The boys of autumn

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.

Vandetta Stadium - Former home of the Irish

Vandetta Stadium - Former home of the Irish - Photo Copyright kdf0517 @ http://www.flickr.com/photos/24328702@N03/2375342001/

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.

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Talking Proud!

I learned at a young age that everything around me was a lesser version of what had come before. I’m not sure at what point I realized this, but I know it began early in life. The drives up to see my Grandmas in Tonawanda passed by the hollowed out hulks of industry, their broken windows staring out at us like the empty sockets of rusty skulls. The quarter century long depression descended upon the rust belt at about the moment I was born. The economic grim reaper and I are both children of ’68.

All through my youth I felt as if I sifted through the ashes of a ruined empire. I sat at the table as the grownups talked of layoffs, and closures, and listened to my grandparents generation tell stories of the past over Genny Cream’s and games of Euchre. My earliest excursions beyond the confines of our block were bike rides on the back of Mom’s bicycle, through the bombed out remnants of the great urban renewal, to her office in the cavernous hull of the old Johnston Harvester Factory. Is it any wonder melancholy flows like oxygen in my blood?

Then came the blizzard of 77’, and the Love Canal, and we would watch our own decline on the nightly news, as we became the punchline of Late Night TV. As our world decayed around us, we sought escape from reality by investing our emotions in O.J. Simpson and the Buffalo Bills. But even our professional sports teams conspired to kick us while we were down as our woeful Bills dwelt at the bottom of the AFC East. So in 1980, when they finally broke their streak of going “Oh for the 70’s” against the glamorous Miami Dolphins, it was as if 10 years of pent up angst blew through the safety valve of professional sports, and allowed us to smile for the first time in years. In Western New York we came define our self worth by the fortunes of the Bills on Sunday afternoons.

I do not exaggerate.

So when the Bills broke a 0-15 streak against the New England Patriots yesterday, to move to 3-0 and claim sole possession of first place in the AFC East for the first time since the mid 90’s, I could hear the safety valve releasing from 900 miles away. As I type this I know in my heart that Western New Yorker’s are smiling at each other this morning, and riding the high that only Meth and Pro Sports can bring to them.

Sure, we realize it’s still an illusion. We know that win or lose, nothing ever changes in our long slow fade into history. But for one more week we are winners. Let us enjoy our moment.

A West Side Story

As yesterday’s horribly depressing post will attest, I’m a lover not a fighter. Perhaps it’s because I was the baby of the family, and I was always coddled, but throughout my life I have always shied away from conflict. I can count on one hand the number of fights I got into as a little kid. And even though I lived for playing football, and other contact sports, there was a clear line in my mind between tackling a quarterback, and getting into a shoving match with someone. Oddly enough, these two worlds would collide one night in the fall of 1982.

As I have mentioned before, growing up I wanted nothing more out of life than to play football for Notre Dame High School. Every fall weekend from 2nd grade until 8th grade was spent playing Pop Warner football in the outfield at Dwyer stadium, followed by a trip to see Notre Dame play another Catholic School from the Dioceses of Buffalo, or some heathen hill-jacks from the surrounding farm towns of Genesee County. So by the fall of my freshmen year at ND I found myself actually playing JV football for the blue and gold of Our Lady, and life felt pretty good. Sure, high school was an adjustment, and I was still in survival mode, but on weekend evenings I got to play out my dream on the football field.

Well, perhaps I should clarify. For the first four games of the year I was not actually suiting up to play in the varsity football games. No, I was playing on Thursday afternoons for our JV team that hadn’t won a game in over 2 years. When Saturday came, I was standing on the sidelines working the “chain gang” on the opposing team’s side of the field as our varsity got slaughtered.

As homecoming approached, I looked forward to the first real high school social activity that I would ever attend, the traditional Friday night bonfire at our practice field across from school, and the Homecoming dance after Saturday night’s football game.

One thing I should point out about Batavia, is that even though we have both a Parochial High School and a Public High School, and we shared the same city stadium across the street from Notre Dame, our two schools never played each other in football. The heathens at the Public High School liked to point out that it was because we were afraid of them, although throughout the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and today, the ND team won more games, and league championships than they ever did. I’m pretty confident that we would have handed them their ass if we’d have ever been given the chance.  No, the real reason we didn’t (and don’t) play each other is that it would most likely turn into an all out war between the Catholics and the Protestants, and Batavia would quickly resemble the streets of Belfast in the 70’s.

Keeping us greasy immigrants in our place was always at the front of the minds of our ruling elites.

