Football’s Grip All But Gone

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As a kid of the 60’s and 70’s, I had the pleasure of growing up in what was the end of the golden era of sports. Curt Flood had yet to successfully sue Major League Baseball for free agency so sports nuts like me grew up with team stability. Right or wrong, players were more or less the property of club owners, which meant a team’s top players remained together until often well past their prime. Fans would argue they preferred seeing the aging and over the hill players they grew to love instead of younger guys who might turn a struggling team around.

One player who was traded while still a young and unproven specimen was Daryl Lamonica, the Mad Bomber. Lamonica recently passed away at the age of 80, but as a nine-year-old, I remember him being traded to the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders were my dad’s team, but never ever came close to being mine. Early on in my youth, I became fans of two AFL teams, the San Diego Chargers, and the Buffalo Bills. I was also a fan of just one team in the NFL, the Vince Lombardi coached Green Bay Packers.

I knew of Lamonica because he was the backup quarterback for the Buffalo Bills. He seemed destined to remain that way as long as Jack Kemp, later a well-known member of the GOP, was their quarterback. Lamonica’s arrival gave original Raider season ticket holders like my dad the strong-arm quarterback they always seemed to lack to make Al Davis’ vertical offense, the opposite of what would become known as the West Coast Offense, work. Davis believed in fielding very fast men as wide receivers. Paired with a cannon armed quarterback, the long bomb became a big weapon.

As a kid so infatuated with football, I could be found drawing pictures of players from the Bills, Chargers, and Packers in my classroom notebook far more frequently than jotting down notes or figuring out math equations. Football taught me all the math I needed to know. There was plenty to learn figuring out things like passing percentages, yards per carry, average distances of punts, not to mention all the ways of adding, subtracting, and multiplying scores by the numbers, two, three, six, and seven. What football didn’t teach me in math, the rest could be learned during baseball season.

Heck, I even learned construction thanks to football. None of the guys I played with in my neighborhood knew how to handle a hammer and pound nails let alone measure and cut wood. When we decided our neighborhood field, affectionately known as Studly Memorial Stadium, needed a goal post to be complete, the guys gathered up piles of old wood while I ran and grabbed my dad’s tools. “Measure twice, cut once,” would echo through my head with my dad or grandfather’s voice. I knew we needed to dig out holes two feet deep before hoisting up our work, pack the holes with dirt as much as 68-pound kids can, and just to be safe, attach a nice, angled support brace to keep our upright, up right.

Our stadium, the never finished but perfectly level tennis court of our neighbor, would be home to daily afternoon gridiron classics until Mrs. Cranmer rang the neighborhood bell telling kids all around it was five o’clock and time to go home.

My homework could always wait for an evening battle with my older brother on our electric football set. Like all other sports related things, I was never able to beat him, but that did not matter. My imagination was not allowing me to see anything other than a battle between my Packers and his Jets, led by some guy named Namath. By lights out, it was time for me and a pair of socks to run back and forth across the top of my bed while announcing the feats of all the game’s greats. My brother never complained and somehow the game never ended as I eventually would fall asleep with a rolled-up pair of socks tucked under my arm.

My older brother was an outstanding quarterback who dreamed of becoming the next Joe Namath. By the time I was in seventh grade, my afternoons were spent running pass pattern after pass pattern while he worked on mastering all his throws. Ins, outs, slants, curls, stop and go, posts, corners and flies were the only foreign language I ever mastered. At night, I quizzed him on the high school playbook to the point where I knew it almost as well as he did. As a senior in high school, he captained the varsity team and along with his white shoes, called his own plays, something you didn’t see Coach Madera ever allow.

By this time, I was shining on the soccer field while also thinking of football. Unfortunately, in those days, both the football and soccer seasons were played in the fall. As a freshman, I played football and was so happy when I earned starting spots at my two favorite positions: tailback and free safety. I also learned of the heartache that comes when your season ends with a broken thumb and learned in life, it’s always going to be the next man up so don’t get injured.

In high school, my childhood favorites, the Buffalo Bills, the San Diego Chargers, and the Green Bay Packers all sucked and to make matters worse, the Raiders were winning, only now they had The Snake, Kenny Stabler as their quarterback. I rooted for any team the Raiders played while also becoming a big fan of Tailback U — USC football.

After my freshman year, I learned just how good you had to be to play college ball and apparently my brother just was not good enough. I saw him, along with the help of coach Madera, send film of him playing quarterback along with his accomplishments to numerous colleges. More than anything, he was hoping to play for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Unfortunately, like all the other schools he sent film to, they never returned so much as a letter of acknowledgement to him. No matter how smart or what an incredible worker my brother was, it wasn’t going to change the fact he measured in at just over 5’10’’ and perhaps bulked up to 170 pounds.

Meanwhile, I had to decide on my football dream. I was improving as a soccer player and yet still wanted to taste gridiron success. If only the two sports I loved were played at different times of the year. I made my decision in my sophomore year. I was going to play varsity soccer and kick on the varsity football team. Both coaches gave me their blessing and over the course of the season, my afternoons consisted of a two-hour soccer practice before heading over to the football field with my helmet in hand, for the last half of football practice.

