Of course we
caught him immediately and crushed him to the earth in a pile of bodies. But
the ball trickled away, someone else picked it up, and instantly we were up and
after him crying, "Kill him! Slaughter him! Slaughter the man with the
game was a rough one, accounting for bleeding heads, knees and ruined trousers,
but a good slaughter man, an artist of rare balance and agility, could avoid
the pack for long stretches of time. No one, however, could avoid the
slaughterers forever. When one gutsy runner went down in an avalanche of
tacklers and stayed down, to spend most of fourth grade in traction, the game
was declared disgusting, brutish and illegal by the playground instructors.
Thus it was we lost another chase sport, but by this time we were growing older
and supposedly more mature. We were being funneled into legitimate, disciplined
The chases of
early days began to seem to many a puerile, annoying form of entertainment—a
function without redeeming value. But this proved to be untrue. The
chase-trained boys of my old neighborhood turned out to be some of the finest
athletes and competitors in local high school history.
the midnight firecracker thrower, turned in his Halloween costume for a track
suit and ran a 9.9 in the 100 and broad-jumped nearly 23 feet. As an
all-conference halfback on the Richwoods High football team, he averaged almost
eight yards a carry his senior year, specializing in breakaway touchdown runs.
I would watch him dodge through the line, reversing, spinning and darting, and
I knew he wasn't avoiding tacklers or following blocks but cutting around
fences and blackberry bushes in a mad dash through a moonlit field.
The old October
cowboy, the boy who owned the firecracker Greggie threw, turned into a red-hot
low hurdles man in high school. For him every hurdle was a rotting log and
every finishing string was a thicket of safety.
One of the
strongest, quickest of us in slaughter-the-man-with-the-ball days developed
into an adroit discus thrower and shotputter. Some of the best slaughterers
became bone-on-bone tacklers on the gridiron. Even the lesser athletes, some of
the mollusk-like hiders in our cross-country hide-and-go-seek games, had
learned from the theory of the chase. They knew, how to sit patiently on the
bench at football and basketball games waiting for that huge margin of points
or for that final buzzer—the signal that the seeker had gone home and the
contest was over.
developed an eclectic system of jumping, running, dodging and thinking that
enabled me to perform well in basketball and football. I played cornerback at
Northwestern University in a defensive secondary that played man-to-man
coverage 90% of the time. Mostly we were kept running like racehorses, but
during the infrequent lulls we knelt in the grass and talked about those times
when we were very young. All-America Safety Eric Hutchinson, Left Cornerback
Jack Dustin, Strong Safety Mike Coughlin and myself would discuss the concept
of the chase, finding it remarkable that each of us had experienced similar
episodes. Playing defensive back, we decided, was like a reverse form of the
chase. We backed away from flankers and split ends as though they were rabid
The meaning of
all this is not that the chase is a guaranteed producer of athletes, but that
it is a genuine form of athletic endeavor, one which lurks in the roots of most
organized sports. Unfortunately, the chase is not recognized for its real
worth. It is considered something that only kids do, something tolerated only
By the time I had
read about David Balfour in Kidnapped, about Robin Hood and Little John, about
Victor Hugo's Jean Valjean and all the other great chase men of literature, I
realized it was too late, that the chase was an adventure relegated to the
realm of children and fantasy.
A friend of mine
vividly made the point for me a while ago. "I was standing on the sidewalk
by my house and this guy comes running by full speed," he said. "The
guy calls, 'Hi, Bobbie.' and I say, 'Hi, Ed, what's the hurry?' But he just
keeps running right around the corner. A few seconds later a cop car squeals
past, turns down the street and skids to a halt. I hear two gunshots, and then
they're pulling Ed out of the alley with handcuffs on, and they throw him in
the back and roar off again. How things change."