I once played on a football team whose achievement has never been recognized. And yet that achievement may be unique in the history of the team, the history of the school and, for all I know, the history of the U.S. Such a record deserved notice, but the school yearbook didn't even mention it. All that survives in the yearbook is a photograph of two coaches and 22 young boys. Not one person in the picture is smiling—and with good reason.
Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. cherished God and the honor system, but it worshiped football. With a student body of about 230 boys, Episcopal fielded five football teams: the varsity, the varsity B squad (which played only one game), the junior varsity, the 130-pound team and something called the Cake Team. The Cake Team had a weight limit of 115 pounds and an age limit of 15 years. In effect, it was the freshman team, but it was called the Cake Team because, at the end of the season, the headmaster and his wife gave a party for these young boys at which cake was served.
Not everyone at Episcopal had to play football, but we all had to think football. School spirit wasn't just encouraged; it was decreed. Attendance at varsity games was compulsory. Not only did we have to attend, but we also had to cheer—loudly and incessantly. The cheerleaders kept an eye on the stands, and if anyone was caught not cheering, he might be reported to the Senior Monitors for disciplinary action.
The seven Senior Monitors were a dread group with ferocious power over the student body. Once a week during evening study hall, one of them walked between long rows of desks where each of us quivered in his assigned seat. The Senior Monitor would tap one or two or sometimes three boys on the shoulder, boys who had committed some terrible crime, such as not cheering at a game or failing to show proper respect to a Senior Monitor. Each tapped boy, his face stricken, got to his feet and followed the Senior Monitor out of the room to face the Inquisition, whose deliberations and actions were forever secret. Any boy who revealed what was said or done to him at a Senior Monitor meeting, we believed, could be expelled or, some of us thought, eaten alive. The seven Senior Monitors were all varsity football players. What other claim to superiority was necessary?
February 9, 1981
The Cake Team of 1938 got off to a bad start. The coach was a tennis player at heart but had been drafted to run our team, his first coaching assignment. I was permitted to select my own position and chose left tackle, not because I was good (I wasn't) and not because I had ever played it before (I hadn't) but because I thought it sounded modestly rugged (it wasn't). Other young boys chose their own positions for similarly whimsical reasons, and after a few weeks of practice we played our first game. We lost. We also failed to score a point.
Well, that happens: young team, first game, new coach, not enough practice. We just hadn't jelled yet. But what was special about the 1938 Cake Team was that it never jelled. Practice didn't help. Time and experience didn't help. New plays didn't help. We didn't develop confidence. We had hit our stride on the first game of the season.
We lost the next four games, an unthinkable occurrence at Episcopal High School. At first, nobody paid much attention to what we were doing—or rather, to what we were not doing. We were, after all, the youngest and least important team, and what the school cared about was the varsity, which was having its customary fine year. Two of our games were reported in the school paper, but nobody read about the Cake Team except the boy who had written the story. He was an unsympathetic fellow. Thanks to the Alumni Office, I can quote from these two accounts: an 18-0 defeat by McDonogh was "a sad day for the struggling Cake." A 26-0 defeat by Landon was described as "slow and uninteresting." So were we.
And yet, as our season wore on, a certain ugly awareness began to seep through the school. The Cake Team, insignificant though it was, caught the school's interest. We had not only failed to win a game. We had also failed to score. After five games we had no touchdowns, no points, not even a safety. This was almost impossible, given the level of high school football in those days. If the opposing team made a poor punt, a wobbly pass into the flat, a fumble near the goal line, it could easily result in a touchdown. That very fall I had seen a member of the junior varsity intercept a pass deep in his end zone and stupidly try to run it out. Instead of being nailed inside the five, as he richly deserved to be, this bonehead went 108 yards for a touchdown. Similar foolhardy miracles must have been taking place a thousand times a week at high schools all over the country, but not one of them ever happened to us.
From my modestly rugged position of left tackle I had failed to tackle anyone, although I had occasionally piled on when an opportunity occurred in my vicinity. Actually, none of us made many tackles. Mostly we waved at opposing runners and receivers who seemed to be going past at extremely high speed.
The week before our final game we became the center of attention. Other team coaches lectured us. Cheerleaders gave us exclusive pep talks. We even talked to each other about our predicament. And at last, on the day before our game, the football-playing Senior Monitors summoned us to a special meeting. One by one they addressed us. They told us about honor, about school spirit, about the football tradition at Episcopal and even a little about God (we were a religious school, our opponents were not. Therefore...). All the Senior Monitors ended by exhorting us to win. Last game, last chance. We could save the whole season! It was invigorating stuff. We were more excited than we had been at any time since the opening kick-off in our first game.
The last Senior Monitor said something different. An angry, redheaded boy of 18, the star halfback on the varsity, he was brief but clear. "Try to win," he said, "but for Christ's sake, at least score."
Such concentrated attention on our young team was marvelous for morale. Despite our past ignominy, none of us wanted to let the school down—or to be eaten alive by that redheaded halfback.
Indeed, the next afternoon we took the opening kickoff and marched down the field with rare success. We had one back, a tall, thin boy, who was nervous about physical contact. He hated to be tackled, so he would dash for the sidelines and run out of bounds rather than be hit. But, like all scared rabbits, he was fast, and on this opening series of plays he twice got away for good runs. We also completed a pass, which wasn't our custom. Suddenly we found ourselves on our opponents' 12-yard line with a first down. We were almost certain to score. A score! And if we scored, we would have the lead. The lead! And besides, our opponents might be demoralized by our splendid opening march. We knew a lot about demoralization.
As we came back to the huddle and gathered to hear the play that might take us across the goal line for the first time all year, our quarterback had a thought. He chose to pass it on to the rest of us. To this day it remains the most incredible act of leadership in my memory. What our quarterback said to us on the brink of triumph was both unexpected and original. "Remember," he said, "they haven't had the ball yet."
We all thought about that for a moment. Then he gave us the play. I don't remember what it was, but it went nowhere. Neither did the next three plays. We didn't score, and our opponents took over. We didn't score the whole game, just as always, but they did.
When the One Great Scorer came to write against our name, the mark was zero. Small wonder that the yearbook failed to list our record. We didn't get any cake, either.