"Hut one! Hut two!" I barked, licking the salty remains of turkey from my lips just as the football came flying toward me. Overweight, potbellied grown men in full pads snorted and grunted, trying to block my punt. I, too, was suited up in a complete football uniform, looking through the face mask of a helmet that smelled of sweat-stained padding. As our opponents, the Mansfield (Ark.) High School alumni, charged, through a blur of red and blue, I suddenly realized I couldn't get the kick away: I tucked the football under my arm and ran with all haste to the left.
I was doing what almost every armchair athlete dreams of as he looks back on his high school football career—giving it another shot. He's thinking, "Why wasn't I better? Why wasn't I a star?" At age 22 or 32 he's 20 pounds heavier than he was as a 17-year-old fuzzy-cheeked high-schooler. Because he is older, he is also tougher and more aggressive, and thus, quite naturally, he looks back and wonders, "Why wasn't I meaner, tougher and faster?"
Many of us would give a month's salary for one more chance, and that's why the Greenwood Bulldogs vs. the Mansfield Tigers alumni game came about on Thanksgiving Day 1973. It was publicized as a fund-raising event for the Jaycees, but that was obviously just a cover. The oldtimers wanted another crack at the gridiron and were willing to risk life, limb and gainful employment to prove to the world, to the town, to family and friends, but mostly to themselves, that they were indeed, or perhaps could have been, great.
My wife and I had driven the 200 miles to Greenwood, which is 14 miles from Mansfield, from our home in Tulsa to share Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I was stiff and sleepy as we headed north on Main Street. Then I saw the hundreds of cars parked at the football field. I straightened up, alert and wondering who might be playing. We pulled into the driveway of the home where I spent my youth fantasizing about athletic greatness. We got out of the car, and I could see from our front yard that there was an alumni game...and tried to remember if I had brought any sweat socks.
November 23, 1981
My father, who was the high school coach for 38 years, had retired the year before. We greeted each other at the front door. "Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! Say, what's going on down at the field?"
"Those crazy Jaycees have an oldtimers game going," my father growled. "It's insane. Out of shape, overweight, they'll kill each other."
"Yeah, it's really stupid," I agreed, peeping out the window, "I've had enough."
"I should hope so," a voice rang out from the kitchen, where my mother pulled the turkey and dressing from the oven. "The last time you got in an alumni game you spent the night in the hospital, remember?"
"Yeah," I said, and laughed, too loudly. "That was just one of those things. Accidents happen."
"Lots of accidents that night. If I remember correctly, four of you ended up in the hospital."
"What on earth did you do?" asked my wife, who had never heard of the alumni game seven years earlier, when we played the Air National Guard of Fort Smith. It seemed like half the town had ended up hospitalized or immobilized, but we won 19-6.
"Collarbone, no problem, actually. Say, when do we eat?"
"It's ready right now."
We had a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. The talk was good and it was nice to be with the family. I enjoyed the home cooking, but I began to get restless. After the main course I said, "Hey, I think I'll walk down to the field and see some of the old gang, and then after the game I'll come back for pumpkin pie."
"O.K., fine," said Mom, "I'll have it ready with fresh coffee."
Dad gave me a strange look, but I walked nonchalantly out the back door. After I closed it, I sprinted for the car, and frantically dug out some sweat socks.
I arrived just before the half and took a seat in the stands, where I chatted with people I had known at school. The players on the field looked slow and overweight. Plumbers, truck drivers, salesmen and a few coaches were out there together like big prize hogs at the fair. Men limped on and limped off between plays, laughing and lighting up cigarettes. The rules permitted unlimited substitutions and time-outs.
At the half I walked into the locker room and greeted old friends. We laughed and joked a bit.
"Hey, Robinson, get it on, here's some shoes right here," said Gary Gilliam, president of the class of 1963.
"Oh, man! You got to be kidding," I said as I scanned the room for some shoulder pads and pants. "I'm too old for that stuff. You guys are crazy."
"Sure we are, but I got in one lick that made it all worth it."
