by Tom Teti
JUMP TO CONTINUE FROM THE MALVERNIAN
Received this message from Bosley late on a Friday:
Ever hear of the Abilene Bandits?
Nothing more. I answered:
In Texas next week for last interview. Ribs?
I was working on a piece about the NBA and head coaching styles, particularly the more authoritative ones, and had interviews scheduled with at least two players on six different teams. My last stop was in Dallas, so I knew I’d catch up with Boz.
After two days of listening to giant men go off on anything they wanted to talk about, I sat down in front of the TV with a beer and a pizza, ready to relax at last. It was successful; I slouched into a couch nap. About twelve thirty, I noticed another message, again from Boz.
Mark, what did you find out about those Bandits?
I was miffed. He said nothing about having dinner, it was late and I didn’t like his treating me like he was my editor. Boz was a doctor and chief overseer of geriatric policies for the state of Texas. The scuttlebutt was that he was in line to be the state’s next Surgeon General; he’d played football at TU with the Governor. Back in the day, I wrote articles for the school paper about Barnett Bosley’s mean streak at cornerback. I was tired and out of patience. I sent back:
I hit the hay.
The next day, I was on the phone with newly retired NBA forward Gizzy Geeson, an interview for the story.
“So, Gizzy, were you ever infuriated by a coach?” I didn’t expect the straight answer I got.
“I tried to hit Sam Tobel but my teammates held me back-” I didn’t quite get the rest of what he said because a new message from Boz grabbed my attention.
Can you get down here, quick?
“What did he do, or say, to get you riled up?” I asked, but I was listening with only half an ear. I sent back:
Boz’s next message came in right away, definitely not like Boz.
Book morning flight to Dallas. Call me on the way. And look up Bandits!
He had me pissed off with his martial tone, but, he had never shown me this excited side before. Boz would never type an exclamation point in a million years. I was done with my research, and the article wasn’t due for a week. Plus, I needed a new angle for my next feature and the idea of writing about football in Texas was quite seductive.
I made arrangements, then texted Boz.
Arriving 11:12 AM. Have car rental. Where am I going?
While awaiting his answer, I did some investigating. What I found was a listing of semi-pro football teams that engaged in competition beyond their areas that were sponsored to play each other. The challenger would raise enough to pay for the travel to the challenged. The Shenandoah Raiders went to play the Pottstown Maroons; the Pittsburgh Yellowjackets played the Brooklyn Bricks; the Toledo Blues hosted the Charleston Mules. There was a whole culture of semi-pro football competition when professional league play was only in a handful of big cities.
In the mid-west and the plains, the teams were very few, but one team’s name appeared over and over, and traveled farther than any other, and from the look of the scant records that were available, this team didn’t lose. Sometimes that becomes a euphemism for saying a team was very good, very tough. In this case, I could find no record of them losing, to anybody, from Texas to Colorado to Michigan to Ohio. That team was the Abilene Bandits, and their coach was a man named J. Robertson Smart.
I was in bed when Boz messaged back:
I’ll pick you up.
“Colonel J. Robertson Smart, Texas Rangers, retired in 1926.”
“The real Rangers? Not the baseball team.”
“Correct. The ‘One Riot, One Ranger’ Rangers. Was with Pershing when he went after Pancho Villa.” Boz negotiated our exit from the Dallas airport, keeping his eyes front, but, other than a few bare preliminaries on my condition and flight, he had started right in talking about the coach of the Abilene Bandits. “Came to Casa de Dulces Dias four years ago, when he turned 100.”
“Lived with relatives?” I asked.
“Doesn’t have any. Wife died twenty-five years ago. She was Pawnee.”
“Yes. They met on the Oklahoma reservation. He followed a couple of his own men he thought were stealing horses, he says, followed them over the state line and caught them drunk and shooting up the reservation, terrorizing the women, threatening the men, and with four stolen horses. But the Rangers have no jurisdiction outside of Texas, so he shot them in the feet, put them each on a horse, dragged them off the reservation and deposited them at the jail of the nearest town, in the middle of the night, just knocked on the door. Then he took the horses back to the reservation, apologized to the elders, looked in on a couple of kids in the infirmary that got bruised or were scared and saw a young girl taking care of them. That was where he first saw Cynthia Pale Moon. He stayed there until dawn, helping her. Said goodbye. Got halfway back to Abilene, turned around, went back to the reservation, proposed to her, standing at the doorstep of her father’s lodge. Can you believe it?” Boz was clearly delighted.
