Was it Destiny?
It seems I wanted to be a professional football player from the time I understood what the game was all about. That was probably when I was 5 years old. And, I wasn’t a Viking fan at that point in my life. In fact, I lived in Houston and was an Oiler fan because I didn’t even understand that I was born in Minnesota, or what a Minnesota Viking was.
I started my football career in the little league in 4th grade, and my first position was to be at Quarterback. Yes, sir (and ma’am), I began as QB1. By now, my family had moved to Dallas, and I think our team name was the Tigers. We were coached by Hall of Fame receiver Lance Alworth, who had just recently retired after winning a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys.
Coach Alworth put me in as the signal caller, not because I was a remarkable specimen of athletic talent. Nope, when he called for volunteers to play the position, seems that 20 guys took a step back, and I missed the memo and stayed in place and had “volunteered”. It seems at the age of 10, most self-respecting young men don’t want to place their hands under the backside of another dude’s rear-end.
After a few practices, I was really getting the hang of it. In that era, you were mainly going to hand the ball off to your tailback or fullback, and you might pass the ball 5 or 6 times. If you completed two, you had experienced a “big” passing day.
I was relatively accurate, and I was always right where I was supposed to be with the ball. I never fumbled, and now it was time to show my stuff in a real game.
Sometimes Your Best Quarterbacking is Done at Another Position
I remember to this day how nervous I was to be playing in my first football game. My parents were there, as were my older brothers – who had become pretty good athletes themselves. Into the second quarter, I had guided my team to an 8-0 lead (no kicking PATs at that age), but then things went all wrong. On a simple “belly” play, where I was to hand the ball off to my fullback on the right side over the center, I turned and held the ball out right where it was supposed to be. The fullback went to the left side, and instead of instinctually tucking the ball and getting the few yards I could, I was frozen in time, only remembering Coach Alworth saying, “You just make sure you put that ball where you are supposed to, and your running back will do the rest.” So, I did just that. I held the ball out there on the right side for what seemed an eternity, until, finally, a defender took the ball from my and raced the other way for a touchdown.
Lance’s mouth was gaping open when I got back to the sidelines. He said nothing, and on the next series, I was at Wide Receiver (actually called Split End back then) and someone else had ascended to QB1. My QB career was over. I was just another JaMarcus Russell, with so much unrealized potential, and had failed my Hall of Fame coach.
In the Trenches
As my little league years rolled on, I had gotten quite a bit bigger. In fact, I had exceeded the maximum weight I could legally play in the backfield when I surpassed 100 pounds. So, I decided, the next best thing to a skill-position, was to become the Center on the offensive line. I rationalized that, there, my impact would be huge. No play could be completed without me, and I would touch the ball on every offensive down.
It was “home” for me for the next 6 years of Junior High and High School, where I held down that starting spot.
Because I had played skill positions and was big, but not fat, I was allowed to be a pulling center, and was fast enough to get into the secondary to block safeties on running plays. It was the perfect fit.
Going Both Ways
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was common for football players to start on offense and defense. Although my high school graduated over 1,200 per year, and we had almost 100 players on the Varsity football squad, only about 15-20 of us played significant minutes in the games. On defense, I was a Middle Linebacker, while I remained at my Center position on offense.
I played at Pearce High School, and due to our sheer student body size, we played against the best of Texas. Friday Night Lights is a real thing in Texas, except most hear about the small town teams where the city closes shop and rolls-up the sidewalks to watch the Friday night tilt for their squad. But, in big cities, it is big money. We consistently drew over 5,000 per game, and played twice at Texas Stadium (Cowboys) in front of as many as 30,000 people.
Our offense was a modified veer offense. As the Center, it got exhausting, because the QB was supposed to literally crouch down to the Center’s back and almost lay his head and body on you to make it harder for defense to read his planned movements. Imagine playing all 48 minutes of a game, and having some 170-pound dude laying on your back half the game too.
Hydrating? Forget about it. Back then, you didn’t get water based on need or extreme heat. You got it based on a pre-season schedule that called for one water break at practice per week. Typically, it was on a Wednesday, when you installed the game plan at full speed for Friday night. We are lucky no one of died, but strangely, none of us had any significant problems with the Texas heat.
