|By Sydney Underwood 2014|
When I tried out for freshman football, I was a tall and skinny kid, six feet and 165 pounds. At age 14, I had hopes of becoming an end or what is now known as a wide receiver. Dad had told me that was my natural position. But, on our first day of practice, we were told by Coach Cecil Johnson to line up for a 40 yard dash. We thought one dash would be fun and we were ready to go.
Coach Johnson put us on the goal line and he stood at midfield. He held a football high above his head and when he dropped it we were supposed to run. Upon completing one dash, we were told to immediately turn around and on his command race back to the goal line.
After four sets of those, we were all sucking air and holding our sides and wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. I remember that Arnold Schoolcraft, Ronald Ford and Don Ritchie were the first players to cross the lines each time and I was fourth or fifth. Try as I might, I could not get my long legs to move fast enough to catch them.
We had another surprise earlier that morning when Dr. Toepher had given us physical exams in the gym. In shorts and tee shirts we ran laps, then we had to stand on one foot with our eyes closed and arms out stretched so he could check our balance.
Lined up Just like horses, he looked at our teeth, checked our eyes and ears and listened intently to our heart beats. The weird part was when we had to spread our legs and he pressed a finger up behind a private place and asked us to cough. We did, but really didn’t feel like we wanted to do that.
I watched as Coach Johnson walked among individual players and spoke to them. I soon realized that he was picking his team and telling the players what positions they would play. When he spoke to me, he said that I was going to be his single wing fullback. I didn’t know what to say. I knew that in the single wing offense, the fullback is crouched three yards behind the line and receives the center snap on virtually every play.
If the snap is fumbled, the play is killed before it starts. All my dreams of catching the winning touchdown pass in front of the roaring crowd ended that day. I had to console myself with thinking that he had decided that I had good hands and would not fumble.
The single wing offense was old time football and Calhoun was one of a few schools still using it. It called for an unbalanced line meaning that the center had only two lineman on his left and four on his right. The single “wing” was the right halfback who lined up just behind and slightly to the outside of the right end.
The quarterback lined up behind one of the guards and was mainly a blocking back. The tailback was set beside me to my left. The strong side was to the right because of more players there and the weak side was to the left.
It depended on crisp blocking by linemen who had the skill to trap block against charging defensive linemen by blindsiding them at the line of scrimmage while other linemen had to speed downfield and throw body blocks at moving targets.
The ability to spin and fake handoffs behind the line was everything, and the fullback did most of that spinning and faking. A fumble just would not do.
I had to become good friends with the center because we would always need to be on the same page with snap counts and he had the responsibility of getting the ball to me in good shape every time. The problem was solved when I saw Tom Hale, a big country boy from Cole Run near the Ritchie County line. He was a natural center with every snap exactly the same even with his head down peering at me upside down in the backfield.
I remember several other players that were picked that day by Coach Johnson. They were Nelson Bland, Gearl Fogle, Ross Hall, Mike Haymaker, Kenneth Jarvis, Larry Jarvis, Chuck Kerby, Carol Knotts, Don Morris, Gary Roberts, Chub Swisher, Bill Umstead, Rex Yoak and Arthur Yost. There was a Whystell who played end, but I don’t remember his first name. This was not the entire squad, just the player’s names that I remember.
We only had maybe seven running plays to remember and even fewer passing plays. But, we ran them over and over until we could see them in our sleep. We practiced blocking and tackling and all the other things that Coach Johnson wanted us to do.
On rainy days in the gym, we practiced tumbling techniques on the mats learning how to fall, do summersets and shoulder rolls that would protect us in games. The best memory of that was the log rolling when we dove sideways and rolled on the mats and jumped up and did it again.
That was way more fun than practice. Our equipment was all hand-me-down stuff from the varsity, but we were happy with it. I remember someone wore practice pants that had holes in them and took them home so his mother could sew them up.
Our helmets, shoulder pads, hip pads, thigh and knee pads had seen a lot of wear, but we did have shiny new Riddell shoes.
Our practice uniforms were old and faded and the jerseys had no numbers. Some of us were lucky enough to get old game jerseys that had been washed a thousand times and so faded that the scarlet red had turned to a questionable shade of pink; but at least, some of us had numbers. I was number 40. We were a rag tag bunch, but we were on our way to becoming real football players.
The first real game that I remember was played on a sunny Saturday afternoon in October 1956 against the St. Mary’s Blue Devils on their field. Technically this was a “scrub” game because we had freshmen and sophomore players. Tom Hale and Kenneth Jarvis had been elevated to varsity status and were not with us. I remember that John Stump, a sophomore, was our center and there were several other sophomores who would play that day.
I remember that we traveled to St. Marys in cars. Dad had recruited several men to drive us there. In addition to Dad and Coach Johnson who drove their own cars, Ben Riddle was one of the other drivers and we had maybe eight car loads of players.
