Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Record Run

We’ve reached the “dog days of summer,” which is bad enough in itself, but for thousands of young male bodies this is a horrible time. Boys (and a few girls) across the land who fancy themselves as football players are about at the midpoint of preseason practices.

Just the thought of this late-summer punishment nearly six decades after my last gut-wrenching pushup on a hot, humid August day is sufficient to take most of the fun out of one of my current better days. An old (very) song advised “You Gotta Be a Football Hero” to “get along with the beautiful girls.” Well folks. the goal is worthwhile, but the price is too high.

I went out for the football team at Tomahawk High School as a freshman because it was the thing to do. For me, it probably wasn’t the thing to do. I liked the games, but I hated those practice drills.

Facilities at our small northern Wisconsin school hardly matched student enthusiasm for athletics. Our tiny, overcrowded locker room was upstairs from the school boiler room. When a lot of sweat from a lot of over-worked bodies and steam from the even smaller communal shower permeated the locker room, the boiler room might have been the better place. Football practices and games were conducted at Pride Park, six long blocks from where we suited up in front of our lockers.

Pride Park was named for a person, not as an endorsement of the quality of the facilities. When we went there for summer football practices, the restrooms were locked. Relieving a full kidney, throbbing bowel, or unsettled stomach required a run to the woods behind the decrepit baseball grandstand. When you got to Pride Park in football regalia, you were six long blocks from civilization.

In my freshman year, a benevolent coach, Ed Kidde, let us walk those six blocks to and from practices. Unfortunately for the slackers among us, Otis Mehlberg, a fitness fanatic, took over a year later. He required us to run the six blocks. Upon arriving at the practice field, we ran a couple of laps around the perimeter of the field, did a couple of hundred yards of wind sprints, had a calisthenics session, and then started practice. It was brutal.

A few over-enthusiastic team leaders actually sprinted for most of the six blocks in a macho contest. The rest of us dogged it as much as we could. We hid behind trees to avoid coaches’ eyes. Or, we jogged when we spotted the coaches nearby (they drove in Mehlberg’s personal car, yelling at any slackers they spotted), and then lapsed into a brisk walk, or a slow one if we could get away with it.

The sprinters posted some impressive times, but a plodder set the standard for the six-block trip. A big tackle, Bill (Gunny) Sachs, covered the distance in record time. Sachs was a good athlete, who also was a very nice guy. He got the high school-practice field sprint title in a way he didn’t deserve.

Our manager, Jack (Doc Swab) Hanson, dispensed few medications, but he was known to occasionally rub on some Atomic Balm (also known as red hot) to loosen taut, aching muscles. On the day Gunny Sachs set the speed record, someone rubbed a bit of balm into his jock strap before he put it on.

We noticed Sachs twitching around and performing strange gyrations when the team assembled at the practice field before starting the usual lap runs. He finally went over to Mehlberg, urgently whispered something into the coach’s ear, and tore out of the practice area in the direction of the high school. With the shower room as the goal, we were sure Sachs covered that six blocks faster than any runner before or since.

We blamed the prank on Gene Schreiber, not necessarily because he was the culprit. We automatically blamed anything like that on Schreiber. Usually, he was guilty. Schreiber once showed up in the boys’ locker room wearing a pair of girl’s gym shorts he somehow liberated from the locker room next door.

Were I to counsel teenage males nowadays on how to “get along with the beautiful girls,” I would tell them to forget about striving to be a football hero. A better idea would be to buy a guitar and try to make it as a rock star.

1 comment:

joared said...

Loved your story! Wish my husband who was also one of those high school football athletes was still alive to read this. I'm sure he would enjoyed it and might have had a few choice comments of his own. I didn't know him until long after high school so can't attest to how gung ho he was, but I suspect very much so. He expected to get a football scholarship to Ohio State, but WWII came along and college football was subsequently canceled I think he said.