You think you've seen refs as blind as newborn moles? You think you've seen officials make bizarre calls? You've seen zebras who are as boneheaded as a box of hammers?
Well, you ain't seen blind, bizarre and boneheaded until you've seen this.
It's halftime of a game in Dayton on Sept. 16--Colonel White High against Mount Healthy. After Colonel White leaves the locker room, the refs approach the coaches on the sideline. Crew chief Dennis Daly announces, "Number 99 cannot play in this game anymore. He's not wearing shoes, knee pads or thigh pads."
Head coach Earl White just stares at him.
October 2, 2005
"But he doesn't have any legs!" White says.
"Sorry," Daly says. "It's the rule."
Number 99 is senior Bobby Martin, backup noseguard, a starter on punt coverage and a kid, yes, born without legs.
Doesn't slow him down much. He runs on his hands about as quickly as his teammates do on their feet. Strong as a John Deere in the chest and arms, he benches 215 and will wrestle for the varsity this winter. Wants to go out for track in the spring in the shot put. And now they were telling him he couldn't play without shoes?
"I didn't get it," says Bobby, 17. "The ref could look at me and see I don't have feet or knees. How can I wear shoes if I don't have feet?"
"A rule is a rule," Daly said. Bobby was disconsolate as he sat on the sidelines and Colonel White lost 41-12.
How can you throw a legless kid out of a game for not wearing shoes? Can you throw an armless kid out for not wearing wristbands? And even if he were suddenly to produce shoes and knee and thigh pads, where was Bobby supposed to wear them? From his ears?
In fact, Bobby did borrow a pair of cleats and came out during the third quarter with them tied to his belt. You want me to wear shoes, I'm wearing shoes. But the school's athletic director, Carolyn Woodley, took them off, telling him that it was "undignified." Though, by the refs' own black-and-white logic, it should've worked. Where is it written that the shoes have to be worn on the feet?
Is there anything worse than a whistle-worshiping, self-important stiff who can't see past his precious rule book to the situation that stands in front of him? Even if that "situation" is a kid who stands about three feet tall and weighs 112 pounds, 101 of it heart?
Wait. I take that back. The only thing worse is talk-radio goofs like Cincinnati's Andy Furman, who told his listeners the whole thing was "a charade and a freak show."
"The rule says you have to wear shoes and pads, period," Furman told me. "He can't play. He's handicapped. There's certain things handicapped people can't and shouldn't do, and one of them is play football. Would you put Stevie Wonder behind the wheel of a car? No! Who in their right mind would put this kid out there?"
Hey, Andy, you've got to cut back on the glue sniffing.
It'd be nice if any of these people actually took five minutes to get to know Bobby Martin before deciding what he can and can't do with his life.
He bowls, dances and does flips and cartwheels. He flies off staircases on his custom-made skateboard. He weaves down the hall between classes on it doing one-handed handstands. He built his own computer, ground up. He's the guy you go to when your car stereo won't work. Your car, too, for that matter.
Whatever he lacks in height, he makes up for in humor. The other day, one of the coaches, who happens to be missing a front tooth, told the players, "O.K., everybody take a knee. Even you, Bobby."
To which Bobby cracked back, "Sure, coach. Right after you go and visit an orthodontist."
But along come knee-jerk Barney Fifes like Furman and Daly (who didn't respond to my interview request) who decide it's their place to put a leash on the kid.
"The ref said they were doing it for his safety," Coach White says. White tried to explain that Bobby had passed his physical and already had clearance to play from his doctors. But the referees kept saying, "We can show you the rule." White took his broken-up player aside and said, "Don't worry about this. You'll be back playing next week."
He was right. On Sept. 19 the Ohio High School Athletic Association said the officials were wrong and sent White a letter, which he'll keep in his back pocket, just in case. Furman should get a copy, too, for his cave.
Everything was back to normal last weekend. Bobby Martin was happy again, back playing without shoes. And official Dennis Daly and his crew were back reffing, without brains.
• To see Bobby in action, go to SI.com/reilly. If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
"I didn't get it," says Bobby.
"The ref could look at me and see I don't have feet or knees. How can I wear shoes if I don't have feet?"