It was fourth down with 1:25 left to go on the clock in the fourth quarter. We needed twelve yards to get a first down.
I’m bent over in the huddle, trying to catch my breath, and I feel a trickle of sweat roll off the tip of my nose and onto the top of one of my cleats. I look up and around at my teammates. Some are bent over breathing heavily for air and some have hands on their hips with their heads rolled back looking upwards. I hear a whistle…time out.
I look to the sidelines and the coach is waiving me and the quarterback over to the sidelines. As we jog to the sidelines we pass the water boy on his way out to the rest of the guys in the huddle. With every step I feel a sharp pain in my lower back, a result of the free safety’s helmet in the third quarter. I also notice some blood running off the back of my left hand, the one that got stepped on in a pile-up early in the fourth quarter.
As we stop at the sidelines the coach looks at me sternly and says “can you get open on a post? It’s fourth down and long and we expect a blitz with man coverage as that’s been their tendency. I’ll call max protection so that Tony can get the ball off but you need to beat your man off the line of scrimmage!”
I look around at the stadium and can almost feel the restless anticipation from the fans and yet it’s eerily silent. There’s a slight chill in the air and I can see a hint of mist coming from my breath as I exhale. In a matter of only an instant I flash back to my youth as a ten year old.
It was fourth down and two and there was less than thirty seconds on the clock. I was a middle linebacker then and the other team needed a first down to keep the drive alive. I peered into the backfield at their star running back because I just knew they would give him the ball. Sure enough, pitch sweep left. I ran laterally down the line of scrimmage, avoided a block by a lineman, and met the running back head on. I hit him so hard I knocked the wind out of him and he didn’t gain an inch…game over!
I looked at the coach with a grin and said “just give me the ball, I live for this stuff”! Tony and I jogged back out to the huddle, taking our place next to the tired and wounded guys in the huddle. I looked around again, pausing to take in the moment. Blood stained knees, bandage wrapped elbows, ripped pants, disjointed fingers, sweat stained jerseys…I thought, “man, we’ve sure been to war together, my brothers, my partners, my teammates. I’m gonna get this done for them…for us!” I took a half step into the huddle and said “you guys just block your butts off and Tony and I will take care of the rest, you have my word!”
The sound of a whistle blew and it parted the silence, the referee wound his arm indicating the start of the play clock. We all leaned over, eyes on Tony. “Charger Left Max, 57 Z Jet, on two, on two”. We broke the huddle and trotted to the line of scrimmage. Sure enough, the Free Safety came down, covering the Tight End, and the Corner lined head up on me across the line of scrimmage. I was the Z receiver to the left of the formation.
I looked across the line of scrimmage at the guy lined up in front of me and stared straight into his eyes. I wanted him to see my eyes. Once I caught his gaze I looked down field to the left, scanning that part of the field with my eyes. I looked back at him and he grinned at me. I could tell he thought he knew where I was going based on the part of the field I scanned. I grinned back because that’s exactly what I wanted him to think!
I turned to look down the line of scrimmage at the ball. “Blue 20, blue 20″ barked Tony as he scanned the defense left and right…set…hut…hut”! The ball shot back through the center’s legs and I immediately moved towards the corner jabbing my feet, took a small step to my right and then a big step to my left. The corner hesitated slightly on my first step but then turned and opened hard to the left on my second. He was done! As soon as he opened to my left I pushed back off my left foot and burst by his hip to the right and up-field. I heard “Son of a__” as I ran past him.
Accelerating up field I hit the ten yard mark, gave a heavy step and head nod to the left, and then re-accelerated to the post angle right. Once I was about twenty yards down field I looked up and saw the ball floating through the air in a tight spiral but it was angling in over my left shoulder and not my right shoulder. I quickly adjusted by fading to the left and then reached out with my hands to bring the ball in. I literally had to lean my head all the way back to keep my eye on the ball and pull it in. I actually had to slow up and arch my body back to be able to get under the pass as it was slightly under-thrown. As I pulled it in I felt the Corner’s foot steps and then his arm came down over the top of my right shoulder pad and caught my face mask. Fortunately, I quickly secured the ball into a tuck. As he pulled me down he had his hand on my face mask and I saw a yellow flag fly into the air. “Tack another 15 onto the 40 I just took from ya bro” I said to the corner as I got up, all while he pounded his fist into the ground. “Nice effort but you shouldn’t have played me man” I said as I jogged away and back to the huddle.
My most vivid memory of that play were the smiles, whoops, claps, and butt slaps I got from all my teammates as I ran back to the huddle and I’ll never forget that for as long as I live. One play, one moment in time, made me appreciate more than anything, what the sport of football is…a game of comradery, a game of unity, and a game of passion enjoyed by eleven guys on a field striving for a common goal…to win. Sure, I wanted the ball as every player who strives for greatness should, but there is one fact that can never be overlooked. We all did it together… that one play… that one moment in time…because we were a team!
Coach Van Tassel