As someone who writes for fun as time permits, I composed this piece about my experiences as a high school football player in Delavan, Wisconsin in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Putting this story into a Word document was quite cathartic as it allowed me to capture my thoughts and experiences after many years of internalization and reflection. This was written around 2003, during a time I was commuting on the train most days between Princeton Junction, New Jersey and New York City. The uninterrupted time on the train was welcome as I hammered out this tale as well as others.
For the past 13 or so years, this story has been saved on my flash drive. I’d read it from time-to-time, but never thought about releasing it for others to read until today, when I learned that George DeFrancesco had passed away.
George (or Coach De as I knew him) was a positive influence on me, as you will learn from this story. I wish I’d found a way to get this story to him while he was alive, but I always thought there’d be time for that.
Coach De, if you’re reading this from the next dimension, let me now say this: thanks. I hope you were able to bring your guitar with you.
– Annapolis, MD
August 14, 2016
Under the searing Wisconsin summer sun, I reach the front of the line for the Maiden Drill. I pull my facemask and check my helmet strap and size up the towering Tim Druschella in front of me. He’s about my weight, 215 or so, but at 6’4”, Tim has four inches on me. Plus, he is a senior with a year as a varsity starter under his belt, and he has a nasty mean streak. My adrenalin kicks in as I face my first contact in a varsity practice. Five steps beyond Dru is another senior, the relatively feeble Bret Hart. At 165 pounds, he’s not a worry. Beyond Bret is a tackling dummy.
In the Maiden Drill, the objective is for the defensive player (me) to fight through the blocks of each opponent and to tackle the dummy. Theoretically, the drill stops when the dummy falls or the coach blows his whistle because the defensive player is stopped. I glance at Coach DeFrancesco and know that the whistle won’t be used today. Now is his chance to see how the juniors like me fare against the seniors.
“On ‘go’ boys.” DeFrancesco says with a sadistic gleam in his eyes. I get into a four-point stance across from Dru. Our eyes connect, he sneers.
“SET! DOWN!…HIKE! GO!”
Helmets and shoulder pads collide, I shoot my hands into Dru’s chest, attempting to gain control of his upper body. His leverage and length catch me off-balance and I stumble to the left and fall. Dru pile drives on top of me, with ‘ooohs and ahhs’ resonating from the other linemen. I struggle to my feet and Dru mows me over before I can get all the way up. He’s on top of me, and my anger rises. Three more times I try to rise and get leveled. The laughter and jeers from the other players rises and I sense that DeFrancesco is waiting for me to do something. I begin to get up for the fifth time and anticipate Dru’s tactic. I bait him into charging, and I grasp the back of his helmet with my left hand as he brings it on. I drive his head into the turf and stomp on his back as I rise over him. The jeering stops instantly at the witness of my illegal tactic. I leave Dru prone and charge in a furious full tilt into Bret. He is expecting me to be easier man to block after seeing Dru take me apart, but I simply launch him five yards onto the tackling dummy where he lies stunned at the hit.
The whistle blows and I turn to face coach and players with a heaving chest, rage and anger surging through my sweat-drenched body. “FUCKER!” I yell at Dru everyone else within earshot. I fully expect Dru to come at me, but instead I receive a sidelong glare and I know another dogfight is in our future.
Coach De glides by as I head to the back of the drill line and whispers through his black, shaggy moustache, “I thought he had you there for a minute, kiddo.” I’m left with De’s chuckle. Through the fog of my rage, I realize I’ve earned a small amount of his respect…a respect that would remain for the rest of the season.
And I learn varsity lesson number 1: you are expected to play mean because that’s what De likes. I don’t forget it.
The sun beats down on the sixty or so guys trying to make the team. Early August in Wisconsin is brutally hot and sticky. We are encouraged to drink water and gobble salt pills during two-a-days when we sweat through our t-shirts, pads, jerseys and pants. The bigger guys sometimes drop ten pounds in water weight a day and gulp it back at night in order to be hydrated the next morning. We vomit, sweat, drink and there is no shade – only the late season corn beyond the grounds of the school. A player or two quits after every practice, and I desperately want to do so myself, but cannot since the jock thing is part of my persona.
Consequently, I flail my way through practices, just trying to get through the work. I put out about 60% of full effort and I find that my fitness is lacking compared to the smaller guys. The sessions drag on and on, and I can’t stand not knowing when we’ll be done. If I knew when the drills were to end, I think I could budget my energy better and turn up my intensity a notch when I need to.
Instead, I muddle along, relying on my natural strength and size to get through it. I want to be a star but find my will flagging as I struggle to catch my breath.
Several days later, we line up in another two-on-one drill. Again, I’m the defensive guy going against a blocker. The third man is a running back who I’m supposed to tackle.
I’m across from junior Barry Butters and senior Kevin Flood, two of the best athletes on the team. Both are strong, fast running backs who can play ball. Kevin was all-conference in the previous season, 1979, and will undoubtedly be selected again. Barry might even be better.
However, I’m bigger than both of them and Barry knows he’ll have a task in blocking me. We face-off in our stances and charge off the ball at the sound of the coach’s whistle. I partially shed Barry’s block and shoot my body out low as Kevin streaks by. Kevin’s legs are like pistons, and he’s moving at full speed. I have a millisecond to tackle him.
