by Bud Finlayson
Dreaming to High School and Dedication Betrayed
The thought of entering high school ball was like anticipating the second coming of Jesus. I recalled attending high school contests in Tyler's Rose Stadium while I was in grade school. The stadium was constructed of built up earth, open on one end, and closed on the other; taking on a horse-shoe configuration. The closed round end was an exquisite grassy slope, graded like the end-zone grandstands of a bowled arena, but minus the seats. The home and visitor's sides were concrete stepped with wooden bleachers; and for all I knew it was The Rose Bowl not just Rose Stadium. The colorful players, the bands, the pep squads, the thousands of spectators, the roasted peanuts, it was all such a wonderful time, in the clear, fall, East Texas nights.
The alma matter of my older sister, the REL rebels, boasted the largest Confederate flag west of the Mississippi River which was always unfurled and almost covered the entire field, and the squad would make their entrance running underneath it wildly, with such popular war cries as, "The south shall rise again!!" Course all this Confederate flag business and rebel pride and swearing allegiance to the teachings of Jefferson Davis was abolished with the advent of desegregation. It just wouldn't look right for a black guy to be seen waving the "Stars & Bars" of the South, and singing "DIXIE".
The memories of those long ago games were cherished ones. Watching what seemed like grown men giving it all they had out on that gridiron, was like watching a pro game to me. I didn't catch all the errors and sloppy play, those guys could do no wrong in my book. To believe that I was ready to join ranks of the same level was a real ego booster for me. However, there was always the fear which accompanies stepping into new territory and proving ones self. I figured I better get started right away by visiting the field house and getting myself familiarized with the layout, for Coach Lucky had said that the locker-rooms would be open, weights would be available, and the stadium field would be at our disposal so we wouldn't get fat and lazy over the summer.
That summer of '70 I did a lot of walking and dreaming. Most of the time I spent with Marc. We walked most places and dreamed of the day we could drive. We dreamed of girls and about football. We would both be all-district, maybe all-state; with three year letterman's jackets, each. Blue and gray, the sleeves covered with district and state champ patches, at least 2 years worth. We'd have to beat the chicks off with a stick. No self-respecting Texas lass can resist the sight and feel of a football letterman's jacket. Most of my thoughts were on football and getting myself ready for the freshman season. I didn't like riding the bench my 8th grade year and I was determined to be first string when that next fall rolled around. That meant I would begin by showing up regularly at the field house to work out and get in shape. We had been told repeatedly that next years starters would be selected based on attendance and participation during the summer months, not on the eighth grade performance and line-up.
I took the Coaches at their word and missed few days. I gave up trips to the beach, hanging out at the swimming pool, and a summer job, in order to be free and go work out. My enjoyment came from squats, clean and jerk, bench press, military press, leg press, leg and arm curls, sit-ups, climbing ropes, parallel bars, peg boards, overhead ladder, skipping rope, punching a speed bag, scampering up and down bleachers, and running wind sprints. It was all done on one's own, as league rules prohibited coaches' involvement. Nevertheless, the coaches were there, sitting in shady spots seeing who showed up and what they did. I could feel my hard work and sacrifice paying off. My endurance and strength grew daily and I felt confident that a first string position would be mine. I don't know what Haven Young did that summer, but neither he nor the other starting eighth grade guard came near the school.
Luckily, a few weeks before school started we were allowed to begin organized practice. No pads, twice a day, morning and afternoon. I showed up without fail; grass drills, sprints, running bleachers, lifting weights, and learning plays. I can still feel and smell the brand new shorts and T-shirts, socks and jocks, we were issued with "LAMAR MUSTANGS FOOTBALL" printed on them. I remember the dread of rolling in the dew covered grass and staining those beautiful uniforms.
Even the field house was an experience I'll not forget. The bucking mustang, flanked by the words MUSTANG COUNTRY, was emblazoned on the outside wall facing the field. I'd seen that mustang in the background of group pictures of former district champions, in Marc's sister's yearbooks, but I had not seen it in real life. The spiritual sensation of entering such a hallowed domain where those champs had experienced playoff competition, one team coming up a victory shy of playing for State, was so intense that I trembled with reverence upon finding myself there.
