by Bud Finlayson
New Acquaintances and Introduction to The Man
An extracurricular activity like football provided the opportunity for me to closely interact with the other players, and come to know them more easily. Being a stranger and not the most socially poised person in the world, it would have been a long and difficult process breaking into the local social scene, if I hadn't played football. The game gave me notoriety and forced me to know my fellow teammates through the close-knit action.
Spending all that time with each other while striving towards the same cause, drew our group together. Butting heads also helped us to get to know each other. When you knock the holy crap out of somebody, or you get it knocked out of you, a great deal of recognition, respect and admiration is earned. The person who is knocked down never forgets the person who put him there and the other man gets a lot of notice from the crowd. It's a time of being laid bare in front of one another. The camaraderie builds on being part of something larger than yourself; traveling, eating, sweating, hurting, winning, losing, and loving the game together. I became a part of that different place in my strange new world and began to know more of its people.
James Flake and I grew closer, but he, as a defense, lived in his own world where he was safe from the ridicule of being a 'Fat boy.' Jim Bearden, the other newcomer, and I continued to become friends. But it was Marc Johnson, my seat partner on the bus, who was my first real link to the new society of football players, and coaches. Through him, a native born son, I would learn more of its ways. His size alone, drew notice to him. He stood a full head taller than most everybody on the team, and had the solid build to go with it, to give him the perfect body of a lineman. I was envious the first time I saw him for I dreamed and prayed every day to grow to such stature. My frame was sturdy enough but I lacked the height needed.
Marc approached me in the hall after homeroom, sometime in those first few weeks, and invited me to spend the night at his house. I gladly accepted, with some degree of surprise. Apparently he had noticed me too. That first night, he took me back in time with the help of his older sister's Lamar high annuals. We relived the Mustangs glory days of the early '60's, leafing through the sports sections and recalling its heroes. Marc told me about himself, and about experiencing those times. The way he looked up to those championship players and dreamed of the day when he would don the 'Blue & Gray' and bring success back to his beloved Lamar Consolidated. I was inspired and swore my allegiance in his cause to build another dynasty, when our time came. We would settle for nothing less than the state championship.
As Marc and I shared that secret dream together, I had come to know two of his friends, Robert Rios and Rick Trevino. They, too, became lifelong acquaintances, but not without some friction at the start. They were Mexican-American, that new race of brown skinned people, that I knew so little about. Both played football, and the friendly relationship that Marc had with them intrigued me. The three of them appeared so natural, yet Rick and Robert seemed so foreign to me. They looked like Mexicans, but any reference to them as Mexicans by me, would bring forth a quick reaction and declarations that they were Americans. I felt that I had more of a claim to an American heritage than they did, since I was white. It was Robert who proved that his family had been here longer than mine. They put up with my ignorance, though, and helped me to understand who they were.
All the white people in those parts, when speaking of the Mexican-Americans, always referred to them as 'Spanish'. I understood it to be the preferred label by the Hispanics, but why, I never could understand. If they were not Mexicans, then they certainly were not Spanish. It was as if the term 'Spanish' was more respectable than being called a Mexican. A Gringo who called a Latino a "Meskin," was just asking for trouble. There was a strong sort of resentment by them to be called Mexicans, when in fact they were Americans, but I couldn't figure how they could adopt the same White, redneck attitude that Mexico was such a shameful place to be associated with. Every "Chicano" struggles for an equal "American" status but shouldn't become so Americanized that he is embarrassed of his heritage.
Their acceptance to be referred to as 'Spanish' seemed ridiculous to me and I stubbornly refused to use the term. I called them Mexicans, which I know now, was equally incorrect, but for me then, I needed some way to label them. Ideally, they were simply people, but it seemed so contrary to me to imagine those copper-skinned, black-haired, foreign speaking people as Americans too.
It took Robert, when I was joking one day, to make me finally understand his seriousness. He had become a respected friend by that time, and the joke was an old one that he was tired of hearing. In a derogatory tone, he heard "Mexican" come out of my mouth one time too many and with tremendous anger, held deep within him, he jumped up, looked me straight in the eye, and told me to "Fuck-off." He said furthermore, that he didn't want a friend who couldn't accept him as an equal, as an American. There was no doubt of his seriousness, and it then hit me how ignorant I'd been. I wanted him to be my friend, so from that day forward, I've tried to understand.
The Mexican-Americans were strange to me because it seemed a question of nationality. I couldn't see them as Americans. But the difficulty I had with knowing the Blacks, was from the bigoted conceptions of my rearing. I never thought of them as not belonging here. Of course, I had heard it said more than once from my Dad that he wished they'd go back to Africa. If I hadn't joined the football team, I could have, and probably would have, gone my separate way and avoided the company of the Black kids in school. It was a real revelation as I became more familiar with the Black teammates, for they weren't so much the stereotype that my Dad and others in Tyler had led me to believe.
