by Bud Finlayson
Orientation and Second String Frustration
Those neighborhood games became rival events, but as the date grew nearer for school to begin, I had to start thinking more seriously about my involvement in the real thing. I had no idea of what was in store, but I felt positive about myself and was eager to get the season under-way. Being a new student, I was required to pre-register and get all my records transferred from Tyler before the semester began. I was informed by the local paper of the time and date of orientation at my new school.
When I arrived, the building was silently vacant in the summer atmosphere. My footsteps and voice echoed throughout the empty halls as I looked for the office. The person in charge greeted me with welcome, and after the paper work, he gave a short tour. The newness of the place excited me, for my former schools in Tyler were dark and antiquated, worn and smelly from many years of use. There wasn't a radiator or a fan in the whole place. Inside the rooms it was cool and fresh from the air-conditioner, and I couldn't imagine studying in such comfort. Even more incredible than that, the lunchroom had Coke and candy machines lined up against the wall for students' use.
But the real highlight of the tour were the locker rooms. Our guide knew of my intention to play football, because I had signed up for "Major sports" when arranging my class schedule during registration. That means one's last period of the day would be football practice, or basketball, or track; whichever one desired to compete in during the course of the year. So he directed me outside and along a breezeway to the gym and the locker rooms, apart from the main building.
Inside, a burly, barrel-chested coach with a Marine type haircut, met us. His jaw was swollen to one side from a wad of Redman, and his voice was low as he introduced himself as Coach "Bob". His last name was Blazek, but because his brother "Al" coached seventh grade, they went by first names to avoid confusion. But not without putting "Coach" in front of it. We talked a little football as he showed me the facilities, but I refrained from being too familiar with him, out of respect. Like the classrooms, the dressing room was clean and modern, not old and stuffy like the one back at Hogg Jr. High. There were no signs of occupation, all the lockers stood empty, but I liked what I saw and I was very eager to get under way and become a part of the Lamar football program.
School began soon enough and I was happy to start meeting new kids. I was glad that I knew at least one person, rather than no one at all. James Flake and I caught the bus together and he helped me get through those first awkward days in my new surroundings.
The differences of my new world carried into the school also. Without segregation, I was sitting with Blacks and Mexican-Americans and everybody was acting just as natural as ever, like it was nothing. There were even some white folks I found strange, the ones who came from way out in the country, and didn't get into town much. It turned out that Lamar was about 40% white, 30% Black and 30% Mexican-American. It was not so terrible and the students were nice enough to me, but my mind was on football and that's where I directed most of my energies.
The football program had many differences too, I soon learned. First of all, the school itself was only seventh and eighth grade instead of 7-9 like in Tyler, so that made us, as eighth graders, the "Top dogs" around campus and the main football team. That gave us a certain prestige that I wouldn't have had in Tyler, playing second fiddle to the ninth graders. The student population was so much larger than back at Hogg, the number of football participants were enough to field two eighth grade teams, identified as the A & B squads. The A team was the better of the two, made up of the most talented players and the B team were the scrubs. There was a try out period initially, to determine who made which team, supposedly based on one's athletic ability. I found out later though, that most of the choices were pre-determined, based on the player's seventh grade performance.
Another difference was that there was no shortage of the equipment issued, and what was there was top quality. At Lamar, shoes, socks, jocks, T-shirts and towels were supplied by the school, and they were all brand new. They even washed those things for us. We had clean towels every day. It was quite a change having a clean, dry towel after your shower instead of a damp, mildew smelling one.
The protective gear was top-notch, too. Each player received a shiny new helmet that had never been used. They smelled strongly of freshly molded plastic, not reeking from years of other people's blood and perspiration and grime. Each even had a vertical T-bar addition to the standard double-bar face-mask, which helped eliminate the risk of getting your eyes poked out or your nose smashed in by an opponent's fingers, forearms, or feet. That was a real luxury we didn't have at Hogg. The other pads for shoulders, hips, knees and thighs were not all unused, but they were sturdy and resilient and as good as new. They felt light and unburdened without the weight of collected dirt and age. It all seemed to fit and carry much better than the odd sized, hand-me-downs of my seventh grade year, making me feel able to perform better on the field. I felt important being decked out in such fancy football attire and was more than ready to prove my stuff in the upcoming try-outs.
Live work-outs commenced immediately and they were patterned like my other school. Calisthenics and grass drills first, then some hitting practice with blocking and tackling, followed by separately divided line and backfield instruction, and finally some hellish wind sprints for conditioning. Being a newcomer and not knowing my teammate's abilities, I considered everyone as a threat to my success, just as I had with Stokes the previous year. I tended to be wary of the standouts, because I knew they would be the ones I would have to outshine. I attended each practice with strict seriousness and a buttoned lip, determined to make my mark. One incident brought me great recognition in the first week which I hadn't planned on.