The slogans I studied with great seriousness, certain that they held some inner secret that would make me a winner; "No Pain No Gain," "If You Can't Push, Pull. If You Can't Pull, Get The Hell Out Of The Way," "It's Not The Size Of The Dog In The Fight, It's The Size Of Fight In The Dog," "DEFENSE. If THEY Don't Score, WE Don't Lose." I never quite got the grasp of the one painted in blue, block letters over the main entrance; "THROUGH THESE DOORS PASS THE WORLDS GREATEST ATHLETES, OUR BOYS!'." I think it was to instill confidence, and boost morale, but every time that I passed beneath it I felt uneasy as if it contained some hidden meaning that no one ever told me, because I knew that some of "our boys" weren't world-class caliber.
The atmosphere was something to behold. The free standing lockers were simple, made from pine stock straight from the lumber yard, with two pegs from which to hang ones gear. They were hand painted in the Mustang glossy blue. The walls were tan-colored, glazed blocks that functioned well, running continuously on into the shower and back to the lockers on a red concrete floor. The varsity room had blue indoor-outdoor carpet. There was a wire-enclosed equipment room, so that all the paraphernalia of the sport could be viewed hanging from hooks and stacked on shelves. Rows of headgear and shoulder pads were waiting to be issued and put into action. Piles of folded towels, jerseys, pants, and bundles of cleated shoes, duffel bags full of pigskins, were all quietly stored in order.
Things were falling into place nicely for me and I was out to conquer the world that year. Everything was positive. The high school coaches had acknowledged my presence that summer and knew me by name. They praised my dedication of hard work and sacrifice. Coach Johnson, the defensive line and linebacker coach, even commented to me that I had good strong legs. "Legs of a linebacker," he said, with a gleam in his eye. Here I was just starting my freshman year and one of the varsity coaches was admiring my legs. It was small instances like those that led me to expect nothing but good.
Finally, school began. The first couple of days were spent becoming oriented to the huge, sprawling, high school complex. I had to learn how to get to all my classes without becoming lost or being late. That was mastered during the first week, and I also made a new friend. His name was David Bell, a new kid from Bellaire in Houston. The fact he was an athlete was obvious, from his size and build. At 5' 11", he stood a good two inches taller than I but his physique was that of Charles Atlas. He outweighed me by fifty pounds but there was no fat on him. To the envy of most of us, still peach-fuzz faced Freshmen, he had started shaving at the age of twelve and supported thick, black sideburns and could practically grow a full beard overnight. He would be going out for football and rumor had it he could run the 100 yard dash in 9.8, second only to Jimmy Soloman's 9.7, although he was twice Jimmy's size. The thought of them together in a backfield, was mouth-watering, worthy of a future State bound team.
The first week in practice was spent evaluating us. We were to be divided into two equal teams, as opposed to "A" and "B" teams in the previous years. Some of the initiative was removed because there was no pride in knowing that you had made the "A" team, that you were one of the best. Nonetheless, I gave my 110% effort and was picked for the White team, along with Marc, Robert, David, (the newcomer) and Haven Young. My adversary. Bearden, was picked for the Blue, along with Macha, Jimmy Soloman, and Ricky. They claimed to be the better team, and so did we, but the teams were theoretically even.
There we were grouped around our new coach, Pat Cox, Coach Cox to us, anticipating the year ahead, as he explained exactly what he expected; hard work, dedication, promptness, and no absences. In order to impress us that we were in high school now, he stressed that things were going to be a lot more serious, and that there was no room for any "Panty-wastes", clowns or grab-asses. The year ahead of us would be our learning period, our testing ground, to build up a future team with play-off hopes.
He reminded us of the old sports adage, "Winning isn't everything, it's how you play the game that counts". Had we all heard it before? Of course. Well at Lamar Consolidated, he said that they had a little different way of saying it; "Wining isn't everything, IT'S THE ONLY THING." To be a winner was what it was all about. Nobody liked a loser. "Winners never quit and quitters never win." I think for the first time in my life, the game of football was presented in terms of such an important undertaking that it required the total commitment of one's heart and soul. It was like accepting a pact with the Devil, and I embraced it with no regrets. I wanted to be a winner.
