While having my hair cut with Barb at Hairacy's, we discussed softball and volleyball around Saint John and I realized that growing up, I lived for sports. They were essential for my survival. My friends and I played from when we got up for as long as light would let us in the summer, and immediately after school to bedtime in the winter. We played everything we could: hockey, baseball, football, soccer... anything.
We usually had to improvise since organized sports in our circle was rare. A couple friends played hockey at its lowest level, but the monetary commitment and amount of time involved wasn't something to which our parents could or would commit.
This led to the Armdale Executioners street hockey team, The Cowie Hill Open golf course, tennis under a relatively nearby street lamp at three in the morning, and many more extraordinary uses of our rich imaginations along with the desire to be like those kids with the uniforms.
In junior high, I somehow heard of a minor league football team accepting tryouts.
"They provide the equipment," a classmate told me.
Incredulous, but hopeful, I looked in the yellow pages for someone who knew of this place. A number of well-placed calls eventually led to me being given the number for the coach, I phoned and was told that although I had already missed a number of practices, I was welcome to come.
After school the next day, I walked the few miles to the football field and was outfitted with shoulder pads, those short padded pants and a helmet. "You'll need cleats and a cup too."
I had no clue how to play organized football. My friends and I had played lots, but we considered ourselves very lucky if there was four to a team, so rules were improvised. You played offense and defense. Positions such as guard, tackle, etc. didn't exist. And a play consisted of, "I'll fake the hand-off to Jeff, then John will be open in the end zone."
"What position are you trying out for, kid?"
"I usually play quarterback, but sometimes running back," I replied noticing the confident older players currently vying for those positions.
"We'll try you at right guard."
I may as well have been placed on another planet. Other than the football, the practice equipment was completely foreign and the drills were entirely unfamiliar. They were out of play-books, so I was told to try to find time to study a team-mate's. There was only one on the team from my neighbourhood and he wasn't exactly willing to share.
Guard is not a complicated position, but it's amazingly stifling when you're used to quarterback. "Block the opposing player, but you can never use your hands or a holding penalty could hurt the entire team. Yes, he can use his hands. You can't hit him if he gets past you, that's clipping. On certain plays you'll need to pull, so you need to know those plays." It seemed stupid to point out I didn't have a play-book.
After slipping around the field that entire first practice, my father thought I may need cleats. He took me to Simpsons-Sears bargain basement and we took a look at what they had available. There were no football cleats in my size, besides they were pricey. There was a pair of soccer cleats, an infinitely unpopular game at that time, that were almost the correct size, so we got those. The only difference between soccer and football footwear is the missing cleat at the front of the shoe used for digging in and leveraging forward. I guessed soccer players didn't have to move forward as much and never had to push back opposing players trying to tackle the guy with the ball.
At fourteen, I was certainly able to figure out the importance of a cup, but since I never had one at any other time in my life, it wasn't at all concerning we didn't consider one now. Just for the record, I don't have any children.
There was an odd sort of unexpected pride felt carrying the football gear to school for practice after it let out. My photo even made the local paper when a reporter wrote about the upcoming season. I was throwing a clip as the opposing tackle tried to get our star running back. I still have the photo somewhere.
After a number of practices, the coach pulled three of us aside and told us we weren't going to be cut, but he hoped we would try a little harder to learn the plays. After a couple of the veteran players told us that meant we wouldn't be used on the team, the three of us ended up turning in our equipment at the end of practice.
"When is your first game," my father asked one night over the phone.
"I was cut," I told him.