Why Did I Ever Play Football?
Coach kept running the play of the halfback’s sweep through the projector, over and over again, clicking the stop, rewind, and forward buttons to dwell on each “individual breakdown” by our defense. The play had gained 20 yards and eleven individual mistakes added up to a “total team breakdown.”
Gallagher and I sat together with the other sophomores, savoring the embarrassment of the first-stringers. The last individual to break down on the play was starting ahead of me at defensive safety, the one who is supposed to prevent big yardage or a touchdown when everyone else messes up. Yale’s sports publicity flaks were touting him as a “pro prospect,” but he protested during the eleventh screening of his mistake that he wasn’t sure how to defend a halfback sweep. After three years on the varsity, our NFL-bound star didn’t know how to combat a garden-variety end run?
“The first rule,” Gallagher said, too loudly to be a private joke, “is don’t get hurt.” Suppressed laughter spread throughout the room. Everybody knew that “the films didn’t lie” and that “you have to want it,” even in the Ivy League. “Newspaper clippings don’t make tackles,” either.
Coach asked, “Gallagher, do you have something to contribute?”
“Yeah, coach, I have a question about that play. You always tell us if we don’t tackle the runner, he’ll score every time.” As my friend finished, the celluloid Princeton halfback stumbled and fell, on his own, for the 12th straight time up on the big screen, transforming a sure touchdown into a 20-yeard run. The whole team cracked up.
I am not entirely sure why I played football for 11 years, from sixth grade through college. It may have been because of those great clichés. Our football playbook had an entire page devoted to problems that could afflict a collegiate athlete, including “Your girlfriend back home has run off with a bassoon player.” The solution to this unmitigated disaster and a litany of other grim fates was: WORK HARDER!
I certainly didn’t enjoy hitting people the way Gallagher did. He liked to bury his helmet into a quarterback’s ribs and drive him to the turf. As he returned to the huddle, there would be a strange expression on his face, somewhere between a grimace and a smile. That poor quarterback.
After the games, Gallagher and the other linemen and linebackers would be sore, bruised and bloody, whilst I generally would feel about the same as I did after an unsuccessful mixer at Vassar. The safety in our defensive scheme was not supposed to make a lot of tackles, especially when the people up front were good, which ours were, and that was just fine with me.
But some of my most vivid memories are moments of intense pain. Once, junior year, I found myself in that dreaded position: one on one with a large fullback charging straight for me as swiftly as his bulky legs could carry him. He was ten yards away and closing fast. He also was growling.
Thousands of eyes were watching, including that damned camera. If I blew this tackle I would have to see the play at least a dozen times tomorrow. I began to crouch in the tackling position. This big lug couldn’t get out of his own way, much less mine. He was going to fall right over top of me. It wouldn’t be pretty.
He was still yards away when suddenly I was moving sideways through the air, pain jolting my body, the fullback forgotten. I hit the ground writhing, clutching my side and pulling my knees up to my chest. I couldn’t breath. For the moment the world stopped at my skin: nothing else existed but my anguish.
I wanted to stay crumpled up on the grass, but one of our linemen pulled me to my feet and half-carried me to the huddle. I remembered seeing the end split out wide and then had forgotten all about him until he squished me like a bug. He weighed more than 200 pounds; I went, maybe, 160. What was I thinking of, playing football?
I didn’t hear our captain call the next defensive formation, but with the pain subsiding fear returned as my dominant emotion. Had the quarterback been clever, he would have tried a pass in my zone. He didn’t. Thank God we were playing Harvard.
Continuing to play football throughout school was not a particularly rational thing for me to do. In sixth grade I was as big and strong and fast as anyone our six-man football team faced. And Jocks were popular back then, before the counter culture emerged on the scene. By the time I was in college, virtually everyone I played against was bigger and stronger, and, besides, the consensus on campus during the late 1960s was that we were a bunch of neo-fascists, at best. So much for Boola Boola!
And practices, when they weren’t physically grinding ordeals (as in “two-a-days” in last summer), could be as boring as Archeology 101. Then Saturday’s approach would turn my insides to mush, but the day I dreaded most of all was Sunday, film day.
“Now I want everyone to watch the tackling technique on this play,” coach said. “Holahan, I hope you squeeze your dates harder than this.” Gallagher laughed the loudest.
But I had my moments, usually when the boys up front played badly or were overmatched (which was quite rare). Then I had a workout and there was no place to hide. Against Dartmouth, senior year, I turned positively vicious after seeing their halfback gloat over one of our players lying injured on the field. I started burying my helmet into people even if they didn’t have the ball. Their offensive line was ripping big holes through Gallagher and the boys on almost every play, often leaving me to make the tackle. Once I made that halfback groan in pain. I intercepted two passes. The next day brought sweet soreness. So that’s how they feel after every game, I remember thinking.
We lost and on Sunday coach whipped through the film. There wasn’t much to say. They were just better than we were. It was our first loss of the season and meant we would probably lose the Ivy title to Dartmouth (which we did). After one of my uncharacteristically aggressive tackles, coach said in wonderment, “Will you look at Holahan?” Gallagher quipped, “Do I have to?” No one laughed. My big game was a big loss.
I had teammates who must have had an even tougher time figuring out why they were playing football: high school hotshots who couldn’t crack the second string but who hung on anyway; or linemen who never got to touch the ball, even in practice. There were some who didn’t play in games and never expected to, perhaps didn’t care to. I can attest that for many blocking and tackling clearly were unpleasant activities. There were a few players who were not in the least bit athletic. Who knows, maybe they were doing it for their resumes. But I suppose they had their moments, too, when things would happen that never took place in Archeology 101.
For me, those films had something to do with my continuing to play. Sunday afternoon was both a social and moral occasion. It was funny, embarrassing, depressing or happy, depending on how the team had done and each player had performed. Each fall Sabbath was a new judgment day. What appeared on the screen was often harsh, but always just. I could fool professors and pass courses without working very hard, but no one could slip anything past that camera. If I played well on Saturday I knew it, still the camera confirmed it. There was no place to hide in that room, no big linemen up front to take the heat.
I have often thought of driving 40 minutes to New Haven and digging up that old Dartmouth game film, going back years to see a younger, stronger, less cautious me. The temptation grows every year, but I will never do it. It would be cheating the camera to look at only that film – and who wants to watch them all? Besides, I have my memories and those are enough.