I watched No. 45, the middle linebacker on the blue and white team, hand fight the blocker and slide into the hole and catch the ball carrier, knee high, with a low, clean tackle. Second and 12. I wanted to run out on the field and spin him around and say, "Hey, where did you learn that?"
No. 45 was my 9½-year-old son, Michael. The blue and whites were the Denville, N.J., Blue Angels Super Peewees. They were playing Chester and that was the first time I'd ever seen my son in action on a football field and nothing I've watched in 23 years of covering sports has meant more to me.
Did I want him to play football? well, yes, but not at the peewee level. There's something wrong with adults telling 9-year-olds how to play, something wrong with lining up these kids and saying, "You're first string, you're second string." That's on one side of my brain. The other side says that if there had been a peewee program when I was a kid, you bet I'd have been in it. In a minute. When Michael asked me if he could play, I said sure, "but don't get upset if you're not on the first team, and if you're not having fun, don't be afraid to leave it."
So there I was, sitting in the stands with my binocs and cigar, watching him play middle linebacker on defense and left tackle on offense. I don't know how he learned to make those low, formful tackles, it was a revelation. I don't know how he picked up another trademark, this one on offense, a knack of sort of cocking his body before he went into his block and then firing out. He'd asked me what you do when you block somebody, and I told him to "wire yourself to the guy. Pretend you're glued to him. Keep your feet moving and always keep them under you."
He didn't do that. It was too much, all at once. But what he did was deliver a good initial shot. I didn't learn that until I was in college. It was instinct with him. What did I feel? words can't describe it.
On defense he was having trouble with the guard coming out. The kid was tackling him—illegally—an NFL technique. Mike couldn't handle that. He didn't know what to do.
"But, Daddy, it was against the rules," he said.
I looked at my boy. Wide-eyed, serious. A game has rules. How could somebody break them? I didn't tell him to raise his knee when the guy ducked his head for the tackle, to make the other guy pay for it. He doesn't need me to educate him about the nasty side of life.
A while later I saw John Madden at a game. "What does Number 45 mean to you?" I said.
"Second-string halfback," he said. "Blond-haired guy out of a school like, oh, Richmond. Hard worker. Marginal talent."
"What number goes with tackle on offense, middle linebacker on defense?" I said.
"Only one, Number 70."
I relayed the information to Mike. He shook his head solemnly.
"No, Daddy," he said. "Next year I'm going to ask for Number 77. That was your number."