BAM! My head snaps back and my jaw snaps against my mouth guard. My eyes cross as I slam to the ground, and my vision blurs. I push myself up and stagger to the rear of the next line, where I drop my helmet and fall to my knees. My head spins with pain as I try to shake off the hit like a punch-drunk boxer. One of Kevin’s pumping knees caught me square on the chin during the tackle. Failing to wrap my arms, he got past me.
“You’ve got to do better than that, Murph. Those little backs are showing you up.”
Through the painful high-pitched whine blaring in my head, I glare back at Coach Sharfenburg. He’s an asshole, as well as the head coach.
It’s likely that I’ve experienced a concussion, but I go back to practice, muddling along a bit less energetically than even before.
Two-a-days end and the season begins. Our team is the 6th ranked high school team in the state based on the stellar talent of Kevin Flood, quarterback Dan Logterman, and our deep stock of large, talented linemen. Our best player is Brad Grabow, a junior who started at both tight end and defensive end on varsity as a sophomore. Brad is 6’6” and weighs in at a lean 215, but no one on the team comes close to his ability. He catches every ball thrown his way, and is a vicious tackler and pass rusher. We all expect he’ll be recruited by a division 1 college after this season.
I can’t crack the starting lineup, even though I’d been co-captain of the junior varsity team the year before. But as the early weeks of practice pass, I find myself gradually improving. I don’t think I’m too far behind the big, talented and mean seniors on our team.
The offensive line is impressive. Mike Tesch anchors the left side at 6’2”, 275 pounds, and forms one of the best high school tackle / guard combinations I can think of with Pooh Smiley. The center is albino Tom Polzin, who is long, lean and freaky strong. The other guard is a diminutive water bug named Walt Turner. Walt has a lot of scrap and speed, but not a lot of size. Rather than blowing guys out of the hole, he pesters them. Dru and his bad attitude are on the right tackle, and he fears no one.
On offense, I back up Dru on the right side and Pooh’s younger brother, Paul, backs-up Tesch at left. On defense, I’m in the rotation as a backup tackle as well. I’d love to get a chance to play center as I did as a sophomore, but for some reason De doesn’t want me to play there. I don’t argue.
One of our first non-conference games is against Oregon (near Madison), and they’re ranked #4 in the state. The papers claim that this is the best early game of the season, and the winner could well find themselves in the state championship game.
Oregon is led by a behemoth tackle named Chester Nelson. Chester is 6’6” and 270 pounds. Before the season began, he had accepted a full-ride scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The papers extol his on-field dominance at length, and it’s hard not to get intimidated. During the days leading up to the game, I wonder if I’ll get any playing time in against him. My stomach churns with nerves, though it’s not even a given that I’ll get in the game.
At last, game day arrives. We are bussed to Oregon where we meet our foe under the Friday night lights. The game is close and low scoring, with bruising hits coming from both sides. I anxiously watch from the sideline, but don’t get a call to go into the game during the first half.
Finally, De calls my name late in the third quarter. I strap on my hat, take my instructions from De, and run to the huddle. “Dru, take a break.” The exhausted DT shakes his head and jogs off the field.
We’re on defense, and Oregon is about to drive into our half of the field. “Clean pants!” comments one of the Oregon players as the break their huddle. All eleven on their side glance my way, and know they’ll be testing the backup. Chester saunters up to the line, and my heart pounds in my chest. In the defensive alignment we’ve called, I’ll line up directly across from him. He seems 20% larger than Dru to me, but not as dense as Tesch. No doubt, he’s big and I’m scared. I do not want to fail.
“Get low and drive, get low and drive…” I say to myself. I’ve got to get off the ball quicker than Chester and make sure that I hold my ground. I don’t have to make the tackle…all I have to do is take up space and prevent him from pushing me out of the play. As we get down in our stances, I am nearly hyperventilating.
The ball snaps and I fire with all I have into Chester’s upper body. I see the guard down-block and feel Chester trying to push me to the right out of the hole. Quickly, I burrow my left shoulder in his chest and shove him back with my left arm. Much to my surprise, this stops him. The ball carrier is headed straight toward me, expecting an enormous hole to pass through. Instead, he meets me. I drop him in his tracks with a solid form tackle at waist level. No gain.
The entire play seems to happen in slow motion. Chester seems amazingly soft, and I guess that’s because I’m so used to getting pummeled by Pooh, Grabow, Tesch, Dru and a bunch of other farm-boys during practice every day. And, the tackle was a piece of cake. A small cheer arises from our bench, but the stands are relatively quiet at what is perceived as an ordinary, no-gain running play.
The P.A. system clicks on, and there’s a pause as the game announcer tries to find my name on the roster. “….number 73…Pat Murphy…on the tackle…no gain.”
The next play is a virtual replay of the first, and I make the tackle again. It’s fourth down, and I trot off the field. It’s the last I’ll play tonight, and we lose by a close score. Our hopes for maintaining our high state ranking are dashed, and it deflates everyone on the team, especially the seniors.
“…Pat Murphy, again. No gain. Fourth down.”
The season passes along, and we lose several games that we shouldn’t. The coaches are frustrated with the team’s lack of dedication, especially on the part of the seniors. We muddle as a team through our last practice before our homecoming game.
During our post-practice chalkboard session, Sharfenburg screams, “If any one of you – and I mean ANY one of you – are late for our pre-game meeting tomorrow, you will not suit up and you will not play. Do you hear me? Huh? Be back here no later than 6:00 p.m. tomorrow night.”
