My older brother and my father really enjoyed playing football.
I liked it, but they loved it.
But football was never very kind to my family.
My Daddy was a very good athlete, an unusually good baseball player who quit playing professional baseball when he was traded. He was very good at many things, but packing up and moving somewhere to play ball wasn’t his strength.
He was recruited a little in high school by Wake Forest for basketball and baseball, but he wanted to play football, too. He went to Campbell, then a junior college, and played some football and basketball. He never talked about his playing days much, but I know he lettered because he is wearing his letter sweater in a picture in the Campbell yearbook as president of the Chemistry club. I later learned the title was somewhat of a joke perpetrated by a professor.
Apparently, chemistry wasn’t his favorite.
He was playing football in the front yard with us, the same place where we played with future Duke coach Carl Franks, when Daddy twisted a little bit and went down. He had torn something in his knee. He’d wear a brace from then on whenever he played basketball or softball in the rec leagues.
My younger brother hit the football heights at an early age. His youth recreation team won “the national championship” in Atlanta. There was all kinds of excitement surrounding the team. But having achieved the ultimate and figuring everything was downhill from there, he didn’t play again.
I tore up my left knee in a junior varsity game at Northern Durham. I missed a block at the line on a punt and since I had nothing else to do, sprinted down field. I tried to change direction and the pain hit. I can truthfully say my knee has never stopped hurting. But it’s usually not too bad.
The ACL, MCL and some other stuff tore eventually and something got loose and floated around for a few years, banging around, hitting other stuff. My knee is a mess.
I was limping on the sidelines a couple of years later, keeping stats, when my older brother’s knee was destroyed. Millbrook’s Chip, then Chipper, Williams, later the coach at Wakefield, New Bern and Scotland, was blocking on a punt return when he hit my brother from the side, tearing essentially every ligament in his knee “I’m sorry to hear that,” Chip told me years later. “Is his knee OK now?”
It’s fine, but it took a while.
My brother was in a cast from hip to ankle following his surgery – luckily surgical techniques have improved in the past 47 years – but he made a complete recovery.
It was a tough year for him. He contracted hepatitis early in the season and since everybody drank out of the same bucket and dipper – I still remember the sprinkles of red sand in the bucket – everybody had to get hepatitis shots.
The doctor said he was done, but he wasn’t. He wanted to play one time against our school rival and he had missed the game his junior year. He pushed himself to get back in shape. He loved football.
He returned to the team late in the season and was playing regularly, but on the night of the big rivalry game he was left behind on the sidelines whenever the coach sent the team onto the field in a lopsided loss. The coach later said he had forgotten my brother was there.
Being forgotten may have hurt more than his knee ever did. He still remembers the disappointment and once preached a dandy little sermon on what it means to be forgotten and left behind.
But football has a strange allure. When my son was thinking about playing for the first time, he asked the coach about it. The coach replied simply, “Do you want people to hit you? Do you want to hit somebody?”
Surprisingly his answer, and the answer of more than a million high school boys every year, was “Yes.”
I don’t regret my few days of playing, my brothers don’t and my father loved the game all of his life.