FOOTBALL IN THE BIG HOUSE

October 08, 1989

Sing Sing, known formally as the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, in Ossining, N.Y., wouldn't be everybody's choice of a place to watch the World Series on TV—or anything else, I suppose. In one respect, though, I considered myself lucky to be there in October 1960, the year Pittsburgh Pirate second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit a home run in the seventh game to beat the New York Yankees 10-9. Off in the distance the Hudson River flowed through the color-splashed countryside, but directly below the third-floor windows of the recreation building lay a distinctly un-picturesque landscape: a tidy brick fortress that housed the electric chair and those unfortunates who were awaiting a date with oblivion. Whenever I looked out over this miniature bastille, I reexamined my circumstances.

O.K., I thought, so I'm on the first leg of a three-to-five, and when I finish the three-to-five, I will still owe Minnesota, my home state, a few years on a parole violation. And St. Paul is interested in discussing a liquor-store holdup in their city. After that, though, assuming no other skeletons pop out of the woodwork, I'll be clear. Ten years tops, I figured. My crow's-nest sightline to the death house cheered me up, made me realize what a real pickle was.

What instigated this peek into my woolly past was the 1987 NFL players' strike and listening to people grumble about pampered athletes obsessed with money. My buddy, who earns six bucks an hour in a factory, said, "It's greed, man. There ain't enough love for the game." Any mention of love of football transports my mind back to those not-so-golden days when I found myself, once again, up the proverbial creek. Blurry faces from 25 years ago come into focus, men whose fortunes zigged when they should have zagged.

I was a wild one. At 25, I was no rookie to striped sunbeams. Most of the previous eight years had been spent in a variety of lockups—reform schools, prisons, work farms, city and county jails. After five months in the Tombs (the Manhattan House of Detention in New York City), Sing Sing seemed like The Plaza hotel. To be able to see the sky, to say nothing of the panoramic Hudson, was a luxury. Of New York State's five maximum-security prisons for men at the time, Sing Sing was considered "sweet time" by the old heads whose lives had been donated piecemeal to the New York correctional system.

A month after Mazeroski's dramatic homer, however, a group of us were shackled together, herded into a corrections department bus and driven 40 miles northward to the outskirts of a hamlet named Stormville, a one-industry village whose existence relied on servicing the felons inside Green Haven Prison. Our new home was a "modern" facility—flat, square, symmetrical, with only a small slice of rolling hillside peeking out from above the gun towers spaced across the 30-foot walls.

My first day out on the yard was a Saturday—game day at Green Haven during football season. The players resembled a grown-up version of the Little Rascals, a ragtag mob with padding stuffed lumpily beneath their state-issued clothes. The football itself was the only recognizable piece of official gear.

The entire yard was, at most, 250 by 250 feet. The playing area was reduced by a six-foot-wide sidewalk at the perimeter. On the sidewalk were wooden picnic tables where inmates played cards or plotted the big score. The sidewalk served as a goal line at each end of the playing field, leaving a very narrow and cluttered end zone. Abutting the picnic-table-filled sidewalk on all four sides were walls. Thus, scoring a touchdown on anything other than a short plunge was hazardous. At Green Haven, "hitting a brick wall" was not a figure of speech.

The field was hard-packed dirt embedded with sharp stones. As much as I enjoyed football, I Vowed on that first day in the yard that I would never mutilate my body on that slab of bedrock.

If I learned anything in my years behind bars, it's the adaptability of humans, how quickly the outlandish becomes normal. Within six months I had grown accustomed to watching TV, schmoozing and playing chess out in the yard in near-zero weather. Shivering became as routine as spending 16 hours a day in a nine-by four-foot cell. By the next autumn my vow never to play football was forgotten. The rocky terrain hadn't grown more genial, but it had become familiar over the summer as I accumulated scrapes on my belly and backside while sliding into base during ball games.

Teammates acquainted me with innovative methods of crafting protective football gear. Shoulder, thigh and hip pads were made out of pieces of cardboard tied together with string or shoelaces. Helmets were fashioned out of glued-together fabrics overlaid with whatever hardening agent could be pilfered from one of the shops—plaster, lacquer, paint, varnish. The plaster-coated helmets, in particular, were effective for short-yardage plunges, but their bowling-ball weight required strong neck muscles and steel vertebrae. Most of the guys wore a smattering of protective gear—just a helmet or light padding over their knees and elbows. Understand, this was not flag football or touch; this was all-out tackle pursued with the intensity of trench warfare.

