The thick, low clouds provided a contrasting backdrop to the football spinning end over end as it fell toward my waiting arms. Once I caught it, I scanned the field and the approaching onslaught of opposing players. I started right, then cut back left, and a path opened before me; even someone slower than I (a football-playing turtle, perhaps) could run through this hole. I tucked the ball into my left arm and kicked it into a higher gear. The end zone and glory awaited…
Thanksgiving Day, 1983, began with heavy cloud cover and a steady drizzle; the temperature by mid-morning crept into the low fifties and the playing field of yellowed, dormant bermuda lay soft and wet. Conditions were perfect for two-hand touch football: the War Between the Lines; the Battle for the Field. The combatants, the Gladiators of the Gridiron, were my friends: college students, pizza deliverymen, stoners, druggies, alcoholics – more than one were all of these things. But on this day, we were warriors locked in a desperate and intense struggle for territory. Yards gained in one play were often ceded the next; like the trench battles of World War I, observers could easily see the absurdity of it all, but for those locked in mortal struggle common sense hid in the periphery, lost in the glare from the ultimate goal: sweet and glorious victory.
The game had been particularly rough that day: three players had already left the field, one with a broken nose; another with a front tooth cupped in hand; and a third after projectile vomiting his pancakes and beer after taking a shot to the gut on a pass over the middle. All of us were smeared with grass stains and mud; our breath rolled from our nostrils and mouths in steamy swirls. After two hours of intense battle, the enemy had just scored and we were tied, 14-14. It was decided (in no small part because we were stoners, druggies and alcoholics and withdrawal was setting in) that the next score would win.
As I ran back the ensuing kickoff, I could sense the importance of what was about to take place. I would assume my rightful place in the annals of touch football fame, and for years to come gleefully taunt those who had tried in vain to prevent me from singlehandedly winning the biggest game that had ever been played.
I saw him almost too late, coming in almost perpendicularly from my right. If I planted hard on my left, then cut back straight right, he would fly right past me.
SNAP! The sound shot through the air like a dried sapling broken in two. I hit the ground face first and then writhed in agony, grabbing chunks of the field with both hands in an effort to fight off the pain in my left knee. I alternately screamed and shouted obscenities at the top of my lungs; people for miles around probably thought that Raging Bull was playing outside somewhere. It was a pain like no other I’d ever experienced, worse than when I’d slid shirtless forty feet down a palm tree as a child; worse than when Jeff Patty kicked me hard in the sac when we were supposed to shake hands after I won our high school tennis match; worse even than when my dentist drilled my cavity without Novocaine.
“Aaaah! Holy ****! Did you hear that? That was freakin’ gross!” These were the first sounds I remember coming from someone other than myself. “S***, Ped. Are you okay? That did not sound good.”
After a minute or two, the pain lessened to a horrid, yet manageable throb. Sweet, blissful shock. Two guys lifted me up, and with their help, I slowly headed off the field.
“Dudes, let me see if I can do it myself.” I managed to slowly make my way, moving like Quasimodo with his foot asleep. “Yeah, I think I got this. Thanks.”
I turned to see who had helped, but they were long gone; the game had resumed. I limped pathetically to my car, and though I didn’t know it yet, I probably sensed it at some level: my life had, suddenly and painfully, been forever altered. Worse still, I hadn’t scored, and the fame that seemed so securely in my grasp had been fumbled away, along with the ball I had dropped on the way to the ground.