Bayou-Picayune Podcast, S02 EP31: I Play Center Linebacker
If you enjoy the show, please review it on iTunes!
When I was twelve, we moved from California to Louisiana.
In California, I played baseball. I lived baseball. But in Louisiana there was no baseball. Only football.
It was August, the start of the school year, and every boy in the seventh and eighth grade played on the junior varsity football team. (I think it was required in school, like English, like math.) And every girl was a cheerleader who waved pompoms for our school team.
I had played touch football a few times in California, but I didn’t know much about the game, so I went out for center. I figured I could hike the ball between my legs to the quarterback.
Now, there’s something you need to know about me. I was the smallest boy in the seventh grade. In fact, I was smaller than all the girls except Chrissie. I weighed only fifty-five pounds.
That’s right. I figured I could be a fifty-five-pound center on our seventh- and eighth-grade football team.
The coaches, however, had other plans for me. Instead of taking the risk of me hiking the ball, they put me on the defense where I was the third-string center linebacker.
Since the first- and second-string center linebackers weighed well over one hundred pounds, I resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t play very much, but still I went to all the practices.
We had a good football team. We went undefeated that season. In fact, no one even scored on us. We were six-and-oh. Six wins, no losses. And, after every game our team would run through a cordon where our cheerleaders waved their blue-and-gold pompoms.
For me, that was an especially humbling experience because I never got into any of the games. Everyone else on the team would have grass stains, dirt stains, mud, even blood on their uniforms as they ran past the cheerleaders.
But me? My uniform was spotless, didn’t need to be washed. After a game I would just hang it up on the hook in my locker.
Then came the last game of the year. We were playing Des Allemands, and, like all our other games, we dominated this team as well. I still remember the score, 30-0.
There was only a minute left in the game, and the talk on the sideline was that we were about to finish our season unbeaten, untied and unscored upon. That last one was really big in everyone’s mind. Nobody all year had been able to punch the ball into the end zone against us.
A couple of my teammates went to Coach Al, the assistant coach, and reminded him that I hadn’t played a single down all year.
The assistant coach, taking up my case, went to the head coach and said, “We need to get Pierson in the game.”
“Pierson?” said Coach Guidry. “Who’s Pierson?”
“Why, fifty-one,” said Coach Al, and he pointed at me, standing behind him and Coach Guidry on the sideline.
“You want me to put him in?” Coach Guidry asked incredulously. “He’s too little. He’ll get hurt.”
“But he’s made every practice,” said Coach Al. “He’s always been on time, and he’s done everything I’ve asked him to do. He’s carried the water, everything.”
“There’s just a minute left in the game,” argued Coach Guidry. “Des Allemands has the ball on our side of the field. I don’t want them to score on us because we put number fifty-one in the game.”
That’s when Coach Al showed me he was a real stand-up guy. “Coach,” he said, “you promised all the boys that, if they worked hard and went to all our practices, they’d get a chance to play. This is our last game, and Pierson deserves to go in, even if it means Des Allemands might score on us.”
Grudgingly, Coach Guidry told me to get my helmet and replace Byron at center linebacker. I charged onto the field and took my position as the man in the middle of the defense.
When Des Allemands broke from its huddle and came up to the line of scrimmage, the quarterback looked over his center at me.
There I was, my blue-and-gold jersey and shoulder pads, white pants and helmet– all fifty-five pounds of me. The scowl on my face must have looked fearsome. Even the opposing quarterback must have thought so, for he pointed me out to his fullback, who also looked down at me in my three-point stance.
Des Allemands ran the play their coach had called, a sweep around right end, and were stopped for no gain.
While we regrouped, I noticed the quarterback and fullback huddled on the sidelines, pointing me out to their coach.
Their coach cooked up a play. And, when the quarterback and fullback ran back on the field, I knew that play was coming directly at me.
Everyone on the Des Allemands team spread out wide. The ends, the halfback. And our defense spread out also, to cover them.
That left only our four defensive linemen and me, the center linebacker, around the ball in the middle of the field.
I could see the look of disdain in the face of the quarterback. Maybe nobody had scored on us all season, he seemed to be thinking, but that was about to end.
He moved up under center. It was a direct snap through his legs to the fullback. The offensive line and the quarterback blocked our linemen, leaving me, one on one, to face their fullback, who, with the football cradled in both arms, charged straight up the middle at me.
This was it, the final play of the game, the final play of the season. Me, my helmet, my shoulder pads — all fifty-five pounds of me — against the hard-charging fullback, who, from my perspective, looked like a human tank.
What happened next was my own strategy. I didn’t try to tackle the ball carrier the way Coach Al had taught me. I didn’t think that way would work against someone this big, this fast and this strong.
So, I threw myself on the ground, kicked up my legs and tripped number thirty-two as he barreled up the middle.
Up he went in the air, then down he came, headfirst.
He was a good fullback. He didn’t try to break his fall. Even while he was going down on his head, he didn’t loosen his two-handed grip on the ball.
He hit the ground headfirst.
I scrambled to my feet, but the play was over. Number thirty-two was unconscious, still clutching the ball.
“Kenny’s out cold!” said one of the Des Allemands players.
“He broke his neck!” cried another.
The boy’s teammates crowded around their fallen teammate. “Is he dead?” “Somebody, wake him up!”
And I, thinking to myself, “My God! I’ve killed him!” peeked between two of their players to see if there were any signs of life in number thirty-two.
Then the most glorious thing happened. The fullback woke up. Then he sat up, took off his helmet and shook his head.
“Man!” he said, “That little kid sure knows how to hit!”
The referee didn’t throw a flag for me tripping the runner. He was laughing too hard. Instead, he waved both his hands over his head and said the game was over.
We had won, 30-0, and I had preserved our unblemished record of not being scored on!
There was still one piece of business to do. As a team we had to run through the cordon of cheerleaders one last time. And this time — this time! — I had something to show off, for when I threw myself on the ground to trip the fullback, I had gotten a small grass smudge on my football pants, on my right hip. It was maybe an inch, two inches at most, but it was, nonetheless, a grass stain on my uniform that showed I had been in the game and had made a play.
So, as we jogged proudly through the cordon, as the cheerleaders waved their pompoms and high-kicked and cheered for us, I went through sideways, with my grass-stained right hip leading the way, so all the girls could see I had been in the game.