I ended up with a team known as the IRA, so named because the organizer-manager-coach-captain—a tough Irishman from Hell's Kitchen in New York City—was reputed to have been a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army. Among the inmate population we were simply called the Irish. For several reasons the IRA was the worst team in the place. Our leader, Gene, knew little about football and made no effort to augment his knowledge. His dictatorial manner also scared away many good prospects. In my first season, 1961, we didn't win a game or score a point. We may have made a first down, but I don't recall it.

Fortunately, in the off-season Gunrunner Gene was paroled. Since I had played high school football and possessed a rudimentary knowledge of plays and defensive alignments, my teammates elected me player-coach. Most of them had never played the sport, so I had to begin with the basics. Under Gunrunner Gene's leadership we had had no set plays. We simply huddled and Gene would say, "Andy, off right tackle," or "Benny and Al go deep and I'll throw you one." No one had specific blocking assignments; everyone sort of picked out someone to hit once the ball was snapped.

We had some good raw material—several big strong guys who each pumped iron and possessed the temperament of a wounded grizzly. All they lacked was technique and a team philosophy, i.e., every man had a specific job on each play, and if everyone carried out his assignment—theoretically, at least—every play would go for a touchdown. Lacking a breakaway runner or an explosive passer-receiver combination, I decided to concentrate on basic three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust possession football. Nothing fancy. Which meant, above all, I needed a solid line.

Our line didn't become The Seven Blocks of Granite during that 1962 campaign, so our winless streak continued. But we did make 14 first downs in the eight-game schedule, and if it hadn't been for a couple of fumbles, we might have scored a touchdown. Also, we progressed from minus net yardage to plus yardage—not many plus yards, granted, but we were rebuilding.

Despite our obvious improvement, the smart money made us overwhelming choices to again occupy the cellar in '63. A gutsy bettor could get 3 to 1 (cartons of cigarettes) that the Irish would be not only winless again but scoreless as well. Except for losing our top receiver—a guy named Skip, who was clouted with a mop wringer in a fight—our roster remained pretty much intact. It proved to be a landmark year. No, we didn't win any games, but we scored a touchdown.

Scoring a TD was a powerful motivator. We thought we were on the verge of being taken seriously. Unable to turn off the adrenaline, a few of us continued working out at the conclusion of that momentous season. At first only five or six guys tossed the ball around, but each day a few more stopped by, and within a week the entire Irish team was practicing. While the players on the rest of the teams stashed their gear in a corner of their cells and hunkered down for the winter, we Irish gathered for an hour each weekday on that barren earth and honed our, uh, skills. These impromptu workouts evolved into full-dress (figuratively speaking) scrimmages every Saturday. Throughout that long winter, in snow and temperatures that occasionally dropped below zero, we plugged away in our quest for respectability.

The 1964 season was, so to speak, my senior year; I would be getting out the following June. Basically, we were the same team that hadn't won a game the previous year. Our off-season practice certainly improved us, even if we weren't quite ready for prime-time news. No matter. We knew we were better than, well, better than before. The '64 campaign was launched with considerable optimism.

We lost our first seven games, but we never got blown out. A couple of breaks and we could have won maybe two of them. And we crossed pay dirt four times in those seven games. Almost a successful year right there. Our finale was against the mighty Spartans, a bunch of wise guy mafiosi who hadn't lost in years.

We received the Spartans' opening kickoff on a sunny November afternoon. Our highest aspiration was to prevent a rout. Although we chanted the obligatory rhetoric in our pregame huddle—"These guys ain't God!" I recall someone saying—we were all aware that they were, in Green Haven football, His equivalent.

I received the kickoff at the edge of the sidewalk—our goal line—and proceeded up the middle. I passed the 20-, the 30-, the 40-yard lines. I was accustomed to being met by an avalanche of tacklers way before this, but as I passed midfield I saw no one between me and the goal line. An open field was such an unfamiliar sight that I figured there must have been a whistle or a flag. I reached the goal line untouched, falling into the middle of a card game. I clutched the ball in my right arm and rested my left against the wooden table. The four card players glanced up, and one of them said, "Nice run, man."

