One hundred years ago, I played football for the Fighting Falcons of Central High School. Early on a Friday evening, we loaded a bus with our equipment and cocky attitudes, for an hour-long journey across the Massanutten Mountains to battle against the Madison County Mountaineers, Virginia State Champions the previous year.
To appease the politically correct crowd, let me preface this story by stating that I only hold prejudice against one ethnic group on the entire planet Earth, and that would be mean people.
The road through the dense forest of the mountains was made darker by the starless sky above. The parking lot was even darker as we unloaded the equipment from the team bus. Small groups of opposing fans shouted threats of defeat and other hostile predictions as they made their way to the football stadium.
Blue and Gold were the official school colors of the Falcons. This was an away-game, so the blue pants were topped with white jerseys, which, along with our helmets, were trimmed with blue and gold stripes. White, calf-high tube socks were in fashion at the time, with some players, including myself, even going as far as to wear white football shoes, as opposed to the traditional black. Our entire team that season had white skin.
Madison County was an hour and a million miles away from our hometown. Sure, you had your typical, good-ole white mountain boys coming out of the woods to play ball, but 40% of the Madison team that year were African-American young men. We weren’t used to the flip-flopped demographics and took an uneasy notice.
Steel-tipped cleats were still legal on the shoes of the players back in those days, throwing the chance of injury to the wind, in lieu of better traction on the slippery fields. We had produced a small crunching noise, like a 17th Century Infantry group, as we first marched across the graveled parking lot and filed past the angry crowd of enemy supporters.
Still confident we were, as jumping jacks and stretching exercises were executed, synchronized by the cadence call of our squad. The mounting anticipation of clashing with the opposition had testosterone pulsating through the blue and gold veins of The Falcons.
But then, our moment of manliness was rudely interrupted.
As the entire stadium of enemy fans leapt to its feet and screamed with deafening delight as they turned towards the main building, a mass of humanity left the Home Team’s locker room. Clad from head-to-toe in dark blue uniforms, they emerged from the darkness, pounding fists against thigh pads, then helmets, sounding like a muscular, sweaty marching band. A third phase of impromptu percussion instruments produced a rumbling thunder, as fifty sets of steel-tipped cleats created sparks of lightening along the long trail of concrete.
The Falcons were still confident, looking stylish in white, blue and gold. Our vocal leaders rounded the troops into one large, bouncing huddle in the middle of the field before the opposing squads separated to their respective sidelines. There was no doubt in the minds of The Falcons that an upset victory would be ours before the night was through. Our arrogance was further bolstered after we won the ceremonial flip of the coin, giving us first possession of the ball. An omen of no surprise for the Blue and Gold.
The opening kickoff skidded into the end zone for a touchback. Falcon ball, 1st and 10 on the 20-yard line. Reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, flashing a kilt to The King’s Army, Coach Lee wasn’t about to lay down at the feet of a much stronger enemy, and instead went straight for the jugular vein with a daring play selection. We had implemented a new offensive system that season, patterned after the modern, explosive offense of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. I played ‘flanker’, a wide-receiver that was utilized in the running plays of the offense, as opposed to only the traditional catching of the ball. My bread & butter play was “Right-25”, where I carried the ball unexpectedly against the natural flow of my teammate’s movements. It would soon be known around our conference of teams and by the opposing defensive coordinators, as “Reverse! Reverse! Reverse!” as they screamed an alarm to their troops.
The ball was snapped from the Center to the Quarterback. My teammates veered to the Right, the opposing Mob followed. I went Left and took the hand-off from the Quarterback. As I broke free from the crowd, only 80 yards of grass stood between me and a stunning, humiliating opening-drive touchdown.
Did I mention that Lawrence Young, number 20, played for the Mountaineers that season?
Lawrence stood about 6-foot-something, 190 pounds. He was a multi-sport athlete with amazing skills and a natural grace. He was a champion sprinter in Track & Field’s 100-yard dash, the District’s leading football scorer for the second year in a row, and after high school, played major college football.
For 60-yards, my short little legs were generating an amazing RPM, my white football cleats completely clean except for the bottoms, stained from clipping the top of 60-yards worth of grass. At 20-yards-to-Goal, I began to feel his presence, then saw him over my right shoulder. But my short little legs kept up the torrid pace.
Lawrence didn’t run like I did. Looking over my right shoulder was like watching an Evil Super-villain, bounding in the dark from the top of one skyscraper to the next.
WHOOOSH!……. WHOOOSH!……. WHOOOSH!
WHOOOSH!……. WHOOOSH!……. WHOOOSH!
He reached for my jersey just as I crossed the goal line. Touchdown!
There were at least a dozen black, teenage female students, across the fence in the far corner of the end zone, angrily screaming profanities, making the touchdown even more enjoyable. Being an annoying, cocky, mess-with-your-mind-sort of player, I scissored the football from hand-to-hand between my legs, then held it out with one straight arm, and with a flick of the wrist, spun the ball onto the grass in front of them. They got louder.
We didn’t score again until Madison’s 2nd-string took the field in the game’s final minutes. We lost 43-12.
No matter what the game, I used to joke that “You’ve got to look good to play good”, but in the real world, a better man always wins.