Sunday, November 26, 2006

Eight-Man Football at Point Arena High

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This may confirm Liberal suspicions that I played too many games without a helmet (1960)

My Point Arena High School experiences started a couple of weeks before I enrolled as a Freshman in 1956, because football practice began before the school year. I hadn’t given a thought to going out for football, although at 6’ 2” and 198 pounds I would be one of the biggest boys in our small high school, total enrollment 96.

The day before summer football practice was to start, my buddy Chuck York, who was about to start his Sophomore year, came by and told me Coach Snow wanted me at practice the next day. Chuck was already one of the best athletes in our high school, and had played both Junior Varsity basketball and Varsity baseball his Freshman year. Chuck was slightly taller than me, but not as heavy, and was much more muscular and coordinated. Although young, we were already the two tallest students.

Chuck hadn’t played football his Freshman year because Point Arena High did not field a Junior Varsity football team, and league and insurance requirements prohibited students younger than fifteen from playing Varsity football. That’s why I never gave playing my Freshman year a thought, although I liked football, and was a San Francisco 49er fan since we got our TV set in 1954.

The year before I entered high school, Point Arena High played six-man football. Six-man football was a fast, wide open game, since everyone was a potential pass receiver, and the field was the same as eight-man football, only 80 yards long and 40 yards wide.

Point Arena High shared the league championship in 1955, and fielded a strong team with sixteen squad members. However, the league decided to change to eight-man football the following year, and Point Arena was still only going to be able to field sixteen players. If any players were hurt or dropped out, the team wouldn’t be able to have full-team scrimmages.

That’s when Coach Ken Snow came up with the idea of Freshmen on the practice team. We couldn’t play in a game, but we came to every practice, got knocked around, improved our conditioning, learned some football skills, and suited up and sat on the bench every game so it looked like we had a bigger squad with more substitutes.

Besides myself, the other Freshmen “cannon fodder” were Sam Oglesby and Virgil Swift. Sam and Virgil were much smaller than me, but were tougher and in better physical condition. Sam would do prodigious amounts of sit ups, push ups, and pull ups, and I would think I ought to be working out too, but then I wouldn’t.

My first day of practice was a shock. First, there was the gear, in particular the jock strap. I put mine on, but then I put my underwear on over it. Chuck explained that I was supposed to wear the jockstrap under the football pants without underwear, but I was too confused and disoriented to follow his guidance.

I was issued a plastic football helmet, but soon noticed it was different from the other helmets. It didn’t have a bar across the front to protect my face, and in particular, my nose. Coach Snow saw my concern, and was very helpful. He showed me how to put cotton balls in my belt loop, and pull one out and stick it up my nose if I got a nosebleed.

The prior year I can’t remember any Point Arena players wearing face bars, so we, except for me, were the lucky ones to get the extra protection.

Coach Snow didn’t think of the plastic helmets in terms of our protection. He taught us to block and tackle by first making contact with the tops of our helmets, because he thought that hitting first with our helmets would be the most effective use of the hardest part of our protective gear. Hitting with the helmet first has since been outlawed, and is now a personal foul, an unnecessary roughness penalty called “spearing.”

Coach Snow was young, but he was stern, and a bit old fashioned. As evidence of old fashioned, we ran the single-wing offense, one of the few remaining teams that didn’t use the T-formation. The single wing was a running, not a passing, formation, and we only had a few simple pass plays. Our primary running play was the staple play of the single wing offense, “student body right.” With the line unbalanced to the right, the tailback took the center snap about where a quarterback in the “shotgun” formation would, and then followed the wingback, fullback, right end, and two pulling guards in a power sweep to the right. If the ball was spotted by the right hash marks, we would unbalance the line to the left and run a power sweep the other way.

As I wandered around our changing and equipment storage rooms in the upper floor of the old gym, I noticed the old football equipment was still on the storage racks. The old leather helmets were there and ready to go. I wondered how long it had been since they were last used, and now, fifty years later, I wonder whatever became of them.

Football practice on those hot August days was one of the most grueling and important things I have done in my entire life. I may have set records for sweating. After practice I’d sit in front of my locker and ring out my t-shirt before hanging it on the rack to dry overnight. Boats could have sailed on the puddles I produced.

The sweat was the product of me having to do strenuous activities, and continue doing them long past the point where I wanted to quit. Up to that point in my life, I did what I felt like doing, and stopped when I wanted. Now I found myself told to do things I’d rather not, and to keep doing them long after my body and mind agreed it was time to quit.

Coach Snow saved the best for last each practice day. After warming up, we would dry run plays, and then run the plays against the defense. When we finished that, and were really dirty and tired, and more than ready for a hot shower, it was time for the real work to begin: flops the length of the field and back.

Flops were very simple. You got into your three-point stance, then launched yourself forward onto your chest/stomach/face, popped up into a three-point stance, and did it again. And again. And … When you got to the end of the field – goal post to goal post was 100 yards – you turned around and flopped the 100 yards back. The first to get back had a few moments to catch their breath, then waste most of it yelling encouragement to the ones still flopping towards them.

As soon as the last flop was consummated, the wind sprints started. Again a three-point stance. Whistle. Sprint. Whistle. Stop. Back into a three-point stance. Whistle. Sprint. The first one or two to finish would be excused to the showers. The rest of us, whistle, sprint, whistle, sprint, “Grandma’s slow, but she’s 90!”, whistle, sprint, “Go! Go! Go! OK, showers!”

“Not you two. You were coasting. Now go down and back! Go hard! Go! Harder! Run it out! All the way! Now all the way back! Now you look like you’ve been working! OK, showers!”

I was a lineman, and by my Junior and Senior years I had lost over twenty pounds while everyone else was getting bigger, so I found I was the fastest lineman. On wind sprints I would give it everything I had as soon as the whistle blew, and usually was the first lineman to finish and get an early shower. I had learned a valuable life lesson. The more you goof off and take things easy, the longer you get to do them.

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