“Sounds like a treatment for a western cum romcom.”
“Ha!” Boz laughed, loud, not usually his way. “Doesn’t it? The football’s coming. He marries her, but it takes convincing, so he has to go away and come back, many times. Spends a lot of time on the rez. Participates in one of their free-for-all games, something like rugby, with a flour sack sewn tight around some rags. Reminds him of football, which he played growing up, and loved, but was inspired most by a pick-up game several years before, played one Thanksgiving morning in Sweetwater. Says he played against Sammy Baugh.”
“Sammy Baugh? Hall-of-Fame Sammy Baugh? Slingin’ Sammy Baugh? In a pick-up game?”
“The only man to win a national championship in college, and a championship in the pros.”
“Yes, TCU and the Washington Redskins, and actually there were two others, but still. Sam Baugh in a pickup game?”
“The Colonel’s grandmother lived there and Baugh grew up there. He was only sixteen. Our Colonel, not yet a Colonel, was a young ranger of twenty-three. They were opposing quarterbacks. Colonel says he could hardly believe how good the boy was.”
I was starting to feel the way you do when a good friend of yours send you a get rich chain letter. “Geez, Boz-“
“So, the young Ranger quickly rises in the ranks, since he can drive a car and a lot of them don’t, and he had three weeks of college at Hardin-Simmons, which was three more weeks than most. He moved up to captain by the age of twenty-six.”
“Boz, this , if you don’t mind my putting harshly, sounds kind of loopy. And am I going to have to hear it all again from the guy? Or can’t he talk?”
“He can talk, but he won’t, or at least, he doesn’t.”
“He sits like the fifth face on Mount Rushmore, until he gets riled up, if you talk about today’s football, and the stars in the league. But he’s not given to loquaciousness.”
“Probably can’t muster enough energy. What’d you say he is, 104?”
“Yeah. But you’ll see. And I’m telling you because you won’t hear anything about him from him. I told him you were coming.” We pulled into the parking lot of CASA DE DULCES DIAS.
It was truly a lovely place. Around the usual sea of vegetating residents staring at us, the ones who were awake, the accouterments were well selected in expensive retro copies of old-Texas decor. Strolling through with Boz was like accompanying the President into the White House. I glanced up at him more than once as he greeted underlings, nurses and patients, and thought he should run for Senate. His lantern jaw and deep voice made people either follow him or get out of the way.
“So, this supposed undefeated record… It can’t be real.” I said.
“Can’t say for sure, but I’m a doctor.” He grinned. “There are people who say their fathers and mothers remember it that way.”
“Is there documentation?”
“I called up to the Abilene Reporter News. They’re going to send what they have. You are also going to get a pass to visit their archives.”
“Are you pushing for me to do an article?” Boz just shrugged like suddenly he didn’t have an agenda. He annoyed me sometimes. “Why should I do an article about the Abilene Bandits?”
We were stopped ten feet outside the entrance to a solarium. It had a half-moon shape and about a dozen long windows looked out over the plains, a long flat vista in washed-out shades of yellow and pink. “Because,” said Boz, looking down into my eyes with his mighty blues, using his most grandiose tones, “it is the greatest football story ever, and if I think so, I bet everybody who was ever curious about the game will, too.”
Inside the solarium, I noticed one particular chair with two elbows on the arms and a head protruding above the seat back. It seemed a particularly erect posture for the locale. Boz caught me looking.
“Let me introduce you.”
Colonel Smart sat in a ready position. He had no oxygen canister, no bib, no wheelchair, and none of the odors that seemed to attach themselves to other residents – medicines, food, bodily functions, insufficient bathing. He kept his eyes on me after Boz’s introduction. Boz excused himself to make a few rounds. He unnerved me, a little, the Colonel did; I couldn’t tell if he knew what he was doing or not. Truthfully, I was thinking about getting out of Casa de Dulces Dias without being rude.
“Dr. Bosley’s been telling me about the Bandits.”
He just stared at me.
“Dr. Bosley said you used to coach football.”
“You’re going to have to speak up.” His voice sounded like tires on an unpaved road.
I apologized and repeated myself.
“Yeah,” said the Colonel. His face made no change, and there was no assurance that I was correct.
“Football,” he said.
