I suppose everyone remembers some time when they dropped the ball; a time when they were handed a golden opportunity and just let it fall from their fingers.
I’ve dropped the ball on numerous occasions, but none quite so spectacular, or with so many downstream consequences, as a time in 1976. It was late in the football season, and we were in a hard-fought home game against (I believe) Fife. I was a senior, and it was one of our last home games.
I almost hadn’t made it to this point. I nearly quit football as a freshman because of a pudgy, sarcastic, and sadistic assistant coach who seemed to take particular delight in demeaning or humiliating me whenever he could, and telling me I was never going to make it in between. I suppose I should be grateful; some years later I heard he was shipped off quietly due to questionable practices with boys he did like. But after a few months of his abuse I came home and told my folks that I couldn’t take it anymore and was thinking of quitting. My dad talked me into staying and not letting this guy drive me away from playing a sport I really loved. And that’s what I did. I stuck it out.
I developed into a good all-around player, and by my junior year I was the starting fullback and middle linebacker. I had a decent running average, but I was primarily a blocking fullback in a Wishbone and Split T offense. But then we switched to a run-and-gun offense, which relied on passing nearly every down. It made a small team like ours a potential threat in ways that we would never be on the ground and offered more opportunities to make big plays.
After the start of my senior season, the coaches asked me to see them. They were moving me from fullback to tackle, and moving a promising junior into my former position. They needed better pass protection, they said. They needed to put people in the positions that could make the best overall team, they said. They made it sound like I was the guy on whom this whole new configurration depended. They didn’t mention that I would now be at the bottom of the pile with my face in the mud while Glory Boy ran by to the gleeful shrieks of girls in short skirts. They didn’t mention that any chance I might have had in getting noticed and going on to play college ball was now pretty much blown out of the water. They didn’t mention that, in essence, just when I was on the cusp of getting to walk out on stage as one of the leads in my final season, they were asking me to fall on my sword gracefully and join the nameless chorus.
I’ll let the horror of that settle in for those of you who would get what it was like. Go ahead: I’ll wait.
Glory days, well they’ll pass you by,
Glory days, in a wink of a young girl’s eye,
Glory days, glory days, glory days.
–Bruce Springsteen, Glory Days
Anyway, I didn’t raise a stink. I was a team player back then. I moved up to the line next to Bob Finlayson (the world’s toughest, but smallest, guard), where we got the crap beat out of us most of the time. Eventually, I also came to have a role on the special teams. By the time of this particular night, I was on the field for every single play of a game, and I showed it. I was taped up like a mummy and looked like a car in the final heat of a demolition derby.
So there we were, less than a minute to go, down by four points, and about on the other team’s thirty yard line. By that time in the season the Peninsula High School field was a thin green border around a mosh pit of ankle-deep sand, mud, and seagull shit. You could get a staff infection just by looking at it. On third down, our quarterback got creamed, and didn’t get up. Things looked, as they say, pretty grim.
As they carried the former quarterback off the field, the coach called me over. “Nelson,” he said, “Get in there and throw the ball.”
I know that he must have told me which play to call, but all I can remember is “Whah, whah-whah, whah-whah” after that. You see, I had never played quarterback. I had never practiced throwing pass routes. I had never fallen back into a pocket, made a hand-off, or even taken a snap. But I was going to play quarterback, and I was supposed to save the game.
There was enough time to take off my arm guard, partially unwrap my hands, and practice taking a couple of snaps. I remember feeling awkward backing my left hand up against the center’s crotch. That’s how new I was to this: here I was going to get a chance to go from the line to quarterback in the last seconds of a big game and make the winning play, and I paused to think, “Ewwwww. This is weird.”
When I got out to the huddle, everyone was looking around for the QB. When I called the play, they all stared at me with a look that hovered somewhere between “Oh, that’s fucking great,” “Oh, fuck,” and just plain, “Oh.” I tried to remain poised. We got up to the line, and I gave my best impression of a quarterback calling the snap. The ball smacked back into my hand. A “whoosh” of breath erupted from both teams. Then came a thunderous clap of pads and flesh smashing together, followed by the grunts, groans, and growls of some guys desperately trying to reach me, and others desperately trying to prevent them from doing that just long enough for me to get rid of the ball, save the game, and carve out my own little piece of everlasting glory and validation.
I was probably supposed to pass long to someone like Kevin Lyle, or Mitch Hull, or Dave Estes on a post route. I vaguely recall thinking that I should just aim for the right goal post over the helmets and hope for the best. But the problem was, when I stopped falling back the ball didn’t. As I set up and raised my arm to throw, the ball just kept going. I remember the slow-as-a-car-crash moment in which it inexorably rolled off of my taped fingers and onto the field, where is lay there a millisecond before I was buried in a heaping pile of bodies, mud, and misery.
Late the next spring, I decided to go to PLU instead of WSU, and stopped by the football coach’s office to talk about the possibility of joining the team as a walk-on. He was a local hero, a guy whose program was a strange hybrid between a successful football program and Promise Keepers. He churned out earnest young men with short hair, a positive mental attitudes, and clefts in their chins. Really: they all seemed to emerge looking like those Jesus action figures or the guys who come around to high schools and bend iron bars in the name of the Lord.
I met him in his office, which was filled with awards, plaques, stickers, and pins printed with the inspirational one-liners he was famous for. He would have been so utterly perfect for Twitter. Ahead of his time there. I described what I wanted to do, and some of my background. “Well,” he said, looking earnest,”You’re welcome to join the team. But as a walk-on, you’ll probably never play. But some kids like to join to be a part of the team. We like for them to be able to do that, so you’re welcome to come.” I started to say something, but then he remembered something and said, “Hey, I was watching some of the scouting footage for Peninsula. Weren’t you the guy who dropped the ball against Fife?”
Now it was my turn to think, “Oh, this is fucking great.” But I just said, “Oh … yeah, that was me.” I shook his hand, walked out of his office, and out of sports. I just had too many other mountains to climb at that point in my life than to start from that deficit or to be content as a hanger-on whose role was to give the starters opportunities to appear humble and magnanimous.
And you know what? It turned out okay and probably for the best.
Not that I don’t recall that moment periodically when I dropped the ball, and wish I had been able at least put it up into the air. I know there’s at least one other person who remembers the event, because every ten years he reminds me about it at the class reunion. Maybe he needs that. I don’t know why.
Now, I’m not trying to turn this into a morality play. After all, what I learned through this entire experience is partially why I am pretty cynical about the real (not the proclaimed) values and impact of teamwork and competitive sports on young lives. I learned to be skeptical about many calls to self-sacrifice and “the greater good.” But I also learned to tough it out for my own good and for my own values, and then to walk away for my own good and for my own values. I learned to survive dropping the ball. And that’s all served me pretty well, even if it still makes me cringe, after all these years.