Coach Cox would later become one of my allies, for I gave him all I had and he respected me for it. His main occupation was Varsity Baseball, and he just coached ninth grade football and taught biology because he had to. He even looked more like a baseball player than a football coach. He was not a large man, although he stood at least 6 foot and he adopted the air of a sly ladies-man, a sort of pseudo-playboy, with elastic waist-band trousers hiked up as high as the crotch would allow. He was a likable coach, always in control, and would assert his authority without hesitation. He could smile and he could shower a guy with praise when deserved and he made you want to play well, to win for him. My first dealing with him, though, was one of betrayal.
At the beginning of each year, it takes an adjustment period to become comfortable with wearing pads again, and I had more trouble than usual that year with my helmet. Opposed to previous years of wearing a soft foam rubber filled shell, I was introduced to a Riddel suspension helmet. I liked the idea of it, because to me it was donning a classic. It was a standard worn by the pros ever since the hard plastic shells were introduced to the sport. It seemed a contradiction to me how it protected your skull from being cracked, for on the inside it contained nothing that resembled padding, except for the ear cushions.
As the name signifies, there is a system of cotton straps and bands that encase the cranium and suspends it away from the shell. The main band is about an inch wide, lined in leather and encircles the head the way a hat-band would. That band is the one needing breaking in. When issued to me second-hand, that band had retained the shape of the former user's head, starched stiff by his blood and sweat, and hardened by a year of disuse. At first it felt like I was wearing a big granite cup on my head. When I made contact with the headgear, surprisingly, the shock was absorbed through the bands, but it took a couple of weeks for the head-band to take on the shape of my head and my perspiration to make it pliable again. Until then, I wore a uniform row of reddened lumps across my forehead caused by the chaffing, rock-hard, strap. In time it came to fit like a glove and the lumps disappeared.
My preoccupation with my headgear was worsened by the fact that Haven Young was issued a brand new Mac Gregor with luxurious soft foam rubber padding covered with supple leather, and on top of that his face guard was a one-piece, molded aluminum, three bar, lineman's bird cage. My Riddel supported a standard two bar job, with a T-bar down the middle. Soon I would become concerned with more than just his helmet.
After having gone through a week of basic fundamentals and contact drills to see who could hit, it was time to establish a first-string line up. I had handled myself with confidence and I'd put Haven on his backside a few times during the week. I stood tall as Coach Cox began to call out the offensive unit. I remembered the summer, my near perfect attendance and hard work, and Haven's absences. I remembered the Coach's claim of no favoritism; a starting line-up without regard to eighth grade starters. I knew I'd put out more effort than any other candidate for guard. As he began to announce the line I was confident of being named but I still had a nervous gut. I was going to enjoy stepping into the spot formerly occupied by Haven. I'd done everything to assure it.
"Left-guard , Haven Young. Right-guard, Donald Barcak." Haven Young pranced readily into his spot. "But coach...?" my mind roared, "What about me? What about this summer?" I felt myself in a strange limbo, me here and the starting team over there, as I held back tears. Suck 'em up, huh? I was snapped back to reality with the order to grab a dummy and post myself in the position of a defender. I shot a stare of hatred and disbelief at Coach Cox, and he returned it as if there had been no betrayal. It was the first of many lies that I would be suckered with and I wouldn't forget it.
Had it been three years later I would have told Coach Cox where to go, but it wasn't, and I dutifully obeyed orders. My hope to be an All-American still lingered and I still respected the system, so I anguished briefly, and made up my mind to win a starting spot. I was more determined than ever and I went about every task with an aggressive zeal, like any typical second stringer. Being a backup makes a person put forth a superhuman effort to prove themselves, or they give up and quit. And the word "quit" did not exist in my vocabulary.
I was going to prove myself and beat out everybody for first string. I especially attacked Haven, knocking him to the ground time after time, even while manning a dummy. I would relish hearing the coach ask him what had happened, after I would cleanly run over him to make a tackle; "Maybe we ought to let Finlayson start." (Coaches rarely addressed one by his first name, I guess it was more manly to use last names only.) I believe Coach Cox realized my potential but he just didn't know where to put me.