“Well, you have a great reputation.” The Colonel said nothing. “Reports I read say you didn’t lose.” He just looked at me, didn’t nod, didn’t grunt. “At least, not in the big games, what were they, playoffs, I guess?” Maybe a part of his mouth moved. Was he with me or not. “What was the league the Bandits played in?”
“Wasn’t a league.”
“No league, or association?”
He answered in a tone that suggested I would have trouble grasping what he was saying. “We chased teams we wanted to play.”
The gravel in his voice was cleared away, and he sat, still looking at me, waiting.
“Chased? You pursued them?”
Now he nodded. “The good ones. Or the ones that were playing good.”
He was back to staring at me. His head looked like one of those big peanut shells that only has one peanut in it.
“So you challenged these teams? League teams?” He nodded, once. “Why would they play you?”
“There was money on these games?”
The colonel shook his head. “We paid them.”
I don’t know how long my jaw was slack and my mouth open, but long enough that the Colonel coughed in the middle of his stare. “You paid teams to play you?”
His eyes closed. “Come back later,” he told me.
“Old people get tired fast and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Boz said as we walked to the car. He took me to a hot spot for lunch where we had salads. In between forkfuls of arugula and goat cheese, he helped me digest the abrupt closure to my interview with Colonel Smart.
“He’s one of the good ones, even at 104. He doesn’t waste words, so at first you’re not sure if he knows what you’re talking about. Gradually he convinces. But you need to go for information. There is no explanation from him, just information. The information is the explanation. I look forward to hearing what you get,” he said.
“Why do you care about this?” I asked.
“Explanations again. You have to get out of that habit.”
Colonel Smart was sitting in the same chair, looking out the same window.
“Afternoon, Colonel. Have you had lunch?”
I was rooting for pencils in my bag. “Is that a specialty here?”
“In a meadow… You step in ’em.”
I laughed, in a guarded way. I watched him for signs of jollity but he barely exuded cordiality.
“You gonna record me? I’ve had people try to record me before, I don’t like it.”
“No. I don’t like it either.” He seemed to relax a little at that. “Um…. I’m going to ask a few things, if you don’t mind, just curious. I write sports articles, so I may be interested… In writing about the old semi-pro teams. Okay?’
He was still.
“How’d you get the team together? It started with your time with the Pawnee?”
He nodded, once.
“You played an Indian game with a stuffed sack?”
He nodded, once.
“And it reminded you of football?”
He didn’t move.
Something in his eyes changed at my question. He shifted his weight in the chair, maybe shifting his mind, too.
“Running, catching, tackling, a prize… the sack. Tough, any weather, but different.”
“What were the differences?”
He looked down at his feet, or maybe past them. “The Indian doesn’t have boundaries in his nature. They’re not used to dividing up the land. No out of bounds, no goal line. It’s a free-for-all, and the object is to hold on to the sack and not let the others have it. A matter of strength, and will.”
“Huh. And you taught the Pawnee football?” He nodded. “Who did you play?”
“White man sets up the out of bounds and the goal line, and the points. The Indian plays to establish his superiority.”
I decided to press the point. “But what does he get in the end? What does he have?”
“Respect. And a reason to play well next time.”
I had to admit, he was getting interesting. “So who did you play?”
Talk about superiority! “Whom did you play?”
“At first, we just practiced – the Indian game was all practice – then I took some of them to meet some fellas in Abilene. We practiced together.”
“Indians and Texans?”
“Rodeo men. Cowpunchers. Five Pawnee, four rodeo men, three cowpunchers.”
“That’s only twelve.”
“And me, at the beginning.”
“Then you stepped aside, Colonel?”
“I coached ’em, kept fights from breaking out. Then some fellas heard about us. Boatmen from the Mississippi, five of them. We played our first game against a team in Nebraska. After that, a couple of guys from the west out in Colorado found us. I think they were mountain men at one time, but I never asked too many questions. I didn’t have to play. We had nineteen players.”
“Did you win?”
I was getting to the point where I felt justified in not taking his story word for word, but I figured I would throw him one more. “So you began to play against good teams like – what was the one in Nebraska?”
“The Lilacs of Tildon.” He smiled a small smile for some reason. That got to me.
“They were called the Lilacs?”
“Got everybody to make jokes about their name. Then they got mean and rammed it down your throat. Name made ’em tough.”
