~ by Robert Barsanti ~
I watch them.
They run across the parking lot in a clatter of cleats and mud. The helmet dangles from one hand and while the other grasps the ball. They are wearing practice shirts with tears and dirt ground into them. Their socks fall down to the tops of their cleats. The rank odor trails after them like a gas slick; sweat, boy, and a week in a locker.
On the field, the quarterbacks are throwing to their receivers while the linemen sit and “stretch.” At the far end of the field, someone is shanking a ball deep into the cemetery.
And they are so young.
In the dark of the evening, when I can plan out the rest of the victories in my life, my mind casts back to the afternoons on the field of play. Then the years drop away and I believe that I could put Old 74, my practice jersey, back on over a pair of shoulder pads and take to the field. Then the intervening twenty-five years rise up chortling and coughing.
Back when I had the chance to earn glory on the gridiron, I didn’t like football very much. I played on a team that won a single game each year I played on it. As each loss ticked off and our character built to remarkable heights, practice ground to a slog through a dozen unimaginative plays. Game day became a catalog of painful and embarrassing locker room rants and assaults by the tire salesmen and math teachers that were our coaching staff. By my senior year, our football team had become the occasion for the town to come out at watch the majorettes and our award winning marching band. “Boys,” the coaches promised us, “You’ll never play this game again. Never in your life will you get to do this.” When the final Thanksgiving game ended in wet wool and humiliation, I closed that book and put it on the top shelf.
I don’t need to take it down nor do I need to write a new chapter. But the years have yellowed all of the losses and left me with long shadows falling over the far end of the field and the cool of the fall creeping up from the wet grass into my hands and shoes. The clouds feather above the pines as we trotted through our wind sprints. The past glows. So, when the air turns cool and brings out the sweaters, I fall back into the football past and reach out for the familiarity of old cleats and the promise of another crack at Melrose.
On an island stuck in the tides of time, football has returned to the center of Autumn. Now that the team has won its first few games, the old Whalers feel the past reach for them. Gangs of middle school kids claim the top of the stands while the former cheerleaders take the lowest benches. At the fence along the field, former players and would be field generals wait to be summoned. At one end-zone, the smaller kids put on their own touch football game. At the other, the Labradors and German Shepards chase tennis balls. After each Whaler touchdown, a miniature howitzer announces the triumph to the moors and the ocean. Afterward, the mighty Whalers ride through town in a victory parade and the loser slinks off to the boat.
The games build in size and intensity until the Vineyarders arrive at the end of November. At the same weekend as Harvard-Yale and Army-Navy, The Game brings thousands to the field, is announced over two radio stations, and replayed at the bars and job sites for years to come.
The games push the summer away. The saws and nail guns fall silent on Saturday afternoon. All summer, we were spread out from job to job and boat to boat. But now, we come together. The winter population, in all its glory and shame, appears on Saturday afternoons and recognizes each other. We stood as we always stood, looked as we always looked, and said what we always said. “Nice to see you again.” “How do you suppose the team will do this year?”
For the players, the dreams of professional football faded before the Vineyard floats got dismantled. A small handful went on to collegiate success and an even smaller number appeared on one or two highly paid Sundays. N.F.L. glory faded as fast for the mighty Whalers as it did for almost every other high school player. But Vito’s teams built the island that we see around us. His players graduated and went to work with friends and fathers. They became plumbers, electricians, landscapers, and contractors. A linebacker met a running back at Fast Forward and they went to plumb the linebacker’s house. The quarterback called in a favor from the linemen, and they all put a roof on his grandmother’s house. The informal bonds of boyhood and huddles became the beams, struts, and supports of Tom Nevers and Quaise. The riches of the NFL never materialized, but they built the wealth of the island around them.
The old Whalers know what they see when they go to the field on Saturday. The boys are manning their old positions, wearing their old numbers, and playing with a speed and quickness that left them many Budweisers ago. Those aren’t the only positions those boys will be taking. The old Whalers see the builders and planners and policemen and teachers and plumbers of the next twenty years strap on their helmets. My coaches were wrong; you play this game for the rest of your life.
On Saturdays, we watch tomorrow take the field in blue and white. They smile, they shout, they leap and they grasp the voltage of their youth. Do they know? Are they disciplined? Are they strong? Are they fierce? Do they know what to do?
The ball flies high and we have our answer.