Rather than waiting for special teams to be called out, I would trot out and play on the scout team despite not wearing any pads. Coach Madera’s assistant would go crazy and start yelling, “If that fag soccer player so much as makes a play out here you’re all running sprints after practice.”

What he forgot was for four years, I served as my brother’s practice partner each night when he poured over the plays. During that time, I memorized all the audibles and would call out to the defense where the play was going. It was a season of sprints for that year’s squad, but I did not mind because they just added to my fitness for soccer.

When school let out on Fridays, I hurried to the locker room to change into my soccer gear for that day’s game. When it ended, I had to hustle and change right into my football gear and get ready for that night’s game. Unfortunately, I was a sophomore and coach Madera preferred to place the kicking responsibilities on a senior, despite me beating him in every kicking competition we had. However, I was a side winding soccer style kicker and the high school football world had not seen one yet in our league. Coach Madera was not a visionary, so I sat and waited.

Then came homecoming night. We jumped on top early of whatever patsy we scheduled. Our first series resulted in a touchdown followed by a missed extra point. Madera screamed at the starting kicker who proceeded to botch the ensuing kickoff. The second touchdown was followed by a two-point conversion and another horrible kickoff. More screaming and then Madera tells me to get ready to go in if we score.

When we scored our third touchdown and went up 20 to 0, I was ready to go in only to hear him call the name of the other kicker. This was followed by another missed extra point and a kickoff so bad that we recovered it as if it were an onside kick. Coach Madera was beyond mad and told our kicker he was done for the night. Sure enough, a late score and Madera was yelling, “Jimmy, get in there and kick the extra point.”

In my number 10 jersey and too big football pants, I drilled the extra point right down the middle. I think coach Madera was happier than me. He then handed me the kicking tee and said to go out there and kickoff.

I was very pleased my kick made it inside the five-yard line. As soon as it was caught, I realized the other team’s wedge of linemen were heading right toward me. They must not have feared me as they all targeted other players and before I knew it, I was squared up with the return man. I managed a pretty good tackle which shocked even me. As I ran off to the sideline, instead of coach Madera screaming, I heard his assistant yelling, “If that fag soccer player can make tackles like that then the rest of you better never miss a tackle.” He was starting to come around.

By the end of the season, I realized something: I was totally worn out. Playing two sports at once was not easy, even for a classroom slacker. I was going to have to choose. Since I saw how my dedicated brother was not even an afterthought in the eyes of college coaches, I figured I would stick with soccer and play it year-round. However, it did not prevent me from following the first sport I fell in love with.

By the time I was a college student at Chico State, the San Francisco 49ers had finally turned the corner and become an up-and-coming team. When Dwight Clark caught Joe Montana’s pass in the corner of the endzone to beat the dreaded Cowboys and win a trip to the Superbowl, 49er fever had spread throughout the north state.

I hitched my wagon to Bill Walsh and his players as they marched their way to four Super Bowl titles while led by Joe Montana. However, when he was traded, I might have been the only Niner fan who was excited about Steve Young being the team’s quarterback. His way of playing the game was never smooth and cool like it was with Montana. Instead, it was exciting and unpredictable. Young was as likely to beat you with his legs as he was with his arm. When he finally won the team’s fifth Super Bowl, I was never so happy as a fan.

However, football has changed a lot over the years and so have I. Free agency has made keeping all your top players impossible and the game has gone from being reliant on a great running game to something that resembles Madden Football. It’s all about passing the ball and with new rules implemented for safety, forget about seeing tackling that makes players question their career choice.

My Niners have gone through ups and downs and with them, the league has turned into less about what happens on Sunday to too much about what goes on outside the game. Domestic abuse, cheating, and even murder have turned the game and its persona into something I no longer care for. Knowing the level of permanent damage done to players, the ruthlessness of teams cutting guys when they get hurt, and how felons and miscreants are welcomed back with open arms if they have talent but when a man has a voice, he is blackballed for life.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still not on a team (Claudia Gestro)

I no longer care how any team performs over the course of a season. Odds are one-third of the players who play for any given team will be playing somewhere else the following season. I don’t believe anything that comes out of a coach’s mouth and have no interest in the pat answers delivered by players coached by agents as to what to say to maximize their earning potential.

I still have plenty of fond memories and that is enough for me. I no longer desire to follow a game that, like the rest of the world, has changed. I have changed too. Sports takes up much less of my life than other matters. Those of my generation who still bleed their team colors are amazing because they have stuck with something that is not what it once was. All things change and we can adapt and change with them or get passed by.

I do not mind having been passed by the game of football. Despite all its black marks, it has plenty to offer. It just doesn’t have enough to offer me, and I am okay with that. I will read about the draft rather than worry about who my team selects. I will check the game scores the morning after on my computer and read what a few writers I like have to say.

Otherwise, I am good, just like that extra point I nailed on homecoming night.