On Rt. #16 north when we were going down Jackson Hill, I heard Elvis sing “Don’t Be Cruel” on the radio tuned to WCEF AM Parkersburg. We were all excited and wondered what it would be like to actually play in a real game because we were so tired of hitting each other in practice.
I have always been fascinated by the uniqueness of the town of St. Marys and their high school football field. Train tracks run along the main street and trains are no big deal to the people who live there. When the lights start flashing, everyone simply gets out of the way and the trains pass through.
The football stadium is unique also as it sits at the intersection of the northern end of State Rt#16 and connects to State Rt#2 that follows the Ohio River. The light towers on the field look just like derricks taken from an oil field of a bygone era.
The road into town is like no other. That last downhill mile of Rt#16 can be scary as it is very steep and has been the sight of numerous truck wrecks over the years. Now, there is a sand filled runaway truck ramp about one third down the hill and hopefully that has alleviated the problem. But, I always wonder what would happen if the trucker’s brakes failed after passing that ramp.
Another thing and I think is odd, St. Mary’s teams are known as the Blue Devils when, in fact, their colors were purple and gold. But, that was back in the day. Maybe, they are true blue now.
Some people have a problem with the word “Devil” being associated with mascots.
I do understand their concerns, but in the LKC, we have Calhoun, Ravenswood and St. Marys all claiming devils as mascots. It is somewhat ironic to realize that Duke University, that has a divinity school, also boasts of their Blue Devils and Arizona State has their Sun Devils.
We players were nervous as we put on our uniforms in that dark and damp little dressing room under the stands. We had borrowed helmets from the varsity because ours did not have face masks. The single bar on the helmet made us think that our noses and teeth might be safe for the day. We also had borrowed old worn game jerseys.
Both Coach Johnson and my Dad talked to us and said that we would run the plays we had been taught and that they would be sending them in to us during the game by rotating the running backs. They also said that everyone who made the trip would play in this game.
I remember my Dad saying, “There is no need to fear the St. Marys boys because they put their pants on one leg at a time just like you boys do.” Lined up at the dressing room door, Dad told us to go out there and have fun and not worry about winning or losing.
We ran out on the field and the game started. We kicked off to the Blue Devils. A hundred pound running back brought the kickoff back to midfield. He scooted all over the place like a young rabbit and was about as hard to catch.
They came out of the huddle and lined up in a T Formation with the backs set close together behind the quarterback . I was playing right outside linebacker and the first play was a pitchout to the other side of the field.
As I was running across the field, I felt something hit me, I looked down and saw the sky. Someone had cut blocked me at the ankles and I had somehow flipped over and landed on my back unhurt except for my pride. The Blue Devils had decided to play hardball right away in front of their parents. They started making first downs by running and tricking us.
We defenders were a mess. We ran crashing into each other as the little St. Marys running backs faked and fooled us play after play. It was as if we were chasing shadows.
When we made tackles, we discovered that the ball carrier didn’t actually have the ball, someone else had it and he was running free across the field. They scored easily after several plays. We defenders looked at each other and could not understand what was happening to us. I remember the Blue Devils were yelling and clapping after they scored and ran for the extra point.
They kicked off to us and Arnold Schoolcraft returned the ball to about the 40 yard line. First play and I am supposed to run the football up the middle. John Stump snaps the ball and I run stumbling and staggering for nine yards before collapsing in a heap with the whole world on top of me. I hold my breath because I cannot breathe.
I hear someone yell,”Run like a horse, Sidney.” It might have been my Dad. It probably was my Dad.
I get up and go back to the huddle. Don Ritchie tells me not to give him the ball because he is afraid he will fumble because he has a bad case of the ”Jitters.”
His running play is sent in and I call it on the count of 2. I take the snap, spin and hand off to him and Ritchie runs like a scalded dog toward the sideline, cuts up field and gains twelve yards. He comes back to the huddle and tells me he wants to run that play again.
The next play sent in calls for me to spin 180 degrees and hand the ball to the wingback who is running toward me starting one tick before the ball is snapped.
I receive the snap, start to turn around and one of our pulling guards bumps my elbow with his shoulder pad and I realize that I am losing the football. It is like a slow motion nightmare played out in real time. I see the ball turning slowly in the air and bouncing softly on the grass. I try to lunge for it just as the forgotten wingback slams into me and we both go down.
This can’t be happening to me. Nobody ever practices fumbling the football. I know it is my fault. Luckily, one of our players falls on it, but we have lost five yards. I look to the sideline and see Coach Johnson throw his hat on the ground and he is glaring at me.
Life goes on, the next play is sent in and Ritchie runs for 10 yards. Someone is called for being offside. The ball comes back. The next play, one of our linemen twitches and falls on his face before the ball is snapped.