It’s hard to miss the message.
The school day passes slowly on Friday. Like always, I suffer from incredible nerves, and can’t focus in my classes. Whenever I think about the game — regardless of the opponent — I get a rush of adrenaline. I visualize making plays during algebra as well as during my other classes. At last, it’s 3:15 and the bell rings.
I rush home to eat an early dinner so I can be back in the locker room by 5:30. There’s no way I want to be late for the pre-game session after Sharf’s demand the day before. I gobble whatever my Mother has cooked for me, drink a half-a-gallon of milk, grab the keys to the beater Buick my sister and I share, and run for the door.
“Oh, you’re leaving? OK, good luck, honey! Daddy and I will see you at the game!”
“OK! See you later!”
At sixteen, I haven’t yet come to grips with the concept of eating too much. The tuna casserole and milk slosh around my nervous stomach as I sprint for the Buick. I arrive at school just as all of the other players are filing in. Some of the guys are already in uniform, playing catch in the lot outside the locker room. I grab my uniform off of the rack and quickly get dressed. I check my look in the mirror, and frown at my number, 73. Sharf assigned it to me without asking. I’d really wanted the number 50 as I’d had the year before, or at least to pick my own number if 50 wasn’t available. The number 73 seems weak to me – it’s not a number that any of the pro’s I admire wear.
The coaches call our pregame meeting just after six, and we file onto the benches in front of the locker room chalkboard. Roll call begins, passing alphabetically by last name.
“Where the hell is Dru?” shouts Sharf. We all look around; no one has seen him.
Suddenly, the locker room door flies open, and in saunters the big guy wearing jeans and a golf shirt.
“God damnit, Dru, you were supposed to be here at six! What the hell is your problem?”
Dru’s eyes get wide, and he shrugs. It’s a moment of truth. Sharf’s face reddens from his neck up through his crew cut as he realizes he’s forced to withhold one of his best players from the homecoming game. The locker room is dead quiet as we wonder if he’ll back off from his commitment of the day before. My palms sweat, knowing that I would get the start.
Turning to De, Sharf barks, “Who the hell backs up Druschella?”
De looks directly at me with a wan smile. “Murphy.”
Sharf releases a heavy sigh and an eye roll. De likes me; Sharf does not. Since I’d never even tried to score with one of Sharf’s daughters, I have no idea why he dislikes me. I’ve barely ever spoken to the man.
“OK, Murphy. You’re in.” The team bursts into murmurs and side discussions before Sharf quiets us to berate us for our poor attitude. I hear little of it as my head buzzes with adrenalin, though I pay close attention as we finally review our game plan.
Paul Smiley gets the start in Dru’s place at defensive tackle. He’s really a carbon copy of Dru, just a year younger. In fact, many of us think Paul’s skills are better than Dru’s. There’s no concern on the team about this change – only about my ability to handle the right side of the offensive line.
As we leave for the field, ‘Tons-a-fun’ Tesch pulls me aside. “Don’t fuck up.”
I resent the comment. Tesch is big, fat but very athletic. However, I think I’m just as good a player as he is, especially since De had indicated as much.
“Don’t worry,” I snap and pull away.
The announcer bellows my name and I sprint onto the field as one of the offensive starters. The crowd cheers, and I hear someone yell, “Where’s Druschella?” The public will never know what happened in the locker room.
We’re playing Walworth Bigfoot, one of the middle-of-the-pack teams in our conference. We typically beat them like a drum, and tonight is no different.
The first play of the game is called to my side, and Walt and I crack a hole for Flood who bulls for seven yards. We do it again for five more, and then try the other side of the line successfully as well. We score a touchdown on our first drive, and the route is on.
Bigfoot’s defensive line can’t keep us with us. I pummel their DT and linebacker’s. It seems like a JV game compared to the guys I practice against every day. We cruise into halftime with a nice lead.
After the break, speedster Ray Aponte is inserted for Flood. He doesn’t have Kevin’s ability to run through people, but he is by far the fastest guy on our team. ’28 tackle sweep’ is called, and it is the first time in the game that I’m required to pull outside and run. My responsibility is to clear the cornerback for Ray.
I pull out in a wide, loopy arc toward the unsuspecting cornerback; I hear Ray steaming up fast behind me. While I haven’t yet touched the cornerback, I effectively shield him from Ray, and our runner breaks into the clear for a twenty-five yard gain. I flatten the CB well after Ray passes us. It’s laughable. We call the play again and break off another chunk of yardage. Again, Ray is faster to the spot than I am, but it doesn’t matter.
Ray is an unbelievable hothead, and he berates me in the huddle, “You are fucking SLOW! Do you know how long it’s taking you to get out there?” I don’t answer because Loggy is about ready to call the next play. For a guy who just gained more than 35 yards on two plays running behind me, he has balls to bitch about my blocking. I’d like to pummel his stupid ass.
The next play is called to the left side. My job is to down-block on the defensive tackle while Walt slides out to pester a linebacker. Should be a piece of cake.
At the snap of the ball my target, the Bigfoot DT, slants toward the center. It registers instantly with me that they’ve called a slant / stunt, and I now have to pick up a linebacker or the end, whomever I see first.
I turn to the right just in time to see their end diving at my lower body. I try to get out of the way, but he slams into my leg, and I feel a quick sharp pain in my right knee. It’s almost as if he’s trying to block me rather than get past me.
