It was 10 o’clock on game day. Four junior-high boys gathered in the center of the field, a narrow street lined on either side by mobile homes. The sky was overcast, but the air was warm. Ideal for street football. My friend Dave and I were one team. Our opponents were the next door Neighbor Kid (NK) and his cousin (Cousin). Getting their names wasn’t important. We had known NK was a several inches taller than either of us when we accepted his challenge the week before. Unfortunately, his cousin made them a nearly matched set. My whole life I had been smaller than everyone else my age. Why should this time be any different? To make matters worse, Dave, a year younger than me, was a bit shorter and only slightly less scrawny. So, I guess we were a matched set, too. Still, we were eager to get started. There weren’t that many chances to play a real game in our neighborhood, especially for kids our size. But first, we had to set ground rules.
Certain rules of football are universal: a catch is a catch, a fumble is a fumble, a touchdown is a touchdown. But in street football, there are local considerations. Such as, where exactly are the end zones and sidelines? In our case, the narrow trailer park street stretched about 100 feet between two cross-streets. Those were our end zones. Sidelines were the irregular boundary where the pavement met grass yards or fences. Had to be careful of the fences with their waist-high pickets. Other rules included:
1) Two complete passes for a gain in a four-down series resulted in a first down. Short completions could be strung together for an almost limitless number of first downs.
2) One running play per series allowed. It didn’t count as a completion.
3) The defense had to count to 5 before rushing the passer. This was using the ancient tradition of counting out loud “one-one thousand, two-one thousand…” and so on until five. The rush count was a practical demonstration of Einstein’s theory of relativity. When playing defense, it took at least two minutes to count to five. When on offense, the defenders finished in less than 2 seconds. Or so it seemed.
4) The car that was parked on one side of the street was declared out of bounds to keep someone from sneaking through the narrow space between the car and the fenced yard. Plus, we didn’t want unhappy neighbors ending our game.
5) This was ‘two hand’ touch football. When the player with the ball was touched by both hands of an opposing player, below the waist, he was ‘down’. Tagging in certain sensitive locations resulted in an automatic first down for the offensive team.
6) Touchdowns were 7 points as the ‘extra’ point was automatic.
A coin toss determined who would get the ball first. As home team, we called the toss and chose heads. It came up tails. We would be kicking off. Since the road sloped slightly from one end to the other, we picked the uphill end to kick off from. With aluminum trailers closely overlooking the narrow stretch of asphalt, actually kicking the football was hazardous. So, we threw the “kickoff”. With a stronger arm than Dave, I was responsible for the toss. We discovered something on that opening runback: If you can’t get the ball through the end-zone for a touchback, then give it some hang-time so you can get down the field. My throw was deep, not very high. One of them caught it and they were running upfield long before we got to their end. Absolute speed isn’t critical on a small field. But, it makes a difference on a runback and both of them were fast. Their momentum carried them half-way up the street, where we finally forced the runner out-of-bounds.
A BAD START
Cousin set up a few feet behind NK as quarterback. We agreed that Dave would match up with Cousin, so Dave started the rush count at the snap. Meanwhile, I was learning a hard lesson about playing tight coverage on a taller, faster player. NK blew by me, catching me flat-footed. Cousin launched a wobbly pass downfield. NK had to slow down some, but pulled the ball in and kept going. My pursuit proved futile. We were down 0-7 after one play. I glanced at Dave and just shook my head. I had blown it.
“It’s O.K. We’ll get it back,” Dave said as we trotted down to the other end of the field. Losers walk. Another ground rule.
