Ninth Grade Football (1957)
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Ninth Grade Football (1957)
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Fall of 1957
9thgradefootball.jpg
A Bonham Owl

One last football story, I promise!

 

I recently told some friends about a Bonham Junior High School football game that I played in when I was in the ninth grade.  The story got a good laugh, so here it is.

 

I played sparingly on a team that was highly successful and extremely talented, save for yours truly.  I forget who our opponent was on that crisp autumn Saturday.  We played on the practice fields east of our school campus, and the regulars had the game well in hand.  It was another laugher for us, as were all the games that year, except for the final game with Bowie Junior High, and that story has been told previously.  Anyway, the head coach, Jim Daniel, started to pull out the talented regulars to give us less gifted players a chance to get in the game. In those final minutes, Coach Daniel started to pace the sidelines in between plays like a marine drill sergeant, looking each soldier in the eye, searching for what he wanted to see:  Fire and Desire.  He was that kind of man, and I knew that part of him well. When the coach got near me, my eyes gave him what he wanted.  I wanted to play.  I loved the game.  I loved trying to make something happen.

 

In practice every day, without variation, for what seemed like an endless amount of time, I would line up at left defensive end, playing against the regulars.  My job was to shed the blocker and step straight into the opposition’s backfield in order to force the play up the middle rather than outside where a runner might turn the play up field for a long gain.  It was easy enough to remember, but it was also easy enough to get trampled in the effort if I had no help.  I was comfortable there, and the only thing that would change my job was a rare defensive alignment that we never practiced.  In that case, the linebacker would call a certain number that meant I was supposed to swap positions with the right defensive end.  I remember it was on my play sheets, but no one ever talked about why we would ever need to do that particular alignment.  No sweat.

 

During this game, late in the fourth quarter, Coach Daniel picked me to go into the game at right, not left, defensive end.  Maybe he was confused about who I was and where I usually played.  Maybe he thought it didn’t matter, but if it didn’t matter why would he send me, a back-up player, to a position I never played?  But heck, who was I to question the head coach?   I rushed into the game after the whistle blew, snapping the chin strap on my helmet as I ran onto the field with Fire in my eyes and Desire in my heart, and some question in my mind about why I was going to right defensive end.  I wished I were on the other end of that defensive line.  I was standing tall, hoping I looked strong and forbidding to the enemy as they huddled around their quarterback. 

 

The by-now-vanquished foe broke their huddle and began lining up against us, and I was ready to get into my down stance when the captain of our defense called out a number.  That number.  Why did he do that?  Did the head coach signal that number so I would switch ends with the other defensive end and be at my familiar position?  Surely not.  I hesitated, confused, but time was running out.  The quarterback on the opposing team was taking his position under the center.  I panicked.  Did I hear right, or did my fear make me hear that number? I had to do something, so I quickly ran toward the left end position, but before I got there, doubt panicked me again.  Quickly, I decided that I was surely mistaken and I must get back to the right defensive end position. 

 

Out of my peripheral vision I saw a wide-eyed quarterback wondering what the hell I was doing.   The lop-sided score no doubt made him the most frustrated guy on the field, but by now he was barking out his count, and his center snapped the ball back to him just as I was right in front of him, chugging back to my right defensive end position where I thought I was supposed to be.  The play developed as if in slow motion, and the quarterback back-pedaled to set up and throw a quick pass to his left end.  However, because I was out of position, he threw it right at me.  I was not meant to cover the intended receiver; I was just there.  Startled, I saw the ball coming right at me, right at my right armpit, right where it was the most secure, and I jumped just a little and caught it and tightly cradled it into my body.  I had intercepted a pass! 

 

I sensed the intended receiver bearing down on me from behind as I looked for daylight to run back the pass.  Because of the crowd around me, the only opening I saw was in the direction of the quarterback.  So I ran right at him; he was wide-eyed, angry and very willing to take on my lumbering gait toward him.

 

Rather than make a gentleman’s tackle, though, the scoundrel started clawing at the football as though he had some God-ordained right to get it back.  In quick seconds there were multiple tacklers hanging onto my body trying to force me to the ground, and my intuition, influenced by several hundred pounds of flesh, told me to go along with them, or else that wicked quarterback was going to get his ball back before I could get on the ground.  There was snarling and spitting and grunting and be I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear the quarterback call me an ugly name questioning my legitimacy. 