As Friday approached, the wood for the bonfire was delivered and piled up by the long jump pit at our practice field. When practice ended on Friday afternoon, we cleaned up in the showers, and ran home for a quick dinner before the bonfire. It was late October, and the sun was setting around 7 pm. It was a cool, but not a cold evening, and as we gathered in the pitch darkness of Notre Dame field, it felt good to stand close to the fire. The cheerleaders were there, doing their cheering thing, and I think there was some sort of speech, or introduction of the football team. Mostly though, it was just a bunch of teenagers milling about, trying to muster up the courage to talk to the opposite sex.

As I was hanging around with all my freshmen friends, doing our best to look cool, a rumor went through the crowd that one of the varsity football players had gotten into a fight over a girl with a kid from the public high school earlier that night. The rumor quickly spread, that there was a “gang” of kids from the public high school looking to beat him up.

Now in my 14 year old mind this was pretty exciting stuff. Fights, and girls, and gangs were the kind of things that happened in all the high school movies I had ever seen. But in the back of my mind I was pretty sure it was just a bunch of wild rumors designed to scare the underclassmen.  We continued to hang out around the fire and go about our business trying to look cool.

Imagine my shock and surprise when out of the darkness around the bonfire emerged a horde of toughs, yelling and shoving. There was over 40 of them, and we had to be outnumbered 2-1. All hell broke loose, kids were running in all directions, there were punches being thrown, and bodies rolling on the ground. I would like to be able to say that I was standing there like Brando in the Wild Ones cracking heads, but in all honesty I was running for my life. As I ran down Union Street, I can remember seeing Pat Clark standing on the hood of a car, kicking at a group of guys trying to grab him. I spent the next hour hiding in the Messina’s kitchen as we looked out the window and waited for the streets to clear.

Our homecoming game was the next night to be followed with a dance in the school gym. Of course, the talk at the game was all focused on the events of the bonfire. Already the stories were beginning to take on mythical overtones, of how our Christian knights had repelled the Mongol hoards. I had been shanghaied into working the chain crew for the game and got to spend the bulk of my evening moving up and down the sidelines holding onto an orange pole as our varsity got dismembered by St. Vincent De Sales from Lockport. Little did I know that my duties would cause me to miss the most decisive battle of the crusades.

As the game ended our football team began jogging off of the field and through the stadium gates to go back to our High School, which was where our locker rooms were. On the way out of the stadium, as they passed through the parking lot, a group of heathen toughs from BHS tried to jump them.

I have always been convinced that we got a better education at ND than the public High School kids, and these miscreants pretty much confirmed that. To attack a football team dressed in helmets and full pads, had apparently never occurred to them as being a bad idea. It was carnage. Even the football players from St. Vincent De Sales came off of their bus and helped in the pummeling of the heathen punks. At least one of the BHS kids spent the night in the ER, and left behind some teeth as a reminder of what happens when you f@ck with Damer’s.

Damn straight. Those Nuns taught us how to absorb, and give out a good beating.

By the time I had put the field markers away in the equipment shed, and made it out to the parking lot the battle was over. That night at the dance the flashing lights of police cars illuminated the windows of the gym, as we peeked outside to see the Batavia Police standing guard around our school to deter any further trouble. But the beat down had been so severe, and so decisive, that the punks from BHS never returned. And so our Catholic Knights defeated the Mongol hoards, and Pax Notre Dame reigned over Union Street for the rest of the school year.

Buffalo’s got a spirit talking proud, talking proud…

Rich Stadium

We didn’t attend many sporting events growing up, not so much because of a lack of money, more because Dad had a lack of patience. Nothing sent the original Mr. 20 Prospect over the edge faster than the gridlocked traffic getting into and out of the parking lots. For that reason, more than any other, I didn’t attend a professional sporting event until 1980 when St. Joe’s organized a parish excursion to a Buffalo Bills game.

It was the 4th game of the season, and it just so happened that this particular year was the first time in my lifetime that the Bills actually fielded a competitive team. (They would eventually even make the playoffs). But that trip was organized long before, and with the parish providing round trip transportation on 2 school buses, it didn’t take much pleading to convince Dad to go to the game. So it was that we purchased a set of tickets, and set off for that eventful game against the Oakland Raiders.

Now one might think that a church organized excursion to a football game would be a wholesome family adventure, involving homemade lemonade, and the singing of songs on the bus. But this being 1980, one would be wrong. One of the most amazing things I have noticed as I have approached middle age, is how our society’s definition of acceptable public behavior has changed. Now a days public drunkenness is frowned upon. Back then, it was not only acceptable, it was the central purpose for large events like football games, and rock concerts, and church organized excursions were no exception.