Instead of losing my feet, I hop forward and try to figure out how bad I’m hurt. I hobble quickly back to the huddle, and flex my knee once I get there. It might be bruised, but nothing serious. I feel a tap on my back, “Get outta here, Murph.” It’s Hobie Madison, the senior who is our third string tackle. I can’t believe it.
I run to the sideline, and Sharf asks how bad it is. “I’m OK!!” I say. Sharf directs me to Doc Smiley — Pooh and Paul’s dad — who is a local physician who volunteers for sideline duty during games.
Doc flexes my knee and tests the lateral movement. I feel a little bruise, but no real pain. The knee is perfectly stable.
“You’ve got a sprained medial collateral ligament, son.” Doc tells me.
“But it doesn’t hurt!”
“I know, it may not now, but you can’t take any chances with it.”
So my game ends. In my naivety, I take Doc’s word rather than protesting further with him and the coaches. In the end, Sharf categorizes me as both a soft player and injury prone.
Hobie Madison tears it up. He leads Ray on “28 tackle sweep” for a ton more yards. The cornerback sees it coming, but Hobie is on him so quickly, there’s no way he can make the tackle. Hobie is fast and tough and I envy the fact that he’s in the game performing well. I spend the rest of the season backing him up as he takes my second-string spot. My knee is fine.
So, I work my ass off in practice to get more than a third string spot on offense, spending my time on the “T-Team.” The “T-Team” is the group of back-ups who practice as our next opponent against our starters.
I do battle against Dru on both offense and defense. We have come to hate each other. On offense, I’m called upon to frequently block one of our speedy starting outside linebackers, Mike Mullen. He and I go at it furiously, and I never lose. Mike just can’t figure out how to beat me. Tesch and I clash, and I use as much speed as I can muster to get around his immense girth. I make his ass sweat. I rarely catch Pooh, and he pounds on me when I do. I can’t figure out how to beat him. Grabow throws me around like a rag-doll, but he does that to everyone. It’s unbelievable how strong he is. On defense, I chase Loggy all over the field. He’s very quick and deceptive, and often leaves me tackling air.
And so it goes. I make the starters work, and I work to improve myself. The more the season progresses, the more De encourages me to be aggressive and mean. I do it. We all do it. The gap between the seniors and the juniors gradually closes. I earn more time in games at defensive tackle, which requires a grittier, tougher approach to the game than offensive tackle. De whispers technique to me, and I soak it up. By the end of the season, I completely forget about playing offense, and only want to be a whirling dervish on defense.
Unfortunately, we end the season with a disappointing 5-4 record. It’s almost as if the seniors had a sense of entitlement, and expected our opponents to roll over for us. The early loss to Oregon tested our resolve, but we never pulled together to reach our potential.
After the final game, I’m dressing in the locker room when Sharf and a freshman team coach, Ed Lauzanne, approach.
Smiling at me for the first time ever, Sharf says, “We’ll need you in top shape for next year, Murphy! Are you ready to work?”
“You bet!” I reply. Lauzanne becomes animated. He’s a former college track star and a weight room fanatic.
“I can see you now, Murph! You’ll hit the weights and come back as a 250-pound animal!! GRRR!!!”
Unwittingly, I scoff and shake my head. There’s no way I want to get up to 250 pounds. I appreciate the attention of the coaches, but suddenly see that my body language has turned them off. Sharf reddens, rolls his eyes and walks away. Lauzanne follows; after all Sharf is his boss. I’m thankful that De is my position coach and mentor. If I stay close with him, I have a chance to do well and to be all-conference in my senior year, and I don’t think I’ll have to weigh 250 pounds to achieve that.
During the spring of the next year, it is announced that Coach DeFrancesco will be leaving our school. He’s been an art teacher and coach here for years, and is now going to follow his dream of being a professional guitar player in Las Vegas. His divorce is final, and he has taken up with one of our English teachers, much to everyone’s surprise. But they were a pair of free spirits; a match made in heaven, I guess. Something tells me that they have a great life ahead of them.
De also coaches the weight-men on our track team, where Tesch and I are the number 1 and 2 shot put and discus throwers. I get a fair amount of one-on-one time with De, and our relationship grows. He’s creative, liberal and speaks his opinion on just about every subject. He takes shit from no one.
At a track team party at the end of the school year, De pulls me aside. “You’re going to light it up next season, kiddo. Keep up the weight work, and kick some ass.” I say that I will, and De gives me a squeeze on the shoulder. And with that, my mentor is off to find fame and fortune on the Vegas strip with Ms. Miller the English teacher at his side.
Two-a-days start again in August, 1980 and I arrive at 230 pounds. Mostly because of track, I have been lifting weights consistently and am now able to bench-press 275 pounds. Even more impressive, I did a dead-lift of 525 pounds and a squat of 515 pounds. From a weight-room standpoint, I’m for sure one the top three strongest guys on the team. Like the previous season, I’m not as fit as the smaller guys, but I’m strong as hell and know that I’ll get my wind in time.
Ed Lauzanne takes De’s place as the line coach, and he’s been tracking my progress in the weight room. I don’t have the relationship with Lauzanne that I had with De, but we seem to get along well enough. He’s spotted for me on quite a few lifts and has been pretty encouraging.
