It always starts around Aug. 1. My adrenaline, what little I have left at my age, begins to stir.
This was always the time of the year when my grade school, high school, and college teammates started talking football. Back in those days we all played the sport that was in season. No one lifted weights year round. In winter we played basketball, spring and summer it was baseball, but come August, football took over the conversation and was the center of our activity.
I’m sure back before the state football playoffs, Aug. 20 was the magic day when we drew a uniform and, unlike today, there wasn’t any five-day conditioning period without pads. Full uniform on the first day regardless of the temperature.
My first football experience was around the fourth grade. In a big field behind my grandmother’s house, I saw a bunch of guys playing something. So I wandered over and asked one of the guys I knew what they were playing.
“Football,” he said with a macho voice.
I was hooked. There wasn’t any fourth-, fifth- or sixth-graders. They were all mostly seventh- and eighth-graders. I asked the man in charge, who I soon found out was the coach, if I could join. He said he did not have a uniform that would fit me. I am sure it was his attempt to get rid of me.
So, I pestered my dad who took me to town to the sporting goods store and bought me a helmet and shoulder pads. They were made of a new material called plastic, not the kind of plastic we have today. This stuff looked like strong cardboard made by the Hutch company.
The University of Michigan must have wore Hutch helmets because their helmet today still has the three stripes across the top just like my first helmet.
A toboggan would have provided protection. The two elastic parts that were to keep my head from hitting the top of the helmet, both hit the top with ease.
My mother cut off a pair of old overalls and I had a pair of clod hoppers I used for football cleats. I must have looked strange when I showed up the following Monday for practice because I drew a lot of laughter. I reported to the coach. He did not laugh. He told me to get in a line.
When I came to the front of the line across the way was a big eighth-grader I knew as Ray Burger. He was twice my size but I knew I was fast and I was sure I could out-run him … I thought.
Coach tossed me the ball and yelled “Go.”
After watching the guys in front of me I knew I had to run past Ray. I had a hard time gaining control of the ball and by the time I did, Ray hit me. Well, he hit me so hard I lost all the air in my body. This was a new experience and I was sure death was next. I am also sure it took me an hour to get my first air. They drug me out of the way and went on with the tackling drill.
Finally, the coach came over and asked “Are you OK?”
My football career could have ended right then, but I knew my reputation would end right along with it. So I got up and — I’m sure much to the coach’s surprise — asked what was the next drill.
That decision started me on a journey of 15 years as a player and another 19 years as a football coach, a decision that turned out to be one of the best I ever made.
Tony Lamke is a former coach. He writes a periodic column for the News Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]