High school football is a tradition throughout most of the South.
There was nothing more exciting to me, when I was a young kid, than the Friday night ritual of going to watch the Lexington High School Wildcats play, in a stadium that used to be next to what was once Hites Restaurant, behind the former location of the town water tower. By the time I was eight years old, I was playing football every day in my front yard, imagining myself one day playing for those Fighting Wildcats.
Preparing myself to one day join that varsity team, I diligently practiced running, passing, punting, kicking, blocking and tackling any time I could gather up a few friends. Turns out, I should have saved my energy and just practiced sitting… because the position I mostly ended up playing was “benchwarmer.”
Officially, I played guard and tackle in high school. But in my case, that meant “guard the water bucket, and tackle anybody who came near it!” I had all the athletic ability of an over-stuffed sofa.
Even back then, however, I was the eternal optimist. Whatever I undertook, I undertook with passion. Even benchwarming. Hence, the birth in 1970 of what we called “LBU”: the Lexington Benchwarmers Union.
During our junior year, it became apparent to a handful of us that we were destined to ride the bench for the entire year, so we embraced it with pride. We developed the proper techniques for sitting, kneeling and standing on the sidelines, so that we could pass on our expertise to future benchwarmers. We learned the best tactics for staying warm when the weather turned chilly… a common benchwarmer hazard, since you never work up a sweat. We took turns watching the game and taking naps on the bench. And we learned how to rub grass and dirt into our uniforms during the pre-game warmups to make it appear that we had actually played in the game.
We were the finest group of benchwarmers LHS had ever seen.
While I can’t reveal the full identities of my fellow LBU members – after all, they may at this very moment be regaling their grandkids with tales of their high school athletic heroics – I will say that they had very common last names like: Shealy, Sharpe, Sox, Satcher, Smith. (For the longest time, I thought the coach had somehow obliterated the “S” section of the team roster, presumably by dripping tobacco juice on it, and never called us into the games because he couldn’t read our names. I discounted that notion, however, as Sharpe, Sox, Smith, and Satcher’s names were all eventually called into action, leaving me as the lone undisputed captain of the benchwarming unit.)
Looking back, I think my problem was simply that the coaches had me pegged for the wrong position on the team. Defensive tackle is probably the wrong place for a writer/humorist. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the Defensive Coordinator, Coach Hogwartz, was really looking for the “creative type” at all.
(On a side note, in addition to being a member of the team, I was also the sports editor of the high school newspaper… and the sports page of the fall, 1970, edition coincidentally featured the benchwarmers instead of the team!!!)
By my senior year, things changed. But only slightly.
In addition to having the athletic ability of an over-stuffed sofa, there had also been a bit of a communication problem, I discovered.
For years I had heard my coaches saying things like “put some leather on him”…. “crack some leather”… “I want to hear some leather pop”. I had no idea what they were talking about until I finally discovered that apparently, 50 years earlier, helmets and other football pads had in fact been made of leather. How could I have known? This was typical of what seemed to be a general disconnect between the coaches and me.
Then one afternoon at practice, the head coach accidentally said something without a wad of tobacco in his mouth, and I understood him for the first time in three years. He said, “Shealy, why didn’t you hit that guy?”, which I had always misinterpreted as “Sweetpea, waddle donkey Hitchcock fly?” (… which always started my mind wandering, staring off blankly into space wondering what he meant, while the other players were running willy-nilly all around me.)
Now that I understood what he was saying, I did it. I smacked the other guy. And, for the first time, it occurred to me that just running toward the other team with my arms flailing wildly, as I had been doing since fourth grade, did no good whatsoever. And seemed to exasperate my coaches.
Running into that guy, like the coach had asked, changed my football career. The coaches shifted me from defense to offense, and made me a blocking lineman, which largely consisted of me “getting in the way” of the other team. My job was to make sure the opposing players ran into me instead of running into any of my teammates who were authorized to touch the football. (I was sternly instructed never to touch, or even come within five yards, of the football.)
Getting in the way of the other team was easy. I had been getting in the way my whole life. I was actually quite good at it. Probably one of the phrases I was most familiar with was “you’re in the way”.
Unfortunately, in the third game of my senior year, I got in the way of two guys at the same time. Actually, my knee got in the way of the two guys – two BIG guys, coming from two different directions – and ended up lying on the ground beside me facing a totally different direction than the rest of my body.
After a brief hospital stay to put my knee back together, they let me out and gave me a pair of crutches.
I rejoined the team, and hobbled back over to the sidelines -- back to the bench -- where I felt a home… and concluded my football career proudly watching Sox, Smith, Satcher, Sharpe and the rest of my benchwarming buddies from the previous year compete for the conference championship!!!