Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dreams of Football Glory

When I arrived as a freshman at Humboldt State College, Arcata, California, in the late summer of 1960, I had visions of playing college football. My dream didn’t last past the first time I saw the Humboldt State team practice. I already knew that there were bigger guys than me playing football, and that there were faster guys too, but I didn’t realize there were so many bigger, faster guys.

Unbeknownst to me, the Humboldt State Lumberjacks were a small college powerhouse at the time, coached by a visionary named Phil Sarbo.

The Lumberjacks ended 1960 with a loss by one point (14-15) to Lenoir-Rhyne, North Carolina, in the Holiday Bowl, St. Petersburg, Florida, when Lenoir-Rhyne got three points for a missed field goal to end the game, break Humboldt State’s 22 game winning streak, and win the national small college championship.

Humboldt State was responsible for putting the only blacks on the field that day, either playing or officiating. Apparently that was enough to get Lenoir-Rhyne the winning three points.

Coach Sarbo didn’t have much to go on to build a football program. He didn’t have even one athletic scholarship to tempt potential recruits. Humboldt State was small – enrollment passed 2,000 for the first time when I enrolled in 1960. Humboldt State was in the boondocks, in Arcata north of Eureka, far from big city excitement and big city high school football teams. The primary major at Humboldt State was Forestry, and no girls went to Humboldt State.

Not willingly, anyway.

A lot of the students were “townies,” and went to their homes in Eureka and Arcata when the day’s learning was done.

However, Coach Sarbo came up with a brilliant concept to compensate for his lack of scholarships. He primarily recruited military service veterans!

Coach Sarbo went after older guys, guys who had been drafted or enlisted, served their time, and were now married, starting families, and who were eligible for the GI Bill. He also called on the resources of the saw mills and other businesses in the area, helped his recruits find houses, and helped them and their wives get jobs.

One of the Lumberjacks’ star players was Manuel (Manny) Simas, married with seven children. Manny was the primary reason I went to Humboldt State, and it had nothing to do with football.

It was a good thing I hadn’t pinned my college dreams on football. Not only were there a lot of bigger, faster guys at Humboldt State, I was also very ignorant of two little words: “Weight Room.”

One of the players told me that anyone who wanted to play football should spend more time in the weight room than anywhere else, including practice. Since up to that point in my eighteen-year lifetime I had put in as many hours in the weight room as the average Lumberjack did in a week, I had a lot of catching up to do.

I signed up for Body Building, and soon took the 165 pounds loosely distributed on my 6’ 2” frame down to 156 pounds. Perhaps the pleurisy aggravated by my pack-a-day cigarette habit contributed to my achievement as the only person in Body Building that year who lost weight. The lower weight did help my running, when I wasn’t coughing painfully and spasmodically.

At any rate, my interest in football drew me to watch practices when I had the time, and I knew several guys on the Humboldt State Junior Varsity team which made it particularly fun to watch them practice.

One of my buddies was an offensive guard. For a while in high school he had been a quarterback, but as he developed the mind and skills of a quarterback, his heredity caused him to develop the body of an offensive lineman.

Frequently he would get some of the players to run a few plays before or after practice with him playing quarterback. I was very impressed with his ball-handling skills. He was particularly adept at taking the center snap, and pitching the ball five yards or more to a halfback on a sweep left or right.

Several things about his ability to pitch the ball to a speeding halfback were notable. He pitched the ball fast underhand with a perfect spiral, and he invariably hit the runner’s hands just in front of his body, so the runner never had to reach for it or break stride. He could pitch the ball as well with either hand to the left or the right.

He looked like a fireplug setting up behind center, but Brett Favre would have admired his ball handling. And Reggie Bush can only dream of handling the ball so well.

I expected my friend had an extraordinary talent to handle the ball so skillfully, but he assured me I was wrong. His secret, and the only significant difference between us, was that he practiced, and practiced, and then practiced some more. When he couldn’t get guys to handle his pitches and throws, he drafted his sisters. After awhile, he said, his sisters probably had better hands than most of his team mates, because they got a lot more practice.

Once again, the answer to my day dreams of athletic glory was obvious. I needed to practice more. As usual, the truth revealed didn’t make me dream less, or practice more either.

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