I ended up with a team known as the IRA, so named because the organizer-manager-coach-captain—a tough Irishman from Hell's Kitchen in New York City—was reputed to have been a gunrunner for the Irish Republican Army. Among the inmate population we were simply called the Irish. For several reasons the IRA was the worst team in the place. Our leader, Gene, knew little about football and made no effort to augment his knowledge. His dictatorial manner also scared away many good prospects. In my first season, 1961, we didn't win a game or score a point. We may have made a first down, but I don't recall it.
Fortunately, in the off-season Gunrunner Gene was paroled. Since I had played high school football and possessed a rudimentary knowledge of plays and defensive alignments, my teammates elected me player-coach. Most of them had never played the sport, so I had to begin with the basics. Under Gunrunner Gene's leadership we had had no set plays. We simply huddled and Gene would say, "Andy, off right tackle," or "Benny and Al go deep and I'll throw you one." No one had specific blocking assignments; everyone sort of picked out someone to hit once the ball was snapped.
We had some good raw material—several big strong guys who each pumped iron and possessed the temperament of a wounded grizzly. All they lacked was technique and a team philosophy, i.e., every man had a specific job on each play, and if everyone carried out his assignment—theoretically, at least—every play would go for a touchdown. Lacking a breakaway runner or an explosive passer-receiver combination, I decided to concentrate on basic three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust possession football. Nothing fancy. Which meant, above all, I needed a solid line.
Our line didn't become The Seven Blocks of Granite during that 1962 campaign, so our winless streak continued. But we did make 14 first downs in the eight-game schedule, and if it hadn't been for a couple of fumbles, we might have scored a touchdown. Also, we progressed from minus net yardage to plus yardage—not many plus yards, granted, but we were rebuilding.
Despite our obvious improvement, the smart money made us overwhelming choices to again occupy the cellar in '63. A gutsy bettor could get 3 to 1 (cartons of cigarettes) that the Irish would be not only winless again but scoreless as well. Except for losing our top receiver—a guy named Skip, who was clouted with a mop wringer in a fight—our roster remained pretty much intact. It proved to be a landmark year. No, we didn't win any games, but we scored a touchdown.
Scoring a TD was a powerful motivator. We thought we were on the verge of being taken seriously. Unable to turn off the adrenaline, a few of us continued working out at the conclusion of that momentous season. At first only five or six guys tossed the ball around, but each day a few more stopped by, and within a week the entire Irish team was practicing. While the players on the rest of the teams stashed their gear in a corner of their cells and hunkered down for the winter, we Irish gathered for an hour each weekday on that barren earth and honed our, uh, skills. These impromptu workouts evolved into full-dress (figuratively speaking) scrimmages every Saturday. Throughout that long winter, in snow and temperatures that occasionally dropped below zero, we plugged away in our quest for respectability.
The 1964 season was, so to speak, my senior year; I would be getting out the following June. Basically, we were the same team that hadn't won a game the previous year. Our off-season practice certainly improved us, even if we weren't quite ready for prime-time news. No matter. We knew we were better than, well, better than before. The '64 campaign was launched with considerable optimism.
We lost our first seven games, but we never got blown out. A couple of breaks and we could have won maybe two of them. And we crossed pay dirt four times in those seven games. Almost a successful year right there. Our finale was against the mighty Spartans, a bunch of wise guy mafiosi who hadn't lost in years.
We received the Spartans' opening kickoff on a sunny November afternoon. Our highest aspiration was to prevent a rout. Although we chanted the obligatory rhetoric in our pregame huddle—"These guys ain't God!" I recall someone saying—we were all aware that they were, in Green Haven football, His equivalent.
I received the kickoff at the edge of the sidewalk—our goal line—and proceeded up the middle. I passed the 20-, the 30-, the 40-yard lines. I was accustomed to being met by an avalanche of tacklers way before this, but as I passed midfield I saw no one between me and the goal line. An open field was such an unfamiliar sight that I figured there must have been a whistle or a flag. I reached the goal line untouched, falling into the middle of a card game. I clutched the ball in my right arm and rested my left against the wooden table. The four card players glanced up, and one of them said, "Nice run, man."