In my near-adequate athletic career, what with rodeoing and track and baseball and a little college football, I had, well-spaced though they were, my few moments of glory. Nothing spectacular, you understand, but, still, enough to stay with you for a lifetime.
So it might seem strange that my greatest moment—and the greatest accolade I ever received as an athlete—came on Dr. Simon's vacant lot in Bay City, Texas in 1946.
I don't know who your heroes were back in the mid-'40s, maybe Sid Luckman or Doc Blanchard or the immortal Frankie Sinkwich, but mine were Al Blaylock and Dee Dee Pollard and Steve Long. I'm talking giants now. Two even played on the high school team.
I was about 12 years old, and, since we played sandlot football all year long, in the off-season I was occasionally afforded the chance to play with them.
November 28, 1983
The games always ended the same: just about dark, with someone's mother stepping out on the front porch and calling, "Yoo hoo! Charles (or Bill or Mack or Morris), it's time to come in to supper!"
Now we grammar school kids, "small fry," as the big boys called us, didn't always get to play. Sometimes the sides were even, and we simply stood around on the sidelines hoping we'd somehow get into the game. We played Saturdays and Sundays and a few times after school, but mostly it was those Saturday afternoons when the Big Games occurred. And it was at the end of one of those Big Game days that my greatest moment came.
Getting into a game depended on how uneven the sides were among the high school boys or just how benevolent they were feeling that day. Actually, though, the most dreaded thing was being picked last. When it came to us sideliners, there were few feelings spared. One of the captains would say, "Well, I'll take Fred and Guy: You can have that other kid."
And the other captain would say, "You kidding me? He couldn't catch a pass in a washtub."
"So what, you ain't going to throw to him anyway."
"Yeah, but them two you want might get in somebody's way as blockers."
And when all the arguing was done, somebody might notice you standing there all by yourself and he'd say, "Oh, you can have him."
"Naw, you take him."
And then, when you were the last one picked, you'd run over to your team, your head down, your whole body flushed with shame and embarrassment. That's the way it felt to be the last picked.
Al Blaylock was my special hero for several reasons. One was that he was a starter on the Bay City Black Cats football team. Another was that when he was a captain in the game on Dr. Simon's lot, he'd see that I wasn't the last one picked.
There was a third reason, too. I had fallen off a garage one time and broken my nose and collarbone. Because of this my mother had expressly forbidden me to go on the roof of our garage or that of any other garage.
Well, what my mother didn't know was that I wasn't playing on the roofs of garages; I was conducting aeronautical research. I was looking for a roof with the perfect slope and enough runway to launch the glider I was building.
And one day it occurred to me that the Blaylock garage might be perfect. It was a shedlike affair with a high front that fell off to a low back and appeared to have enough runway to give me air speed.
But I needed a closer look. So one day I shinnied to the top, made some quick calculations that convinced me it would work and then started to get off at the low end. But just as I was sliding over the edge, I slipped and managed to snag a ring that my grandmother had given me on a protruding nail.
And there I hung, about two feet from the ground, unable to pull myself back up enough to get the ring off the nail.
Just then Al came out the back door of his house and immediately saw my trouble. He lifted me up by the legs so I could free myself, set me on the ground and promised never to tell my mother.
And he didn't. You don't forget a thing like that when you're making up your list of heroes.
I don't know exactly how long Dr. Simon's lot was, maybe a hundred yards, but only about 60 yards of that was playable because of the trees at either end. But we used them as goal-line markers, and, as a matter of fact, it was two of those very trees that helped me to make probably the greatest play of my life and win that accolade I've referred to.
The boundary on one side was the curb of the street, so it was a pretty good idea not to get knocked out of bounds there. The other sideline was the demarcation between Dr. Simon's lot and old man Oates's. Simon's lot was always mowed, but Oates's wasn't, so the sideline there was sort of like the difference between fairway and rough.
We didn't have a first-down marker. We usually considered two completed passes in a row, of some vague distance, or a run of an equally arbitrary distance, as constituting a first down.
Or at least it did if you won the inevitable argument.
The day of the play, the play that still sticks out in my memory, began like any other. It was a Saturday, and it was getting late. Once again, even though I was on Al's team, I had been chosen last. Perhaps he'd overlooked me, or perhaps he'd had other things on his mind. But. nevertheless, I'd still had to trot to my team's huddle with my head down and that feeling of third-rateness running through me.
We'd been playing for hours, and dark was descending. I don't remember what the score was; all I knew was that we needed one more touchdown to win.
We were on about the other team's 10-yard line and had to score on that drive. We were well inside the sun's two-minute warning. In the huddle Al called a pass play, telling his main receivers where he wanted them to go. I didn't get any special instruction.
But I ran out on what I guess you could call a fly pattern, without much expectation of seeing the ball since the big guys seldom threw to us minor-leaguers, certainly never in critical situations.
But as I ran down the right sideline, nearing the goal-line trees, I looked back and saw Al scrambling, frantically looking for an open receiver, any receiver.
It was in that instant that I heard the call. I put on a burst of speed and, using the righthand goal-line tree, put a perfect pick (and I didn't even know what a pick was then) on my defender and cut left. Just as he was going down, Al saw me and threw.
He'd led me a little too much, but I stretched and stretched and caught the ball on my fingertips. I clutched it to my chest, wrapping my arms around it.
In that second I also ran headlong into the other goal-line tree. It was a sycamore, I think.
When I came to, I was on my back, over the goal line, still holding the ball.
Somebody on my team said, "Hell, we win."
I heard that, but what I really remember was that as we were walking off the field, Al Blaylock put his arm around me and said, "Well, boy, after that catch I don't think you'll ever have to worry about being picked last again."
My supreme moment.
I'd never have to worry about being picked last again...at least not on Dr. Simon's vacant lot.