I’ve shared how I once played third base behind Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller at a fundraising event, and how I once topped my lifelong athletic adversary in a game of home-run derby.
But I’ve never told of my experiences in the one-and-only organized football game in which I participated.
Oh, I played tons of street football (tackle, of course, on pavement — yes, we are stupid when young; well, me at least.) but never with enough people to play a real game. We had quarterbacks, running backs, a defender or two and that was about it. Our quarterbacks had all day to decide where to throw the ball as there was no one to rush the passer.
Things were a lot different when I got cornered into playing a game while working as a supervisor at a powder coating plant in Norwalk in the early 1980s.
The plant was a union shop, which made me, a supervisor, a prime target for verbal abuse from the work crew. I worked hard to establish good relations with them and I felt as though most of them respected me, if not liked me.
But when one of the most active union members invited me to take part in a company football game that weekend, I knew I’d been put in an impossible position. I would be the only person from management taking part.
That meant if I played, all the others would be out to kill me.
And if I didn’t play, I’d be branded forever as a coward and never have anyone’s respect again.
I really had no choice.
The union guy, Dave — (now one of my best and oldest friends) — flashed a sardonic grin when I told him I’d play. He came close, looked me in the face and confirmed all my fears.
“Russ” he said, “I am so glad you’re going to play. I am going to cream you! I am going to lay you flat on the ground and make you wish you were never born” and on and on. “You up for this?” he asked, examining me closely for any sign of fear.
“Sure!” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel. The only thing that gave me hope was that deep down I didn’t believe Dave hated me. Maybe I’d come away with just a broken bone or two, if I was lucky.
Saturday came and with it the big game. We chose sides and lined up for the first play. Dave, of course, just happened to be positioned directly across from me at the line of scrimmage.
I knew that everything hinged on this first play. I knew Dave was going to come roaring across the scrimmage line to knock me on my posterior. The only question was, what was I going to do about it?
I did the only thing any sane person would have done in my situation.
While the quarterback was still “hut-hut-hutting” and before the ball was snapped, I leaped offside and flattened Dave before he knew what was happening. I was a fairly big guy in those days prior to all my kidney woes and I really nailed Dave good. He got up with that same twisted grin and told me that I was all right and not a wimp like everyone thought. I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not.
For the rest of the game, no one bothered me. There was a lot of verbal razzing, but that was a constant among everyone. No one singled me out for injury or death.
But, of course, that’s not the end of the story.
Late in the game, with maybe five minutes to go, my wife Betsy drove up to see how the game was going. Just as she got out of her car I caught a long pass at midfield and, amazingly, there was no one around me. I began to run, unmolested, toward the end zone for a touchdown. I saw Betsy watching and started to ham it up a bit. After all, I was about to score a TD.
Unknown to me as I was waving and mugging for my wife, the fastest player on the other team took off after me and was closing the gap as I slowed my stride.
A few feet from the goal line he stretched himself out and dived at my feet. He got a hand on one ankle and I somersaulted into the air, landing flat on my back. Betsy looked on in horror: Instead of seeing her husband score a touchdown, she probably thought I’d been paralyzed for life.
Fortunately I’m tougher than that and bounced back on my feet as good as new. (It took about an hour before my back began to ache). I was happy.
I’d survived the game and the only damage I suffered was self-inflicted. Why, I had such a great time that if anyone ever asked my to play again, I’d say ... Well, this is a family newspaper, so I can’t really tell you what I’d say. But “NO” would be a big part of it.