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Every year a million American teen-agers play football for their high schools. Behind the million is a legion of older men who are ex-high school football players. They may have played a lot or a little, skillfully or awkwardly, passionately or dutifully, but they played. Often they remember their playing days more vividly as the years pass. In another rank are millions of cheerleaders, pompon girls, band members, non-playing classmates. Some of these non-participants—past and present—have been or are elated by the football they watch in high school. Others despise the game. But just about all of them, because they wanted to be, were expected to be, did not dare not to be, were there when the Bulldogs, the Eagles, the Spartans ran onto the field.
One way or another, for better or worse, high school football touches the lives of a lot of us, maybe most of us. It is practiced, played, watched and remembered in oppressive heat and cold, in sandstorms and blizzards, on pastures and on rubberized turf, on fields of mud, thistles and glass shards. It is played by nose guards, monster and wolf men, flankers, split and tight ends, quarterbacks, halfbacks, fullbacks, punters, kickers and passers, lining up in Is, Ts, wishbones, pro sets, single wings and short punts. The conditions of play vary, but the experience is similar from place to place, year to year. The exhilaration of making six hard yards through the line, a wipe-out block, pulling a pass down to the chest and running elusively with the ball; the humiliation of fumbling or missing a tackle in the open; the sense of being part of a company of warriors, us against them; the sound of pads colliding; the smell of ripe socks and analgesic balm; the stickiness of resin; body hair being ripped off with tape—these are common experiences.
One such experience that few players ever forget is the first day of practice and its consequences.
There is a perverse meteorological law that requires the first day of real practice—after the physicals are completed and the equipment issued—to be a scorcher, no matter what the latitude. Probably even in Fairbanks, Alaska the first day is hot, humid, airless. It is the kind of August day that any 17-year-old knows was created for not going to work, for sleeping late, for cruising around in a car, for liberating a few beers, for going to a body of water with a girl wearing a T shirt over a bikini. Instead, he finds himself in the middle of an open, shadeless field, lined up in semi-military formation, being exercised, instructed, yelled at by coaches who have been waiting impatiently for this moment since the previous November.
In the morning it is duck waddles, jumping jacks, squat thrusts, exhortive orations and lap after lap around the field. In the afternoon it is more of the same, plus maybe some preliminary hitting of canvas dummies, greasy from years of accumulated sweat. It is the ache and pain spreading from thighs and calves until it seems unbearable. It is throats and lips so caked with dried saliva and phlegm that it seems no amount of water, Coke or beer will ever dissolve it. It is low-grade fever and giddiness from exertion, heat and fatigue.
In the morning the hot dogs who are hoping to make brownie points with the coaches, the precocious pre-professionals who are thinking of college scholarships, those who have been running and lifting weights on their own in preparation, shrug it all off ostentatiously. They lead the laps and needle the coaches about how easy the drills are. By afternoon the heat and fatigue bring the eager beavers back to the pack. The coaches are chipper, having reaffirmed one of football's verities—that nobody can come through the first two-a-days unscathed, that nobody is in as good shape as the coaches expect him to be. The commands are met with collective groans and bitching. A camaraderie of agony develops.
In Vicksburg, Mich., after the first practice of the 1976 season, five seniors, who off past performances are expected to play football regularly for their school, retire slowly and stiffly to a burger joint on the outskirts of town. The five are Chip Cree, tailback-linebacker; Steve Hunt, nose guard-tackle; Rick Jensen, fullback-linebacker; Randi Noel, wide receiver-safety; and Jeff Schutter, quarterback-defensive halfback. They are so drained by the first practice that they cannot work up much zest for the cheeseburgers, fries and shakes but stow away the junk food dutifully, like health faddists eating seaweed and honey. They are very tired, but beyond weariness they do not talk much because these five seniors are not a natural or easy social group. They have known each other since grade school and have gone to class and played games together since then, but this is one of the few times they have sat down together. Something bordering on a feud has existed for a long time between the two running backs, Chip Cree and Rick Jensen. To say that they are enemies is perhaps too strong, but Jensen, who has the reputation of being one of the hardest guys in the school, is open in his dislike for Cree, and Cree usually avoids Jensen.
Cree, at 6'1" and 185 pounds, is a very fit, athletic-looking young man and a handsome one in a dark, sharp-featured way. He claims that he has Indian blood, hence the name Cree. His classmates and teammates doubt this, dismissing it as another of Chip's stories. He has the reputation of being a hot dog, of always trying to impress others—his contemporaries, his coaches, his teachers. Chip is well aware of the criticism but faces it boldly. "Sure I know some people think I'm a show-off," he says, "but it doesn't bother me what other people think. I do my own thing."
With a pained and exaggerated grimace, Chip staggers up from the booth and begins limping about, clutching his right calf, kneading it to relieve what he says is a severe charley horse. "I didn't think I'd get one," he says. "I started running in July. I figure it's our last year and I was really going to be in shape. If we get it together, we could have a super season."
It is such behavior and statements that have given Chip his reputation and are most calculated to enrage Rick Jensen. He says, in a kind of strangled growl, "Sit down, you hot dog," and Chip comes back to the table.