“You beat the Lilacs with nineteen players, a mixture of Native Americans, rodeo men, cowpunchers, ex-mountain men and boatmen.”
“18-12. Then we picked up two soldiers after the war, and a couple Cajuns, they were from down the Gulf, and a few guys from San Francisco, seamen. Our quarterback was one.”
I was scribbling, now. “You remember his name?”
There was a brief silence. “Do I remember-” When he cut off, I thought he forgot, but when I looked up, I saw a pinpoint squint coming at me like a dart. I had managed to piss him off.
“Aeneas Elroy Finnert.”
Neither of us said anything for a moment. He looked out the window, like he was done. Then his eyes closed.
“Well, Colonel, I’ll go for now. Maybe, if I have another question or two I’ll come back tomorrow.” He stared silently into the lengthening prairie outside his window. “Okay, Coach?“ I stood with my bag in my hand. “You prefer Colonel or Coach?”
He didn’t respond, until I started to go.
“Coach,” he said.
“Come on, Boz. It’s all a bit too much. You fell for this?”
Boz laughed as he refilled my wine glass. “I had trouble believing it, too,” he started, “but he seems to have his wits and… See, you missed it. I tried to get you here to see it. Players showed up at the CASA.”
“Guys who’d played for him. What was left of the team, six of them. Ninety years old themselves.”
“He didn’t take it quite like that. They seemed to make him unhappy.”
I wasn’t totally surprised. Boz nodded.
“He sent them away.”
“It confused them?”
“Nope. They smiled, some of them, like they expected nothing else from their coach.”
“Aw, jeez,” I said; it just wasn’t credible. “Who told you about it?”
“Some of the staff…” I just squinted at him. “Well, one of the staff, Jorge. It was nighttime, he said.”
“So where is Jorge? Let’s talk to him.”
“He’s not here anymore.” Boz looked a bit sheepish.
“Of course,” I grunted. A wave of sadness tiptoed through me, from out of nowhere. I wanted to believe the story. Boz produced a large manila envelope.
“There’s photos in here. He doesn’t know I have them. A couple players brought them. He wouldn’t look, just put them in a drawer. I think I can get them back in the drawer without telling him, but you should be quick. Tomorrow, if you can.”
That night, I sat on my hotel bed and studied them. Many of the pictures were dog-eared from sixty or seventy years of handling; many were shot on small personal cameras and some of the shots were so tiny one needed a magnifying glass to get a good look at the faces, just a lot of stoics standing together having their picture taken. Team photos revealed the truth of what the Colonel had told me: the Bandits were a movement that brought Native Americans together with rodeo performers, cowpunchers, mountain men, ex-soldiers, west coast sailors and French bayou ruffians. It was a strange and great thing to behold.
About a half dozen of them, however, the game shots, were fascinating to the point of being hypnotic. They were black and white of course, showing the Bandits playing opponents from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Nebraska, in mud, snow, and chilly sunshine. But what I found irresistible about them was something I had seen in only a handful of football teams in my whole life. In motion, they looked like eleven men moving with a single knowledge. Seventy years removed from the date, I could see in the wonderfully primitive life of these photos, that the players knew what each other was thinking. They were determined, the bodies intent, the group, smart. Just like their coach. The pictures articulated something I’d taken for granted all my years of watching, playing sports, why I loved it: what the apex of atheletic experience could do for the human spirit.
At the bottom of the envelope, I found a picture that showed a vacant field at night with empty bleachers. There was ice on the field, and bad floodlights. The scene had a forlorn look. On the bottom margin, written in the black fountain ink of the day, was the caption: “Browns vs. Bandits, Celina, Dec. 29, 1948. Ha.”
That would need explaining.
Continue here from The Malvernian
The Colonel, the Coach was standing at the window when I saw him the next morning. He wasn’t tall, but he was ramrod straight. It impressed me that he was dressed, just as he had been the day before. In a world of pajamas and nightgowns, IVs and catheters, he was notable.
“Morning Coach,” I said; he didn’t turn. There was something prominent about him. One of the pictures of him on the sidelines showed him wearing his Ranger hat. It was easy to see him in command. “You up for a few questions?”
“You bring any coffee?”
“Uh, no. Don’t they have coffee here?”
“They got brown water, they call it coffee. Never mind…”
“I hope I’m not making a pain of myself.”