On the whole, they seemed pretty much the same as white guys, except for their black skin. Contrary to my Tyler teachings, some of these Blacks had exceptional football and academic ability. On our A team, the best running back was a Black guy named Jimmy Solomon. Along with lightning speed and quickness, he had intelligence to match. He attended advanced level courses in school, a notch above where I was placed. Stanley Carr, another Black kid, was one of our best lineman alongside Marc. He gained my respect mighty fast after making me see stars, more than once.
My inborn prejudice did surface at times, and the Blacks instinctively knew my feelings, so I didn't get too close to them. I was no stranger though, we associated in school and on the field and my tolerance of them grew as I came to know them as individuals. Some Blacks, I did regard negatively, but it was because of their character, not because they were black-skinned. And they, knowing of my backwardness, didn't necessarily shun me, because they'd grown up in a world dominated by White men and had learned to adapt and live with a tolerance towards prejudiced minds. But sometimes this intolerance could not be contained, when encountered too closely.
After referring to Warren Reeves, a Black running-back on the B team, as a 'Boy', I found myself crammed down into a locker on my back side with my T-shirt clenched tightly in his iron-like fists and my lungs having skipped a breath. He, with a fiery anger in his eyes, warned me not to call him a 'boy' again. I struggled to free myself but his grip pinned me down tighter. He had me at his mercy; I knew it and he knew it too. I was being a smart-mouthed redneck and it struck a cord in Warren that he couldn't subdue, and thus caused his furious reaction.
I told him with a weak smile, "Hey man. What's the big deal. I didn't mean nothing. Shit, let me up." He smiled back down at me in a way as if to say, "Your ass is mine Honkey, and if I wanted to, I could lay you out right here and now. Instead I'm going to let you go but you better watch your step from here on out." Then he shook the hold he had on me to remind me that he was in control, and said, "OK. But don't you never call me none 'Boy' again." He gave his grip another squeeze and said, "Ya hea'!"
I relinquished, as most bigots do when their back is to the wall, and answered disgustingly, "Yeah, Just get off 'a me." He was smiling by then, and he pulled me up out of the locker, knowing that he had made his point clear. That little scuffle didn't leave either one of us as enemies. In fact, we got along OK from then on. I did not fear him, as it might seem, but instead it made me realize exactly where he stood, on the racial matter, and I took it from there.
So, by the end of football season, I had pretty much established myself and no longer felt a stranger. Being in football gained me many friends and some enemies, and it found me a place in this new world. Once again the game had served as a guiding force in my life, which I followed faithfully and without question. Basketball season was getting under way and I thought I'd try it. I liked shooting a basketball and I had a good eye for the hoop but I lacked ambition to master the game, unlike football. Marc was trying out, and I was curious to see how I would rate as a player, so I went along too. I also figured the training would be good for my body, keeping it in tone for football. The try-outs were tougher than I had imagined. I didn't know you could run so far inside a gym, but when you do so many back and forth dashes, you get tuckered out real fast.
To my surprise, I qualified and made the A team. I sure felt like something then, for I was among a very select group. Not even Marc was included as he only made the B team. That turned out to be the extent of my success, for I ended up riding a steady position on the bench. I could not control my aggressiveness properly and I committed too many fouls. The non-contact rules of the game were too much of a frustration. Seeing the opportunity to nicely level an opponent was such a temptation, that my hitting instinct usually couldn't be contained and in a game, I would foul out before breaking a sweat. I couldn't subdue the football player within me.
When basketball season ended, I joined the track team for basically the same reasons that I'd gone out for basketball. It would keep me from getting soft, and always my primary purpose was to maintain my conditioning for football. The coach thought I might make a good half-miler. The training was rigorous, with many miles run in a day's workout, for that 880 yd race was the longest distance event for the eighth grade level. I was only fair in competition that year, scoring only two points for our school. One point in each of two meets, coming in sixth place both times. Much like basketball, my heart really wasn't into running though, like it was into football but my efforts were not wasted because my body benefited from the activity.
Track was the only spring sport available at school, so at its conclusion, our seventh period major sports class directed us back to football. It wasn't intense training, as the next season still lay far ahead, but the coaches had to find something for us to do during that last period. At casual direction from them, we went through weight stations, where at each, a different type lift was performed; military, bench press, squats, curls, etc. Besides the weights, there were climbing ropes; an overhead ladder to be traveled like a monkey, with hands only; the traditional set of worn out tires to step through; and parallel bars to maneuver. Then we'd go through a few agility drills; forward rolls, bear crawling, carryoker, running backwards, etc. We'd finish by trotting a few times around the field at an extremely lackadaisical pace. We weren't pushed much during that time.
