sweat, pain, and teamwork
Note the old mimeograph playbook.

From a box in my late parent’s dusty attic come memories. Old football programs and stories in the Lincoln Journal, brittle and yellow with age. One naked bulb gives me light to read as the roof turbine creaks, a squeaky metronome ticking away the seconds. Time. How easily it leaves us in the dust. These programs, ten cents each, colors fresh still, amount to time capsules.

Right away I open the 1965 Greensboro Tiger program and see youthful faces. Tommy Bunch, No. 22, with his blond crew cut. Dark-haired Alex McGee, No. 57, athletic Walter Palmer, No. 61, ageless Eddie Drinkard, No. 53, flattop-wearing Boyd Lake, No. 54, and Mike Blackmon, No. 33, he of thick eyeglasses that spawned the greatest nickname ever, “Seal Beam.” In all, thirty-three players filled the 1965 roster. We’d win eight games, tie one, and lose one.

Two days later back home, when I looked through each program, Region 10-C memories flooded over me…. Bus rides to games, wearing white shirts and dark ties. Getting off the bus, ready to conquer towns like Wrightsville, Louisville, Wadley, and Wrens. Putting on the uniform … inserting the thigh pads, lacing up the shoulder pads, adjusting the chinstrap. Taking the field and more often than not taking the game.

Afterwards, coming home through the dark Georgia countryside yellow lights glowed in houses as I replayed the game in my mind. It was important to remember these rare experiences never to be repeated and ultimately to be forever taken away. Pulling up to the gym late at night in old No. 20, the legendary red-and-white school bus. Weary and sore, we unloaded canvas bags holding our uniform, shoes, pads, and helmet from storage bins below.

Home games were ritualistic. We’d eat pre-game meals at Jacksons’ Home Café, “Where People Meet To Eat.” Each meal was the same, a hamburger steak. Then we’d go to the gym and idle away time. Then dress in the locker room. Go through pre-game warm-ups, calisthenics, punting and receiving, run plays … then back to the gym for a final meeting with the coaches.

Game time. We’d line up in pairs and rush onto the field beneath those legendary Friday night lights. The cheerleaders formed an allée of legs through which we ran. Pom-poms shaking, “Go Devils go.”

We went.

Writing with randomness, a medley of smells come to me. Fresh-cut grass, the salty smell of sweat, the musty smell of soggy uniforms, the breath of an opponent smashed against you in a pile, the greenish-dry smell of the lime lines. Of all the smells, fresh-cut grass was best. To this day a new-mown lawn brings back memories of Friday nights. I remember, too, August and two-a-day practices and nights at the old Y camp down by the lake. Gone now. I remember taking salt pills and drinking from a water bag hung from the Buddy Bufford arch. The heat. Relentless.

Small-town boys harbor dreams. For a brief time we were celebrities. During my four-year career I played first unit on the junior varsity and started three years on the varsity, right safety and halfback. We played both ways back then. Most of all I remember the games. The plays. The injuries.

Big games against Washington-Wilkes and Warrenton. From 1964 to 1966 we failed miserably, tying Washington-Wilkes twice and losing once, beating Warrenton once and losing twice. People talk about crowd noise at big games. I can’t recall hearing the fans … not once. The sounds I remember were play calls in the huddle, the clap of hands as we broke, and the thud of punts. Oh, and the officials’ shrill whistles. Everything else seemed to be in a dream, like some old movie without sound.

To play was to get hurt. On my very first play, the opening kickoff against Washington-Wilkes, a Tiger missing cleats spiked my left leg. Doctor Pennington cut a hunk of meat out, stitched me up, shot me up, and I went right back in. I got knocked out twice. Covering a punt, I got blocked and as I rose from the grass Alex McGee tried to leap over me. His knee hammered my forehead. Out cold. On another punt return Putnam County’s great running back Brent Cunningham planted his helmet in my chest and ran over me, bruising my sternum. It hurt as bad as any injury I received. The pain lasted six months.

My senior year a guy speared me. I had run a sweep around left end and after I was down he dove into my lower back helmet-first. Broke three vertebrate. Had to wear a brace the rest of the season. Was he flagged? I can’t remember. Broke a toe and a finger and spent time in the whirlpool. But here’s the thing. I’d go back and do it again. Playing the greatest game of all did good things for me. Watching a game you once played you better feel the game’s urgency. It instilled a desire to stay in shape. And it shaped how I perceive other men. Over the years, I’ve seen how some men who never played football seem difficult, like spoiled babies. Playing on a team and having a part to do on every play instills an appreciation for discipline and execution. And toughness too. Life hurts. There’s no avoiding pain.

I played football between the glory days of the early 1960s and the Larry Campbell era. Even though we were winners, I view my career with disappointment. We didn’t go undefeated and I didn’t play as well as I should have. A 70-yard touchdown against Mt. De Sales and an interception against the Greensboro Tigers were senior year highlights. The angle of pursuit works. I ran a back down from about thirty yards away across the field, saving a touchdown, but I can’t recall the game, Louisville? The disappointment gave me reason to be motivated, to make sure the rest of life would not be as disappointing as a record of 22-6-2 was.

Football. It’s behind me now but sometimes I dream I’m suited up again. The dreams seem to be in color but what stands out from those nighttime apparitions are black nights, white helmets, and glaring lights. I hate waking up. It’s worse than the end of another season because it’s the only way I can play now. I’d give anything to play again and even at my age I’d suit up for a game given the chance. To be sixteen again.

I hear the boys of Lincoln County don’t care for football much now. I hear they don’t go out for the team. I hear they like their iPhones and social media more. They sound like sissies. They should wear pink skirts and paint their nails. Wear earrings too. I bet some do, the sissy Susans.

Someday when they are cleaning out their dead mom and dad’s attic, maybe they’ll come across a box of old cell phones. That won’t summon up memories nor resurrect any kind of glory will it. Let’s just hope they don’t grow up to be difficult, unappreciative men. If they do and they well might, a few fleeting years of sweat, pain, and teamwork could have worked miracles for them. Some small-time glory beneath the lights? Feeling like a celebrity for a moment? It’s something you carry the rest of your life, and I feel sorry for the boys who will never know just what it feels like or how it might have changed their life.

Image credit: the feature image of old football programs, stories and memorability was taken by the author, © Tom Poland.

Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of fourteen books, 550 columns, and more than 1,200 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, Reflections of South Carolina, Vol. II, and South Carolina Country Roads. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground.

He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks to groups across South Carolina and Georgia. He’s the editor of Shrimp, Collards & Grits, a Lowcountry lifestyle magazine.
Governor McMaster conferred the Order of the Palmetto upon him October 26, 2018 for his impact upon South Carolina through his books and writing because “his work is exceptional to the state.”

Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Lincolnton, Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina.

Visit Tom's website at www.tompoland.net. Email him at [email protected].