Each of the two buses that we loaded into that morning came equipped with a half keg of beer in the back row. And even though we had just attended the 8 am Mass, people didn’t have any problem tapping into it on the drive up to Rich Stadium. The mood was festive, and the sense of anticipation palpable. I had never been to a big time football game before, and with the Bill’s hot start, all 80,000 seats had been sold for the game that day against the Raiders.

And what a glorious day it was. For the last weekend in September the weather was lovely, with achingly clear blue skies. By the time we arrived at the game, the temperature had already risen into the 80’s. The gravel parking lots outside Rich were full of tailgater’s, and the smell of hot dogs, and hamburgs’ filled the air. Total strangers were friendly and talkative in the lines getting into the stadium, and everyone was jovial. It was apparent even to a 12 year old that over 50% of them were already three sheets to the wind. As the game began the Bills jumped out to an early lead, and it quickly became a laugher. The “Bermuda Triangle” of Smerlas, Haslet and Shane Nelson was all over Dan Pastorini, and after every touchdown the crowd was on its feet singing along to “Talking Proud”.

But it isn’t what went on down on the field that I remember most. It was the view in the stands. This being the end of the 70’s the place was full of inebriated long hairs and resembled a scene from Woodstock. My friend Chris and I were more entertained by the drunk in the row in front of us who kept drinking wine from his bolo, waving a large anatomically correct stuffed Buffalo, and shouting “Pastorini bites the weenie” at the top of his lungs, than we were with the football game. I can remember going to the bathroom at halftime, and being amazed to see grown men peeing in the sinks, and a passed out drunk laying in the urinal trough. But most amazing of all, was how people went about their business as if this was normal.

After the game, it took a while for our parishioners to find their way back to the bus. We played catch with the drunks while we waited to leave. On the way home, the grownups in the back did their best to kill the keg before we got back to Batavia, and their slurred banter was the entertainment. This was a side of folks that I didn’t usually see sitting in the pews on Sunday morning, and it made quite an impression. Monsignor Schwarz sat at the front of the bus, and didn’t seem too greatly disturbed by the proceedings, so neither were we.

I’m not sure at what point this type of public behavior became unacceptable, but somewhere along the way decorum, and decency took over. In this age of Corporate Sports such behavior isn’t tolerated and it doesn’t take much to bring down the security guards, and get the rowdies ejected. In fact, they even flash phone numbers on the jumbo-tron for narc’ing on folks.

Maybe it’s the money involved, or maybe our litigiousness has made us more wary. Or maybe we have just matured a little bit in the last 30 years. Whatever the reason, there are few places left that a person can see humanity letting it all hang out. The infield at a NASCAR race springs to mind, and I have heard stories about Mardi-Gras that make my experiences pale in comparison. This may sound odd, but in some ways I think we have lost something. Maybe if we let our hair down more, and were more tolerant of such debauchery, we wouldn’t have half of the population taking anti-depressants, or seeing counselors to work through our anxiety. Then again, maybe it’s our past that has us so screwed up in the first place 😉 Something for your counselor’s to figure out. Let me know what they have to say.

Purple Pain

Ouch. That had to hurt. As a Bills fan I can sympathize. In some ways I was hoping the Vikings could win the Superbowl just to prove that an 0-4 Superbowl team can be redeemed. I was 8 when they lost their last Superbowl. Although I have been around to experience their last two painful losses in the NFC Champsionship.

First their was this one…

1998

I will never forget the cocky Denny Green taking a knee, to send the game into overtime, convinced that his team would win. And I can remember the absolute certainty in my mind that Gary Anderson, who had not missed a field goal all year, was going to blow that kick.

I was around in 2001 to witness the Forty One – Donut game in New York. It was one of the more bizzare and surreal games. I don’t think I have ever seen a professional football team with more on the line, roll over and die like that, and I remember some horrible Bills losses.

Forty One - Donut

You can say this about the Vikes. They may choke in the championship game, but they do it in dramatic style. The image seared into the minds of Minnesota this time is going to be this one…

His own worst enemy

As a Packer fan by marriage, this season has been a strange one. Seeing the face of the Packers for 16 seasons, wearing the colors of their hated arch rival was tough. Seeing him lead them to the NFC Championship was painful. Watching him throw an interception with 19 seconds left, and a very makeable field goal within reach, was priceless. Packer fans have lived through that one many times. Most recently, 2 years ago when Favre ended his career in Green Bay in the exact same fashion in OT of the NFC title game against the Giants. It’s enough to make a guy believe in karma.And so ends another bizarre chapter in the Vikings-Packers rivalry.

