Our background was supposed to be Irish-English-German-Jewish. I am not sure how the combination worked. I know one of my grandmothers in New York kept a kosher house, but how strict could she have been if she married a gentile?
We were never a close family. My father, a sign painter, worked long hours, and I didn't get to know him. In arguments between him and my mother I sided with my mother. I reflected her thinking. I would say things the way she said them. Like, "Sex is a beautiful thing when you're married." I can see now where a statement like that wouldn't sound too good to the guys. I was thought of as a sissy when I was a kid.
I became obsessed with the need to be one of the guys, to be an athlete. I was small but I was fearless. I tackled anything and anybody. I was like a maniac. I was ridiculous. But I did become good enough to make all-state in basketball and letter in football and baseball. The school paper referred to me as the High-Flying Flea. There were, however, some torturing times.
When I failed I overreacted. As a 4'11" high school baseball player, I hit a line drive to right for an apparent base hit but was so taken with the sight of it that I was late going to first. I was thrown out. I broke down and cried on the field.
In a JV basketball game, I stole a pass and, all alone, dribbled in for the basket. I dribbled too far. When I went up for the shot the ball hit the bottom of the backboard. After the game I sat in the locker room, picking my toes, brooding. The varsity game started. When the varsity players came in at the half I was still picking my toes.
Age did not cure me. Once, when I missed an extra point and a field goal for the New Bedford Sweepers, I tried to walk home—65 miles to Boston. I had my duffel bag with my pads and helmet slung over my shoulder. Players stopped and offered me rides, but I refused. One of them, Brian McNeeley, whose brother Tom was a heavyweight contender, tried to force me. He called me names. He chased me into the woods, but I was too fast for him. I hid out. After that, whenever a car stopped I ran into the woods. I walked more than 20 miles before a state trooper put his light on me and took me the rest of the way. It was 4 a.m.
When I made it to the Bills in 1966 and we lost our first game I couldn't understand the other players taking it so lightly. One of them said, "Shake it off, Booth, we've got 13 to go." I wanted to hit him. I had to do something. I had always pictured big-league players riding back to their hotels in taxis. I equated taxi rides with the big leagues. So when all Bills took cabs to the hotel I took a bus.
That was the year I missed the 23-yard field goal. We were playing San Diego in Buffalo. The league race was hot. We trailed 17-3 at the half. Daryle Lamonica came in for Kemp and drove us to two touchdowns, tying the game. With a minute left we got the ball and started to move again. There were six seconds on the clock when I went in for the field goal. I lined it up hastily. I shouldn't have—the clock was stopped—but before I knew it Lamonica had the ball on the ground. I didn't rush the kick. I hit it square. But I had aimed wrong. It missed by inches.
I didn't hear the boos at first. I was in shock. I couldn't believe I could miss such an easy kick. I wanted to get the ball back. I had a vision of it being on an elastic band, coming back to me, giving me another chance.
The clock had run out, and the fans were booing their way to the exits. I wanted to holler, "Don't go. I can make it from here. I'll make it 100 times if you'll stay. I'll show you my clipboard, my stats. I can make 40 in a row. I can make 50 in a row!"