We get through the early non-contact practices, and at last the pads go on. Lauzanne lines us up for the Maiden Drill, and a cheer goes up from us seniors. It’s time to test the juniors, and for us seniors to give some payback for the hell we went through last year. By the end of the previous season, the Maiden Drill had become a team favorite. Under De, it was a free-for-all, with punches flying, facemasks pulled, along with most any other kind of marginally legal tactic. The Maiden Drill had become a test of our manhood, and I’d become quite good at it.
I draw two juniors in my first go-round. Jake Schlicker and Rich Davis stand across from me, and my adrenalin flows. I’d been looking forward to teeing-off in The Drill since the end of last season, and now I have a couple of newbies to put through the ringer.
We get down in our stances, and I’m across from Jake. He’s maybe 180 pounds, but has a good reputation for technique and quickness. It won’t matter. I’m going to dust him.
Lauzanne blows the whistle and I crash into Jake. I get my hands under his shoulder pads and drive him back. Jake fights back, and I get a hand under his facemask and push him back into Davis by leveraging his chin. During my junior year, I learned that “where the head goes, so goes the body.” Lauzanne blows his whistle, stopping the drill.
“Whoa, whoa whoa! What’s going on here?” The seniors look at each other; we don’t know what’s wrong. “Murphy, you can’t do that.”
“What?” I ask.
Lauzanne lays out his rules for a sanitized version of the Maiden Drill. We seniors protest, but to no avail. It’s clear that Lauzanne’s idea of line play will be centered around speed and technique. He won’t encourage fighting and meanness the way De did. I’m disappointed. My technique is good, but I may not be the fastest lineman on the team. I wonder what this means for me.
The two-a-days continue, and a reporter and a photographer arrive from the Janesville Gazette. Janesville is the ‘big town’ about 20 miles to the west of us, and they publish an annual high school football special each fall. The special features pictures of the best players on each of the area’s teams, and prognostication of how each team will do.
Sharf leads the reporter around the practice field, chatting amiably. As they pass by the various drills, Sharf sends certain players over to the photographer for a headshot. All of the best players are photographed, and I see Sharf sending a number of juniors and some marginal seniors as well.
My heart pounds, and I’m eager to be one of the guys featured in the newspaper. It’s my turn! Within the next week or so, my face will appear in the Janesville Gazette along with quotes from the coach on how good I am and how well our team will do! After toiling on the freshman team, then on JV and last year under the seniors, it’s thrilling to know my turn for recognition has arrived!
The reporter and Sharf stop to observe the drill I’m in. All of us turn up the intensity, like kids showing off to company visiting the house. Sharf sends four or five from our group over the photographer. He looks directly at me, but looks right through me. The coach and reporter move on.
I am devastated — absolutely crushed, and I feel like crying.
I become deeply depressed. I toss and turn at night as I see my senior season slipping through my fingers, along with my delicate teenager’s self-image.
The practices continue, and it appears as though I’m only a second-stringer. I try to nail down the center position, but Lauzanne is enamored with Jake. Paul Smiley nails down the left offensive tackle spot, and another senior, J.C. Love, gets slotted on the right side. J.C. is enormous at 6’7”, 220 and it seems as though his coordination has finally caught up with his size. He’s playing OK. Even though he’s a lot taller than me, I’m sure I can kick his ass.
I try also to build upon my development during the previous season as a defensive tackle. I enter training camp believing that I will start at one of the DT spots along with Smiley. Paul does take one spot, but Rich Davis takes the other. Lauzanne likes Rich’s speed, and he’s not too much smaller than me. I am distraught at this turn of events, and my depression deepens. At night, I nearly cry at the injustice of it all. What have I done to get pushed aside like this? I don’t know what to do, and I find myself becoming very isolated and alone.
We do our drills, and I go through the motions. Other guys banter and joke between turns, excited to be playing football. But I am quiet. I question what each drill repetition will accomplish — will doing well in the monkey roll drill or the pulling drill get me into the starting line-up? Subconsciously, I tend to think not. I try to impress the men by being aggressive and mean, but my bed had been made the year before with Sharf. I now have zero support from the coaching staff since De is gone.
Subconsciously, I also know that their decisions are not entirely without merit. I hate the uncertainty of not knowing when practice or a drill will end, and I budget my effort just to get through. As a result, there are times that I end up looking lazy and unenergetic. I’d much prefer it if the coaches provided an outline of what we’re to do each day, but it doesn’t even occur to me ask for that. As a seventeen year-old, I assume the coaches have all the answers as they are grown men. I naively believe adults have it all figured out.
I withdraw into my funk, and accept my role as a backup. It affects my whole life.
We begin the 1980 season, and I watch with resentment as Rich Davis does everything the coaches want him to do. Sharf and Lauzanne have really taken the big redhead under their wing, but I still manage to get quite a bit of playing time rotating with Rich and Paul on defense. I’m in the games for several series at a time, so I manage to get into the flow.
For our third game of the season, we travel to Wilmot, who will be our last non-conference opponent. From what our scouting reports and the newspapers tell us, Wilmot has a pretty good team and they look a lot like us on paper; plenty of strapping linemen, a good QB and quick running backs.
A left guard named Chuck Menke anchors their offensive line. From what I know, Chuck won the 185-pound wrestling weight class in Wilmot’s conference last year. He plays football at around 200 pounds, and has a reputation as a solid technician with a lot of scrap and strength. I’m sure I’ll knock heads with him at some point.
