Fall Guy The changing season prompts a look back to when football was king in a young boy's life

September 09, 2001

Remember September? Pat Summerall would say, "So long from
Lambeau Field," followed--after a beat--by the tick-tick-tick of
the 60 Minutes stopwatch, which itself counted down the seconds
until Dad brought our discount "family steak" in from the grill.

September meant Saturday afternoons spent waiting--always an
eternity into the scoreboard shows--for the oddly comforting
mention of Slippery Rock, whose exotic campus was presumably
perched on a sea-swept crag, like the very logo of the Prudential
Halftime Report.

Even now, every September, I have an irresistible impulse to buy
spiral notebooks, and to throw a small green rubber football, and
to insist that my mother--when back-to-school shopping--spring for
Levi's cords and Adidas Italias. She would always nod patiently,
and then buy Sears Toughskins and four-striped Thom McAns. Still
I would run like Walter Payton during recess games of Smear the
Queer, a name that was entirely innocent to a nine-year-old.

On Monday night, when Hank Williams Jr. asks if I'm ready for
some football, I will answer, "Yes." But what I'm really ready
for is the old Monday Night theme--a fanfare for Dandy, Howard and
the Giffer, who appeared on the Zenith in my living room in
canary-yellow blazers, like Century 21 agents. I would lie prone
on the orange shag carpeting with my chin in my hand and my Thom
McAns in the air and beg my parents to let me stay up for
Howard's halftime highlights. If they said yes, I crossed my
fingers and hoped for footage of Billy (White Shoes) Johnson,
whose full-bladder end-zone dance (during which he would mouth,
"Hi, Mom") we imitated at the bus stop the next morning.

September is here, so I have a sudden urge to boil (and thus
formfit) a mouth guard, whose edges I would chew like cud as it
hung from my face mask when I stood on the sideline in Pee Wee
football, marinating in Off! Deep Woods mosquito repellent, which
is in fact an insect aphrodisiac. After practice, and after
homework, I would put on my football-uniform pajamas, descend to
the basement and boot epic 65-yard field goals with Super Toe,
the plastic placekicker whose powerful right leg was activated by
a punch on the top of the helmet. If Super Toe was broken, as he
always was, I would flick field goals through index-finger
uprights with a densely folded triangle of notebook paper. If
that got old, as it quickly did, I'd fire up the ancient Electric
Football game and watch the players jump like popcorn kernels in
a Jiffy Pop pan. Because it was not possible, at that age, to get
my fill of football.

On Friday nights, a mile from my home, the Lincoln High School
stadium lights were visible above the trees, an oval halo on the
horizon. The marching band played big brassy versions of
contemporary pop hits. The bass drum echoed like a sonic boom and
reached us across all that distance, as my friends and I played
backyard football and hoped someday to be Lincoln Bears. So when
we heard, drifting in on an autumn breeze, the Lincoln band's
tuba-intensive cover of Shake Your Booty--well, a kid could
scarcely tell his mosquito bites from his goose bumps.

September, and that first nippy air, has always meant more than
football. There are pennant races, which used to play out in the
long shadows of late afternoon. There is U.S. Open tennis,
redolent of McEnroe and Connors and all the other rogues who were
buzzed at Flushing Meadow by those commercial air carriers that
evoke a more glamorous era: Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff. Yet,
this week, I am dwelling not so much on tennis as on Tennyson.

"Tears, idle tears," wrote the poet, "I know not what they
mean.... In looking on the happy autumn fields, and thinking of
the days that are no more."

Ten years ago this week--on Sept. 5, 1991--my mom abruptly passed
away. So, for a time, did my ardor for sports (the center of so
much family life) and sportswriting (for it was she who taught me
to read and write, and she whom I wanted to impress in print). A
scant six weeks after her death, our hometown Twins won the World
Series, and the happy event served, in some small way, as a kind
of anesthetic. I eventually regained my enthusiasm for sports,
and for sportswriting.

However, I will never forget sitting at the dinner table, four
siblings and I, trying to make Mom laugh so hard that she'd have
to spring from her chair and bolt to the bathroom, lest she pee
her pants. This actually happened on a couple of occasions.
Indeed it is, to this day, all that I'm trying to do as a
writer. If you'll indulge me, then, this one time, I'd like to
make like Billy (White Shoes) Johnson and say: "Hi, Mom."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO

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)