Having observed night coming earlier, birds flocking and school supplies on sale, I determined that the sound of the punted pigskin and the crack of shoulder pads were soon to be heard in the land. Therefore, a stop at the opening session of football practice in the North Dakota village of my sometime residence was in order.
3 p.m.: Clear sky, 82° here at the Municipal Athletic Field bleachers, which are not exactly filled to capacity. In addition to myself there are five or six small boys with short attention spans and three older fellows who have temporarily abandoned the comforts of the local Legion club-rooms in order to assess the prospects of the 1985 Orioles. Cottonwoods rustle behind us. About a half mile west, someone, Delbert Amundson maybe, is driving a combine, and in front of us, clad in shorts, running shoes and a sweat shirt, a young man, evidently the coach, blows a whistle. About two dozen younger men of assorted sizes and shapes and gaits begin loping around the track.
They didn't have bleachers here when I was in school; it was just a field then, with pasture grass and rickety goalposts at either end. Spectators walked up and down the sidelines or sat in cars and honked their horns when the home team did something commendable, which wasn't often. No chain-link fences, no gate identifying the Municipal Athletic Field as HOME OF THE ORIOLES, no tall poles and big lights along the sidelines. No scoreboard across the field advising the world of the existence of Coca-Cola and Cathy's Corner Café in addition to ORIOLES and OPPONENTS. We did, however, run around the field at the start of practice. Always.
The young man in shorts blows his whistle again and team members straggle into a large circle at midfield. The young man in shorts picks up a clipboard, puts on a green and yellow John Deere cap and begins walking around the circle, checking things. Some players remove their helmets, some mop their brows, some tie their shoes. The coach finishes his circuit, pushes the bill of his cap back and scans the group intently. "Where's Leroy?" he says. "Hauling grain," says a voice from the crowd. "Yeah?" says the coach. "Well, he can haul all the grain he wants from dawn till 2:30, but if he's figuring on playing football he better be out here at three o'clock. He needs practice just like everyone else."
"Hell," says one of the three oldtimers in the bleachers, "if he don't play Leroy, he got no team." "That's right," his neighbor chimes in. "That Leroy, he's about all they got this year." "Don't matter," says the third oldtimer. "Should show up for practice anyway. His old man got plenty of people to haul grain." "That's right, too," the second man nods. "Hell," the first barks, "Leroy don't need this exercise stuff. He's strong as a damn bull and twice as fast. What's the good of him wastin' time jumpin' up and down?" "That's right. No sense in that," the that's-right man said. The third man sighs. " 'Cause he's on a team," he says. "A team's a team, even for the star. Ain't that right?" He turns to me.
"Guess so," I say, remembering that in my day early season practices were marked by the absence of several grain haulers and potato pickers. In the last years of the war manpower was so scarce that no one paid much heed to who wasn't where. Those of us not directly involved in agricultural matters showed up to leap about and bump into one another on a fairly regular basis, though we never got around to polishing things like pass patterns and blocking assignments. I have the impression that our coach, who wasn't young and didn't wear shorts but had a whistle (though he seemed to prefer cigars), was always mildly amazed that nearly everyone showed up for a game.
The athletes on the field have finished their side-straddle hopping, toe-touching, deep knee bending. Now they run in place until the youthful coach blows his whistle, a signal for them to dive on the ground and commence pushing up. This exercise, like the others, is performed with varying degrees of gusto and precision. The coach retires from active participation after 2½ push-ups and starts circling the troops, shouting words of encouragement here and warnings there and tooting his whistle periodically. After a while eyes begin to glaze, shoulders sag, knees wobble. The whistle peeps three times, signifying break time. Some players sit, some sink to their knees, one or two lie spread-eagled on the grass. The coach walks over to the sidelines.
The first oldtimer stands up. "Ain't much goin' on here yet," he announces. "Think I'll head back up to the club. Too damn hot out here." "That's right," says the middle man. "You comin', Milt?" "Nope," the third man says. "You go ahead. I'm gonna stick around awhile." As his companions shuffle off toward the gate, he turns to me again. "Takes time, you know. They got to get these boys in shape. That takes some time."
"You bet," I answer. I never did get in shape. I was agile enough, didn't tire easily, but every time someone hit me it hurt. Football was 10 weeks of aching shoulders, sore ribs, twisted ankles, stiff knees. People were inclined to step on parts of me; in cold weather they seemed particularly apt to step on my hands. That hurt a great deal; it made me feel like crying, but of course football players don't cry unless they lose the state championship or something. We never lost the state championship; we just lost games, lots of them. We were obliged to take comfort in very minor achievements; in a pileup one fall, Red Raymond bit the leg of an all-state halfback, who screamed lustily. That was about as legendary an accomplishment as we could show for the season.
Down on the field the players form two lines and begin a passing drill. Two centers, two prospective quarterbacks; the ball is snapped, the boys at the head of each line start downfield, the passer fakes a handoff and fades, the would-be receivers cut and the passer throws. One of the two backs, a lanky kid, throws well; his targets catch less well. The other back, stocky and short-fingered, is erratic; his receivers are obliged to chase the ball around, like outfielders shagging flies. Eventually two of them collide, helmet to lip, and the first blood of the season is drawn. Practice is momentarily suspended; first aid is administered.
They all have helmets, these Orioles. Some of the Orioles in 1944 and 1945 did not; there were about 15 helmets of assorted styles, sizes and colors to protect the heads of 20 some players. Substitution could be a time-consuming process then; headgear had to be exchanged, and sometimes footwear, too, as football shoes were also in short supply. Some perennial substitutes were obliged to wear sneakers; a few even tried work boots. Injured players, like dead soldiers on the battlefield, had the shoes stripped from their feet almost as soon as they fell. My recollection is that by 1946 the equipment situation had improved a bit.
Split lip tended to, the players move off the field to a grassless patch where they attack dummies. The assistant coach, wearing sweat pants, a T shirt and a pot belly, props up a sizable canvas sausage, and the players attempt to shoulder it around. The head coach yells, "Dig! Dig, dammit! Hit it, man! Hit it! Ride it outta there!" After some minutes of being dug, hit and rode outta there, the assistant coach relinquishes his job to a fat boy who is less skilled at dummy propping. Shortly he is knocked down by a particularly ferocious blocker, chewed out by the coach and laughed at by his fellow players. A while later he gets revenge. When the particularly ferocious blocker returns for another lunge, the fat boy shoves the dummy aside. The blocker's face plows into the dirt. The fat boy laughs. The enraged ferocious blocker springs up and charges at the fat boy, who runs. He moves well; fair speed, nice change of pace, neat fakes. Not Tony Dorsett exactly, but good enough to keep the ferocious blocker grabbing air. The coach toots his whistle indignantly.
Milt, the third oldtimer, turns and shakes his head. "He don't want to use the blocking sled, this guy. The Booster Club built the thing years ago; old Obed Erickson laid it out and welded it for us real neat, like what they got in college. But this guy don't want to use it; outdated, he says. So he's got this sort of monkey business going on. I don't know."
I don't know either. It is now 4:10 and still 82°. The young man with shorts, running shoes, sweat shirt, John Deere cap and whistle is explaining the desirability of hard work and no monkey business to the 1985 Orioles, less Leroy, who is hauling grain, and the fat boy and the ferocious blocker, who are running laps. I suggest to Milt that it might be the proper moment to adjourn to the Legion club rooms. He agrees. We rise and wander east to refreshment, the analysis of teams present and the remembrance of things past.
Jerome D. Lamb is the editor and publisher of "The Small Voice," a bimonthly newsletter in Fargo, N. Dak.