"Yeah, it's crazy," said Charlie Miller, another friend, "but whoever said we was smart?" We all laughed.
By the end of the halftime break the wild stories were finished, the beer all gone, and I had my entire uniform picked out. As the battered players walked out to the field, I quickly peeled off my shirt and pants and slipped on the sweat socks. I pulled on football pants and stuffed two very cold thigh pads into the pockets inside the pants. I luckily found shoes that fit on the first try, pulled on shoulder pads and grabbed a jersey that had been lying on the floor, No. 25. The third helmet I tried on fit perfectly, and at the kickoff I walked to the Greenwood bench, feeling like an idiot.
"Well, look what the dogs drug up, boys," someone said.
Halfway through the third quarter, the Bulldogs had failed to move the ball. "We need a punter," someone shouted.
"I'll try it!" I chirped. I had punted in high school just 10 seasons earlier.
"Get in there and punt."
So that's how it happened. Full of turkey and dressing and gravy and yams and hot rolls; 27 years old, a family to support, a tender body, and two 240-pounders coming directly at me with bodily harm in mind.
I tucked the football and sprinted left. It took them by surprise and the field was wide open. I ran for 35 yards before the opposition began to close in. The run was euphoric. I tried to fake left and go right, but the fake didn't take and I was hit from four directions. Luckily, no one got in a solid blow, and I came down with only a busted lip that puffed up like an old Schwinn tire. I came off the field to the roar of the crowd—a few wives and kids.
We laughed. We hollered at each other and laughed some more and cussed and complained and wiped traces of blood from noses and lips.
In the fourth quarter the Mansfield alumni led 6-0; it was a game filled with defensive brilliance. Also, everyone ran in slow motion. We had a third and six on our 43-yard line and someone said, "Put Robinson in there, he used to throw."
There I stood again, now under the center. We had decided to sweep left. I would simply hand the ball to Carroll Lowe, one of the great Bulldog halfbacks of all time, from the class of '65. "Hut one," I roared, hoping my voice wouldn't be recognized echoing up the hill 200 yards to our house. "Hut two," and the ball slapped firmly into my hands. I stepped back and, just as I had 10 years earlier, I held the ball out for the halfback—but this time something strange happened. Maybe it was because I subconsciously felt that as a high school athlete I had been a disappointment to my father, or maybe it was because in high school we had run the single wing and as the quarterback I seldom got to carry the ball. Or maybe it was because after high school I ran track in college and after five years of hard work could run a 100-yard dash under 10 seconds even though it took me 30 yards to get my long frame unwound out of the blocks. Who knows why I faked the ball and ran a naked bootleg around right end?
It was an interesting experience. My legs were still stiff from a three-hour drive. My stomach was still full of turkey, and when I circled right end I saw that two men in red helmets were coming my way. That's when I thought, "This is insane."
I tried to relax and run. I saw they were overweight. I figured them for a coal miner and a factory worker who liked to deer hunt. I got unwound. They snorted and moaned. I heard them breathing heavy. I burped. I went down the sideline untouched. At the 10-yard line I looked up to the chain fence and saw my father. He stood there smoking a Marlboro, looking at me and shaking his head as if to say, "Will he ever grow up?"
More laughter on the bench. More headshaking and bad jokes about aging, and slaps on the back and a funny feeling inside my stomach. It's not every Thanksgiving that I make a 67-yard touchdown run.
After the game, which we won 12-6, I quickly dressed, shouted a goodby to old friends and was out the door in five minutes. I jogged back to the house, walked through the door and sat down at the table just in time to get some pumpkin pie and fresh coffee.
"Who won?" asked Mother, to make conversation.
"Oh, I think Greenwood did," I said.
"See anybody you know?" asked Dad calmly.
"Oh sure, the whole bunch. Crazy guys were having a ball."
"Say," said Dad with a sarcastic grin, "who was the big ole tall boy down there?"
"Just an oldtimer come back to recapture his youth and try it one more time," I replied.
My wife said, "What's wrong with your lip?"