Their kickoff was short and high. Dave caught it and made a few strides upfield before being downed at the equivalent of the 40-yard line, which on our field was the 40-foot-line. I pulled my comb out my pocket to mark the line of scrimmage. Dave and I huddled up. It was early. We were behind, but now we had the ball and good position. Our first play would be a classic down and out, something we had done hundreds of times on that street. Dave was receiver, I was quarterback. I took the snap and Dave sprinted straight downfield. Cousin took the bait, turning to stay ahead of Dave just as Dave pivoted to the right sideline where I hit him with a tight spiral. He picked up a few more yards before Cousin recovered and tagged him, right at midfield. I picked up my comb and moved it to the new scrimmage line. The next play was exactly like the first, except Dave made just one quick step to the right before pivoting left. Again, his route was quick enough for me to pass before the rush count ended. Another stretch of street covered and the second completion gave us a first down.
Two plays, two solid gains. We were feeling good. Especially me, since Dave was doing all the running. Time to try a longer pass pattern. I took the snap and Dave started a familiar route: a few steps upfield then a turn towards the side. But as he pivoted once more up the sideline, Cousin caught up with him. I heard NK said ‘One-thousand-five’. Next thing I knew I was scrambling for my life. I dumped the ball in Dave’s general direction to avoid a sack.
Back in the huddle.
“O.K., time for a running play,” I said.
“You run a slant left towards the corner of the end zone. That’ll be long enough for the rush to come. I’ll pump fake, duck under and head for the opposite corner.”
“Sure. I’ll try to set a block.”
It worked like a charm. NK came in after hitting the 5-count. I kept my eyes down-field, and pump-faked the pass. NK jumped to block my throw and I took off. Dave set a block on Cousin and I was near the end zone before I was tagged. We were maybe ten yards from evening up the score. Third down.
“Do we go for the end zone, or short?” I asked Dave.
“End zone. We’ll have one more shot.”
We decided to repeat our opening play that had worked so well. It unfolded exactly as before: the upfield sprint, the tight turn, and Dave was open at the goal line. As soon as I released, I knew where the ball was going and I wanted it back. I had thrown behind Dave and the ball hit Cousin right in the hands. He already had steps and momentum on Dave, I was blocked out by NK. Disaster. 0-14.
“Nice pass,” NK said as he passed by me with a smirk on his face.
Dave trudged slowly back to our end of the field. He had never stopped chasing. That showed me a couple of two things. Dave wouldn’t quit and he was as fast as anybody on the field. But, he was winded.
“You QB this series,” I told him.
“Why? You’ve got the arm and you’re taller.”
“Not that much taller. You need a break. I’ll take the runback.”
There was no run-back. Since neither NK or Cousin could throw particularly well, they decided to actually kick-off this time, resulting in a low bouncing, erratic roll that we just watched until they downed it in the middle of our side of the field.
Our opponents were surprised by our change-up, but left their coverage the same: NK rushing, Cousin the defensive back. We put together a drive by mixing short routes that, as long as we executed, were almost impossible to defend. All I needed was a step and Dave delivered on time almost without fail. Every two completions meant a new series, so we focused on completions, no matter how short the gain was. A bunch of four and five and six yard gains strung together had us near the goal-line again. We had not run a single time. Now seemed right to Dave.
“I can run it in.”
“O.K. Whatever side NK lines up on, just go the opposite way. I can block him. Cousin won’t have time to react.”
After the snap, I ran right at NK. Dave did one pump-fake that froze Cousin and darted across the goal line. We were on the scoreboard 7-14. We were back in the game.
I threw the kickoff really high and not as deep as the first time. Dave was in NK’s face when he caught the ball. No runback. They had seen a lot of what we could do. We had only seen them run one play and still weren’t sure what we were up against. It turned out that they liked going long. With no playing time together like Dave and I had, they opted to have the receiver just keep running. Even if that didn’t work, with their height advantage, they were always a little open. NK was quarterback the first series. Though clearly the best athlete in the game, he was not an accurate passer. Dave was able to keep close enough to Cousin to bat away one pass, the other was out of reach of both of them. They were facing third down with no completions. We decided to blitz. Another ground rule: defense was allowed one blitz per series, rushing the passer as soon as the ball was snapped. Third-and-long. Ideal time to blitz, we thought. NK took the snap, but was running immediately. I could only get one hand on NK as he went by. Dave was down-field guarding Cousin. By the time we recovered, NK was well into our side of the field. 4th down. They were going for it. They had used their run, we had used our blitz. We all knew what was coming. NK took the snap. I finished the five count just as he launched the pass. With Cousin’s height advantage, close was good enough. Touchdown. 7-21. Both Dave and I were frustrated. We could do everything right and still not stop them.