There was no flag, no whistle, nothing to nullify this unique event. We Irish had never had much occasion to celebrate, so it took us some time to comprehend the magnitude of our accomplishment before commencing the hugging and whooping ritual we had witnessed so often among our opponents.

Of course, my run roused the Spartans from their lethargy, and they marched downfield with a vengeance. But they fumbled on our six-yard line, and we recovered. We lost two yards in three plays. Punting deep in your own territory is not a happy prospect on a normal field, but trying to kick out of a six-foot-deep end zone is nearly impossible. Our punter was a nimble-footed little guy, with a glass eye, called Peg (short for "peg eye"). He positioned himself against the cellblock wall. The plan was for everyone to block left, allowing Peg to sprint toward the right and attempt a running kick.

Peg got off a side-winding line drive. The ball landed about 20 yards upheld and careened another 30, displaying the agitation of a Mexican jumping bean. The Spartan returner bobbled the ball twice. On his third attempt to pick it up, our oldest player, a 44-year-old named Lutz, crashed into him. The ball popped loose and was recovered by our youngest player, a 19-year-old.

We picked up six yards in four downs, surrendering the ball at their 37. Over the next five plays the Spartans devoured huge chunks of real estate, again pinning us against Cellblock C. As they lined up at our nine, their grim expressions warned us to step aside and let fate proceed as it was supposed to.

From my middle linebacker position I saw their fullback—nicknamed Four-by-Four because he seemed to be as wide as he was tall—start toward the line. Nobody could run as low to the ground as Four-by-Four. When he came through the line his legs were barely visible. He resembled a disembodied pair of shoulders piloted by a plaster helmet.

As I submarined into the line I realized too late that the handoff had been a fake. From flat on my belly I saw the quarterback pivot and prepare to lateral. Just as he was about to release the ball, however, his right foot caught on something (a rock perhaps), his arms jerked upward, and the ball shot straight up, bounced off his helmet and into the arms of one of our defensive linemen.

With the ball cradled in both arms, Charlie froze. Apparently his disorientation confused everyone else, because both teams just stood there looking at him for a second before someone yelled, "Run!" Charlie's baffled face turned toward this voice, possibly awaiting word on direction, before he finally tucked the ball under his massive right arm and lumbered toward the Spartan goal. Two Spartans rode him down at their 35. Halftime score: Irish 6, Spartans 0.

Word of the Irish leading anyone would have generated curiosity, but beating the seemingly invincible Spartans caused a flood of spectators to burst through the door leading into our yard. Loud cheers greeted us when we took the field for the second-half kickoff.

While the Spartans were playing perhaps their worst game ever, we were performing way over our heads—which still left them a vastly superior team. What tipped the scales in our favor was luck. Every fumble and every bobbled pass ended up in our hands, and, with the referees blatantly favoring us, all the crucial penalties went our way. Toward the end of the third quarter the Spartans finally scored, converting the point-after run (no goalposts) to take a 7-6 lead.

In the final quarter it appeared that the Spartans had overcome their fumbleitis, stumbleitis, bad luck and bad calls and would polish us off. They had the depth to bring in fresh players, while we had to go most of the way with our starting lineup. However, another freak play gave us the ball at our own 10. The Spartans had been ripping off seven, 10, 12 yards at a clip. With eight minutes remaining, they executed what appeared to be the game-breaker, a screen pass to the left with three blockers leading the way. The blockers and ballcarrier bowled over our safety and thundered down the sideline with a clear field. In anticipatory celebration, they strutted toward the goal line with upraised arms, while the ballcarrier held the ball aloft in one hand. Suddenly a spectator reached out from the sideline and swatted the ball out of his grasp before he had crossed the goal line. The Spartan convoy stopped and abruptly went after this flagrant intruder. As they mixed it up along the sideline, our safety pounced on the ball. When order was restored, the referees ruled that no outside interference had occurred, that the Spartan ballcarrier had dropped the ball. First and 10, Irish.

We should have been elated at this premature Christmas gift. The problem, of course, was that we were 80 yards from a score, hadn't moved the ball 80 yards against the Spartans in four years and didn't have anyone with enough stamina to pedal a bicycle that far. We did what the pros do in hopeless situations: We called timeout. Instead of devising strategy, as the pros would, we staggered to the sideline and sprawled out like a bunch of army recruits after a 20-mile hike.

