It was a lovely evening—a cool summer breeze coming across the wire fence at the open end of the field out of the remnants of a sunset splayed above a horizon of flat farmlands. Those fields close to the stadium were crowded with cars, and more were arriving. The stands, which rose up 20 or 30 rows, ran along the sidelines, and quartered behind them four steel towers stood into the hazeless sky, their arc lights on and collecting clouds of insects. A band shell for concerts stood at the closed end of the field, beyond it a junkyard with auto hulks crushed flat and piled up like shingles around a gigantic hydraulic press.
I joined the circle of calisthenics being led by Terry Barr, the captain of the Lions' offensive unit—the jumping jacks, the stretching exercises, the pushups—all of us bellowing out the cadences and grateful to be active. The teams then split up and went to their respective ends of the field, the offensive unit at the junkyard end, those mournful stacks filling my vision every time I turned. I stood in with Earl Morrall and Milt Plum, standing beside Morrall to catch Plum's passes and shovel the ball underhand to Morrall. To protect his fingers from being jammed, a quarterback rarely catches a football for himself. He has a teammate with him to catch the incoming tosses. Occasionally I threw the ball to my opposite number standing beside Plum, trying to emulate that sharp perfect spin both of the quarterbacks put on the ball. I was rarely able to do it properly. My passes had a built-in wobble, not serious, but sufficient for some of the Lions to make quacking sounds when I threw a football, thus drawing attention to its ducklike flight.
A series of contests began, part of the pregame show—punting competitions, passing for accuracy, sprint races, place-kicking—and while these were going on I practiced my plays under the shadow of the band shell. Bob Whitlow centering the ball and Terry Barr on hand to advise. I practiced the spins and the hand-offs, trying particularly the maneuvers of the 26 near 0 pinch, that being the first play I would call in the huddle.
George Wilson, the head coach, came by and watched for a while. He seemed very serious, not a glimmer of warmth on his deeply tanned face.
I called some signals and Whitlow centered the ball. I fumbled it. "My starting quarterback," Wilson said as I scrambled around, trying to retrieve the ball.
Receiving the pass from center as a T formation quarterback is not the simple and effortless business it appears, and it was certainly an unfamiliar experience for me until I reached the Lions. I knew so little when Coach Wilson called me and sent me in to run my first play at the Cranbrook training camp that after a few tentative steps toward Jim Martin, the center that day, who was patiently bent waiting over the ball, I suddenly blurted out: "Coach, I don't know where to put my—I just don't know...."
The coaches all crowded around to advise, and together we moved up on Martin, who was now peering nervously over his shoulder like a cow about to be milked.
It was demonstrated to me: the right hand, the top of it, rests up against the center's backside, in under it as he bends over the ball—medically, the perineum, the pelvic floor, just down from the base of the spine—with the hand lifted and applying enough pressure for the center to know where it is, exactly, so he can swing the ball there with power. The quarterback's left hand is hinged with the right, the heels and thumbs together, the angle between the two kept sufficiently wide for the ball to slap flush against the right hand and the laces turned so they automatically land right under the fingertips. The ball is now set for throwing, as the left closes behind it for control. A few quarterbacks reverse the position of the hands, keeping the left hand on top. Otto Graham of the Browns was a notable example, and he always assumed the habit was a carryover from his early baseball-playing days, catching the ball with the left hand and trapping it with the right.
At the signal the center swings the ball back and up, generating as much power as he can. His rump bucks with the effort, and the ball slams into the quarterback's palm with a pop that can be heard across a practice field. At Notre Dame, I was told, the image that the coaches fixed in the centers' minds was that of making the quarterback's hand bleed. "Make that boy bleed!" the coaches shouted at them. I tried receiving the snap a few times from Martin, everyone standing around and taking it easy. My left hand got in the way the first time, so my fingers got jammed when Martin brought the ball up, and I yelped and skittered away, running in small aimless circles until the pain began to let loose. I kept the angle between my hands wide after that, and I got used to receiving the snap after a while, practicing as much as I could with anyone who would center me the ball.
It never came easily to me, though and Wilson snorted when I dropped Whitlow's snap. He looked gloomily up at the arc lights.