Many people don’t like competitive sports, especially football. But I can look back and identify two events that changed my life. While the events were two years apart, both involve playing football.
As a sophomore at Flint St. Agnes I hoped to make the varsity. Not many 10th graders did. Even though we were a small school, we had a big football program. Most guys didn’t play varsity until they were juniors.
I was overjoyed when I was one of three sophs who made the cut. My goal was to play enough (12 quarters) to earn a letter for the letterman’s jacket inherited from my alumnus brother, who was in the navy.
I participated in all the drills and played some defense during scrimmages. With our first game approaching I hoped I would get in on kickoffs and punts, thus getting the “quarters” applied toward the letter.
Our first game was a Friday night in mid-September against a public school about 15 miles from our campus. Our head coach, Don Ranville, one of the best men and by far the most inspirational coach I ever played for, said the starters would be posted on the bulletin board.
I went to my locker without stopping at the board. Soon, someone came by and said, “Way to go.” I didn’t know what he meant. Others came by saying the same thing.
I went to the board and saw my name as a starter at safety. I immediately thought my best buddy, Bob McKeon, had done something. I went to his locker and asked. He denied doing anything and said, “You’re really starting. Don’t screw up.” That was encouraging.
Was I thrilled? No, I felt sick to my stomach. I wasn’t ready for this. I didn’t want to start. I didn’t want to get embarrassed missing a tackle in the open field or getting burned on a long pass in front of every spectator’s eyes. I wanted to be delivered from this agony, play on the kickoff team, get my four quarters, and move on with my life.
Getting dressed, having the pre-game briefing, and the bus ride were torture. I thought of going to coach Ranville and telling him I wasn’t ready; to get someone else to play safety. My pride wouldn’t allow me to beg off even though I anticipated disaster.
The first two series were uneventful. Our linemen and linebackers stopped everything before it came to me. On the third series, their halfback broke through and we were on a two-man collision course. I only wanted to engage him and hang on until help arrived. I hit him and hoped for the best. A roar came from the crowd and soon my guys were pounding me on the back and the shoulder pads. The runner had fumbled and we recovered. It was not a textbook tackle, but it worked.
About four series later a receiver came my way. I looked up to see the ball in the air. I leaped to knock it away. When I hit the ground the ball was in my arms, an interception. Once again the crowd went wild and my teammates pounded on me. We won easily, 38-0.
From that moment on I knew I could do almost anything within reason if I properly prepared myself. I might actually possess some talent. The doubt and fear were replaced by confidence. I could do it.
When I became a homicide detective I still had fear. That fear of embarrassment for overlooking something is what made me thorough and meticulous in the investigations.
NEXT WEEK: Failure pays an unexpected visit.