We had been given a lecture about respectability and personal appearance. Coach "Bob" stressed mainly the evils of long hair, and he wanted everybody to get haircuts. I took this as a direct order, not a casual suggestion, and with unquestionable loyalty, I stopped at the first barber shop I saw on my way home that very evening. I declined a styled razor-cut from the pompadour haired Mexican barber, and told him it had to be a burr, "...cause I play football". He clicked on his electric shears, and with seeming delight, made rapid strokes from front to back all over my head. In five minutes, my lap was covered with clipped hair and I looked like a boot camp recruit, fresh in the Army. As I climbed out of the heavy chair, my hand gave my burred head an instinctive rub. The bristly mat of hair felt cool and neat.
The next day I expected to see many trimmed heads, but in fact no one looked much different. I was the only on to have heeded the Coach's request and my bald head became the subject of great humor. Burrs and flat-tops weren't exactly the style in 1969, and eighth grade students were highly aware of style. After many head rubbings, at seventh period, when I walked into the locker room to suit up, I received a grand reception by the coaches. When all had arrived, Coach "Bob" whistled for silence and called attention to my haircut, "Ya'll see the new guy, Finlayson? Now that's how I'd like all you long haired hippies to get it cut. He's gonna' feel nice and cool under his headgear, while the rest of you is dying!" I felt like a kiss-ass for being pointed out like that but I couldn't very well prove right then to my new teammates that I wasn't. So, everybody knew me, "The guy with the burr is that new kid." Indeed my head was much cooler and my hair didn't hinder me a bit as the try-outs continued.
I gained confidence as I relied on my instincts to direct me through drills and exercises. Also, I evaluated the other guys and how good they were. I figured that I measured up to most of them and had as good a chance as any to make the A team. When the divisions were made and I learned that I had made it, I was overjoyed. I started to see the pieces falling nicely into place. There I was as a stranger, and already had established myself as a potential "A Teamer". So, yippee! I had done it and was mighty proud. But making the A team was the climax of my eighth grade football career.
As we soon organized and made up the offense and defense teams I found myself lined up second, behind a guy named Haven Young. In fact, I discovered that he, with the other starters, held their same positions from the seventh grade A team. I took that fact in stride at first, but as the weeks went by, I began to feel unfairly dealt with. I would go out of my way during hitting drills to make sure I was lined up against Haven so I could show the coach that I could whip him. He wasn't any bigger than me, and seemed to pay more attention to girls than football. I put him on his ass time after time, but the coach seemed blind to it. I played the typical eager second stringer, always claiming to be superior, and feeling that I should have been starting. I beat him in each wind-sprint that we ran, convincing myself that I was better than him. But by the first game, I found myself still in second position, warming the bench.
I tried out for punter, figuring I could use what Chuck taught me, and at least contribute there, but again, the seventh grade incumbent kept the job. His name was Anthony Macha and was the Stokes of Lamar, with a football physique, solid and hairy. First string fullback and middle linebacker were his main positions; his body the epitome of the strength and agility that it took to play those spots. His smugness showed he knew he was good, but I thought I equaled his punting skills. He was well liked and had an easy going manner with the coaches, and therefore was in as a punter for the second year. Like Stokes, I too, resented Macha for his ease of success.
I kept from becoming too dismayed, for I knew that my perseverance would prevail. There was another new kid from Garland, a town near Dallas, that found himself in the same frustrating predicament as myself. His name was Jim Bearden, and he too, was about my size, only a little chunkier. Not fat, but with bulk that is advantageous for a gridder. He had been a starter back in his hometown, but now with me he played second string guard on the other side. Because of our similarities, we became good friends, backing each other, assuring ourselves that we, indeed, should have been starting. So, like me, he would be on the bench for our first outing.
The circumstances and preparations involved in kicking off the season temporarily deterred my hatred for Haven Young. The idea of traveling to another town and playing kids from different places, was a new one to me. In Tyler, there were enough Jr. Highs to have a league within the city, but Lamar was the only Jr. High in Richmond and Rosenberg. That meant our first game was on the road against a place called Cypress-Fairbanks, about 50 miles away. It was not in the high school's district, so there wasn't much rivalry between us.