Coach chuckled. “Everybody’s a pain, we just pick the ones we like if we get a chance. Except Cin, she was never a pain.”
“You had a good marriage?’
He watched some slide show from his past as he stared at the flawless blue sky out the window. “We were spirits… Moved together, harmony, without words…”
Just like the offensive line, I thought. I felt a bit awkward; he picked it up.
“At least you didn’t ask me what the J. stands for. Most people do.”
I laughed. “No, I won’t if you don’t want to tell me. I’ll stick to football.”
“You saw the pictures,” he said, then he turned to check my face. I didn’t try to hide anything, but I was surprised, caught. A leathery face with hawk-like eyes in it focused on me.
“I was totally amazed. The unit looked like it was all together.”
“How many games did you play?” Coach turned back to the window. “You ran the ball, mostly?” He was silent. “Could Finnert throw? Did he run, too?”
He reached in his pocket, pulled out five dollars. “Go down the hall to the kitchen. Ask for Estrelita. Push this on her, and you have to push ’cause she won’t take it. Tell her you want two coffees, one for me, and you if you want one. She’ll know. Then-” he peeked at me “-we’ll talk.”
“Yeah, we ran the ball, but we were the best at throwing when we threw. A.E., we called him Nee, was sharp as a tack. And he called the pass play when the defensive back was winded from chasing Luke. Luke Nichols was our halfback, bronco rider. MacGregor was the other one, shifty, fast. Became what you call a flanker later on. Coffee good?”
“Yes, truly.” The coach had his feet up on the edge of one of the fake ficas trees that dressed the spot between each window. It was a disconcerting sight, because of his age and the demeanor he’d exhibited up to that point.
“Start with the run blocking,” he said. “Get your offensive line together first. Make sure you can run for three yards before you plan anything else.”
“But in today’s game, with so much passing, you need good pass blockers, too, don’t you.”
Coach looked like he was going to toss his coffee on me. “Put your pencil on the page. Ready? The only reason you need pass blockers is because they know you’re going to pass. If they don’t know what you’re going to do, where, when, how far or short, then everybody is a pass blocker… Unless a guy misses his block.”
He was fascinating me, not just by what he was saying, but by the sturdy, superior manner he’d adopted. We talked more; I was afraid of sounding stupid. We got around to players – “Balance, balance is really important. One big guy next to a smaller one. Defensive line went one big mean guy, one solid faster guy, tackles, one end was 6’7″, Cajun, Jake Leroy, probably a fake name, they said he killed a man once, the other was only 6’0, redhead, but he went wide and played the run well – the boys were of complimentary temperaments.”
Finally, I tried to spring the question that had been in my mind since the night before.
“Coach, there’s a picture of an unoccupied field, looks icy, night time, bad lighting. It has a caption…” Suddenly, his eyes were closing. “Bandits vs. Browns. What’s the story there?”
He said nothing. His eyes burned into a distant unseen point.
“Tired…” He didn’t seem fatigued, but then he closed his eyes, like he remembered how old he was.
My final NBA interview took place that night, over dinner in a trendy barbecue joint. Biggie Joyner, the best white center of the decade some said, talked as long as he was eating, and he ate for forty solid minutes, then excused himself. When I went to bed, I was weighing the consequences of staying longer in Texas. I would see the Coach in the morning, then I was scheduled to catch a flight back to New York. Something was holding me, however. I told myself I could always make another trip if the story looked like it was going anywhere, but I was melancholy about leaving – I was looking forward to the paternal experience of getting schooled by an old master that almost nobody knew anymore. But I kept getting slapped in the mind by the incongruity of it all. How likely was it that any of the story about the Bandits was more than five percent true?
When I arrived at La Casa, Boz met me in the common room. I peeked over his shoulder and saw Coach’s chair unoccupied.
“He’s in bed still,” Boz told me. “Didn’t feel great, so he’s taking it easy.”
I was deflated; I’d been getting attached, a definite no-no for a journalist. “Should I go, then?”
“We’re watching him…” Boz didn’t look like he knew much better than I what I should do. “You could probably see him briefly. Not too many questions. He might feel more up to it later.”
“I’ll be gone by later.”
Boz stared at me. “Right,” he said.
In his room, coach lay with his head turned toward a window that had one solitary cloud framed in yet another sky as blue as royal velvet. I was used to getting the feel of a room when I was alone with an athlete – whether he was comfortable or not, hostile or friendly. I was with a man that seemed to have let something go, but wasn’t really peaceful.
