland, the opening game of the '74 season.
I don't know what made me drive over to Sugarland that night, for I had pretty much eliminated myself as a spectator of football. I hadn't watched any bowl or playoff games; not even the Super Bowl of that past winter, and that fall I'd not seen a game yet, but there I was sitting alone, ready to watch that high school contest. I climbed to the very top row of the Lamar side, to get a complete panoramic view of everything. All the pieces were there, the bands, the cheerleaders, the players, the fans and the signs and streamers, but there seemed to be no emotion, no nervous excitement in the air. The players took the field and began to play, the Mustangs still under Lucky's direction.
l was sadly dismayed by what I saw. I didn't see a skilled team of athletes performing their craft with speed, agility, and precision as I'd witnessed in Rose Stadium during my childhood. They weren't the same gallant warriors of the gridiron that had inspired me to follow their footsteps into battle; as a lad growing up in Tyler. My perspective had changed. I now watched youngsters sloppily trying to execute plays, bumping into each other sluggishly, and lots of standing around. They looked more like seventh graders, than varsity. The reality that that was varsity level ball, that I had sacrificed so much of myself to obtain, but was never considered worthy of achieving, made me feel empty inside. If the great, quiet confidence which I set out to conquer football with, had not enabled me to succeed at the folly I was observing, then the prospects for a fruitful future, seemed dim. I cowered at the humbling thought of failing again; seeing my life as just a bad comedy of errors.
That entire gathering, under those stadium lights, was futility, and insignificance, being demonstrated under the pretext of football. As the pushing and shoving continued on the field, I felt deceived, that I had dedicated my life to something so obviously trite. That I couldn't have realized before it was too late, that it was only a game. But that's the trouble in Texas, it is more than a game, it is a way of life, and you just have to be careful that you don't let it consume you. I escaped death, but it raped my life's spirit, leaving me with a broken neck, unreached goals and shattered dreams. My existence was squandered by such uselessness.
The thousands of "Mustang Countries" across our great state will never die. Like the indomitable Lone Star spirit of our revolutionary forefathers, the sport will endure; despite the lives it destroys, the necks it breaks, the deaths it causes, and the blood it spills. It is big business for many folks, too important a part of their town's livelihoods, to cease to exist. The tragedy is, that young and vulnerable lives are sacrificed, to satisfy our insatiable greed for winning the game of football.
End of Chapter 21
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