By JEFF MERRON, November 17, 1998
WHEN we were twelve, sports was everything.
I would play sports with my friends Mitchell and Leonard every afternoon, and if possible all day Saturday and Sunday, and sometimes other neighbourhood kids would join in. But what I remember is how inventive we were – three of us could play a full range of major team sports:
• One-on-one football, with an official quarterback;
• One-on-one hockey, with an official goaltender;
• One-on-one baseball, with an official pitcher.
And so on.
When I was twelve, I also played in all the kids’ leagues: Little League baseball (I couldn’t hit or field, but I was a good hollerer); organized basketball (my moment of glory was when I stood my ground and took a charge on a one-on-one fast break against the league’s best player); and my favourite organized sport, football.
There were two levels of kids’ football in my suburban New Jersey community. One level was Pop Warner. This was super-competitive, super-hard core, for the meanest, toughest kids, for the kids who wanted to play so they could really kick some ass.
Then there was a bigger league, the “rec” league, where everyone made the team. Teams practiced just one night a week and played on Saturdays, and parents were coaches, refs, and, of course, spectators. But rec football was huge; soccer wasn’t on the radar screen yet, and the rec league, in its glory days, probably had more than 1,000 players. I was one of them.
I was pretty good. Good enough to be an “All Star” one year. I had started playing organized football in the third grade, in the pee-wee league, and by the time I got to the eighth grade, I was a veteran, seasoned if not grizzled.
In eighth grade I would make my move. I was just a little over five feet and no more than 110 pounds, but I could play. My position was safety. For the first time, I was on a team that could compete for the championship. And I was hot. In a big scrimmage game right before the season started, I picked off a near-perfect bullet thrown by the league’s best quarterback. I was ready.
I’ll never forget the first game of that 1974 season, because it was also my last. In the first quarter – it may have even been the first series of plays – our front defensive line let the other team’s tough fullback through an enormous hole, and our linebackers were … elsewhere. I was all that stood between the fullback and the end zone, and I was scared, but I had been taught to tackle.
He came right at me, hard, expecting me to chicken out and let him through. But I didn’t – I went for his legs. He anticipated this, and crouched low as he ran. His helmet was where his legs were supposed to be, and we collided head on – hard – and he was down. I was down too, dazed. A short timeout was called to let me recover. I had had “the wind knocked out of me.”
But I stood back up. It was now third down, and I was still a safety. A pass was coming. Somehow – I don’t remember this part – we held them on third down and I dropped back with the other safety to field the fourth-down punt.
As the other team huddled, I felt something squishing around in my mouthpiece, so I took it out of my mouth. It was blood, lots of it. I panicked and ran to the sidelines and told my coach I was bleeding big-time. He sent in a replacement, took a look inside my mouth, and didn’t see any teeth missing. He summoned up all of his medical and first aid knowledge, and told me to walk it off.
Fortunately Dad was there, and realized something was wrong. My jaw felt funny. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t feel right. We went home, and I got out of my uniform and into regular clothes as Dad called the hospital. I explained to my parents what my jaw felt like, and they told the emergency room folks at the hospital. They guessed broken jaw. When I heard this, I started to cry. It started to hurt.
I was in the hospital overnight. I did, indeed, have a broken jaw – a hairline fracture of the lower left mandible. My jaw was wired shut. The day after I got out of the hospital was the first day of school, the first day of eighth grade. I became a minor celebrity because of my wired jaw. I was the kid who brought his lunch to school in a thermos – lunch was a chocolate milkshake with a raw egg mixed in. A few weeks later, I was the kid who made the choir even though he had to sing “My country ‘tis of thee…” without opening his mouth.
My jaw healed in only four weeks, and the wires were off, and I wanted to play football again, but mom said no. I begged, and pleaded. “But I’m the kicker,” I said, “I’m the punter. I’ll specialize! You don’t get hit if you’re the kicker.” Mom didn’t buy it, and my football career was over.
Eighth grade was also the last year that Mitch and Leonard and I played all the sports together on a regular basis. High school would divide us. I became a runner, and dedicated myself to our conference champion cross-country team.
Leonard, who was overweight, survived our relentless teasing to become, last I heard, a successful accountant. He tried hard but wasn’t too skillful in any sport, and struggled along in the middle pack of high school, not a total outcast but not really noticed.
Mitchell played on the tennis team, but I remember him most for going into New York a lot to watch the Knicks and Rangers. He could afford the tickets, and by the time we were 15 or 16 our parents were allowing us to go into the city alone. I never went, though. I don’t remember being invited, and I was starting to lose interest in pro sports, anyway. I also recall that Mitchell played a lot of poker in his senior year, and planned to move to California and become a lawyer or something.
When we were twelve, we knew in the bottom of our hearts that none of us would go on to become pro athletes, or even college ones. But we played sports with total dedication. Whatever season it was, we played. We played basketball in the snow, when the ball was painful to grip. We played baseball in the snow, in mid-February, when we started to read about the Mets and Yankees heading down to Florida to begin spring training. We played, and were competitive, and we taunted each other mercilessly, cruelly: we were trash-talking before it had a name, but I guess we were close friends. They were the last boys, or men, that I would ever “lose myself” with, who I could be with and play with and the rest of the world would disappear.
Jeff Merron is assistant professor of mass communications at the State University of West Georgia, and a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a variety of publications.
Jeff dedicates this essay to his wife, Jackie.