I lay flat on my back, with my eyes closed, and contemplated the propensity for folly that had landed me in captivity 1,200 miles from home, my body covered with lacerations from participating in a game that was meant to be played on grass, and faced with the burdensome task of crossing a sidewalk 80 yards away. My reverie was broken by a conspiratorial whisper.

"Andy, I've got an idea."

I opened my eyes to the delicate features of Todd, a tall, frail member of our team. By prison standards he was considered somewhat flaky because of his flawless diction and his unwillingness to pepper his conversation with obscenities. The name Todd fortified his preppy, privileged-youth image. I never quite understood Todd's dedication to football. He was awkward, unathletic and obviously had no background in sports. But he never missed a practice or an opportunity to play football.

"A sleeper," he said. "Let me try it. I promise I'll catch it."

A couple of times during the year we had attempted that sandlot favorite. Each time, though, the opposition had spotted our man furtively standing just inside the sideline. But we had always used a regular, one of our best receivers. The Spartans would never suspect Todd. The whistle blew to resume play.

"O.K., Todd," I said. "We'll try it."

Before returning to the field, I told one of our guards to remain, as unobtrusively as possible, on the sideline. In the huddle I divulged the plan: "All receivers go 10 yards and angle left. Flood the left side. Todd's on a sleeper. Don't look, for chrissake!"

Puzzled frowns. "Todd?" "Todd?" "Why not somebody who might catch the ball?"

I turned to our quarterback and said, "Joe, fake left and then wing it as far as you can down the right side."

I braced to block the inevitable heavy charge from our weak side. I cross-body blocked the slashing end, but the Spartans' blitzing linebacker made a wide charge. From my position on the ground I saw him turn the corner with blood in his eye, preparing to blindside Joe, who was faking left. I usually played within the rules, but, as I had often done with the penal code, I played it by ear. I reached out with both hands and grabbed his ankles, throwing him off balance. As he stumbled past Joe, reaching out vainly with one arm, I saw Joe turn to the right and launch a high wobbler toward the right sideline.

An urgent voice bellowed from the Spartan secondary: "Sleeper!"

Two bodies pinned me to the turf. I lifted my head and scrutinized Joe's face as he followed the course of his pass. Like a golfer employing body language, he tilted left, then right, his eyes lifting and descending with the pigskin. He grinned, clapped once, eyes wider than a speed junkie's. Finally, both hands went up, and he screeched like a game-show contestant as he fell to his knees in supplication. Then a roar erupted from the gallery. Irish 12, Spartans 7.

Seven minutes still remained, and the Spartans immediately went to work. They moved the ball at will. A dejected silence fell across the field as the Spartan machine advanced deep into our territory. Cellblock C cast a late-afternoon shadow against our backs as we dug in. The Spartan quarterback barked signals. Just before the snap, the sound of a nightstick striking concrete echoed across the yard; that meant line up and return to cells. The referees instantly signaled the end of the game. The Spartan coach screamed from the sideline, "Hey! It ain't time to go in yet! We got another 15 minutes of yard time!"

Then all the guards rapped their nightsticks against the cellblocks. A prison timetable is inviolable. When those sticks start banging the walls, all activity is finito.

We hugged and slapped one another in jubilation, and I saw tears of joy—pride—in the eyes of hardbitten men who usually hid sentiment beneath a cloak of cynicism. Moments of elation are rare for convicts.

No Super Bowl rings were forthcoming, no six-figure salaries or newspaper headlines or locker room interviews. Just a momentary high—which, minus the hoopla, is what sports is about. In that instant, I had an inkling of how Mazeroski must have felt when he rounded third and headed for home.

Back in my cell I peeled off my "equipment" for the last time at Green Haven, savoring the moment, a single victory in four years. The guard who had rescued our win with his timely rap on the cellblock paused before my cell while taking head count. "Sorry about cutting your game short," he said. "I got screwed up on the time, but"—he winked—"we all make mistakes, right?"

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONSTERRY WIDENER

Since his release from Green Haven in 1965, Andy Hjelmeland has gone straight. He is now a free-lance writer in Maple Plain, Minn.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)