My son Peter is 14 and in the ninth grade. He has decided to play football this year on the Middlebury Union High School freshman team. I hope he’s a better player than I was.
My dad, Peter’s Granpa, was a genuinely good football player, captain of the 1934 Bates College team, when football was king on college campuses and players were Big Men on Campus. He is a member of the Maine State Football Hall of Fame, among other gridiron honors, and still attends Bates’ games in the fall, at age 98, when the weather allows. He loved the hurly-burly of the game.
My dad’s coach, Dave Morey, was an extraordinary man, an All-American at Dartmouth who also played major league baseball for the Philadelphia As. He coached at Middlebury and Auburn before Bates. His great achievements were a 6-6 tie of Harvard in the Harvard Stadium in 1923 while coaching at Middlebury (he became known as “Middlebury’s Miracle Mentor”) and a similar 0-0 tie of Yale at the Yale Bowl in 1932 coaching a team at Bates that my dad played on.
Peter is like me — his first love is baseball, with basketball a close second. He is giving football a try. I hope it takes hold because he loves being on a team and his genetic inheritance, physically, favors the game.
I have often disparaged football. In truth, it would be more accurate to say that I have disparaged my own play in the game, recounting at length to all who would listen tales of my cowardice and ineptitude on the gridiron.
Now, to encourage Peter, I am backpedaling, explaining to him that I exaggerated and was actually braver and more skilled than I have said.
Lewiston High, where I played, was the largest high school in Maine and a perennial football power under Coach Norm Parent, an enormous and fearsome man, a legend. Coach Parent was anything but parental, in this day when water was a reward for effort and every practice was a test of one’s emergent manhood. His approach featured much yelling and bullying.
He was a great player himself at LHS before serving in World War II, then returning to Lewiston and attending Bates College on the G.I. Bill. He led the Bobcats to their greatest season ever in 1946, culminating in a bowl game, the Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio.
As coach at Lewiston High, he had a team of tough French-Canadian boys (with a few notable exceptions — me, for example), whose parents worked in Lewiston’s mills. He wasn’t a master strategist: It was strictly “three yards and a cloud of dust.” He called the forward pass “the long fumble.” When our offense was clicking, our best play was “la même chose.”
In my junior year, I was installed at center. I had hoped to play tight end, but Moe Nadeau was there, and we hardly ever threw the ball anyway. This meant that I was usually assigned to block the opponent’s nose guard, or perhaps the middle linebacker, who played opposite the center.
Our nose guard was Leo Fortin, and he was, at 17, the Maine State Heavyweight Boxing Champion, a title he earned by knocking out a big soldier from the Brunswick Naval Air Station in a bout at City Hall. Coach Parent used to say to Leo, “I don’t want that center to dare to come out of the huddle in the second half.” I wondered if Portland High coaches were saying the same thing to their own roughneck, nicknamed Killer or Moose.
My dad was a center before the T-formation, when the center had to snap the ball to various backs in motion. I could never master the long snap. My dad would take me out in the back yard and fire 15-yard bullet spirals back to me. I would snap nothing but parabolic butterflies to him. I think it was psychological.
On fourth down in games, Louie Albert would run on the field to snap the ball back to the punter. I would move to guard and Dickie Cote would run off the field, swearing the whole way. “Learn to snap the ball,” he would seethe later.
My senior year I played only on offense, as we had discovered the year before I lacked the requisite aggression to be a good player on defense. That year, we won only four games and lost five. I was the only senior starter on the offensive line. The following year Lewiston went 11-0 and won the state championship. That is called addition by subtraction.
Who knows how Peter’s football experience will go. I am reassured by the men who coach him. They are positively parental. They love the game and they love the boys. In all the years I’ve been at Middlebury, I’ve never heard Coach Brakeley, for example, say a negative thing about a boy on his team.
I know that Peter was moved by the memorial service for his Uncle Jim, the football coach, a few weeks ago. Perhaps he too will love the hurly-burly of the game.
First game this week. We’ll see.