Sunday, November 17, 2013

When The Clock Strikes 00:00 On Your Football Career

Monticello High School and Pine Bluff Dollarway High School in Arkansas are separated by 51 miles on the map. In November of 1982, there was a much wider berth between the two football programs.

Hyatt Field...Under Attack!
The Monticello Billies Field House sat on a triangular piece of land jutting out toward our home stadium, Hyatt Field.  Directly behind the field house say City Park Elementary School where, as 5th and 6th graders, we soaked up Mrs. Burgess’ history lessons, Mrs. Spencer’s science lectures and newlywed Billie Lillie’s beauty. 

On one side of the field house, as you crossed the street, you entered City Park. A sprawling area with dozens of tall pine trees, various pieces of playground equipment and a pavilion for family picnics. 

Across the street on the other side of the field house sat the old City Pool, which featured more floating Coke cans in November than clear water.

Pulling into the gravel parking lot in my 1975 Dodge Coronet, I thought I was prepared for the day. Like the previous nine Friday’s, I would walk through the door of the upperclassmen side of the field house (with indoor/outdoor green carpet compared to the sophomore portion of the locker room with cold, soulless concrete floors) and sit in front of my locker on the left hand side of the room, right next to the salt-tablet dispenser. Chicken wire stapled to the back of 2 x 2’s served as our “locker”.  Foghorn Leghorn would never get to my wallet or keys but it’s not exactly a theft deterrent for ne’er do wells.

In my duffel bag was the clean, slate gray football pants along with the knee, thigh, tailbone and hip pads.  Sitting down, I slowly stuffed the foam filled, plastic-spined thigh pads into the vacant slots inside the pants making small talk with my teammates the whole time.  There was a thread of electricity spanning the room even though we knew were just Billie Goats being led to slaughter.
Pine Bluff Dollarway would win the 8AAA District crown in 1982, led by super athletic quarterback, Stacey McGee. 

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3 Years In A Row!

Stacey and I had faced each other in basketball since our sophomore years and ran track against each other our junior and senior years. McGee knew he had another game to play the following week in the first round of the playoffs.   When his season ended, his career didn’t, since he had decided to accept a scholarship offer to play at Arkansas State.

On the other hand, I knew this would be my final game. Our local college, the University of Arkansas at Monticello had offered me a chance to play football and basketball---but I knew my athletic skill set would not carry me beyond the city limits of our quaint, friendly hometown.   A 6’2”, 140 pound, slow-footed quarterback with a tendency to find the secondary with tight spirals rather than his own receivers isn’t going to draw much attention from colleges outside the area.

Tom Ed Gooden, as fine a man as I’ve ever known, had done all he could with his collection of
misfit Monticellonian’s.  In the end, we just weren’t very good.  Nor were we plentiful in warm bodies. Less than 20 players boarded the bus bound for Pine Bluff via Highway 81.  When we finished our pre-game warm-ups on the field (usually the highlight of our games in a 2-8 season), I saw my parents and girlfriend in the crowd along with the Moms, Dads, sisters, brothers and “Suzy Q’s” of my teammates; an impressive ratio of fans/player to say the least especially considering our record.

Initially, we hung tough with Dollarway.  Trailing by two touchdowns, Coach Gooden sent Sam Elliott into the huddle with the play call on 1st and Goal from the Cardinals two yard line.  In my infinite football wisdom that far exceeded Coach Gooden (or so I thought on too many occasions. He was a small college all-American QB at Harding and had cups of coffee in Cleveand and St. Louis’ training camps), I audibled at the line of scrimmage when I noticed the middle linebacker cheated over to the gap between our right guard and right tackle.  It also hit me, in a split second, this may be the last time I have a chance to score a touchdown under the lights.

  The Arkansas Gazette, the Arkansas Democrat and Pine Bluff Commercial all printed box scores of games that were phoned in before deadline.  “2 yard TD Run, Fletcher” sure looked good in my imagination.  Unfortunately, my old nemesis Stacey McGee knew my tendencies pretty well, charging in from his safety spot just as I took the snap from Bucky Bush; I leaped (yes, I was trying to broad jump, head first, over six feet from a standing-still position) forward only to be crushed by the Dollarway defender a yard shy of glory.  