It’s going to be a long week at work this week, with a lot of crabby, sour, co-workers, and smug and smiling Packer fans.

As for the Saints, it is hard to begrudge them the trip to the Superbowl. Few teams have suffered through more dreadful seasons than they have. They may not win in 2 weeks, but I have a feeling that New Orleans is going to enjoy the party either way

Buffalo Dreams

Man, what a crazy night. I had the strangest dream. I dreamed that out of the blue the Bills decided to hire a washed up old coach that no one has talked about in ten years. Yeah, that’s kind of crazy isn’t it? But wait, the craziest part was that the coach was Chan Gailey. I mean, c’mon, how obscure is that? I really need to stop eating spicy food and reading horror novels before bedtime.

Huh? What’s that?

YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME!!!!

Exactly how Bills fans are feeling this morning

CHAN FREAKING GAILEY??? Is that the best they could do?

Wait, don’t answer that. The answer will be more painful than we can bear. Yes folks, that is as good as we can do. Buffalo is such a joke that no decent self respecting coach is willing to come to town and take over the team. The Bills vaunted coaching search, launched back in November, promised the fans a “big name coach”. That only got our hopes up. We should have known all along it would have ended up like this.

Say it ain't so

First, the three big name Superbowl winning coaches that were “on the market” said, “err… thanks, but I um, have a thing. Maybe some other time.”

Then they were rejected by three coordinators that have never been head coaches in the NFL and are salivating at the opportunity to take the next step. How bad is that? It’s like they have said that the Bills job is not even as good as being a coordinator elsewhere.

Finally, they had a wet behind the ears college head coach from a 2nd rate PAC-10 school turn them down.

What else could they do? At that point if it wasn’t Gailey it would have been another failed retread. Take your pick, Mike Martz, Marty Mornhinweg, Herman Edwards, etc… what’s the difference? Why should Bills fans care when the management and ownership so obviously doesn’t?

This week in Minnesota the talk is all Vikings all the time. They are playing in the NFC Championship this weekend, and all of the sports shows, and radio talk shows are spending every waking moment discussing the Vikes. Yet on my drive home last night, even the local Minneapolis KFAN sports talk station paused from their Vikingsfest to take 15 minutes to laugh at Buffalo.

I think that this is the part that hurts Western New Yorkers, and Bills fans the worst. Once again we are the laughing stock of the nation. Like the nerdy kid in school that has his lunch money stolen, and his head flushed in the toilet, we have come to expect this kind of abuse. Eventually, we reach a point where we begin to think we deserve it. Surely, somewhere along the line we must have done something to deserve it, because what just God could punish the innocent by sending us Chan Freaking Gailey?

Please, take our team. Move them to L.A. Let us be the next Brooklyn Dodger fans. Let us sit and wallow in our memories of a sepia toned world that no longer exists. It has to be better than suffering through ten more years of this.

Skol Vikings

The biggest news in Minnesota this weekend without a doubt, has been the playoff game between the Vikings and the Cowboys. While I am far from being a Viking fan, I place the Cowboys among the most heinous things known to mankind. Growing up in a rust belt town will do that I guess. In the 1970’s the Cowboys represented everything that Buffalo did not. Warmth, money, fame, and cheerleaders in hot pants. America’s team my @ss. Whenever playoff time rolled around I would cheer for the Bills, and against the Cowboys.

Of course in the 1970’s the Bills weren’t in the playoffs.

This weekend’s matchup brings back memories of 1975. To Viking fans the 1975 playoff against the Cowboys was their “wide right moment”. The fact that the Vikes would go to 4 Superbowls in the 70’s and lose everyone, wihtout so much as a whimper, seems to be forgotten. What they remember is this play.

The Hail Mary Pass is born...

I can recall sitting in front of the TV with Dad (another Cowboy hater) watching that game. Back then a 7 year old kid could watch football on TV without getting an education in er@ctile dysfunction, or n@tural m@le enh@ncement. I don’t recall them airing graphic commercials for slasher flicks either. Ah, simpler times. That was BF, (Before Fox).

When Pearson caught that pass, I can remember screaming at the TV, “he pushed off! he pushed off!”. But the ref never threw the flag, and the Cowboys won. So I can feel the local’s pain, and understand the trepidation with which they viewed the game this weekend. Which makes the victory all the sweeter. If only they could have scored a few more touchdowns, and really rubbed the Cowboys’ noses in it.

I never get tired of watching this jerk pout…

Schmuck

Skol, Vikings, Skol