But when they
played together on defense they were blatantly violent. They would go down with
the intended pass receiver on the first pattern, rise gracefully with him to
snag the ball and then, when everything seemed to be going nicely according to
the rules, all hell would break loose. An unseen hip, a subtle shove and the
receiver was usually wondering why he came to play. After that he generally
forgot about the ball and had eyes only for them.
But there was
something they liked even better. They'd go down and hang off just a little so
the receiver was sure he had them beat. Then when the ball came floating down
they'd take a bigger step and casually tip it away. Then they'd say, "Gee,
that's too bad. You almost got that one." The fight would start in earnest
I didn't discover
any of this, or what kind of a game the Harrison Street Athletic Club played,
until the first exhibition game. I should have known right away, when I saw
that rush line working out down at the other end of the field at the first
practice, but I didn't. I figured it was just a bunch of guys who watched a lot
of television on Sundays and wanted to try some of it out, or recapture some of
their youth, or maybe work back into shape, but it wasn't any of those things.
If I'd thought about it I would have been suspicious, because all of our games
were set for Sunday afternoons and nobody could watch television. On Sunday
afternoons they had something more important to do than watch pro football.
Anyway, in that
exhibition game we got the ball first and I trotted out on the field after the
kickoff, figuring I'd just feel them out a little in the short secondary, work
the flats a little to see if I could have them when I needed them. I called a
simple down and out for the tight end with the flanker through first to clear
We broke the
huddle, went up to the line, and I started cadence. "Ready, set, hut,
hut...," and Howie sent the ball back just perfect. I went back to set up,
looking left, and then turned and looked right to see this quick little guy in
an orange shirt hanging just back of the Tree, waiting for the interception.
Then I looked to the flanker, but he wasn't looking, so I just stopped and
decided to eat it. We were on our own 35, and I wasn't worried. Guys were
hitting each other all around me, and I saw Howie move right and pick one up
and cut him at the knees. That was when something hit me in the back. I was
facing a little to the right and suddenly I was going down, too fast to get my
hands out, flat, with the ball rolling off somewhere. I couldn't breathe, and I
was sure that I was going to die, that my back was broken and my ribs were
puncturing my lungs.
What had happened
was that I had been "touched." That was the name of the game, and that
was what had happened. Their right end had beaten our blocker and circled a
little and gotten me. And I learned right then what the game was all about.
Somewhere in the
folklore of touch football the realization had come that the big trouble with
the game was that there was always an argument about whether somebody had been
touched with two hands or not, and somewhere in the past the method for
avoiding that argument had been discovered. There was no doubt about it in my
case. I had been touched with two hands, and it felt like they were still in
me. But nobody had anything to say, except Howie when he helped me up.
"You got to
release quicker," he said.
When you got
touched in that league you stayed touched, and nobody ever argued about it.
Maybe there would be a question about your going out of bounds, or interference
or first down, but never about whether the guy with the ball had been touched.
This always worked, because in this game when your knee hit the ground the play
was over, and if you were flat out on the grass there was never any doubt about
whether or not your knee had touched the ground. It was a failsafe system, and
nobody ever worried about it, not for a moment.
It's true it was
called "two-handed touch" and the two hands were important. But in the
bigger picture of the game "touch" was a useful euphemism. If the
authorities knew what really went on in one of those touch games they would
have locked us up for playing it.