"Hut one! Hut two!" I barked, licking the salty remains of turkey from my lips just as the football came flying toward me. Overweight, potbellied grown men in full pads snorted and grunted, trying to block my punt. I, too, was suited up in a complete football uniform, looking through the face mask of a helmet that smelled of sweat-stained padding. As our opponents, the Mansfield (Ark.) High School alumni, charged, through a blur of red and blue, I suddenly realized I couldn't get the kick away: I tucked the football under my arm and ran with all haste to the left.
I was doing what almost every armchair athlete dreams of as he looks back on his high school football career—giving it another shot. He's thinking, "Why wasn't I better? Why wasn't I a star?" At age 22 or 32 he's 20 pounds heavier than he was as a 17-year-old fuzzy-cheeked high-schooler. Because he is older, he is also tougher and more aggressive, and thus, quite naturally, he looks back and wonders, "Why wasn't I meaner, tougher and faster?"
Many of us would give a month's salary for one more chance, and that's why the Greenwood Bulldogs vs. the Mansfield Tigers alumni game came about on Thanksgiving Day 1973. It was publicized as a fund-raising event for the Jaycees, but that was obviously just a cover. The oldtimers wanted another crack at the gridiron and were willing to risk life, limb and gainful employment to prove to the world, to the town, to family and friends, but mostly to themselves, that they were indeed, or perhaps could have been, great.
My wife and I had driven the 200 miles to Greenwood, which is 14 miles from Mansfield, from our home in Tulsa to share Thanksgiving dinner with my family. I was stiff and sleepy as we headed north on Main Street. Then I saw the hundreds of cars parked at the football field. I straightened up, alert and wondering who might be playing. We pulled into the driveway of the home where I spent my youth fantasizing about athletic greatness. We got out of the car, and I could see from our front yard that there was an alumni game...and tried to remember if I had brought any sweat socks.
My father, who was the high school coach for 38 years, had retired the year before. We greeted each other at the front door. "Hi, Mom! Hi, Dad! Say, what's going on down at the field?"
"Those crazy Jaycees have an oldtimers game going," my father growled. "It's insane. Out of shape, overweight, they'll kill each other."
"Yeah, it's really stupid," I agreed, peeping out the window, "I've had enough."
"I should hope so," a voice rang out from the kitchen, where my mother pulled the turkey and dressing from the oven. "The last time you got in an alumni game you spent the night in the hospital, remember?"
"Yeah," I said, and laughed, too loudly. "That was just one of those things. Accidents happen."
"Lots of accidents that night. If I remember correctly, four of you ended up in the hospital."