Early in the game, I get the call to spell Paul. It’s still late summer, so the coaches try to keep the rotations moving and the water flowing in an effort to keep us fresh.
The huddle’s break, and I find myself lining up against Chuck. My stomach flutters, but not to the degree it did when I faced-off against Chester Nelson the year before. I’ve slowly been translating my depression and resentment into anger and energy on the field. I am ready to do battle.
I find the scouting reports to be accurate. Chuck is strong and fights me tooth and nail. His hands and feet are quick, and we bang on each other with all we can bring. While I’m not in on too many tackles, I feel I’m giving Chuck all he can handle and that I’m disrupting their blocking schemes. Sooner or later, I tell myself, I’ll make a play.
Smiley rotates in for Davis. Star middle linebacker and running back Barry Butters grabs Paul and I by the jerseys in the huddle. He screams his instructions, intensity blazing at what is a second down and long situation.
“SMILEY – YOU RUSH THE QB!! MURPHY – YOU HANG BACK AND COVER THE SCREEN!!” Spit and sweat fly; we’re warriors in the trenches.
Paul and I comply. The sides line up and the ball snaps. I bull three steps into Chuck, and then rapidly pull back, head on a swivel as I try to sniff out a screen pass. I make eye contact with Chuck who seems to wonder what I’m doing. It’s a straight pass play, and it’s incomplete.
It’s third and long, and we know for sure that they’ll pass again. Barry instructs us to rush our asses off, and our adrenaline levels pop. I get down in my three-point stance, head-to-head with Chuck. Our eyes meet again, both of us pictures of intensity. I know we will leave nothing in reserve on this play. “Be quick, be quick, be quick…” I tell myself; I have to shed him fast and get into the backfield.
“HUT!” I see the ball move out of the corner of my left eye, which triggers a Pavlovian response as I explode out of my stance into my opponent. I get my left hand into Chuck’s chest and my right hand on his shoulder. Chuck is uncharacteristically slow to get his feet in position, and I exploit my brief leverage advantage. I drag his jersey down with my left hand, and explode my right hand through his body to push him over. Instantly, I am across the line of scrimmage into the Wilmot backfield, closing in on the quarterback. A blur catches my eye to the left, and I see a wide receiver looping toward the QB. It’s a reverse.
“REVERSE!!! REVERSE!!!” I shout, mouth-guard and saliva flying out of my mouth. I cut to the right to get a pursuit angle on the receiver who has now taken a hand-off from the QB. As fast as I can run, I do. I am two steps behind him and closing. A few more steps, and he’s mine! We tear fast toward the sideline, every stride diminishing the receiver’s ability to turn the corner.
I lunge with my right hand, and slap it down on the receiver’s shoulder and – BAM! – my legs are cut out from under me and searing pain screams up my right leg. I spin as I fall, my last vision is seeing Barry Butters wipe out the runner for a loss.
I lay on my back and scream, black sky above me, bright lights in my peripheral vision. I scream again, my right ankle is a complete mess. Chuck rises and looks at me briefly before returning to his huddle. He cut-blocked me from behind which is a legal move within four yards of the line of scrimmage. There’s no emotion in his eyes. He just did his job. I writhe in pain, and I can’t get up.
Play is stopped and Lauzanne and Coach Bronson attend to me. One of them asks if it’s my knee again – the one I never really hurt. “It’s my ankle…oh God, it hurts so fucking bad!!”
The coaches manage to get me to a sitting position, and from there they lift me to my feet and help me off the field. My ankle is wrapped in ice and elevated on the bench, and the rest of the team keeps their distance as though injuries are contagious. The ice doesn’t seem to help, and I can feel my skin stretch with the swelling.
We win the game, and the teams shake hands. I’m stuck on the bench, but Chuck finds his way to me. “Hey, good game man. Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I guess, but my ankle seems pretty fucked-up.”
“I’m sorry that happened.”
“You were doing your job. I would have done the same thing to you.”
We shake hands. Chuck turns and leaves me alone on the bench. The next time I see his face, it’s in the newspaper as a first team guard on his all-conference team. He’s good, and so am I.
As the stadium empties, I am left alone on the bench. Paul and senior Dan Meyer figure out I can’t get to the bus myself, and they lift me off the bench and carry me. A sea of fans departing the stadium part for us as we amble along like a three-headed monster. “What happened to him?” “Is he alright?” they ask as we go along. Paul and Dan grunt as they strain to carry me, and I grimace with the pain of moving. At last, I am settled into the back of the equipment van where a bed of sweat-soaked uniforms is made for me and another injured player, Greg Jones.
Jonesey and I ride along in the night, joking about girls and school, ankles elevated, ice packs on.
When we arrive back at our school, my Dad meets me in the small training room by the coach’s office. I’m propped up on the training table awaiting one of the men to take a look.
“How do you feel, Pat?” Dad asks.
“Not too good. This really hurts.” With that, Lauzanne arrives to make his diagnosis. Peeling back the ice pack, he whistles at the purple, grapefruit sized swollen protrusion on the side of my right ankle.
“Oh, we’ve got a little sprain here,” he says, eyes widening at the sight. I’m instructed to keep it iced and elevated for 48 hours, and then to use a heating pad after that. Concern crosses Dad’s face as he looks on. As a good high school and semi-pro player in his youth, Dad knows pain. His teeth were kicked in during a game in the 50’s before anyone wore a facemask.