One cool Saturday morning a scrimmage was held between the White team and the Blue team on the slippery dew covered stadium field. I remained a second stringer, but knew I would get in on some action because that is what scrimmages are for, to get a look at everybody. My chance came sooner than expected for their right side linebacker, Macha, was making a monkey of Haven, slipping past him time and again to stop plays in our backfield before they could get started. It was evident to me that Haven's Friday night partying had rendered him unfit that morning. I, though, had hit the sack early with nothing but thoughts of the importance of the scrimmage. Finally my name was called, "Finlayson! Get in there for Young and see if you can stop Macha!"
I was in there in an instant, feeling the nervousness of a real game. If I could stop Macha I could win myself a starting spot. It helped that I despised Anthony Macha. It is a requirement of a football player to hate, to enjoy violence, to want to maim; it was part of the game. In my mind I had hurt Macha before I even touched him, and when the ball was snapped I went after him with a vengeance. Play after play we advanced forward and I kept Macha away from the ball. I forget how we faired overall but I was exuberant, for I'd done my job and humiliated Young and Macha. Nothing but praise was showered upon me by the coaches and I couldn't wait till Monday to be put into the starting lineup.
Monday afternoon came and I nervously anticipated the oncoming practice session. After the calisthenics, agility drills and hitting instruction, we met to run over plays, full speed; full contact. The coach called for the first string and as they lined up he made no changes, Haven remained. I couldn't believe it. I had clearly out performed him in the scrimmage but came away unrewarded. I respectfully said nothing and continued to let my actions speak for me.
The rest of the week went thusly, myself busting my butt to show the coaches I wanted to play, and Haven effortlessly holding on to his starting position after 3 days of full contact and a Wednesday of "no pads." Aside from being the starting punter, (Since Macha was on Blue team) I found myself riding the bench for our first game that Thursday night with our arch rivals the Dulles Vikings from Sugarland, eight miles down the road.
The game was at home, in Mustang stadium, under the lights. Being second string, a person doesn't get too worked up for a game. There were possibilities though. Hopefully the man in front of you will play so poorly they'll put you in, or in my case personally I wouldn't have cared if Haven got his brains knocked out so I could take over. The other possibilities are that your team gets so far ahead, or behind, that they put the scrubs in to give them game experience, figuring they couldn't do any harm.
Well that's what happened our first game and I was sent in after our starters had jumped to a comfortable 30-0 lead. I sprinted into the game and gave my 110 percent effort just because I loved to play. My attitude remained positive at that time and it didn't strike me of the humiliation of being sent in that situation where my performance was not a necessity, it would not decide the game, I could have lain down and we still would have been victorious. I was proving myself though and I knew the coach was looking. I still had faith that my perseverance would make me a success. A win was great though and I cheerfully celebrated with my team mates on our undefeated 1-0 record. Having broken a sweat and dirtied my uniform I felt deserved to give a tug on the Victory Bell that waited beyond the end zone, to be rung after any Mustang win.
After the revelry subsided and I was home preparing myself for sleep I began to evaluate my situation. We had won, and won big with Haven in a starting role, and my presence had meant nothing. I had gained no ground on him. I might have even lost ground. Why should the coaches change anything after a decisive win like that; stick with the combination that gets you the win. And thusly followed the next week with me still trying to earn that starting spot but to no avail I remained on the bench for our second game against the Victoria Stingarees.
The game was in Victoria, a long ninety miles in a school bus that had a top speed of 55 mph. Everyone looked forward to those road trips for they were an adventure, and a break from the normal routine. We even got released from school early, leaving the non-football players behind. Arriving in our "game day" neck ties we suited up in their modern dressing room, only to run outside and play on a practice field. The only thing I did significant in that game, besides punt, was to make a strong tackle on the opening kick-off and then retire to the sidelines to watch us struggle to a pitiful 6-6 tie ball game.
It was pure torture standing aside, wanting to participate but being denied. It did not make me bitter, though. The coach was boss and was not questioned. I knew I could hit, and I knew I could play, they had to put me in the starting lineup soon. The ride home was a drag. A tie is almost as equally degrading as a defeat, but we still remained unbeaten.
End of Chapter 9
CHAPTERS 1 2 3 4
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