 

At last I was on the ground, but the grimly determined quarterback continued to fight for possession as I struggled to hang on.  In fact, in the last second or two, and at the very bottom of the pile of sweaty opponents, I lost my hold on the ball, but I managed to lie on it, with it under my back, as I tried to pull the hands of my foe away from it.  Thankfully, the referees pulled the devil off me and saw that he did not have possession, and the play was over.  I had played one play.

 

The offense, full of back-ups, took the field and ran out the clock while I went to my place on the sideline, both happy that I had played and embarrassed that I had really screwed up, even though it had all turned out okay.  None of my teammates seemed to notice or to understand what had really happened, because the game was almost over and we had the ball.  They were happy with the turnover.  I tried to be invisible and silent on the sideline until time ran out and we trotted victoriously to our locker room. 

 

I did not want to explain anything to anyone.  I undressed slowly, looking straight ahead, and I was one of the last players to get a shower.  I dressed just as slowly, so I would be the last one out of the locker rooms.  I did not want to face the cheerleaders who always applauded the players as they exited in their street clothes.  I hoped the crowd would be gone, and I could sneak home without telling anyone anything.  Oh, one or two of the guys in the locker room told me "way to go," but I was sure they had no idea what a dumb stunt I had pulled, and I did not talk about it.  I just modestly nodded and went about the business of returning to civilian clothes.

 

None of the coaches said a thing to me. And, truthfully, it had meant nothing as far as the game was concerned.  But I think I would have felt better had one of them asked me to explain my actions.  Instead, they said nothing.  They could have said something about the interception!  However, I am sure now they thought the whole performance was a coaching failure on their part, and it was an incident better left alone. Such was the life of a back-up player on a good team in those days. 

 

Mike Moore’s interception was forgettable from the very beginning.  In fact, I can remember players in the locker room asking each other who it was that intercepted the pass!  To me that was good.  I didn’t tell them I had done it, someone else did.  But Roger Rankin’s quick moment in the sun is still remembered by all of us who played on that team of ninth graders.

 

Roger was a perennial starter no matter what sport he played.  He was highly competitive, hard working, focused, athletically inclined, and a favorite of the coaches for the effort he always gave.  When I met him in the eighth grade I learned quickly that he wanted to be a doctor someday--and that is what he is today.  He lived his life all those young years in ways to make sure he did not hurt his chances to someday get into medical school.  Today when he and I talk about those times, he thinks he could have been more disciplined, but the rest of us saw him as someone more determined than most, as he would show one day in the heat of football battle. 

 

When football stories of Odessa days are told by any of us who were teammates, Roger is always reminded of that Saturday morning in the fall of our ninth grade year at Bonham Junior High.  We were playing on the practice fields on the east side of our school, and I think our starters had the game well in hand. Roger always played as a starter on defense as well as on offense, and the way I remember the famous play was that the other team had the ball and had attempted a pass.  Somehow, Roger was near the receiver, as was another one of our players, Gene Ross.  Just about the time the receiver had the ball in his hands, Roger and Gene Ross collided with him, and the ball popped straight up in the air.  Roger looked up at it, spun to capture it as it started its fall back to earth, and at that moment he took a hit that spun him again as his hands and arms greedily clutched and hugged the ball.  Cradling the prize tightly, Roger took off, but he was headed for the wrong goal post, in high gear and overdrive.  He was pretty fast, and the opposing players soon stopped their furious chase, knowing they were stupid to tackle him right away, so they all slowed down and let him get out ahead of them.  However, Gene was running with him step for step, yelling all the way, trying to get his attention, tugging on his jersey, trying to slow him down.  Finally Roger realized that something was wrong, but by then he had covered more than 30 yards, running the wrong way.  What I remember is Roger’s body language, giving Gene a double-take look when he finally realized what he had done.  By the time he slowed down and headed the other direction, opposing players had caught up to him and tackled him.  I think Gene helped them.  But hey!  An interception is an interception, as I had learned.  His was just far more spectacular than mine.

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