I have loved football from a very young age. The first football player I ever remember watching was Joe Namath. The first time I ever attended a football game was in 1974 when my dad took me to see his alma mater Clinch County Panthers play the Jeff Davis Yellow Jackets.
I never had the chance to play youth league football but after much asking, my dad finally let me be on the Ware County Gators 7th Grade team. I wanted to play football. I tried really hard to do it. I never realized until I tried to play on how limiting those darn pads were. Shoulder pads simply swallowed me up and the helmet made me resemble more of a bobble head figure than an actual football player. I still tried to play and I stood on the sideline in a real game as our team beat Atkinson County 8-0 in a spring game.
That was the last time I thought I would ever be on a team as we moved to Villa Rica, Georgia a few weeks into the next school year. My dad was a preacher and he was appointed to a church there to fill a sudden vacancy. The football season had already started so I didn’t bother with it. Villa Rica was your typical small town Georgia and they had a passion for their football team although they weren’t very successful when I had arrived. It seemed that the whole town showed up on Friday Nights. It was also the first time I had ever been exposed to something called pep rallies. I thought they were pretty awesome.
I finally talked my dad into allowing me to play again. I joined the Villa Rica Wildcats’ B-Team in my sophomore year. Now don’t be impressed that I was on the team because everybody made the team. Here I was barely 100 pounds trying to play football. I wasn’t the smallest player but I was definitely in the bottom three on the size list.
So I tried to play – more accurately said, I practiced. I hated running laps at the end of practice. That alone nearly killed me. My body took a beating too. I came home everyday with bruises on my arms and many places on my body. I tried to hide them from my mother because she didn’t want me playing anyway and she would have worried even more.
What position did I play? Running back. Yes I realize how funny that sounds now. Can you imagine a 100 pound running back? I still tried. In one practice, a play called for the quarterback to fake the ball to me then pitch it to another back. After the fake I was leveled and I could swear I landed on a rock on the practice field because that’s how hard it felt to be leveled by someone twice my size. It took me a while to get up.
The coaches always preached to us about volunteering for positions. One day at practice the coach asked for a volunteer to return punts. I am not sure why, in that moment that my hand wasn’t connected to my brain; however, I raised my skinny hand and the coach put me in. The punter booted the football high in the air and I positioned myself under hoping not to drop it. The moment the football touched my hands I was steamrolled. My helmet was spun around where I was now looking out of the ear hole and fluids came out nose and mouth rather involuntarily.
My dad wasn’t always able to attend practice but when he did it seemed I played my worst in practice. Each time he was watching I ended up fumbling the ball a lot and getting yelled at by the coaches.
I still tried.
When our B-Team schedule started I watched from the sidelines. I knew I wasn’t going to stand a chance to play unless our team had a huge lead or way behind in the game. During the middle of the season I got my chance.
“Hooper” the coach yelled out.
I couldn’t believe it. He was actually putting me in. We were playing Central of Carrollton and we were well ahead. The coach put me in on defense. I joined in on one tackle before I was back on the sideline again.
My next chance came a couple of weeks later when we played at Bremen. I suppose I was some sort of novelty or they felt sorry for me but the coaches had planned to put me in late in the game when our offense was close to scoring but we scored before I had the chance. When we got the ball back again on offense, they put me in and called a running play. It was a counter play where I faked one way and the went the other way into the line. I got the ball and followed the lineman before a mound of players converged on me. After the bodies had been cleared I had gained three yards. The coaches took me out.
I think for me just being on the team was the best experience. Sure, I wanted to play but I believe the reality of my size was too much to overcome. On Fridays we were allowed to wear our football jerseys to school. I loved that although the jersey swallowed me up and could have been a dress. I didn’t care. I still tried. The next spring I did it again.
Our varsity team got a new coach, Mac Mcwhorter. He gave the football team a renewed shot of enthusiasm and got the players motivated. I joined the team again for spring practice. I changed positions from running back to receiver and defensive back. I did pretty well catching the ball but those darn pads still limited me. It’s a hard life being short and lightweight. That weakness was made even more evident when we were scrimmaging in practice. On another occasional I was on defense and the quarterback sprinted around the end. I cut the angle and grabbed his jersey. I didn’t bring him down. Instead he airlifted me. I felt like I was holding onto Superman’s cape. When I finally let go, I was flung like a rag doll into the fence on the sidelines behind the bench.
I still tried.
We had a drill that was called “Oklahoma” where two players, usually a lineman and a back, would go head-to-head against two other players. The coach asked for volunteers.
Yep, you guessed it. My scrawny arm went up once again and I was put in this drill. I was on defense and on the other side was our starting varsity running back, Keith Glanton. Even back then, I think one of Keith’s legs was bigger than me. My job in this drill was to tackle him. When the whistle blew Keith picked his direction to run. I guessed right and attempted to grab something – anything – as I was bulldozed and felt Keith’s cleat imprint into my chest.
I was mad. I pounded the ground.
The coach apparently thought I wanted to do it again so he lined me up with another back but it was sadly the same result.
Our spring practice culminated in a game against the Carrollton Trojans. The Trojans were our county rivals. On the night of the game, there was a terrible storm so the game was moved to the following night. At some point in the game, the coaches put me in the defensive back position. I had no involvement in any plays and then on the last play I would ever play, the opposing quarterback attempted a pass which went over the receiver. I sprinted as best as I could on the muddy field to the ball but it landed in the muck at my feet. I tossed the ball to the referee and returned to the sideline.
That would be the end of my football playing experience. We moved to Savannah, Georgia during the summer before my junior year.
I learned that playing football was hard. I also learned that you can only do what your body will let you do. Football players were big then but they are giants now. I was very fortunate to avoid any serious injuries.
You won’t see my name in any record book or any stats reflecting the three yards I gained in a B-Team game in 1979. In fact, you won’t even see my picture with the football team in the high school yearbook. I think I was absent that day the photo was taken.
It the end, my body couldn’t do what my mind thought it could do but – I tried.