By: Michael O'Halloran via USAFootball.com
My love of football began by watching football games on TV with my dad and brother. We watched Notre Dame, which was on seemingly every week of the season. Apparently, game broadcast scheduling hasn’t changed much since then, and we never missed the Army-Navy game. Which team to root for was never in question as my dad served in Patton’s Third Army during World War II. Go Army!
Our hometown team, the Kansas City Chiefs, were at the peak of their success during the late 1960s, and we never missed a game. Curly Culp, Buck Buchanan, Johnny Robinson, Willie Lanier and Len Dawson were names we knew well. Our weekly ritual of watching the Chiefs made the daily grind of school days, homework and household chores all worthwhile.
At some point in the broadcast, my dad would remind my brother and me that he played both offensive line and defense line for his high school team. Implied in this message was that it took a certain strength and toughness to be able to play the entire game. It seemed that players had softened up quite a bit since then, as we seldom saw any two-way players. By the way, it’s a constitutional right of every American dad to talk about past football achievements with their children.
At halftime, we’d head out and play catch. Having received highly coveted Chiefs helmets for Christmas, our favorite pastime quickly turned to a game where we could put them to use. We called it “goal line stand” and set the garden hose down as the goal line. Four of us, equipped with the helmets pictured, would line up on our knees three feet in front of the hose – protecting the goal line from an on-coming rusher. The down never changed, as it was always fourth down and one yard to go. There were many “did-the-ball-cross-the-goal-line” disputes, but without the benefit of instant replay and review the games moved on after spirited arguments from both sides.
We played pick-up games in our backyard, in the street and at the school playground. Nearly any creative process, leadership skill or decision-making ability that we applied later in life was honed during these games. To play pick-up football successfully, there are a few things you needed to know. First, all players on your team are always open and want the ball thrown to them. You learned to be fair and involve everyone yet recognize who on your team could actually catch. Quick decision-making is needed because the “3-Mississippi” count to start the defense’s pass rush was rather hurried after the first Mississippi. “1-Mississippi, 2-sippi, 3-ippi.”
As quarterback, you have to figure what works against the defense – match-ups were critical – and give clear instructions to your teammates. This involves placing the palm of one hand up as the white board and using your other hand’s index finger to show receivers their routes. Anticipating the evolution trajectory of NFL offenses, our pick-up games were all about passing.
One of our favorite pass routes was the “question mark.” The dot of the question mark called for the receiver to turn quickly for a pass. A high completion percentage was important because you needed to complete two passes in a set of downs to move the chains. If the quick turnaround wasn’t open, the QB waits until the receiver earned some separation by running the curved line. What the skinny post is to the NFL, the question mark was to our games.
The most frequently called play of all was the old “stop-and-go.” Still being used at nearly every level of play today, the stop-and-go calls for a receiver to pause as if a pass is coming his way before going long on a fly pattern. Despite being beaten on this play in three of the last four series, there was always one defender who never caught on. Needless to say, this player usually went in the later rounds when picking our teams.
The number of trick plays called during any one of our games would put Boise State to shame. Seldom would a series be played without at least two laterals and some type of hidden ball trick. Neighborhood kids still talk about our legendary angle shotgun formation – or, so I’m told.
One of the highlights of our winters was playing snow football. With the white stuff on the ground, strategies shifted to a running game. Wearing the right shoes for the elements needed to be balanced against speed and cold-tolerance. Sorel boots provided warmth and limited the amount of snow that got to your skin, while Converse All Stars enabled you to move fast. We always wore Converse. Extra layers of clothing were a win-win-win. The additional layers meant more warmth, more padding to soften hard tackles and if placed with some creativity, gave you that shoulder pads-look that made you more closely resemble Bobby Bell.
Snow games tended to be low scoring affairs. As Chris Berman would say, there was a fair share of stumbling, bumbling and fumbling. First downs were hard to come by. Games were won or loss based largely on who won the turnover game and mental toughness – much like games at more sophisticated levels are settled today.
On these days, like our dad before us, my brother and I were happy to play the entire games. The fact that everyone played offense and defense didn’t diminish this achievement. We were strong. We were tough. We had football fever and couldn’t get enough.