Still I had a great reluctance about asking the quarterbacks to throw to me. Once when Bradshaw was working his arm back into shape I ran out and he underthrew me. I may be the only person of my speed ever to be underthrown by Terry Bradshaw. I think he was afraid I would fly apart if he hit me. Or maybe I looked even slower than I was. At any rate I knew it wasn't doing his timing any good, throwing to me. So I never asked him to throw to me again. Photographer Walter Iooss did, though, and he barely got his hands up in time. "All of a sudden the ball was just there," he reported. "The ball came in a line."
In Palm Springs preparing for the playoff game with Oakland, the Steelers were very loose. They were usually loose, but in Palm Springs there was a lassitude, almost, in the air. Which Noll, as you can imagine, did not approve of. When Guard Moon Mullins pulled too slowly for his taste, though the rest of the offensive line thought Moon was pulling hard, Noll said in a very hard voice, "If you can't run any faster than that, maybe we've got the wrong people out here."
But generally the tone of things was very relaxed in Palm Springs, and I was spending even more time than usual with the players, since they didn't have homes to go to. One afternoon in practice I found myself catching up for Bradshaw. When quarterbacks warm up, they have someone else catch the ball when it is thrown back, so as not to take a chance on hurting their fingers. Bradshaw was throwing to someone next to Hanratty and Hanratty was throwing to me.
One problem was that I was wearing street clothes, including a shoe whose crepe sole was loose and flapping. Another problem was that I have never been able to throw a football very well. I have a good arm in softball. Ask anybody. But I throw a wobbly pass.
So when I tossed the ball to Bradshaw after Hanratty threw it to me, I looked bad from the beginning. I admit that. And the fans got on me for it.
There were fans watching. Local people who had nothing better to do on a weekday afternoon (I don't think anybody in Palm Springs has much to do; everybody looks rich; I hate Palm Springs) were clustered around the field watching practice.
But, hey, I was catching the ball. I would run a little pattern in the end zone and Hanratty would pop it to me and I would catch it with just my hands. "Great hands, terrible arm," laughed Hanratty once. I disdained the use of my arms and body, in part, perhaps, because I was mindful that Chris Speier, the San Francisco Giants' shortstop, had caught passes from the Steeler quarterbacks one afternoon and the next day the insides of his arms were black and blue. I wasn't going to wrap the ball up desperately, I was going to flick my hands out there like magnetized rags and just snk that ball. I did that. Twice. That pebble grain feels good, like living skin on the whorls of your fingers.
Twice. Or maybe three times. Then my hands gave out on me. I may have been noticing too much, and therefore became self-conscious. But it was also true that my hands got numb and leathery. I would put them out like before and there would be a sort of splutter, or splatter, as the ball struggled in them as though frightened and squirted through. Once, trying not to tighten up, I overeased and the ball just tipped my fingers and went zooming way beyond me. "How did I ever catch something like that?" I began to think.
Bradshaw was taking part by coming up heavily behind me like a defender. Footsteps. Like a coward, I would shy away and reach out at the ball awkwardly. Now I am not thoroughly frightened of running into big strong people. I wasn't afraid of bumping into Bradshaw. It was just that I didn't feel I belonged there anyway, and if Bradshaw wanted to be somewhere my instinct was to get out of his way.
But I should have flung my body at the ball if I couldn't get my hands to perform. Stop it some way. The ball, though, is hard, and it has that blunt point, like an unsharpened stake. For the first time in my life I had balls coming at me, which if I missed them would smash my face.