1963. Falls Church, Virginia. I was a junior in high school. I loved sports of all kinds but I never made a high school team. I tried. I could blame my lack of success on my physical stature or lack of speed. I suppose I could come up with a lot of excuses. The real reason is that I’m just an average athlete. And that’s okay.
But to a sixteen year-old kid who was striving to find his place in the world I had not yet given up on the sports theme. Since high school football was out of the question the local Boys Club league seemed like the only other option.
It wasn’t a question of trying out. More like just showing up. About 20 kids were there for our first practice. The coach was Edd Shull. He had played college ball. Not sure where. Coach Shull was about 30. He was energetic and passionate about football. Looking back I’m amazed that he wanted to take the time to work with us.
We were the rejects. The kids who couldn’t make it anywhere else.
The football field was really the only place where we associated one with another. There were a couple of really smart kids. Some delinquents. Actually, quite a few of them. And there were some normal kids who were struggling to just find an identity. Some success in life. That was me.
I wanted to make a difference. Be someone. And somehow our sorry group of misfits seemed to be my only opportunity to do so. I don’t remember anyone’s name. A few faces come to mind. Actually, I do remember a name. Burr Hartman. I remember him because he was our quarterback and was killed in an auto accident after our third or fourth game.
Of the twenty or so that showed up at the beginning only about twelve or thirteen stuck around. There was a 140 lb. limit. Most of us were pretty short, I was about 5’ 3”, and we didn’t compensate with speed. My coach could have said something like “Flynn, you might be small, but you sure are slow.” And he could have said that about most of us. But he didn’t. He was always upbeat, expecting a lot of this group of young athlete-wanna-be’s.
I don’t even remember the name of the team. Lions? Maybe.
Our uniforms were hand-me-downs from various schools in the area. High schools. Junior highs. There was a big pile on the ground of worn out shoulder pads, pants and various other pads designed to protect our bodies from the punishment we were about to be given. We picked through the heap until we found something that sort of fit.
Helmets were a different issue. We had to buy our own helmets and then paint them blue with a gold stripe down the middle. Not all the hues of blue matched. The gold stripes varied in width. But, in a way, we started to look like a team.
Jerseys were pretty much the same. Again, discards from some school.
Dad and I went down to a sporting goods store to buy cleats. Our coach told us to get some that were snug on our feet. For some reason my dad didn’t like the idea that my feet were only about an 8 or 8½. He wanted my feet to be bigger. They weren’t. I ended up with shoes that were too big for me. I played the whole season slipping around in my shoes in spite of wearing extra pairs of socks. Odd.
There was the usual bickering over what number we would get. I wanted 55. So did some other kid. We flipped. I won. He wore number 50.
We only had about three practices before our first game. We lost that one. And the next. Along about then we started to come together as a team. The delinquents decided that the rest of us could actually contribute to the team. The brainiacs thought their way through the process and started to kick in. The normal kids kept at it. Like normals do.
The delinquents, we called them “hoods”, were the most interesting group. About four or five of them. (Another name comes back. Smitty.) They would come to practice in their souped up cars. Their hair was always greasy and combed back. A pack of cigarettes rolled up in their t-shirts was not an uncommon sight.
I have to admit that they intimidated me to some extent. They were the tough guys. But, I soon found out that when I hit them they fell down just like everyone else. They weren’t really all that tough. Like most of us, they, too, were probably just trying to find themselves.
I played a variety of positions. Guard. Nose tackle. Linebacker. And a few others, depending on who got hurt and who showed up. As a general rule we had just enough guys to field a team with one or two on the bench.
So, after our second loss in as many tries we decided we were tired of losing. And we were getting better. We won our third game. And every game after that. In fact, after our second game no one scored on us the rest of the season.
Our most interesting win was against the Junior Varsity of a local high school. George Mason I think. I assume our coach called their coach and set up the game since it wasn’t on our regular schedule. We didn’t play high school teams. We were in the significantly inferior Boys Club League.
There we were in our mismatched uniforms and funny looking helmets. Just enough of us to vaguely resemble a team. Our opponent had matching everything. Including red and white capes. Three or four coaches to our one. They didn’t have the 140 lb. limit and some of them looked like giants.
It was a tough game. On our second possession Smitty ran for about 60 yards right up the middle for a touchdown. We ended up winning 24 – 0. Their coach was livid. As we were trudging back to the parking lot they were getting a tongue-lashing for losing to a bunch of misfits. Their coach looked over at our coach and gave him a “Good game” acknowledgment. I still smile when I think about it.
Burr, our quarterback, was one of the delinquents. A hood. A tough kid. Curly, sandy blond hair. Taller than most of us. He was riding in a car with a bunch of other kids. It went off the road. Hit a tree.
We decided to play the next game with only ten players in tribute to our fallen comrade. Our halfback moved over to quarterback. We played some team from Maryland. They wore purple jerseys. It was 1963. We beat them 63 – 0.
After that season was over I never played another down of organized football. Pickup games here and there. Two hand touch. Flag football. But 1963 was the last time I had on shoulder pads. Or a helmet. The last time I wore an over-sized pair of cleats.
We had a team dinner at the end of the season. Coach Shull got up and gave a tribute to Burr, whose parents were in attendance. Tears streamed down his face. He said “I weep unashamed.” He really was a passionate guy.
After my stint with the Falls Church Boys Club football team I got into other things. I tried out for a play and found that acting, unlike football, was something at which I could compete. I’ve made a career in the performing arts.
I wonder on occasion what happened to the other guys. They clearly have no idea how their friendship and camaraderie left its mark on this impressionable 16 year-old. Apart from theater, it was the highlight of my high school experience. Those few months at the beginning of my junior year.
The practices. The games. The skinned elbows that never healed until a few weeks after the last game. The fights on the field. Finding friends in unusual ways. Most of all, the feeling of having accomplished something. Being able to go to school on a Monday morning knowing that on the previous Saturday afternoon we had walked onto a football field and beaten the other team. No one at school knew. There were no announcements over the morning PA in home room. No one slapped us on the back. But we knew.
The hoods, the brainiacs and the normal kids. We were the castoffs. The guys who couldn’t make it. But in our little world of Boys Club Football we were the best. As we walked down the hall at George C. Marshall High School, just outside Washington DC, we smiled and nodded to each other. No outward actions. We didn’t eat lunch together or talk to each other at school. That would have been too weird. It was sort of a secret. We would nod. The nods were always returned. Down deep inside we shared a secret. The secret that on some small scale, we were winners.
And winning feels good. Even if no one knows.
Yes, we won all but the first two games. Granted, the season wasn’t that long. Ten games, I think. The level of competition was undoubtedly questionable. After all, the other teams were full of rejects, too. There were no playoffs at the end of the year. No trophies. No write ups in the newspaper.
Just the memories.
As I walked off the field after our 63 – 0 drubbing of the purple Maryland team, one of the fathers came up to me and said “Good game, Mike.” I smiled through a few tears, wishing Burr had been there. Perhaps he was. I hope so.
1963. Football. That’s how I remember it. If I am ever granted a replay of my whole life I am quite sure I will slow down the playback when it comes to that season of Boys Club Football.
Thanks Coach Shull. And all you other guys.