When I was a freshman on my high school football team, I had the best seat in the house – the bench -- for every game but one. I’d spend the week getting mauled by the regulars and then as a reward I got to watch them play on Friday night. I tried hard all week, but I never got in for a down in any of those games. We had a pretty good team, and the coach didn’t want to risk a win by putting in any of us subs.
I’m not sure what he didn’t want to risk in the game we lost 28-0.
For the Bridgeport game, our most one-sided win, I didn’t even get my usual seat. It snowed all week, and when we left the locker room and went out to sit down, we discovered six inches of solid ice encrusted on the bench.
"This week," Fritz said, "we won’t benchwarmers." By the fourth quarter, we were just praying for the game to be over so we could go some place and be warm.
We stood the whole game. "We ended up with our ends up," Pudge cracked later. That night I really hated football.
I didn’t have to be there. I almost didn’t go out for football as a freshman. I knew that it would be a whole year of never getting into a game. Practices began at nine o’clock on a Monday two weeks before school started. It was August and burning hot. I stayed home and listened to a baseball game on the radio.
That evening I got a phone call from the coach. He asked if I was ill.
"Uh – no." I didn’t expect him to know my name. Wow! I told him I’d forgot about practice.
"Then you will be at practice tomorrow," he said confidently.
I assured him I’d be there. I mean, if it was going to get personal!
I suppose he just needed enough bodies to scrimmage at practice. Every day I lined up against Big Ernie, our star tackle with the concrete elbows. My nose was chronically bloody all fall.
Looking back, I’m glad I was on the team. There were three rewards: the assembly before the final game, the trip to the pro game, and the football banquet.
The banquet didn’t happen till well after the season, just before Christmas. It was full of speeches, but I’ve had worse times. First we had a big meal of chicken, baked potatos, and green beans, with cake for dessert. They gave us our choice of milk or water.
After we ate, the coach gave out the big team letters to sew on sweaters. You had to play half of our forty quarters to get a letter. I was twenty short. He also handed out a lot of special awards. Big Ernie got a couple. I thought I deserved one for scrimmaging against Big Ernie every day – maybe one like an Oscar with the nose smashed in. Actually, they did give one out for best sub, but Fritz got that.
Then the coach introduced the featured speaker. One year, they said, the speaker had been an All-American. Another year it was a famous coach of some college in Ohio. This year we just got the assistant sports editor for the local newspaper. He told us that in life as in games we had to try hard.
The last thing, the coach got up and said as much as we’d miss the players who were graduating, we’d still have a good team next season because we had a lot of good players coming back. It’s nice to know you’re appreciated.
That was why I liked that final assembly.
The morning of our final game, the whole school was in the auditoreum. The principal got up on the stage and said how hard we were going to try that night, and then he introduced the coach who said how hard we were going to try that night.
One-by-one, the coach called the players up onto the stage with him. He started with us subs. There was a smattering of applause for each player. We never mentioned it to each other, but each of us subs ranked the amount of applause we got against that of the others. I did better than the kid who was absent with strep throat. I’d never stood in front of such a big crowd. It was exciting to be there with the whole school looking at me until the regulars came up on stage and stood in front.
When subs left their seats to stand on the stage, the clapping would peter out by the time they reached the steps. The regulars got up onto the stage and waved before the cheers stopped. When the coach called up the team captain, the yelling, whistling, and clapping was so long and loud the coach had to hold up his hands. Then the captain said that we were going to try hard.
I know I was enthusiastic, but I couldn’t figure out how I could sit harder.
On the Sunday of the weekend after our last game, we got to see a professional football game. The whole team piled aboard school buses and went to watch the Steelers up in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were not a very good team in those days. They were still using an old-fashioned singlewing offense while every other team in the league used a modern T-formation. Even the high school teams we played against all used the T. Pittsburgh’s opponents, the Redskins, were almost as weak as the Steelers, but they quickly built up a three-touchdown lead in the first half.
The game was at old Forbes Field where the Pirates and Steelers both played. Had we been there to watch the Pirates play baseball, we’d have had ideal seats – lower level, right behind home plate. Unfortunately, when the field was laid out for football, those same seats were behind an endzone. We watched everything through the goal posts.
Maybe that would have been okay on a decent day. On this frozen Sunday, the temperature was in the low 20s with an icy breeze. Every once in a while, we’d get snow flurries. It was colder than Bridgeport.
Near the end of the second quarter, Henry, another sub, shivered over to me and asked, "Do you know what’s on the other side of that big lot our buses parked in?"
I’d never been to Pittsburgh, so I had no idea.
He leaned in and whispered, "The Carnegie Museum."
Henry and I debated sneaking over during the second half. After all, we couldn’t see much of the game, and it wasn’t a very good game anyway. I’d heard of the Carnegie for years. It housed all kinds of treasures. We’d learn all kinds of wonderful things. Wasn’t the whole point of a school trip education? We were almost obligated
to go there.
God willing it would be heated!
The Carnegie was even more wonderful than I’d expected. There were statues that made you wonder how anyone could carve rock so exactly, and paintings that made you wonder how anybody could get colors so vivid. A lot of the statues and people in paintings made you wonder how anybody could be so naked. Henry’s eyes got big as footballs, but I’d looked at artbooks in the local library. "That’s art," I told him.
The dinosaurs were huge. Most of them were just bones, but you could imagine. The best part of the whole museum was the Egyptian display with its mummies, pharoah’s coffin, and pyramid exhibit. Just joking, I pointed to a mummy and said, "I guess he was in a real bad accident." Henry started explaining about how Egyptians buried their dead even though we’d both just read it on the sign.
I changed the subject to the pyramids. "Henry, did you know that the pyramids are still standing after thousands of years?"
"How can you knock over a pyramid?" he asked.
Henry wasn’t much fun. "What’s back here?" I said to get away.
I walked around a corner and right into the coach. He wasn’t happy. Neither Henry nor I was wearing a watch, but the coach was kind enough to inform us that we were an hour past the time the buses were supposed to leave. He informed us of that in a voice that was more of a growl. We’d kept everyone waiting. The snow was building up on the road. I think he said something about the Donner Party. The coach said that because we hadn’t told anyone where we were going, they’d spent an hour searching all over Forbes Field. Which was really cold!
I told the coach I was sorry. I tried to look sorry. When we got to the bus, everybody was angry. Henry and I scooted to a rear seat. The coach had a team rule about cussing people out, but I guess he wasn’t listening to what everybody called us just then.
I didn’t care. It was worth it. The Carnegie was great! I still remember some of the statues.