SIDNEY UNDERWOOD: THE BALL IS IN THE AIR - Who is this guy anyway?

Sidney Underwood

In the early 1950's when my family lived on Hardman Alley in Grantsville, WV. It was a common sight for us neighborhood kids to get together and play touch football in someone's back yard. We always preferred a place with shade trees like the yard beside Bill Umstead's house on River Street. Passing a football was part of our game especially if someone present was gifted enough to throw accurate spirals.

I remember that passing ability was not a skill that I possessed so I was usually on the receiving end of footballs thrown by someone else. My attempts at throwing a football usually resulted in something that looked like a ruptured duck trying to fly; not exactly end over end, but with noticeable wobbling. Sometimes when I did make the football spiral, it would be canted sideways looking like it wanted to sail off course to my left. On those rare occasions when my passes did spin correctly, I would wonder what motion I had inadvertently made and why I could not repeat that motion on every attempt.

My best friend, Bill Umstead, who was never at a loss for words had a definite opinion concerning my inability to throw the perfect spiral. He claimed that I was wasting my time because I was left handed and only right handed people like himself were capable of throwing correctly. After a time, I actually started believing that he was indeed correct in this matter. And because I was so lacking in that skill, I always stared in awe and wonderment at the boys who could throw gracefully and accurately seemingly with little effort.

The following text describes the names of young men who possessed the wondrous skill that was so lacking in me no matter how much I practiced. These are individuals I witnessed over the years in my lifetime.

When I was a small child, I remember Dick Longfellow who played football for the Spencer Yellow jackets. He sorely tested the Calhoun Red Devil defensive backs for years. I must say it was a great day for Calhoun football when Longfellow finally graduated from Spencer high school.

Bill Powell, son of Rue Powell of Arnoldsburg, WV, was another naturally gifted athlete. When Calhoun ran the single wing offense during the early 1950's, Powell, lined up as the tailback, would occasionally receive a direct snap from center and move to his right throwing on the run to open receivers. Those receivers knew that when they made their down field cuts, the football would be there smacking into their hands at exactly the right moment.

Another young man with inherit ability was Jennings "Buck" Gainer from Pine Creek. Just like the individuals mentioned, he could accurately throw long or short passes that spiraled beautifully in the air. I'm sure that "Buck" never went to any football passing seminars, but simply had natural GOD-GIVEN abilities that included a strong arm with a quick release, economy of motion and an inherit sense of timing.

My freshman year playing football in 1956 put me on the field with Rex Yoak from Yellow Creek. Once again I saw a young man whose throwing motion was text book correct. I remember the first time I caught one of his passes in practice, the ball smacked into my hands with such force that my left pinky finger started hurting like a bee sting. As I jogged back to the huddle, I watched as it slowly turned blue. Let me tell you I was well prepared when I caught his next pass that day.

Kyle Hayhurst was another Calhoun Red Devil quarterback who had the mechanics to quickly and accurately throw short passes to moving receivers. I caught several of his passes my junior year while playing only part time alternating with Howard Linville.

During the summer of 1954 my family was still living on Hardman Alley. One day I rode my bicycle to the old football field. That afternoon I witnessed a very talented young man who could throw a football and hold his own with anyone. I remember Tap Kirby being there with his dad, Holly. Tap was helping his dad by mowing the grass on the field. The new gym was completed and Holly Kirby and Shirley Hosey were now co-janitors as the NYA Building was now the home of Rubber Crafters, a new business concern. I remember Tap was riding on a sulky behind a Gravely tractor using the cutter bar attachment. It was an old tractor that belched smoke occasionally and for whatever reason, started missing. I watched as it continued on for a short distance and abruptly quit with a loud backfiring sound. Holly walked onto the field and started tinkering with the engine. A period of time passed and when he could not get the thing running, a decision was made to push it to the bus garage for the mechanics to have a look at it.