A half an hour later, we’re home, and I am under the doting care of my Mother who for once in her life doesn’t know what to do. Mom and Dad help me get situated in bed, and we retire as a family.
For two weeks after my injury, I don’t practice. Gradually, I give up my crutches and get back to an awkward walk. I keep my ankle taped 24 hours a day to improve its stability, and I watch the action from the sidelines each afternoon. Practice is incredibly boring to watch, and no one seems to care if I wander away for a while. I spend time in the locker room playing dodge ball with a couple of other injured guys. We sift through all of the old jerseys and helmets in the equipment closet, and one guy walks off with a couple of keepsakes. I don’t steal, and am uncomfortable seeing others do it. After that, I stay on the sidelines.
During the next weeks, I get back into the pads and back on the field. I can play a bit, and try to prove that I’m game-worthy. I twist my ankle on occasion, which sets me back. I even end up back on crutches from time-to-time. However, I get some playing time in the DT rotation, but not as much as I did prior to getting hurt.
As in the past, I try to contribute where I can. During one practice, I fill in at center during a drill that works the left side of the offensive line only. The drill is meant teach new plays to our players, and is to be completed at “half fast” or “half assed” as we say.
Junior Tim Little lines up across from me on defense. I snap the ball and fall into him slowly. Tim slams by me and into the backfield to disrupt the play. “This is a half assed drill, Little. What are you doing?” I yell at him after the play. Tim has no reply, and pulls the same shit on the next play. I am enraged – the coaches don’t correct him
“God damnit, Little, what the fuck are you doing?”
“Just play ball, Murph,” Little sneers. This is the first year Tim has played football, and he has no respect for me. I consider him to be a big farm kid with little in the way of skills, knowledge or talent.
“Oh, we’ll play ball, asshole.” I spit as I tighten my chinstrap.
The entire team senses something is up. Other drills stop as our guys and coaches turn to watch the next play.
“C’mon fucker!” I scream at him as I approach the line. I want to rip his head off.
We get in our stances and I snap the ball on the count. Tim and I slam into each other as hard as we can, banging, punching, pushing. The whistle blows, and Tim has gone nowhere except backwards.
On the next play, we do it again. I win.
On the next play, we slam but Tim gets ahead of me a bit, and begins to fly past me. I undercut him at the knees and he topples to the turf. I rise quickly and punch him in the helmet several times, “Don’t fuck with me, asshole! You want to go again, fuck-face? C’mon! Bring it!”
I turn to the team, and see Sharf staring at me with appalled disbelief, as though he’d just witnessed a horrific crime. Grabow smiles slightly for the first time all season. Brad’s a violent bastard, and liked what he saw. Bronson passes, “See what happens when you get a little mad? You’re unstoppable.”
It doesn’t matter. I’m still hurt and second-string at best.
Our team is successful. We lose three and win seven, which sets us up for the conference championship game against Waterford, a team we’d beaten in a close game earlier in the season. I play early in the championship game, but come out after tweaking my ankle. I manage to get back in later, but not for long. I can’t move too well, and don’t contribute much.
Ironically, Tim Little causes a fumble, which we return to win the game. As a team, we are elated. We back-slap, hug and cheer on our sideline when Grabow announces, “Let’s lift Sharf!!”
Along with a bunch of other guys, I run over to the unsuspecting coach and hoist him onto our shoulders. I’m directly under his left side when it occurs to me that I have no admiration or respect for the man whatsoever. I pass the coach onto another player in the gang, and amble back to find my helmet. Emotion hits me as I realize that my life as a football player is more than likely over. It’s probable that I’ll never play another game.
Near the bus, Coach Bronson draws near to congratulate me. He was my coach as a sophomore, and I like him. “Good job, Murph. We had a great season.”
Tears fill my eyes, as I look back at him. “I fucked up so bad…” I stammer between heaves. Bronson looks at me with dismay, pats my head and walks away. I gain my composure before anyone else sees me crying like a baby. On the bus back home, I dwell in my depression as the others hoot and holler at the win. I am not part of this team, I think. I’m a fuck-up and I didn’t contribute to this win or to the team’s success.
Time passes, and I wear my lettermen’s jacket with pride. The conference championship medal dangles from the letter itself. Paul, Barry and a number of other guys make all-conference, and Grabow makes all-state second team as well. The recruiters swarm on him, and he accepts a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Whenever the topic of our football season arises, I am quick to defend my lack of contribution with a variety of excuses. “Man, you should have seen how that guy chop-blocked me.” “Sharfenburg is a dick.” Few people take the time to listen, and I sense no one is really interested in hearing my excuses.
I think about going out for the team in college, but my confidence isn’t too high and I dread the amount of work practice would be at the next level. I still fantasize about being a star, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.
So now, twenty-three years later, it’s been an interesting exercise to reflect upon my bittersweet experiences as a football player. I was a man-child among man-children, with a rapidly maturing body but a much less mature mind. For better or worse, these were formative experiences that in part created who I am today and I have carried both the confidence and emotional scars from my teen years into my adult life.
Like everyone, my teen years were a time when I began to encounter many new opportunities, circumstances and problems. As my young children enter this stage of their lives, I’ll be watching closely to see how things are going for them. If I can lend support and guidance (assuming they’ll listen to me), I will. However, like all of us, they’ll have to figure some things out on their own.
