SI Vault
Jim Strain
May 25, 1981
Every time I see a net raised behind the goal posts for an extra-point or field-goal attempt in the NFL, I can't help feeling a bit sad. Sure, the net is probably the only way to prevent fans from beating each other up in pursuit of balls kicked into the stands, but that doesn't serve to reduce my melancholy, especially when I recall a boyhood incident at Bears Stadium, where the Denver Broncos and I grew up together.
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May 25, 1981

The Author's Goal At Early Bronco Games Was To Have Himself A Ball

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One of my most prized items was a shiver pad from a now-forgotten player, and in retrospect I find his willingness to give it to me as curious as my request for it. Nevertheless, once my mother shortened the elastic straps on the back of the pad to prevent it from slipping up and down my right forearm, I underwent a magical transformation: timid kid became rugged lineman.

I practiced my forearm shiver on the walls at home, but somehow it was always less formidable in little league games, in which the maneuver deteriorated into a wild flailing of my elbow that drew penalties. Despite my inept performance, there was no question that the slab of foam rubber on my forearm gave me considerable status.

My most prestigious but dubious achievement in memento gathering was procuring a 40-yard-line marker that had broken off at the base. As a souvenir it would, I knew, be more impressive than Charlie's shoe.

Uneasy about walking off the field with an item the size of a small table top, I stuffed the yard-line marker under my coat during the post-game commotion. My silhouette must have been as revealing as that of a well-fed snake, but no one stopped me. Subsequent pangs of guilt, however, ended that kind of scavenging on my part.

By this time I had accumulated a respectable collection of Bronco football trinkets, but I would've traded them all for an AFL football. Its desirability to fans of all ages was evident in the activity that occurred in the stands immediately before, during and directly after place kicks.

Unlike a baseball fan, who never knows when a ball may be hit his way, the football fan generally is aware when a pigskin is to be booted into the seats. An extra-point or field-goal attempt generates a special excitement that feeds on anticipation. During the Bronco games of my childhood, those brief moments of preparation were exhilarating. My heart rate jumped, my palms became moist and my muscles tensed. In end zones, fans left their seats to cram the aisles or stood on their seats. With the kick, they all leaned forward expectantly. If no one caught the ball a struggle ensued in the immediate vicinity of where it came down; those too far away to have any hope of coming up with it sat down or wistfully returned to their proper seats. If ownership of the football wasn't immediately determined, fans near it began to clot into something loosely resembling a rugby scrum. They wrestled for position or the ball until the specials marched down the aisles and began restoring order by plucking individuals from the scrum like leaves from a massive artichoke.

My buddies and I were rarely in the right place even to have a chance at getting the ball, but on one occasion my younger brother, John, then 13, and I staked out a strategic spot that turned out to be on the periphery of one of these brawls. John threw himself into the fracas and quickly disappeared into the knot of writhing bodies. When he didn't emerge soon thereafter, I nervously began tugging people away from the pile until I spotted him wedged beneath a couple of fellows, gasping for air. An older man helped me free him. John was scraped and a little scared but otherwise all right.

After that we both became more cautious. Our appetite for a football hadn't diminished, but we stopped scrambling around the stands for position and were content to fortify whatever end-zone seats we happened to have.

On the Sunday that will haunt me forever, our location wasn't particularly good for snaring footballs. Denver was playing the Boston Patriots, and John and I were accompanied by our youngest brother, Jeff, 7, who was primarily interested in eating Sno-Kones. We were seated squarely behind the goal posts but 10 rows too high to be in serious contention for a football. Place kicks were dropping well below us, although we dutifully stood on our seats and braced against the surge each time.

And then came the moment. My eyes must have widened to the size of pool balls when I picked up the trajectory of Gino Cappelletti's perfect end-over-end boot. The ball was still rising as it sailed between the goal posts, and I swallowed hard. It was headed straight for me. "This is it!" I yelled to my brothers.

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