Suddenly, Tap had free time with nothing to do the rest of that afternoon. One of us had an old leaky football that was scuffed and scarred with torn laces. Tap and I started playing catch on the field with it. We had only thrown a few passes to each other when we both saw this tall lanky kid with a mop of black hair spilling over his forehead coming down the steps to the field. He was young, but several years older than us. He wore jeans and tee shirt with a long sleeve shirt overtop unbuttoned and untucked. He asked if he could join us. He looked familiar, but neither of us knew him. After a brief pause, we said that he could play catch with us. I was age 12 and Tap about the same, but this guy looked to be 16 or 17 years old.

I remember that I tossed the ball to him and he caught it one handed. He pressed long fingers to the ball and made it flex. He stated that it needed more air. We said we knew that but it was easier to catch the way it was. He just grinned and tossed it back to me without effort. I remember seeing it swiftly coming toward me in a perfect spiral and smacking into my hands at a distance of maybe 10 yards. I instantly realized that I had better be alert because there was something mysterious and maybe even dangerous about this young man. For several minutes he threw balls to Tap and me and we struggled to catch his throws. I realized my fingers were starting to get sore from playing catch at this short range so I suggested we do something else. About that time, Holly called for Tap to do something and I was now alone with this guy who I did not know. I should have asked him who the heck he was, but I didn't.

The young man indicated that I should run some pass patterns and he would throw to me. Now I always prided myself on my speed. I was not the fastest kid, but I could motor when I wanted to. I thought to myself, we will just see about this guy, I think I can make him look bad. I ran down the field about 15 yards and turned to my right accelerating quickly out of my cut toward the sideline. I expected him to misjudge my speed and throw the ball behind me. I figured that would make him seem less than perfect even if he could throw a perfect spiral! Imagine my surprise when I looked back and the ball was right there, I mean right in front of my face and it was either catch the damn thing or get hit in the head! Well, I was so flummoxed by what was happening that I tried to grab at it, but the ball went through my fingers like a chunk of lead.

Who is this guy and does he live around here? He doesn't look like much, how can his arm be so strong? Those were my thoughts as I retrieved the football. I reluctantly tossed it back to him realizing this might turn out to be a painful afternoon for me because I had too much pride to quit. I was all alone since Tap had disappeared. I heard the guy say that he would now loft the ball higher and with less intensity. I have to tell you that suited me just fine and I hoped that might give my hands a chance to stop hurting.

Knowing that I could not outrun his throwing arm, I ran the same pattern again, this time under better control. When I made my cut to the sideline, I saw the ball spiraling with the nose upward into the blue sky. I watched as it transitioned in flight and started its downward path with its nose coming down toward me. I must say that old ragged football was a thing of beauty spinning perfectly in the afternoon sun. I caught that pass easily and started regaining my confidence.

This stranger and I spent most of an hour together, he throwing and me catching his passes. I ran hooks, sideline and fly patterns until my tongue was hanging out. On the fly patterns, no matter how far I ran, the ball was always right on target. Yes, I dropped a few and each one was my fault. At what seemed to be three quarter velocity, his was a very catchable ball.

I finally told him that I could not run anymore as my legs were tired and I still had to peddle my bicycle back across the old bridge to Hardman Alley. And so we parted ways with me never catching his name although I certainly caught many of his passes that afternoon.

Later that evening at supper, I told my dad about this guy who had thrown passes to me. Dad asked me to describe him. He was thoughtful for moment, then announced to me that he knew who the boy was. He said that he was Glendon's son. When I gave him a blank look, he said the kid's name was Tom Yoak and he would be a junior this fall at the high school. Dad said that he was a good kid who seemed to be undisciplined at times. I didn't know exactly what that meant, but I told him that he needed to get this guy on the football team. Dad responded by saying that he had seen him throw the football and he had a natural talent for it. He further stated that Tom could be a good football player, but had to decide for himself if he wanted to obey the rules and be on the team.

At the most recent ALL-CLASS REUNION, I talked with Tom who now lives in Mims, Florida. He is a good sized man now and he appears to be in good shape. I didn't ask him to throw to me that day because my knees aren't so good anymore, but I will always remember the afternoon that he did.