It was the Maple Leaf “family get together” weekend and I was approached by my nephew Tim. “Uncle Ronnie, we’ve got a football game scheduled for Saturday afternoon. You want to play?” My history says that I would jump at the chance, but I’m not quite the man I used to be so I immediately thought of an excuse. “I’ve got a book signing from 1:00-3:00, so I guess I won’t be able to.” I was hoping that this excuse would deter him, but he was persistent. “We can wait on the game and start it at 4:00. Will that work?” Now I was being put on the spot and the waffling in my mind began to liven up. Visions of old “glory days” entered my mind and I pictured myself making great touchdown runs, tackles, catches, and throws and my heart began to beat just a little bit faster. On the other side of my brain was the “new old” me. Would all that old “glory” be worth the pain that would overtake my body over the next three to four days?
I threw one other life line out to Tim, hoping that it would change the dynamics. “Are we playing tackle? I can’t wait to smash you young guys.” In reality I had defeated my own strategy with that line of thinking. When he said, “No, we’re playing touch,” I could have responded by making fun of them, and I did, but by doing so I could no longer refuse to play. If I was willing to play tackle, why not a less strenuous version of the game? I came up with one last excuse, “I didn’t bring any shoes. All I have are these loafers.” Again, Tim was not deterred and eagerly offered, “We’ll have an extra set of shoes at the game for you.” One last hope, “I wear a size ten and a half.” “Perfect! That’s just the size I wear.” I was playing now, whether I had doubts or not.
That night I talked to Julie about the weekend plans. “Guess what? After the book signing the nephews want me to play football with them!” “You’re not playing are you? You’ll get hurt!” It’s always frustrating to receive such great support from the wife and I boldly answered, “Me get hurt? They’re the ones that will probably get hurt.” Because we’ve known each other so long, I didn’t need to answer her. We both knew that I was going to play this game; if not because I had a strong desire for it, then for sure because Julie had told me not to. I do have a stubborn streak.
The afternoon for the game arrived and the weather was perfect; low 60’s, sunny, and no wind. By the time the book signing was over, I had suppressed the “angel” side of my brain (“No Ron, you don’t want to play football today. You will only get hurt.”) and was looking forward to showing the nephews a few intricacies of the game. I hurried home to change into my “game clothes” and quickly drove to Mom’s; the game taking place in the field behind her house. I remember over forty years earlier other games taking place in the same field, but it would be evident rather quickly that things had changed since then.
I saw the tennis shoes waiting for me on the back porch and quickly put them on and jogged confidently to the field. They had started without me (maybe they thought I was bluffing) and I hurried onto the field. Along the sidelines were wives, girlfriends, and Mom’s, rooting for their favorite. It was clear that I was not only the worst dressed player (all the others had shorts and I was in my dungarees), but was also the oldest, my brother-in-law Bill closest to my age. The remaining players on the field were nephews and nephews-in-law and ranged in age from seventeen to twenty-eight (the oldest half my age). At least I had experience on my side.
After observing Bill, bent over and breathing deeply, (the game had been going on for ten minutes at this point) I made a strategic decision and to solve the problem of who’s team I would be on I offered this, “I’ll be permanent quarterback!” The idea seemed pleasing to everyone.
The sides were evenly matched and I was thrilled that it was strictly a passing game. When I finally gave up competitive softball it was because I could no longer throw the ball with the same accuracy and velocity that I was used to; the flexibility in my shoulder was non-existent and because I couldn’t reach back fully prior to throwing, the ball had a tendency to bounce its way to my target. Not acceptable. However, because throwing a football requires much different mechanics than throwing a baseball, I found that I could still wing a football; long and accurate.
I began moving the teams down the field, short passes and long passes working in tandem. Of course there wasn’t anyone rushing me, but that’s not the point. I admit, I threw a few off target and long, but I was having plenty of success as well. On one pass I hit Tim, the fastest on the field, in full stride and the cool thing about the play was that when I released the football he wasn’t even open; still dead even with his defender. When he got free and ran under the perfectly thrown ball for a touchdown, I jumped up and down ala Bret Favre and celebrated the play. Glory days had returned! Man was this fun.
Bill finally took a “breathing” timeout and this caused the matchups to be off by one. I offered to play as a defender to even up the sides and we picked new teams. It wasn’t long before I realized where age had taken its toll; as player after player ran past me like I was standing still. “Boys, my legs feel like they’re both full of cement.” I had to say something; I was being embarrassed. Instead of matching me up with a defender, I was given the assignment as the guy rushing the quarterback. The rule was that after counting to five, I could rush the quarterback, but soon found out that was a mistake. At five seconds I could rush, but he could also run, and the second I rushed him, boom, he was past me and I was chasing him, the distance between us increasing with each step. After minutes of this back and forth I was hoping for a timeout, but the young guys were barely breathing hard.
The teams were evenly matched and both sides scored on every one of their series (defense like the Bears!). At one point I thought my left hip had come out of joint, but after running, limping around for a while, the pain was minimized and I continued on. The game went on for about an hour and we finally finished. Everyone had been involved in a great play and scored a touchdown or two. I even scored a touchdown on a reception, more due to trickery than physical agility.
When the play started, instead of moving up field to go out for a pass, I ran parallel with the line of scrimmage and when I got to the other side the quarterback hit me in full stride. The defender, finally figuring out what I was doing, was closing fast and as I caught the pass I realized that the end zone and out-of-bounds line were both within inches of my stride. I’m not sure how this old body did it, (second wind maybe?) but somehow I tip-toed the sidelines and sidestepped in for the score. It was a great day and as I limped off the field, sore in every joint and muscle from my head down to my toes, I commented to my fellow gladiators, “You boys better be glad we weren’t playing tackle!”