Various characters passed the doorway. None slowed down, none even looked in, except Estrelita, who smiled at me.
“He was waiting for you, I think. Asked if I’d seen you.” She looked unwaveringly at the coach, like she was studying him, yet she knew the road already.
“Seen him like this before?” I asked.
“No-o,” she said, in a drawn, tired note. “He did ask for coffee, which is a good sign.” She smiled, and I suddenly saw the history of the world in her face. Ages and ages of people who care wondering if this is the proverbial ‘it’. She and I stood together for about a half-minute. Half of a minute is a long time in a nursing home. I’d seen people come to sit with parents or relatives. They accumulated half-minutes by the dozens, but they are half-minutes spent like they are spent nowhere else, ever, in silence, in expectation. Maybe that’s what the coach was trying to do at the window, watch for changes, anything different, anything that he could attach to the markers of his life. Most of us never figure anything out. At least the coach believed he’d figured out football.
“The Cleveland Browns…” He didn’t turn to me. “We were going to scrimmage with the Cleveland Browns, that’s the picture you saw.”
I was nonplussed. “Coach, you don’t have to talk now, maybe you should rest some more-“
“No time. You’re here.”
I thought he might be delirious from sleep medication.
“We made a date. Paul Brown heard about us.” Coach rolled slowly onto his back, then lay staring at the ceiling. “Letters went back and forth. Mr. Brown had started a team from scratch, so he felt he knew what we were all about. Thought we wanted to get into a league. I didn’t know that, at first. I just figured they wanted a good game.
“This was the Marion Motley Cleveland Browns?”
He nodded once. “It was all kept quiet, but we were set. No more letters. Then we got a phone call, from Mr. Brown’s assistant, said there might be ‘developments’. We waited. Nothing. We got in the bus and went. To a small field in western Ohio. Celina. There was no one there.
“Then a car pulled up. Mr. Brown got out of the back. Overcoat, brown hat, shirt and tie, like we did in those days. It was sleeting…”
“That’s what I said.”
“In a way; he wasn’t the apologizing type. He said his staff was against it., the game. Worried about injuries.”
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. He said some of the players wanted to play but not enough. He wished us luck.”
“He just left?”
“He started,” Coach flapped his covers, like he was feeling warm, “then… it was peculiar…”
“He came back and said: ‘Saw you play in Terre Haute, against the Central Pacific Locomotives… you won 41 to 6.’ Then he got in the car and left.”
I had a problem. I didn’t want to believe him; it was preposterous. Paul Brown? Come on. I also didn’t want to press him selfishly for the best story, but it could be a helluva story. “Coach, I want to ask you three questions, but I’m not sure it’s the right time…”
“You’re a writer, ain’t you… Do what you do.”
“Why did you want to play the Browns? Did you want to get into the American League?”
“Nope. We wanted to be the best, and we thought we were.”
Of course; I felt like a novice. His eyes were open, but he looked more tired than when they were closed.
“Where’d the money come from? Did the players make money? It couldn’t have been easy with that travel.”
“Widows.” He checked me out, like I shouldn’t have to ask anything else. “Several of them very rich.” Then he winked.
“What? Rich widows?”
“Very rich widows.
Now I really felt like a novice.
“And, why were you the Bandits? Who chose that name?”
Coach laughed, a gravelly, slow, rolling, bemusement. “You know, it was years before anybody even brought that up. The players could never agree. Some wanted the Cowpunchers, some the Rangers, the Indians wanted the Warriors, the Frenchies wanted the Noses – yeah, you figure it out – but we couldn’t settle. Then we played a team from Missouri called the Boat Dogs. Money man was a boat owner, had a kid, showed up dressed like a cowboy, two toy six-shooters. He hooted and hollered the whole game. Two teams ran hard at each other. We won, 9-8 on a dropkick.”
“You know what a dropkick is?”
“Well, yeah, it’s just you don’t hear about them any-“
“As we were leaving, the kid screamed that we were bandits. We laughed on the bus ride, but it stuck…After that, that’s who we were. See, nobody we played was used to losing.”
I wondered if I had a year, could I get any more out of the Coach? Would the Colonel rather tell me his story, about Cynthia, his Pawnee wife? He drew a ponderous finger from beneath his covers and pointed to the chest of drawers.