Win Some, Lose Some
In the early 1980s. there was no expanded high school playoffs. The districts had not yet figured out how lucrative more teams in the playoffs could be. As a result, my three years of varsity ball (two years starting) resulted in more wins than losses, but since we never won our district, we never appeared in the playoffs.
One of our players was Ray Childress, who would go on to become a multi-time All-Pro player for the Houston Oilers. He was 6’6″ tall at that point and about 245lbs with a full set of 6-pack abs. He was massive in an era when most D-Linemen coming out of high school, were maybe 210-220lbs. Of course, he was a Defensive Tackle, so guess who got to block him? The Center! But, here is something unexpected, he really was not that good yet at that point. Big as he was, he did not realize how to use his natural abilities and size, and so he could be schemed against and beaten by smaller blockers. He got lots of recruiters and media attention, and ultimately signed to go to Texas A&M.
The rest of us, we simply were not good enough for Division I football, and we knew it.
Letting Go of a Dream
After starting the game of football way too young, by my senior year in high school, my body was showing signs of breaking down. My knees ached, and the thought of 3-hour daily practices in the heat gave me a nauseating feeling most days later in High School. Saturdays after games were spent at the school working out, watching film, and nursing injuries from the night before. Mainly, they had us get there at 7:30am to make sure we were not drinking and messing with drugs after games.
But, the alcohol and drug abuse was pretty extreme anyway. Most drank, and many smoked pot to take the edge off after games. Worse than that, one of our player’s dads was a physician, and he was administering steroids to many of the lineman. No one had any idea what kind of negative impact steroids could have at that time. They were needle-injected, and I did not use them because I am not fond of needles.
But, enough did take them that their strength and size was notably advanced. I was 6’3″ and 215lbs, which was plenty big for both Center and LB in 1981. Some of my linemates had bulked up to 250 or 260 in a matter of months. One player, the son of the physician administering the (not then illegal) drugs, got hideously large with a misshapen head. He would contract cancer in 12th grade and died just 2 years after that – we all feel steroids played a big part in his demise.
The routine had gotten monotonous, and the dreams of life of just football just started to fade away. I could still get plenty jacked up for games, and loved every minute of it.
I had interceptions and fumble recoveries. I had highlight reel sacks of opposing quarterbacks (although only still photos survive of that time), and I even scored once.
But, as November 1981 rolled around, and we faced our final game of my senior season, I had made the decision in my mind that I would NOT accept a Division II (now Division 1-AA) offer to play linebacker, and I would end my career on a cold night in Greenville, Texas.
Turn Out the Lights
We lost that final game on the road, in unseasonably cold 19-degree weather in East Texas. Knowing it was my last game in pads, I wanted to go out with a bang. I put it all on the line that night, and finished with about 8 solo tackles, 2 sacks and a fumble recovery.
When the final horn (not a gun) sounded to end the game, I had nothing left. I had put it all out there, and left it on the field. I was exhausted.
But, when the game ended, I didn’t go shake hands with opposing players as was the normal protocol. No, instead, I went to our bench, where I had spent not one minute sitting in 2 years, and just sat down. To me, there was no sound, it just got really quiet. I looked around, and visualized all the good times I had had in the sport and on the field, and then broke down and cried. I knew an era was over, and I would never put the uniform on again. I was proud of what I had accomplished, but so sad to have it end.
Years later, Walter Payton would play his last game as a Chicago Bear, and at the end of a playoff game, he too would sit on the bench after the game and ponder what he had done. I completely understood what he must have been feeling.
It is hard to explain the loss you feel for a simple game. It becomes life for such a long time, it’s hard to let go.
With just one light-stand remaining lit in the stadium, our QB and my best friend, came and got me from the bench to go shower and go home.
I removed the shoes from that game, and today, they remain in my closet, with the tape still on them, looking exactly as they had on that last high school play over 30 years ago.
My dream was over, and it was time for a new life chapter.
I accepted a partial track scholarship to attend SMU in 1982. I was a discus thrower, and loved the sport. It was much less taxing on the body, but still took a lot of time to hone the craft. I liked the individual competition.
However, at the time, SMU was a national powerhouse in football. A top 15 team from 1980 – 1986, and top 5 in 1982. We had the likes of Eric Dickerson and Craig James in the backfield and a defense full of future NFL players.
