Cumberland Times-News

Columns

February 2, 2013

It takes a man to play football in flipflops

A recent e-mail contained a football team photograph and a note asking if I could identify any of the people in it.

I wrote back that I could, considering that the tall, skinny kid at the far right end of the back row was me — 50 years and close to 100 pounds ago.

We were Keyser High’s 1963 football team. At 6 feet tall and 130 pounds, I was a manager and the team sportswriter.

Fred (Tack) Clark was the coach, and he knew I loved sports but was too small to play football. People who know me today have a hard time believing this.

So he asked if I would be the team’s sportswriter. I kept statistics and called in results after the game to the old Cumberland News, and sometimes I wrote stories for the Mineral Daily News Tribune in Keyser.

Many of us on that team went by nicknames. Mine was “The Camel,” bestowed upon me by the other guys on the track team. If you have to ask why they called me that, shame on you.

There were at least two Jakes, and some of the others we called Bo, Greek, Stud, Granny, Scooter, Streak, Porky, Bucky, Goose, Butch and so on.

Three fellows had nicknames which, although appropriate at the time, they came to despise as adults — and nobody needs to be reminded about them. That, plus the fact that two of these guys are still bigger than I am.

Others had more pedestrian monikers like Charlie, Chuck, Denny, Ronnie, Rick, Louie, Erv, Marv, Mel or Jack.

Several of us — including me — dressed in wigs, tights and our moms’ brassieres to perform a ballet dance for the Sophomore Variety Show. The biggest and less-maneuverable members of our company stood guard outside the auditorium when we rehearsed, so we could keep it a secret.

A ballet student coached us, and we were great. Not one of us even cracked a smile through the whole routine.

People who were there said they’d never heard a crowd reaction like it — even at Keyser-Piedmont basketball games — and, in fact, we did most of it without being able to hear our music, which was cranked up to the maximum on loudspeakers around the stage.

Several of those boys went to Vietnam. All but one — Jim Bosley — came back alive, but in varying degrees of mental and physical well-being.

A few others have died without benefit of war. Some are still healthy as horses, others not so much. Fact is, that picture could have been the last ever taken of me, because I myself almost died three months later.

Some I see at Swingin’ Sixties reunions and have to ask their names, others I recognize instantly.

One I ran into on occasion at The Royal Restaurant in Keyser, and we always spoke to each other. Finally, I said to him, “I know you. Who are you?”

I grimaced when he told me, for he and I had been good friends ... but more than 40 years had passed, and we hadn’t seen each other since.

We both asked the obvious question: What have you been doing all this time?

Part of his life had been spent on a destroyer that sailed up and down the coast of Vietnam.

I shook his hand and said, “Welcome Home.”

The look on his face puzzled me, but I’ve seen the same expression so many times since then that I now recognize it for what it is.

A couple of weeks later, we met again, so I asked him about that.

“All these years,” he said, “you’re only the second person that ever welcomed me home.” Our friendship took up where it left off.

One of my buddies on that team was a kid I tried to strangle when we were in first grade. Why, I have no idea, but I had him down on the floor and was choking the you-know-what out of him when Miss Knott grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and whaled the tar out of me.

Teachers could do that, back then.

Say what you want about corporal punishment, but for all the times since then that I have been tempted to throttle another human being, not once have I ever tried to do it.

After high school, most of us went our separate ways, but a few hung around town long enough to continue our friendships.

The time we paid a late-night visit to what used to be called a greasy spoon, one of my buddies off that team looked at his hamburger and hollered at the top of his voice, “This (hideously unprintable term) is GRAY!”

He threw it against the wall, where it stuck.

You never in your life saw two cars full of guys in various states of sobriety throw money on the table and scramble for the door that fast. (I might add that when we used to play touch football, the hamburger-heaver did so wearing flipflops.)

One of my former teammates sat next to me in freshman biology at Potomac State College.

We had been friends since first grade and sat near the back of the room, which was large enough to hold a hundred or more students.

The textbook was the same I’d used in high school biology, and class was at 8 a.m.

I told my buddy that each time I fell asleep and started to snore, I would buy him a beer if he woke me up.

We drank many beers together.

He came home briefly a year or so ago after a death in his family, and I went to pay my respects at the funeral home.

It was like we’d never been apart. He remembered saving me from myself when I started to snore, and the time we took the hood off an old junk car and towed it to Coach Lough’s farm to use it for a sled. He also remembered me trying to strangle our friend.

He reminded me about some things I’d forgotten, and I returned the favor.

I probably could tell you at least one story about almost every guy in that photo — including, especially, Coach Clark.

Most I will keep to myself, for a variety of reasons. Some stories are actually too good to share. Others wouldn’t be understood by those who weren’t there when they happened. A few are just too close to the heart.

Besides, most of those guys are still alive — and they could tell you stories about me.

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