I became pretty upset and depressed over my playing status, and I didn’t know quite how to deal with it. I never asked my coaches what was expected of me or what I could do to improve and contribute. That was a mistake, but one I didn’t realize I was making at the time. Sometimes when you’re a teenager, you assume adults see things exactly the way you do. I was stunned to find that Sharf didn’t see me as a star or even a starter. Perhaps if I had sat down with him to discuss his expectations as well as my strengths and weaknesses, I could have made changes to get myself into a better position. Maybe then he would have told me that I needed to show a better practice effort to win a starting job.
Now as an adult, I’ve finally figured out that all of us face difficult circumstances and problems. Through repetition, I’ve become better at managing them. And, all of us have new opportunities in life, though we don’t always recognize them. Ultimately, we are free to be whoever we wish to be, and we are defined by the decisions we make everyday.
Instead, I formed somewhat of a ‘victim mentality’ to make excuses for my status. “I could have played after I got hit in the knee, but the coaches wouldn’t let me.” “Lauzanne didn’t like me, so I didn’t start. It would have been a different story if De were still around.” “Sharf is a jerk. He liked midgets more than big guys.” Not many people want to listen to conversations like that.
Nevertheless, I have found my experiences as a football player to be somewhat metaphoric for many things in life. Team players succeed.
In my work life, I have evolved into the consummate team player; an individual willing to sacrifice so that the team may succeed. I consider myself to be less flashy but more diligent and attentive to the details than many of my co-workers – a lineman of the corporate world, so to speak.
I’ve had success and reward, due mainly to the fact that I am tenacious and willing to fight and work hard for what I achieve. My tenacity and toughness developed on the football field, and has served me well in life. I’ve been programmed to compete from an early age, and I consider that to be important as well.
Like in football, a few things in business come easy for me and many things do not. However, the things I do well, I do very well, and I get through the hard stuff by working at it. No one denies my effectiveness.
As a Father, I do my best to mentor, coach and advise our three children. Where would I have been if not for Coach De as a junior and Coach Bronson as a sophomore? My interactions with them were valuable, and I grew in confidence and ability because of their influence. While Fatherhood isn’t exactly the same as coaching, I want our kids to have a “life coach” in me. If I’m able to help them grow into loving, capable, energetic individuals, well, that’s as much as one can ask for in life.
As my confidence ebbed at the end of my football career, I carried that into my life. As a result, I became an individual who requires plenty of positive reinforcement from superiors in order to keep my confidence high. Beginning with my interactions with Sharf, I have had a number of issues with negative authority figures over the years. Thankfully, there have been enough positive figures in my life to outweigh the bad.
The depression that began for me during adolescents also carried into my adult life. It took years for me to manage it, and I have my wife Melanie to thank for being my guide in that respect. I’m very blessed to have a friend and partner like her to talk with and to share my life with. If not for Melanie, I’m quite sure I’d be sinking thousands into therapy right about now.
Dan Meyer and Greg Jones have remained close friends since high school, and we’ll reminisce about the glory days on the rare occasion that we’re together. They’re great guys who’ve gotten through their lives by being tenacious and tough, too.
Grabow started at outside linebacker during his sophomore and junior seasons with the Badgers. In his senior year, he got beat out by a speedy underclassmen. I know how that feels. Brad now owns an insurance agency back in our hometown, and I hear he still plays baseball on the local men’s amateur team.
Barry Butters is a teacher and head football coach in a neighboring town. He married his high school sweetheart, and had led exactly the life he wanted to. It’s nice to see.
I got to know Chuck Menke fairly well in college; he and I attended the same school. Chuck majored in engineering, and went about his studies as tenaciously as he played ball. We talked once or twice about the game we played against each other, and it was interesting to get his perspective. He had a commemorative all-conference plague on his dorm room desk showing him in uniform, down on one knee.
As for Dru, Tesch, Paul & Pooh Smiley and all of the others, I don’t know what became of them. On occasion, I wonder what their perspectives are on their football experience and if it had an impact later in their lives. I’m sure it did.
Sharf retired and Bronson became head coach. I heard the football team floundered for years as many of the best athletes went out for soccer instead. Sharf is probably in his 70’s now, and I harbor no resentment toward him at all. What’s the use? I’m sure he’s a fine guy, really. As a teenager, you’re just too young to figure that out.
From time-to-time, I wonder how things worked out for De and Ms. Miller. One of these days, I should go to Vegas and look for his show. I can see him in a crushed velvet suit in one of those off-the-strip casinos where the decor hasn’t been updated in forty years. I bet he’s having a blast.
My six year-old son has taken to wearing my high school football jersey to bed most nights. By now, he’s worn the shirt far more than I ever did. I love the way it drapes down to his ankles, and he has to struggle to get his hands out of the sleeves, which hang past his wrists.
I would very much like for my children to be involved in athletics, as long as they enjoy what they’re doing and are committed to give it a good effort. I won’t be living vicariously through my son’s football exploits, should they choose to play the game. I’d just prefer that our kids be physically active and fit.
In the meantime, I tune into the Green Bay Packers games whenever I can. My adrenalin flows each Sunday before kick-off, which Melanie finds funny and a bit strange. My Dad and I exchange a half a dozen phone calls during each game to discuss strategy, bitch, rejoice, etc. My kids have gotten to know some of the players on sight; “Bubba Franks, he’s really big! He’s number 88!”
And yes, even at 40, I still fantasize about making a big play from time-to-time. Hey, you never know. The Packers might need me someday.