I had the sense of a portcullis down. On the other side of the imaginary bars the linemen were poised, the light glistening off their helmets; behind them the linebackers were drawn in close. Joe Schmidt was just opposite me, the big number 56 shining on his white jersey, jumping back and forth in quick, choppy steps, his hands poised in front of him, and he was calling out the defensive code words—colors they happened to be, "blue! blue! blue!" which indicated a variety of zone coverage or "red!red!red!" which designated man-on-man coverage. The defensive code words varied. When Jim Ninowski, a former Lion quarterback, was traded from Detroit to Cleveland, the defensive signals, which Ninowski knew, of course, had to be changed when the two teams met—from colors to girls' names, it was decided. One of them was Ninowski's young wife's name—Judy, I think it was. He would call a play in the huddle and come up behind his center to hear the linebackers across the line all hollering "Judy! Judy! Judy!" The Lions hoped that this would jar him somewhat. I had only the vaguest idea what these code words meant and could not have used such knowledge to advantage, since I knew no checkoff plays. "Jumbo!" was the only cry I had an ear cocked for—the linebackers' signal that the quarterback rush was on, the red dog.
I cleared my throat and began the signals. The count begins with three meaningless numbers. I have a sort of New England cosmopolitan accent, often mistaken for an English accent, and the Lions delighted in imitating my signal calls—"fawty-fowah! fawty-tew!" I'd hear them yelling in the shower after practice—so I avoided such numbers. I had a harmless non-accent number ready at hand to start the series: 16.
"Set!" I called out, my voice loud and astonishing to hear, as if it belonged to someone shouting into the ear holes of my helmet, "16, 66, 55, hut one, hut two, hut three," and at "three" the ball slapped back into my palm. The lines cracked together with a yawp and smack of pads and gear, and I had the sense of quick, heavy movement as I turned for the backfield. Not having taken more than a step, I was hit hard from the side, and as I gasped, the ball was jarred loose.
My first thought was that at the snap of the ball the right side of the line had been engulfed as I turned and stepped back for the hand-off. Someone, I assumed, had messed up on the assignments designated by the mysterious code words "near o pinch." In fact, my own man had bowled me over—John Gordy, whose assignment as offensive guard was to pull from his position and join the interference on the far side of the center. He was required to pull back and travel at a great clip parallel to the line of scrimmage to get out in front of the runner, his route theoretically passing between me and the center. But the creaking execution of my turn put me in his path, a rare sight for Gordy to see, his own quarterback blocking the way, like coming around a corner in a high-speed car to find a moose ambling across the center line. He careened off me, jarring the ball loose, and I stumbled after it, hauling it under me five yards back of the line of scrimmage, hearing the rush of feet and the heavy jarring and wheezing of the blockers fending off the defense, a great roar coming up from the crowd and, above it, a relief to hear, the shrilling of the referee's whistle.
It was not new for me to be hit down by my own people. At Cranbrook I was knocked down all the time by players on the offense—the play patterns run with such speed along routes so carefully defined that each player had to do everything right and at the proper speed for the play not to break down in its making. I was often reminded of movie film clips in which the process of a porcelain vase, say, being dropped by a butler and smashed, is shown in reverse, so that the pieces pick up off the floor and soar up to the butler's hand, each piece on a predestined route, sudden perfection out of chaos. Often it did not take more than an inch or so offline to throw a play out of kilter. On one occasion, while practicing hand-off plays to the fullback, I had my chin hanging out just a bit too far, something wrong with my posture, and Pietrosante's shoulder pad caught it like a punch as he went by, and I spun slowly to the ground, grabbing at my jaw. Carl Brettschneider, one of the linebackers, said that afternoon: "The defense is going to rack you up one of these days—that is, if your own team would let you stand long enough for us defense guys to get at you. It's aggravating to bust through and find that you've already been laid flat by your own guys."
The referee took the ball from me and set it down. Whitlow was calling the huddle together. My confidence had not gone. Next on my list was the 93 pass, a play that I had worked successfully in the Cranbrook scrimmages. In the huddle I called with considerable enthusiasm, "All right! All right! Here we go!"
"Keep your voice down," said a voice. "You'll tip the play."
I leaned in on them and said, "Green right ["green" designated a pass play, "right" put the flanker to the right side], three right [which put the three back to the right], 93 [indicating the two primary receivers: 9 the right end, and 3 the 3 back] on three! Break!" The clap of hands again in unison, then the team hurried past me up to the line, and I walked briskly up behind Whitlow.
I knew exactly how the play was going to develop—back those seven yards into the defensive pocket for the couple of seconds it was supposed to hold, and Pietrosante, the 3 back, would go down in his pattern, 10 yards straight, then cut over the middle, and I would hit him.