Football, Life & The Ancient Mariner

January17/ 2000

 In our continuing series on Big Time College Sports – Beyond The Myths … today we examine “football” at it basic small town high school level. Everyone who has ever played “tackle football” at even the Pop Warner Pee Wee level has heard “the speech”.  The “speecher” may be a pot-bellied car salesman living out his Knute Rockne fantasy; or an ex-jock regurgitating the speech he first heard 30-40 year before. “The speech” is the same.

“… Football IS Life in microcosm.  Football and Life both involve getting knocked on your butt and getting back up again.  Football and Life are “team sports” … putting team above self and sacrificing yourself for “the team”.  If you “quit on the football field” you will quit in life.  No pain – no gain.  Football teaches discipline. All’s fair in love, war & pass defense (OK, that one was pure Coach George Thompson – Grainger High School 1962).  Life is “two-a-days” on a grassless playground in August.  Pain don’t hurt.  Son, are you sure you wouldn’t be better off playing the flute in the band? Success in Football or Success in Life – you gotta control the line of scrimmage … etc etc etc.”

   It was either Sir Winston Churchill or William The Conqueror (or Posh Spice) that said “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton” … whatever … but for sure we whipped the Japs and the Krauts because our boys played football and they didn’t. No doubt many of those heroes of Omaha Beach had assumed a 3-point stance and fired out on the snap back home in Wichita or Roanoke or Roanoke Rapids.

   Now … having thoroughly drenched this in sarcasm … let me say that I believe there is a lot of truth in these old locker room sobriquets. The path from the cradle to the corner office may not demand “grass drills”, tackling dummies, and “gassers” but pushing yourself (or being pushed) beyond the point of “this is not fun, I would prefer to do something else” is probably excellent training for the work-a-day world.

   I think “Football is a good thing” … I also think “selling Girl Scout cookies is a good thing” … and memorizing the catechism and the twelve tribes of Israel.  In other words I think children should be “strongly encouraged” to do a few exercises that may go against their natural tendency to do nothing.  Stretching your mental and physical limits is certainly “a good thing”.

Who really benefits “the most” from Football?  The obvious answer might be the top players who go on to “stardom” and fame on the high school, college, or professional level.  I question that logic. In the long run maybe it’s guys like “Sidney” from my high school.

   Maybe you knew “Sidney”.  Geek is a relatively new term but Sidney was a “geek” before being a “geek” was officially considered not cool.  Sidney collected baseball cards before it became fashionable and profitable.  Sidney also memorized the entire Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“… water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink …”). Memorizing that epic poem is the equivalent of reciting the Tulsa OK telephone book in alpha order.  I asked Sidney why he did that, expecting some deep philosophical answer.  He didn’t know why.  

    He gained a certain geek notoriety as he was paraded around to all the English classes in our school to perform his “memorized a really long poem” act.  Since it took him over 45 minutes to do it, it pretty much took up the entire class.  I think most kids appreciated the totally wasted class more so than Sidney’s literary parlour trick.  Anyway … Sidney decided to come out for football his senior year in high school.  I asked him “why” on that one too.  Sidney was never much on his “whys”, he just had these unusual callings.

   Our coach knew Sidney as “the goofy kid that memorized that really long poem”.  I know it’s hard to believe but even in high school I was the guy that folks came to for life’s imponderables, even the coaches.  So Coach Thompson comes to me … “Hey, BobLee, what’s with the goofy poem kid wanting to try-out?”  … “Best I can figure, Coach, he has some checklist of “hard stuff to do” and coming out for football ranks between that poem thing and winning the soap box derby. Let me guess, Coach, you want me to look after him and make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.” … “You got it Swagger.” … so I inherited Sidney.

I wish this was “a Rudy story” and somehow in late November, in a driving rainstorm, in the “big game” Sidney got in the game (ergo Curt Wynn in the 1967 UNC-Duke game) and rose to the occasion.  Alas, Sidney only lasted two weeks.  

Small town high school football hasn’t changed all that much.  You have 10-15 reasonably athletics “jocks” and another 20-30 dummy holders and stand arounds. It’s a time honored pecking order that is instinctively passed down kinda like “Swallows swimming upstream to bring coals to New Castle”.   

The “dummy holding stand arounds” are perfectly happy with their plight.  They scavenge for the 3rd-4th level groupies.  The for-real jocks get the cheerleaders but apparently girls have a similar pecking order on their side.  The nice girl with the concave chest who plays the harp every year in the talent show is quite happy being escorted by a 3rd string offensive guard who has a permanent scab on the bridge of his nose from August thru November.  I don’t think groupie gathering was part of Sidney’s motivation however.

So, I inherited Sidney.  Most of you probably think putting on a football uniform is instinctive with boys … kinda like making whoopee cushion sounds with their underarms … it’s not.  Somehow I outfitted Sidney with the leftover equipment including a helmet three sizes too big stuffed with newspaper. That wasn’t the hard part.  It was the “posturing” that was Sidney’s ultimate undoing.


Swagger’s Stumper

“It wasn’t me that started that old crazy Asian war,
But I was proud to go and do my patriotic chore,”

Who was this guy’s wife and “what” was she taking “where”? 


   Little boys who “play football” master “sports posturing” at about the same time as the pubic hair/wet dream period.  It involves (1) how to wear a uniform, (2) how to appear disinterested, (3) how to grimace, spit and cuss and perhaps most importantly (4) how to exaggerate pain, appear mortally wounded but determined to play on “for the team”. These heretofore unappreciated qualities are usually taken for granted … unless one does not possess them.  Sidney did not.

   Sidney never grasped the choreography of calisthenics or grass drills.  His side straddle hop was never in-synch and “the tires and the ropes” were WMDs to Sidney.

   I was as keenly intuitive way back then as I am now.  By the 2nd two-a-day I knew Sidney’s days were numbered.  Coach Thompson knew it too and kept reminding me that if “your poem boy gets himself killed it’s gonna be up to you to tell his parents.”  … But gosh darned it … Sidney was having a ball.  Holding a blocking dummy and getting knocked skinny butt over tea kettle when the 1st team ran an end sweep was fine with him. He even learned how to spit between the bars of his facemask.  Don’t laugh girls … it’s harder than it may sound.  He got to take gang showers with the jocks and paint his scrapped knuckles with betadine and he even effected a pretty decent “injured jock limp”.  But the “might/likely get killed” concerns won out.  

   To his credit, Coach did the deed in the privacy of his office. Sidney was “cut”.  If there was ever going to be any little Sidneys or if he was going to see the north side of 19, he needed to return to memorizing poetry.  I managed to swipe a dingy old practice jersey and gave it to Sidney as a memento.

   Like far too many of my high school buddies … I lost track of Sidney pretty quickly after leaving home for Chapel Hill and beyond.  I think every small town high school football team had a Sidney.  I’ll bet Sidney even remembers his two weeks as a jock better than I did … I’ll bet he still remembers Samuel Coleridge’s poem too.  

Jerry Van Dyke was the star of My Mother The Car.  Again … amazement that so many of you remembered that.


Mizzus and Kid love the new haircut … 🙂


As many of you long time readers recall … I HATE big high bridges!  Yesterday I had to drive over Philadelphia’s Walt Whitman Bridge at rush hour IN A DRIVING RAINSTORM!  A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do …


Now that I’m back at Swagger World HQ we’ll get back to our regular schedule.


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