Another flag is thrown. Coach Johnson calls for a timeout. He does not look happy. We gather around him and he tells us all to take a deep breath and settle down. Dad steps up and asks if we are having fun? We are not having fun! I wonder why he is so relaxed and unconcerned about all this. We seem to be shooting ourselves in the foot with every snap.
We punt the ball as the first quarter ends. The little St. Marys running backs are very shifty and can dart into the line before we can react to them. They march steadily down the field and keep making first downs.
One good thing is that their quarterback had a weak arm and his passes flutter and one of our defensive backs, probably Umstead, bobbles an apparent interception. Half way through the second quarter, they score again on a short run. They fail to get the point after.
We are down 13 points when we receive the kickoff. Our tailback, Rex Yoak starts completing passes to Whystell and Yost. Rex takes a direct snap and runs to his right and I block for him. He has the option to throw or run. This confuses the Blue Devil defense, because when they rush, he throws.
When they cover, he runs. We are finally getting into a rhythm and the running plays are working when we stop making stupid mistakes. We have the ball in their territory when the first half ends.
Inside the dressing room, we drink some water, go to the bathroom and try to compose ourselves. I notice that my left index finger is bleeding and I ask for and got a bandage. I see Dad and Coach Johnson conferring in a corner. Coach Johnson calls the backs into a group and Dad asks the linemen to gather around him.
I remember that Coach Johnson tells me to stop running ”like a blind man through the woods.” I am to run at ¾ speed and wait for our linemen to engage the defense and only then accelerate around them.
Next, he talks to Schoolcraft and Ritchie and Ford and they nod their heads that they understand. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Dad demonstrating something to the linemen near him.
Coach Johnson tells us that when we are on defense, we must remember our lanes of responsibility. He tells the defensive linemen to get under and raise the offensive linemen to neutralize their power. He tells them to watch the little dance the St. Marys backs are doing with the football.
When they see which way the ball is actually going, they are to yell out ”left” or “right” so the defense will know which way to swarm. At this point, Dad interrupts him and says that he wants the defensive ends to ignore that advice. Dad tells the ends to charge forward two steps and hold their space.
If the play is going the other way, they are to stay there and,” watch the show.” This is important, he says, because the play may turn out to be an end around reverse and he wants to make sure, “the back door stays shut.”
Just as we start to take the field, Dad hold us up and asks again if we are having fun out there. We answer halfheartedly that we are.
Arnold Schoolcraft receives the third quarter kickoff and returns it to our 40 yard line. We huddle up and start running the plays sent in. Something very strange and wonderful happens in that second half. It is as if we have a special magical force with us. We do not make mistakes.
Schoolcraft, Ritchie and Ford start ripping off big runs down the field and the little defensive backs have a hard time dragging them down.
Yoak’s passes are on target, but we do drop a few. Schoolcraft scores first on a long run down the sideline and I run for and get the extra point. We kick off to them and for the first time they fail to get a first down because their trickery no longer works for them.
On defense I keep hearing the words “right” and “left.” When that hundred pound halfback does runs a reverse, Yost is waiting for him and throws him down like a sack of feed.
We are gaining confidence and they are losing theirs. You can see it in their eyes. They look sideways at their coach who is constantly yelling at them.
When we get the ball back after their punt, we are in sync. The down field blocking is just like hitting the practice dummies back home, except the dummies don’t grunt and never try to hit us in our private parts. During a timeout for a measurement, I look at John Stump who is red faced and sweating like a wild man. I suddenly realize that every snap that day has been perfect and he is playing so well. I have forgotten all about Tom Hale.
Sometime during the final minutes of the third quarter, I spin and run up the middle for 12 yards and score my first touchdown. No one lays a hand on me and I almost fall down because there is no resistance.
We try to kick for the extra point, but it sails wide.
The fourth quarter is ours as Ritchie scores and I run again for the extra point. The game ends and we have won 20 to 13. We run off the field and happily crowd into the dressing room. We strip off our dirty and sweaty uniforms and run naked into the steaming showers laughing and talking too loud.
We get really rowdy when we come out of the showers and start putting on our street clothes. Let me tell you there were a lot of bare butts that got snapped by wet towels that day.
Dad and Coach Johnson are laughing and pointing at us and that only encourages us to do more silly stuff. They tell us that we performed well, but we already knew that, even if we didn’t fully understand why that “scrub” game would turn out to be so memorable.
Dad was right, the St. Marys boys did put their pants on one leg at a time just like we did. The only difference was, today, our pants seemed to fit us much better.
We piled into the cars and our little caravan started home. In Dad’s car, we were all talking at the same time and so excited and elated that we could not be quiet.
The Sun was shining, the planets were aligned, life was good and football was fun. As we topped the St. Marys hill, I thought I heard Elvis sing again on the radio.