Saturday, September 24, 2022

Old Men Throwing a Football…


Three days ago – I drove up to my hometown on Lake Superior to visit relatives and some friends that I have had since childhood.  From about 1963 to 1973 we played football primarily but also several other sports in and around the only park we had as kids.  For a few months in the winter, it was a skating rink.  The rest of the time it was an abandoned field.  For about half of those years, the field was next to a ravine with a small swamp at the bottom of it.  Eventually the ravine was filled in and it was an even rougher field to play one.  We stuck to the rink surface, an abandoned lot across the street and in the wintertime the streets lined by snowbanks.  Of course, in the winter we typically played in the dark after school.

And we played every night – in the rain, snow, and subzero weather.  There was no formal start time. Sometimes I would hear a pebble bouncing off my bedroom window and look out and the boys were all there waiting.  Other times I would step out into the alley and two blocks away see one of my friends waving his arms in a crossing motion over his head.  I would reply with the same motion, and we would head to the field. People would filter in when they saw us there warming up.  Quitting time, was highly dependent on when the neighborhood store closed (usually 8:30 PM).  The winner was often determined by that quitting time: “Whoever gets to this score or 8:15 PM”.  Our post game ritual was consuming 16 oz RC Colas at the store, and we couldn’t miss it.  

Most of these games were 2 on 2 or 2 on 3 passing games.  As a result we could all throw well and learned to catch a football very well. What was remembered three days ago was learning how to catch a ball that disappeared above the streetlights in the extreme dark cold of winter when it suddenly reappeared under the lights.  We would say “it came out of nowhere” – but we would catch it. On this day we did not do any kicking or punting, but I also remembered the guy in our group who taught himself to punt a perfect spiral.  It was amazing to see and that disappeared above the streetlights for a very long time before it came into view.

Today we were focused on short passes of 10-30 yards and throwing flat minimal arc spirals. I still recall my high school coach showing us how to throw a spiral with the nose of the ball slightly elevated for more distance and that was what I was going for.  I wondered if we were going to throw for distance like we used to do but that never happened.  The focus was on these short passes and catching the ball in the hands.  The fall detection on my watch was set off by catching a few of these passes. These passes still had a little heat on them. One of my friends talked about having "$1,000 hands" based on what he caught at work and telling the story of how he developed that ability. 

Only a couple of us played organized sports.  I wrote about that in another post. But the caliber of play was high.  Playing a sport every day for 10 years brings with it a high degree of athleticism both in terms of conditioning and coordination.  And it seems hard to believe these days but the only diversions available to us was very mediocre black and white television transmitted through the air and reading. Technical problems were common with the TV and to see a show you had to be there. It seems hard to believe now - but there was no on-demand viewing or recording.  Reading was limited by what you could buy or borrow from the library. At the same store where we drank the RC Colas – a bookmobile showed up every Saturday.  I remember borrowing and reading When Worlds Collide - a novel written in 1933 - and being fascinated by it.  Toward the end of my football period I worked for the library and mailed books out to other bookmobile locations.

That lack of diversions – technical and otherwise may have kept us focused on our game.  Several people commented to me that nobody ever plays in that field anymore.  On some days we had 10 or 20 additional players.  But these days nobody ever shows up and plays every day.  The city baseball and softball leagues have also been decimated far beyond what could be accounted for by a population decrease. It seems that in small town America not many people are playing sports anymore.

As we were throwing the ball around. One of my friends reminded me of a time when I threw him a pass and he dropped the ball.  I told him to take his gloves off so he could catch it the next time and it was 17 degrees below zero at the time. I am certainly not the same guy I was back then – you become a better person with age.  I asked him what he made of that today and he summed it up: “That’s just the way it was back then.”  There were definite periods where we were unnecessarily rough and angry. But I don’t recall any out and out fights.  The roughness of the game when you are a kid is a source of pride.  We were all from the East End and we had a shared "wrong side of the tracks" blue collar mentality. To this day – one of my friends in the photo gives West Enders a rough time.  He told me that he recently asked one of them: “Did you even play outside when you were kids?”  Trash talking is not a new invention.

The shared experience is something I never thought about at the time. I heard a recent piece on This American Life about the importance of camping to some people and how there were campers and non-campers and the non-campers would never understand the emotional importance of camping.  The same thing was true of our football games.  It gave us all meaning at a time in our lives where there wasn’t much. It gave us a chance for intense emotional expression and eventually being able to control that expression.  It helped us through some pretty bad times. I still remember hearing the pebble bounce off my window and telling the guys: “I can’t play today – my Dad died last night.”  I remember the expression on their faces when they heard that news. I remember it as clearly as if it happened yesterday.  All of the homilies that I heard at various sports banquets about the importance of teamwork - rings hollow. It is more important just to be there and share the experience.  Nobody ever tells you that when you are a kid beating yourself up for losing a game. It really doesn't matter who wins or loses.  It doesn't matter how you play either. It just matters that you show up and keep showing up.

This day - it was happier times.  We had all just finished working - as in retired.  School, work, and in some cases military service were all necessary distractions from our game. One of my friends has just completed 41 years of work without missing a day and for some of those days he was working 7 days a week. We had all dodged severe medical problems of one form or another.  We had all survived COVID so far and had the vaccinations. It was a good day to be alive on our childhood playing field.   

We may have lost a step or two but old men can still throw and throw quite well.  But there were no diving catches.


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


  1. Thank you for going back to your childhood experiences and sharing them with us.

  2. Nice piece George. Never really thought about football that way.