“Fourth one down… in the back. There’s a book.”
I went into the drawer, rummaged behind some sweaters and woolen socks, and found a rough, hand-hewn paper booklet, laced together at the side by leather cords. The cover piece was made of something that seemed like tree bark.
“My wife made that paper,” he said, quietly.
I opened the cover and saw the title page, scrivened in fountain ink.
THE FOUR THINGS TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT FOOTBALL
Col. J. Robertson Smart
“Coach… Colonel? What’s the ‘J’ stand for?”
The voice was soft and clear. “Jedediah.”
I opened the envelope in the Casa lounge. I was walking. I stopped. I began reading.
There are four things to understand about football:
1 THERE IS ONLY ONE BALL
Football is the only major sport where you are allowed to carry the ball in your possession. In basketball, a player can touch the ball while moving it, or hold it while not moving. In ice hockey, a player can move the puck with a stick, but cannot hold it or play will stop. In baseball, the defense is the only side that can touch the ball. Every time a basketballer dribbles, the ball is only in his possession when he touches it. The rest of the time it is up for grabs. Same with a hockey player and the puck. In most of a baseball game, the ball is in a free zone. Every time a football is in the air, it is no one’s ball. A football is like a baby – it must be cared for fiercely and not put in harm’s way. The aim is to transport it safely for as long and far as you can. The more you have it, the less the other team has it.
2 FOOTBALL IS A MILITARY DRILL
A band of brothers dedicated to the acquisition of territory, opposed by a similar band of brothers who occupy that territory. The band must move with single purpose while understanding the individual responsibilities of each other. At the same time, the offense must protect and transport the football over each step that it attempts against the opposition. Offense must never forget that the defense is not just waiting for the offense to try to make a play. A good defense is not only set against stopping the offense, but is also understanding the basic principle of exchanging their position for a better one. They are intent on taking territory in the opposite direction. That is why military operations that are waged against guerilla groups or outlaws are doomed to fail – those people are not trying to hold ground and are fighting by rules made by them.
3 A TOUCHDOWN IS A REWARD
The ‘goal’ line is so called because it is the object of the effort. A touchdown is a reward for that effort. But points are not an end in themselves. They are the measure of wins and losses, but they are the result of the pursuit of territory. Teams hungry for points are missing the point. (I wondered if he realized his word joke.) There are flags in the end zone and they are the goal. Go for the flag, like soldiers who are trying to ‘capture the flag’. It means you have successfully taken the ground your enemy was trying to defend.
Unlike the military, in football time is kept, and runs out. If you have the ball, your opponent does not, and the longer you have it, the more your opponent has to play defense unsuccessfully. That is demoralizing.
4 THE PUNT IS AN OFFENSIVE PLAY
THE PUNT IS AN OFFENSIVE PLAY
(I smiled at his repetition.)
The single greatest ground gainer in a football season is the fourth down, because of the punt. If you think of a punt as a defensive capitulation you are erroneous. If you give it nicer names as they do in modern football, call it a transition play, or a ‘special’ teams play, or a sad conclusion to a failed series, you are robbing yourself of a true understanding of what we call ‘the exchange’. It means you have forgotten Rules 1, 2 and 3: the game is a battle for territory. It is not a display of air power, that’s for dictatorship parades. It is not an chance for big, strong young men to prove they are the biggest and strongest and can ‘hit’ the hardest, that’s for carnivals and sideshows and the parking lots outside of cheap bars. It is not to celebrate scores in the end zone, that’s for television. It is a game, a sport, an opportunity to act as a team, concentrate your will and strength, and accomplish something together. When it is that, it is an example for government and society to emulate.
J. R. Smart
My flight landed safely back home. As we taxied into the terminal, Boz messaged me.
J. Robertson Smart, February 6, 1899 – November 17, 2003. T.O.D. 6PM sharp… Watching the sunset. See you back here?
Getting my ticket for tomorrow. See you there.
Everything about me was slow, my legs, my hands, the turn of my head. There was even a little bemused smile on my face as I disembarked from the plane, just as real as the tinge of pain behind it. You don’t expect a body of 104 years to last forever, but they leave a hole, regardless. The really sturdy ones seem to have a hand in picking their time… Or perhaps that’s just an illusion as we want it to be. My grandfather said: “No matter how old they are, the great ones die too soon.”
My next article was beginning to look like my first book.