We would be fitted out in our game uniforms, which was another difference from my previous year. I would be given my first number, my first mark of identification to single me out of the crowd. To my satisfaction I was issued no. 64. I felt proud brandishing that particular jersey, imagining myself to be another Jerry Kramer, the all pro offensive guard of the Packers, who made the number 64 legendary. We even received special gray game pants. They were made of a lightweight, stretchy, synthetic material that fit skin tight; a real change from our sagging cotton practice pants.
We suited up before leaving on the bus, but we carried our shoulder pads and helmets. I rode in the same seat alongside a friend I met during football. Marc Johnson was a starter and one of our biggest players. When the bus was fully loaded and before we pulled away, Coach Bob stood in the front and gave us a talking to. He let us know that we were to keep quiet and think about the game, quiet enough "to hear a mouse piss on cotton." He also stressed that the people from Cypress-Fairbanks weren't any different than we were, "They put their pants on one leg at a time, just like you do," so as for us not to be spooked by the unfamiliar territory. The speech ended and the bus slowly left the school grounds, with only the sound of the motor running and the echo of rattling windows and the creaking coach body.
The silence made the trip long, but I didn't dare utter a peep. I did as the others did, stared mummy-like directly forward at nothing in particular, supposedly thinking about the game. It was hard, not being a starter and having not that responsibility. Not having the butterflies of a player knowing that he'll be involved, and that his presence will be a major factor in the outcome. I did my best to consider the possibility that I might be needed off the bench, but it just wasn't the same as starting.
After many miles of flat, boring landscape, the stadium and six light pole standards popped up in the northern horizon and we knew we were there. There was an instinctive shifting around of our positions, as the spell was broken and we spied out the windows at the awaiting structure. The bus maneuvered up within the shadows of the grand-stands cast by the artificial lighting. The opposing team was mingling about on the green turf inside the oval arena, encased by the showering spotlights. My excitement grew simply from the feel and sight of the surroundings as we filed onto the field to join the spectacle. It was my first time being 'Under the lights' of a stadium, and under the eyes of a crowd of onlookers from above in the bleachers.
The game commenced and the clock moved swiftly as I looked on from the sidelines, wondering when my chance would come to go in. I kept my eyes on Haven Young's performance. I wanted him to foul up. I wanted to play so badly. It was a worthless feeling being on the bench. Half-time had come and I was yet to experience any action. We did hold a slight lead so the chewing out during the break was minimal. At least I knew I wasn't to blame, having not played.
After the intermission, we retook the field and the ball was kicked off again, to begin the second half. We stretched our lead and without any failure on any of the first stringers, the coach began to shuffle in substitutes, just to let them get some playing time. My chin strap was already buckled when he called my name and Bearden's,(the other newcomer) to send us in at the back-up guard spots on offense. We nervously waited till our defense forced our opponents to punt, and gave us possession of the ball. Together, Bearden and I trotted out to join our huddle.
I was taken up by an almost breathless sensation, my body was light and energized. It was like floating through a dream, the brightness of the green expanse of the field and the contrasting colors of our uniforms, capsulated by the towering lights from both sides, and the cool night, black all around. The plays ran by sharply and quickly, the contact hardly felt. I was not in long enough to tire, before I had even loosened up the offense was being called off the field, for we had been stopped at a second first down. When we got the ball back, I returned to the field and again I hardly had time to get angry and build up a sweat before we had to punt. I didn't get back into the game after that because time had run out and it was all over.
We did win, but it was hard for me to join in on the celebration. The thrill of victory was lacking in my soul. I had not earned it, I had merely watched my team mates do battle. My fresh uniform showed no signs of struggle, no blood or sweat. There was nothing more frustrating than being a second stringer, being denied playing time in a game that I loved. As the weeks passed by and the season progressed, my status on the team failed to improve. I tried my damndest to prove my worth but my efforts seemed to go unnoticed by the coaches.
I established a mounting dislike for Haven Young because he retained his position above me without any effort. No matter how many times I beat him in wind sprints or during hitting drills, it didn't change anything. I began to feel cheated by the coaches, as was Bearden, for the fact we were new to the team and weren't getting a fair chance to win a starting spot. Bitterness didn't set in on me though, and I continued to give it my all, knowing that eventually I would be rewarded for my honest efforts.
Well, my reward didn't come that year, for the season came to a close with me never starting a game. I did get to play here and there, from time to time, but never long enough to really gain satisfaction. We did have a winning season, and I made the "A" team, and I had established a foothold from which to launch myself into the next year's football program in high school. So I optimistically considered my lack of involvement as not a complete failure, for just being on the team helped me learn about and become aquatinted with my new surroundings.
End of Chapter 7
CHAPTERS 1 2 3 4
5 6 7
8 9 10
11 12 13
14 15 16
17 18 19
20 21 22