A Quitter’s Tale (plus Week 7 predictions)

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 7, 2005

Before we get to this week’s predictions, forgive me several paragraphs of recollection. Trust me: I’m going somewhere with this.

I played two seasons of junior high football growing up at Dadeville High School, coming out for both my seventh- and eighth-grade years. In a lot of ways, I had a blast: I loved the road trips to all those unfamiliar…other…schools; I loved gearing up on the afternoon of games on with my pads and my good jersey; I loved going to the varsity games on Fridays and being recognized by and even welcomed into a section of kids that were older, bigger, and–I can be honest–a lot cooler than I was.

But you’ll notice that none of those things involves actually playing the game of football. My parents gave me a love of the sport and plenty of desire to play it, but, God bless them, neither is an athlete and their genetics meant they couldn’t give me a whole lot else. You could have timed my forty-yard dash with a sundial. You could have called me “noodle-armed” except that it would be a great insult to our dedicated workers in the noodle industry. I always practiced with the receivers even though I always seemed to catch pink eye a heck of a lot easier than I ever caught a football.

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Bottom line is that I very, very rarely saw the field. Heck, I rarely saw the practice field. Most days were a long succession of drills, followed by a long succession of taking a knee and baking in the Alabama sun while watching the rest of the team scrimmage, followed by sprints or hills or some other terrible exercise designed to get me into much better football shape than, clearly, I would ever actually need to be in.

Then there were the embarrassments. Being an air-headed nerd just doesn’t do a lot for one’s standing on the football field. Before my first practice, I’d never seen a football belt before in my life (Two little metal loops? That’s it? How on earth does that work?). So I tried running sprints with it tied into an incompetent knot–I was never much of a Boy Scout, either–and the result was that my last few sprints that day were more like “waddles,” since that was all I could manage with my pants around my ankles.

There was more to come. During one ceremonial pre-game helmet-slapping, one lineman hit me so hard upside my head I fell over. A giant varsity player found my pint-size shoulder pads one day, put them on (he could barely get his head through them…on him they were more like collar pads) and paraded around the locker room for the amusement of his buddies. And one practice I woke up from some daydream or another to the sound of our field-goal holder running towards the sidelines screaming “Where’s the tee? Where’s the tee?” The tee, as it turned out, was right beside me. So I grabbed it, stood up, and threw it at the holder. It was a good throw, too. Too bad the whole thing was a fake which I’d managed to stop in mid-play. Uh, oops.

So when my best friend on the team told me he wasn’t going to play a third year, it didn’t take long for me to decide that I’d quit too. All that work, all that time I could have spent doing more important things (like, say, watching Darkwing Duck and playing Street Fighter II on the ol’ Super Nintendo)…what had it gotten me? A handful of plays at free safety in the dying minutes of games decided long since I hit the field. Never tackled anybody. Never touched the ball. Never would. Why keep playing?

Well, I know why now. Because there’s just nothing else like football. There’s nothing like banging helmets and pads in the endzone before a game. Nothing like the bus ride home from a victory, full of wild chanting and good-natured jokes about this player or that coach. Nothing like wearing your school’s uniform and sprinting onto the field underneath the lights and the cheers of so many parents and teachers and fans and cheerleaders.

I’m not big on regrets. My life is way too cool and I’m way too thankful to spend much time thinking of how it could be better. But there also hasn’t been one time this season where I’ve visited a practice or patrolled the sidelines during a game and haven’t thought I wish I’d done things differently.

So to the players on the West Alabama Preparatory Titans, and the Akron Rams, and the R.C. Hatch Bobcats, and any of our area teams who face another week of walking out on the wrong end of a lopsided score and might wonder “Why keep playing?”: Because there’s one guy watching, at least, who would give just about anything to swap places with you. Losing’s awful hard, I know. But one day, not competing will be even harder.

Onto the week’s predictions, which I’m considering re-naming the John Essex Makes Jerry Hinnen Look the Fool Weekly Predictions, Sponsored by [Your Business Here!]. (Accurate and a moneymaker, right?) They’re shorter this week by necessity, but here we go…

Demopolis at Greensboro: Raiders play so much better at home this won’t be a runaway, but the Tigers just have too much defense for a stop-and-start GHS offense.

The pick: DHS by 14

Southern Acad. at WAP: If this were a movie, Southern would be in trouble. Winless plucky underdogs against undefeated state champs? The Titans would end up winning on the last play of the game on a wacky trick play where the ball ends up in the hands of the center. But, unfortunately for the Titans, I doubt any film crews will be in attendance. Here’s to hoping both teams finish what will be an emotional game with their dignity intact.

The pick: Southern by a whole bunch

Tuscaloosa at Marengo Academy: After Marengo’s big win at South Choctaw the Longhorns’ schedule returns to its usual brutality. Still, the play of younger Longhorns like sophomores Phillip Farmer and Andy Flowers is encouraging.

The pick: Tuscaloosa by two scores

Sweet Water at Carrolton: T-minus one week to the Game of the Year. The Bulldogs’ last chance for tune-ups before ACA comes calling.

The pick: Sweet Water by their usual 40 or so

American Christian at Linden (to be played Saturday at 7 p.m.): See Sweet Water. Linden’s solid, but so were Essex and Johnson and it didn’t do them much good.

The pick: ACA by three scores

Sunshine at John Essex: I got the “Winner wins by two in overtime” part right about the Linden-Essex game. Too bad that I, as per usual with the Hornets, picked the wrong team. At this rate, coach Shipman probably wants me to just keep on picking against them. Sorry about this week, coach.

The pick: Essex, by two scores

Akron at A.L. Johnson: After facing ACA, Essex, and Sweet Water three of the last four weeks the Eagles are likely very happy about hosting the winless Rams.

The pick: Johnson, by a comfy margin

Livingston at Greene County: De facto elimination game for the 4A Region 4 playoff race. The Tigers have played like, well, tigers at home and should pull this one out.

The pick: GCHS, by seven

Sumter Academy at Pickens: The Eagles came back to earth against Lakeside, losing 32-0, and facing a good 2A team on the road probably isn’t the way Bob Taylor would choose to rebound.

The pick: Pickens, by two or three scores

Fruitdale at Marengo High: Scores suggest Fruitdale is much improved from last year, but, of course, so is Marengo.

The pick: Marengo, by 14

Midfield at Sumter County: The last heavyweight on the Wildcats’ schedule before finishing with three winnable games.

The pick: Midfield, by 12 or so

MMI at Clarke Prep: Maybe the rebuilding Tigers can avoid scheduling the AISA’s defending 2A champs next season.

The pick: Clarke Prep, by several

Francis Marion at Central-Hayneville: The Rams are struggling, but at least they have a win, which is more than you can say for Hayneville.

The pick: FMHS, by six

R.C. Hatch at Pickens County: With “Bobcats,” Hatch does at least have what’s quite possibly the area’s coolest nickname going for them.

The pick: Pickens Co., by more than a few

Last week: 13-3

Area teams that made me look good: Demopolis, Sweet Water, Southern Acad., Marengo Acad., A.L. Johnson, Greensboro, MMI.

Area teams that shut my big mouth up: Whaddya know, John Essex

Season-to-date: 60-17