Yet, we were a school of only 6,000 full time students, and a program of that size traditionally can’t field a strong Division I program against the 50,000 campus sizes of Texas, Texas A&M and the others of the, then, Southwest Conference.
As a result, the team size was smaller, and in order to try to get the right reps for the starting players to compete effectively on the D1 level, the football coaches recruited a couple of the larger discus, shot put and hammer throwers to join the team as scout players. They did not pick us because they thought we’d make any meaningful game day impact on the winning cause, rather, they needed bodies.
The criteria? If you had played High School football and had started, you were given a physical and if you passed, you were automatically accepted. The physical was little more than seeing if you could make fog on a mirror with you breathed. The benefit you’d get in return? The upscale dinning benefits that other players got, and REAL flexible class schedules with liberal attendance. While I never really took advantage of the latter perk, it was nice to have every once in a while.
There was cheating going on all around us. Players literally being paid salaries. Recreational drug usage was there too. I never saw many of my teammates in classes. But, for those who saw the ESPN 30 for 30 expose “Pony Express” about the Death Penalty scandal of SMU, it is all real, but when you live it, you don’t realize how bad it is, as it kept culminating a little at a time. I never received any monetary benefit. Not because I wouldn’t have welcomed it, rather I was not a significant player who warranted any financial consideration.
How bad did we flaunt our transgressions? Ever see those bios they put on screen during college games that gives height, weight, hometown and college major? My roommate’s listed major was “Forestry” – which was not even offered at SMU!
My Job Was Simple
I played the scout team in practice to allow the 2nd and 3rd team offenses to get used to the looks that the likes of Baylor, Texas, A&M, Houston, Arkansas and other Southwest conference teams would throw at us. It wasn’t really any harder for my role than High School had been, but your commitment in the fall to the sport was AT LEAST three hours per day.
I was able to be a part of a team that finished #2 in the nation after beating Dan Marino’s Pitt Panthers in the Cotton Bowl following the 1982 season. I did not play one play in that game. But, it was cool to be part of that squad.
I would serve the role for one more season, but the benefits were not worth the time investment. I knew I would never play any meaningful role on the team, and that could not justify so many hours invested at the expense of social life. I played in a few games on special teams in season 2, but I just did not have the desire to participate in the practices if I couldn’t really play much in games.
Walking away from the game a second time was much easier, but I am forever grateful for the experience it gave me.
The Reminder of Football Remains Constant
In all, I had played 12 years of competitive football – about 5 less than the average NFL player who plays at a much higher level with much more punishment. Many fans today say that players who suffer from injuries and concussions, “know the risks, and we should not feel sorry for them”. That is a very cold assessment. I can tell you in the 1980s, I definitely did not know the risks. Couple that with the draw to play football at the highest level is like an intoxicating drug. You know it is a violent sport, but it is in your very core. You not only want to play the game – you have to play the game.
The pain that is inflicted on your body is immense, even if you don’t know it then. I broke both thumbs (on separate occasions in the same year) in half!!! They were taped up and I continued to play. Both now are arthritic due to the injuries sustained. I have had 7 knee surgeries since I last played football, and my shoulder has been rebuilt with 4 surgical steel pins placed inside to hold it together. I broke an ankle, I broke my femur (think EJ Henderson’s gruesome injury), and I have had stitches to my chin, eyebrow and arms from on the field punishment. I am sure I had concussions, but we just called that “getting your bell rung” and we just got a drink of water and we were good to go. I suffer no obvious effects today from concussions.
But, when the lights go out on careers of Viking greats like Antoine Winfield, or Jared Allen, or Kevin Williams, or even Chad Greenway and Adrian Peterson, keep in mind about what they sacrificed to play at an elite level. A level better than I could have ever imagined. They too will suffer the injury effects later in life. But they gave it their all on the field for the teammates and the fans. They each deserve our respect for what they sacrificed.
Sure, money is big, but the tradeoff is big too.
So, when you next see a player alone in despair on a bench at the end of the game, keep in mind, it is not “just a game” to them. It is their very life, and a very short one it is.
And, knowing all those risks, at 52 years of age today, I still recall the beauty of football when I smell the grass in the summer. As I stood in Mankato last July, smelling that grass on the practice field, I realized that, with all the injuries and aches and pains I have today – I’d do it all over again, and still wish I had realized my dream of being an NFL player.