I NEVER BELIEVED in ghosts. So when I was told they were out there moaning in the field, my response was no different than yours, no doubt, would be. I rolled my eyes and laughed.
For nearly two years I ignored strange sounds. I spent weekends following the quests of the mighty Colts and then the perfect Patriots, weekdays diverted by sagas of quarterbacks who drowned dogs and cornerbacks who showered 81,000 dollar bills on naked dancing girls. I'd just turn up the volume on game days, make the collisions grow louder.
But then one night, when the strange noises grew insistent, I ventured outside. It took a moment for my vision to adjust to the dark. But there they were. A horde of ghosts pursuing a tall, solitary figure.
Conrad Dobler was near the front of the charge; how could I not remember him? Even with his hair turned white, his legs hobbled by five knee replacements, the old St. Louis Cardinals guard delivered a helmet-first shot. "Some people have no conscience," he snarled, "and he's one of them."
Then came a neck-snapping tackle from an old Baltimore Colts safety. "We have no interest in working with a man of his morality," said Bruce Laird. "He is a nonentity.... He means nothing to retired players."
On came another ancient guard, a former Buffalo Bill with a savage forearm shiver. "I won't stop until that bastard's gone or in jail," said Joe DeLamielleure. "He's a disgrace to every player, past and current."
Next came a creaking running back and a quarterback, one high and one low. "He is nothing more than a pawn," howled Mercury Morris, the former Miami Dolphin. "This is a scam. It's always been a scam and always will be a scam." Ex--Houston Oilers QB Dan Pastorini's hit was swift and brutal: "He makes me sick."
Then it grew worse. One of the eldest ghosts, a onetime Cleveland Browns cornerback, arrived like a missile and administered the lowest blow of all. "A habitual liar," Bernie Parrish hissed, and then demanded to know why the man wasn't a suspect in the unusual death of his ex-wife.
Finally I caught a better glimpse of their target, the tall, impervious one who just kept trudging onward. The thick padding and tape wrapped around his long arms and hands, as if he were a mummy, sparked my memory.
It was Gene Upshaw.