Spring was unfolding its warmth and colors, and the semester nearing its end, infected everyone with a laziness. As a result the mood wasn't serious at those workouts. Almost everyone joked and stood around, not really focusing on football training. I was one who didn't slack off. Some took offense to my aggressiveness, but I was blocking them out of my thoughts. I was going to be ready for the next year and I wasn't going to waste any opportunities to improve my chances. I kept one eye on Haven Young, and saw him skipping the rope climb, not completing his full set of repetitions on bench press, and neglecting to run all his laps around the football field. He was really loafing through his exercises and I couldn't understand how he had managed to play first string with that lackadaisical attitude.
Shortly before school was out that year, the coach from high school came to talk to us eighth graders who would be moving on to the ninth grade and into our first year of high school ball. His name was Bill Lucky. In my eyes he was a god. He was known to us by reputation as being a winner, for he had just completed his first season at Lamar and guided them to a respectable 7-3 record. He had produced a winning team in Refugio and everyone knew it had been a year of rebuilding at Lamar.
He started off impressively by making changes, even down to the uniforms. The traditional royal blue and battleship gray was thrown out. It was replaced by a slick metallic blue-gray and a striking dark navy blue. The old white helmets were replaced by ones with clear shells, painted on their insides a metallic bluish-silver, with navy blue and white center stripes, like the Dallas Cowboy's. Instead of a Lone Star on each side, there was painted a navy blue horse-shoe, like the helmets of the then Baltimore Colts, symbolizing the Mustangs.
Great things were expected from that man. It was up to him to bring back the district crown to Lamar, and the win-hungry townsfolk who had known the taste of being district champions didn't want to wait too long to see it come to pass. Once a town experiences winning, it becomes an obsession. Signs are constructed on highways to boast feats, bumper stickers appear, any apparel in the school's colors become fashion, from underwear to handkerchiefs, and people get one track minds and become real unpersonable if their kids don't win.
Winning is a magical phenomenon. It can lift an entire community out of its doldrums and cause people to smile and wave to one another in the street. They rise from bed refreshed, looking forward to what each new day will bring. Everyone shares in this common bond of being a winner; a heightening of civic pride. Their self esteem rises and they just feel good all over. Generosity abounds and grudges are forgotten. On the other hand though, loosing can be a plague, to darken the sky with oppression and turn people against each other. They wallow in doubt, blaming each other, loosing all trust; trying to find fault. They just want to pull the covers over their heads till a win can be achieved, to face the world again. Yes, everyone looked to Lucky to pull back those covers, and resurrect the delight of a winning spirit in their lives.
His results were still being waited on with considerable patience and he was still admired and respected. It was the next few years that would prove his fate. At that time, I had no inkling of the extreme pressure that could be put on a man to produce a winning team, and what that pressure could do. All I knew was that an impressive, hulking man, standing 6'2" and weighing 250-260 pounds with a neatly trimmed crew-cut stood before us. I also knew that he had played for ] ]. He was the man who would hold the fate of my football career in his very hands. A lull of silence fell over our group, as we waited in the gymnasium stands, when he strode across the gym floor towards us.
The mid morning sun streamed in brightly through the bank of southern facing windows and glared blindingly off the varnished wooden gym floor. A slight breeze drifted through the spacious expanse of room with its high girded ceiling, as if generated by the man's mere presence, and he came to a stop in front of our group at the foot of the stands. He smiled as he scanned over the collection of new recruits, like a butcher inspecting a counter full of fresh meat. I sat bolt upright hoping that he would look at me. When his eyes swept towards my direction, I could have sworn he saw me, as I maintained my stern upright posture to signify my seriousness of the matter. He began to speak and I was held in awe by every word that left his mouth.
He briefly explained his overall plan to produce a winner there at LCHS and that we would be right in the thick of it, that in the few years it took us to reach varsity, the rebuilding would have been completed and the district crown already a reality. It wasn't going to be easy, he warned, it would take hard work, many sacrifices, and endless dedication to reach our goal. It was going to be up to us if we wanted it badly enough. He claimed that things got a lot tougher at the high school level of competition, and all he wanted were willing recruits to accept these challenges.
It didn't matter, he stressed, what we'd accomplished or not accomplished in Jr. high, how big or small we were, how pretty or ugly we were. If we showed up to every practice, and performed every single drill and exercise with 110 percent effort, and demonstrated a sincere desire to win, in the face of this hard work; that we would play for a Bill Lucky coached team. "I don't care what you look like, or smell like, if you show me you really want to play, I'll find a place for you. You tough it out and stick with me for the next 4 years; you will play and you will letter," he assured us all.
Every word sounded good to me, even though it was probably an unrealistic optimism, I was primed and ready to hear that kind of talk. It fit right in with my plans of continuing my football career in college, and a high school state championship would look good on my resume. I was so pumped up after that speech, I could have walked through a brick wall.
End of Chapter 8
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