Class of ’86 week concludes with a paen to my one shining moment of youthful glory.
The first Friday night of fall is always ripe with memories here on the Front Porch. Around the block from the current homestead is the football stadium for the local Catholic High School. When the lights are on they cast a moon like glow into the backyard. I can sit on the back porch and listen to the sounds of the game and the announcer on the loudspeaker. It brings back some of my most bittersweet memories of growing up in Batavia.
My big bruddah was born 10 years before I was, and some of my fondest childhood memories are going up to Vandetta Stadium to watch him play H.S. Football for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. No, not that Notre Dame, I mean this one. When I was 8 years old, all I wanted out of life was to run onto the field on a fall evening, wearing the blue and gold of Our Lady, while the loudspeakers played the Notre Dame fight song. I lived, and breathed football growing up. It was the only sport I ever truly loved. I started playing it in 3rd grade, our Pop Warner games being held on the outfield grass of Dwyer Stadium (home of the beloved Muckdogs), dreaming of one day playing on Saturday nights, in front of the crowd at Vandetta.
Growing up working class Catholic in Western N.Y., (or Pennsylvania, Ohio, W. Virginia, or anywhere in Appalachia) high school football was pretty much the center of the world in Autumn. Our little Notre Dame was small in comparison to the public high school, and its no secret we were looked down upon by the WASPier elements of B-town. We were mostly Sicilian, Italian, Polish and Irish working class kids from big families with ethnicky sounding last names. Not quite the “elite prep school image” that Urban Catholic High Schools like the one around the block have become. As such, we had some pretty big chips on our shoulders. I grew up viewing our football team like I was taught to view Crusaders, holy defenders of our faith, and culture, against heathen antagonists. As a kid I used to cry when “we” lost, but back then, we didn’t lose much. In my mind, the theology of Our Lady and the theology of Football were inextricably woven together into some strange tapestry of Rosary Beads and Pigskin.
In the late 70’s we left the Catholic athletic conference where we had played against the bigger Catholic High Schools of Buffalo, and moved into the Genesee Region League, where we matched up with the farm kids of the small country High Schools of Genesee and Wyoming county. The 70’s ended and the 80’s began with a string of League and Sectional Championships that represented the high water mark of our athletic achievements.
By the time I arrived as a freshman in 1982, the decline had begun. Enrollment was dropping, the school was having trouble making ends meet, and the building, and seemingly the faith, were fraying around the edges. We were so short on bodies that season, I even suited up for Varsity games to help fill out the roster. As a skinny, 108 pound kid lost inside of that helmet and shoulder pads, I sure didn’t fill up the uniform. We lost more games that first year than we had the previous 4 combined. I vividly remember the humiliation of watching the kids from Attica celebrate beating us for the first time by climbing the goalposts of our own stadium.
Despite the sadistic practices, and the suffering and physical abuse that the coaches heaped upon us, (one wind sprint for every point scored against us) I loved playing football. The vomiting in pain on the sidelines during practices, and the verbal abuse by the coaches, never overcame the desire to play. This was what I had wanted, this was what I had dreamed of as a child. Running onto that field on Saturday nights gave me goosebumps. Lining up for kickoffs, I always said a prayer to Our Lady and offered up “all my prayers, works, joys and sufferings” to her. And believe me, there were plenty of the latter.
In my Junior year, we finally posted a winning season, and won a Championship. It tasted so sweet, even though most of the season I spent as a backup, and special teams player. When Senior year arrived the expectations were low. We had graduated most of our starters from the previous year, and my classmates and I were a pretty small, uninspiring bunch. Heck, I started both ways at a measly 145 pounds, playing Tight End, and Defensive End. So when we opened the season at home against Caledonia-Mumford, a perennial powerhouse of a rural school whose star running back would go on to start for Tennessee, we did not have much hope.
We received the opening kick, and the first few plays were a blur of bodies and noise. Somehow we moved the ball and got a first down. Then two failed running plays brought up a third and long. The play call from the sidelines was for a 129 waggle, where I would line up in a split position, and run an out pattern as the primary receiver. The quarterback would roll my way behind two pulling guards and look to throw. Normally the play was an exercise in futility. If complete, I was usually pinned into the sidelines for at best a 10 yard gain. More likely was a wild lofted pass down the sidelines as the QB ran for his life. But in the huddle the QB pulled me aside, and told me to run a flag route if it was open.
I would like to pretend it all went according to our carefully scripted plan, and that our natural athletic ability shone through. But I’d be lying. The fact is I started the route by breaking in toward the linebackers, and got bumped and held up a step. The cornerback saw the rollout and rushed up to make a tackle, and by the time I released and broke for the flag the field was wide open. I looked back expecting to see the QB being dragged down from behind, but the blocking had held up. He lofted the ball high into the air, and I ran as hard as my gimpy legs could carry me to get under it. The free safety rolled over to cover me, but at the last second decided to make a leap for the ball and missed. It landed softly in my arms, and there was nothing and no one between me and the end zone 63 yards away.
On the game film later, you could clearly see the coach running down the sideline behind me urging me on to the touchdown. If you look close enough, he sure seemed to be gaining on me. But the defense never did. I reached the end zone, and turned to look back at my frenzied teammates running down to jump on me. This was not what I had expected. As a pessimist, and cynic, from a long line of working class schleps that inevitably scratched on the eightball, it had never occurred to me that I might actually score a touchdown. The universe just did not work that way. Victory, and glory were for others.
For one brief shining moment, anything seemed possible, indeed it was possible. A few series later on defense, I made a tackle and had my chin split open. Blood everywhere, but no teeth were lost. I ran to the sideline, where they taped a butterfly bandage under my chin strap and returned to the game. We held onto the lead through halftime. But slowly they clawed their way back. They scored to take the lead late in the 4th quarter, relentlessly wearing us down. It seemed inevitable. By the time I had showered, and called for a ride, the stadium was dark. Dad met me at the curb, and drove me to the E.R. for stitches. Seven of them, right across my chin. I still carry the scar proudly.
I never wanted to be the cliche. The small town football player that could never get beyond the fact that their life peaked at 17 years of age. The young Adonis. Youth is as fleeting as beauty. As fleeting as a moment of standing in the end zone, and seeing a stadium full of people cheering for you. It is a heady moment, and an addictive drug. I understand how those men can never let go. To experience such transcendent bliss, and then have it disappear never to return is a cruel fate. But it is our fate none the less.
It took awhile, but I let go eventually. The season continued uneventfully. We finished below .500. There was never any chance or thought of playing beyond high school. I made the 2nd team all league on both sides of the ball. The final game we lost, but I scored one last time. Afterward, I didn’t want to leave the field. I stood there, tears welling in my eyes knowing it was all lost, and never to return.
In the coming years I would return to watch the games when home on break, but eventually I stopped. It was too painful to watch and remember. In some ways it’s painful still, to sit there and look out at such beauty and youth, and know it is so temporary and fleeting. So tonight I will hear the sounds of the game, and look across to the lights, and think of the youth throwing themselves against each other, in pursuit of something that cannot be held. These moments will become fixed, and frozen in their memory only, shining like stars in the distant heavens. We try to hold them but cannot. They die and pass from us. But like Adonis, the memories rise again, little points of light blazing in the heavens above. Testimony to lives well lived.