On the H.S football team in the big game.
|The big game had finally arrived, and the team was pumped. It had been a long, tough season for the Catholic High Firecrackers. We were freshmen and had played a decent season, having won as many games as we lost. If we could win tonight’s game, the final one of the 1966 season, we would be remembered as the best team of the decade, so far.
We were up by one touchdown and our opponents, the Jacksonville Red Devils, were on our thirty-five yard line. With forty seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter, we needed to hold them so they could not advance enough to score or even attempt a field goal. During the final time-out Coach Rossi called for a back-up tackle. His assistant yelled for Turner and Penny to “helmet up.” I slammed my helmet on and buckled the chin strap.
The long road to the most memorable night of my football career began on the streets in Little Rock, Arkansas. As a young boy growing up in a small town in the south, sports was big with kids and I loved to play just about anything that involved a ball and running. With four brothers in my family you would think we had enough to make an effective team to play in the dirt yards and tarred streets of our neighborhood. But as I was the second oldest, most of my brothers were younger than me. And my older brother hated baseball, and was lousy at football. Gathering after school with the few boys our age from nearby houses we generally played three to a side. We never really got a chance to learn how real football was played.
Another disturbance in the force of my sports experience was the fact that football games on TV were virtually unknown in my house. This was a result of a perfect storm of factors. This being the early sixties, our floor model RCA had one in three chances of being on a channel that showed the one football game the network offered that Sunday. Throw in the four-females-in-the-house-factor and the probabilities of football on the black and white screen lessened considerably. Thirdly, no one wanted to constantly adjust the rabbit ears long enough to pick up a “yucky sports show.” So, no, I had about zero chances of learning anything useful about football from watching games on TV.
When I finally made it to registration day at high school, I was excited when mom signed the release form for me to try out for the freshman team. When I returned my form to coach, he threw me for a loop with his interrogation. “What position are you trying out for?” My response at the time seemed reasonable. “What positions are there?” My limited football prowess was quickly exposed, but based on his response, I was not the first to get an “F” in player positions. “Son, do you like to run, or catch the ball?” My response, “Oh, I like to run with the ball.”
Tryouts were grueling and after two days I remember dragging myself up the steps and lay on the grass by the locker room while my muscles melted into the sod. I was ready to quit until I found my name on the team roster. My first assignment in practice was nose-guard facing the massive Italian, Charlie Gaurdino. He knocked me on my butt every time. The coach was impressed so much he moved me to defensive tackle. I made it through all the practices leading up to the first game. I found out that this was not a gift from the gods, but more or less due to the fact that I was not failing any subjects in school.
The season was winding down and I was still thrilled to suit up for every game, and got some kind of perverse joy on those long bus rides to away games. This, though I had yet to see any playing time in a game. Coach loved my “stick-to-ive-ness.”
During the final game, with coach offering me a chance to actually hit a couple of licks, I was juiced. As I was buckling my chin strap, I was ready for Coach Rossi to choose one of us to send in. “Well, one of you get in there.” Ricky Turner was off like a flash, as I heard coach yell, “Penny, get back here. Turner beat you to it.” Honestly, I was kind of relieved since I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do once I got on the line.
Before boarding the bus for the trip back to school, I ran up to my mom, who had attended most of our home games. “Did you have fun?” Excitedly I yelled, “We won!” Her grin was priceless, then it turned to dismay. “What happened to your tooth?” The gap in the front of my mouth normally held a temporary tooth on a post; something left from a swimming accident years earlier. “It came out during the game,” and I held it up to show her I still had it. “Honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you play.” Grinning somewhat toothlessly I said, “Oh, I didn’t play. I almost did, though. Naw, I got so excited, and was yelling, and I don’t know, it just popped out.”
My football days were over. I was never recruited by any college.