The next play sent in, similar to the original call of Sam Elliott off-Tackle, also featured special instructions from Coach Gooden. “Tell Fletcher to run the gall-darned play that I send in.”  We ran it, Sam scored and we found ourselves in a ballgame.

Injuries stared mounting up, picking off the few healthy bodies wearing Billie blue one-by-one.  Down by three scores, late in the fourth quarter, I sauntered up behind center… crouched down into my stance and stuck my hands under Nat Grubbs’ butt in order to receive the snap. One problem.  Nat wasn’t the center. He was the right guard.  He was also my best friend and when we quickly realized there was an alteration to normal proceedings, his rear-end bounced so high in reaction to an invasion from underneath, his tailbone whacked me under the chin, sending my mouthpiece flying across the line of scrimmage.  I had protected by braces-clad teeth all four years that I had railroad tracks across my grill. The Fletcher family wasn’t quite the Rockefeller’s, so I knew how much of a sacrifice it was for my folks to pay for my straight teeth.  After a good belly-laugh and a quick jump to the left to slide under the “real” center, I ran the called play—quarterback sneak in the “3” hole---and was tackled right next to my mouthpiece! Victory!!

After I had taken my final snap as a high school quarterback, the emotional floodgates unloaded on me. Jogging to the sideline, I embraced our four coaches.  These men knew that this band of Billie brothers had spent months trying our best to become better football players, only to have DNA place us in a deficit before hitting the field.  When our defensive end, Chuck Forbes, suffered a broken ankle with just over a minute to play, there was only one player remaining on the sideline to replace him.

I didn’t have my mouthpiece, though.  Sorry Norma and Joe Fletcher! I’m squeezing a few more plays out of this career, bicuspids and molars be damned.  I rained forearm shivers on the sophomore tight end lined up in front of me that would make any UFC fan proud. 

I distinctly remember looking at the scoreboard clock, counting down to destiny.  The bulbs dimming and glaring as the number 00:06 turned to 00:05 then 00:04. Stacey McGee pounded my shoulder pad and said he would see me on the hardwood.  The clock struck four zeroes.  After we limped through the team handshake and slowly made our way to family and friends, I walked with Nat, Sam and the non-injured Johnson twin (I can’t remember if it was Michael or Keith) to the bus.

There isn’t a more hollow sound than cleats clicking on the steps of the losing bus; not a lonelier walk than down the aisle that cold vessel after a season ends; I slowly ambled all the way to the back bench seat on the right side. Nat grabbed the seat across the aisle from me.  He had Southern Arkansas looking at him but Physical Therapy School at NLU was his true calling.  

The bus cranked up, with defensive coordinator Kerry Fortner behind the wheel. Staring out the window, with the barren landscape between Jefferson County and Drew County flying by at fifty-five miles per hour, the raw emotion of what was now in my past gutted me. 

From my vantage point, I saw silhouettes and profiles of my best friends over the past 5, 10, 12 years, hanging their heads on a dark bus.  Only two members of the football team played basketball, so this would be my last ride with the bulk of this crew. 

Leaning against the chilly, damp window with my head bouncing along to the beat of the bus cruising over the uneven blacktop, I wanted a do-over. I wanted to hit the weight room a little harder. I wanted to give up some of the time I spent with the girlfriend for a chance to throw with my receivers.  I wanted more than anything to have another Monday practice. Another chance to crack on my teammates for the t-shirt they wore to class; An opportunity to ride them about their girlfriend’s note that fell into the wrong hands; another chance to show our coaches that we were worth the time they had devoted to us; I wanted my family to feel proud; I wanted to compete with my eleven vs. your eleven just one more time.

I remember those feelings of what once was and think about the young men who boarded the bus carrying the team with the lower tally on the scoreboard Friday night in the first round of the playoffs. In some ways I feel for them, knowing the majority will carry regret in their heart for quite a while. 

There is also the part of me that is a tiny bit envious of those whose season just ended in the postseason. They got something my friends and I never had.

One more week of football.