That became the pattern for the game. When we had the ball, our plays kept them guessing. We methodically moved down the field and scored most of the time. The few times we tried longer patterns rarely worked. Meanwhile, our opponents would go long over and over until they connected. Or, they would scramble for a big gain just often enough to get close to or into the end zone. They were never more than two TD’s ahead, but we could never completely fill the hole we had dug ourselves into.
SECOND HALF COMEBACK
When a score put us within a touchdown again, 21-28, everyone agreed to a short ‘half-time’. After playing for over an hour, we were thirsty and hungry. Dave and I went into my house where we gulped down some water. Then, I scrounged a snack out of peanut butter on saltine crackers. Ten minutes later, we tromped back down the wooden steps of my trailer just as NK emerged from his yard with Cousin. The morning battle resumed. An hour and several scores later, Dave and I finished another long drive to pull within a touchdown again, 35-42.
The end of the game was looming. We had been at it for at for over two hours. So far, no parents had appeared to call anyone home, as parents do at the worst possible times. That would have ended the game and whoever was ahead would be declared winner. In the absence of parental intervention, we had agreed at half-time that 49 would be the winning score. We were near that. NK and Cousin needed just one more TD. We had never figured out how to counter their height advantage. I had a bleeding raspberry on one knee from one too many attempts to dodge the rush. Dave had a fiery scrape on one arm he picked up while scooping a low pass literally off the ground. We had played on the street long enough to leave pieces of our bodies on the pavement. All of us were sweaty and winded. It had been the kind of game Dave and I had hoped for, except the score was leaning in the wrong direction.
As we prepped for the kickoff, I tried to think of something we could do to stop them. Nothing came to mind.
“Dave, what can we do different? I don’t think an on-side kick is a good idea.”
“You just have to launch this one further than anything you’ve thrown all day.” He paused. “You can do it.”
I knew he was right. We had to keep them deep in their end. The more field they had to cover, the better our slim chances. I had been QB most of the game. My arm felt sore and heavy. But, after all the running Dave had been doing, I had to give it a shot. I had one more deep one left, my best ‘kick’ of the day. It was a tight spiral that went both high and long. With the adrenaline of desperation, Dave and I flew down the street and nailed the runner deep in their end of the field. They were going to have to work for that last score.
NK lined up at quarterback, so I was on the line and Dave set up few steps behind me as defensive back.
“I’m going to blitz,” I whispered as a walked by him.
Dave looked up and grinned. He liked it.
Up to this point, blitzing had given us mixed results. We had nailed them for a couple of loses, we had also been burned for long gains a time or two, including a touchdown. Since they almost always threw long, a loss on the previous down didn’t make that much difference. This time, though, they were deep in their own territory and a loss could put a touchdown out of reach.
They were so far back that NK was already standing at the goal line when he took the snap. He saw me coming and reflexively took a step back. He knew I had him, so he launched the ball generally in the direction of Cousin just as I applied the tag. He had to do that or take a safety, which would give us 2 points, plus the ball back. Both NK and Cousin had thrown a lot of bad passes in the game, so I didn’t expect much as I watched. But this time, the ball was under thrown and Dave had position. He intercepted the ball at mid-field with Cousin hanging on his back. We had finally gotten a break. We were less than half the length of the field from tying the score.
We stuck with our short patterns. Three quick completions later we were 2nd and goal. This play, I would take the snap and roll left. Dave would slant left toward the goal line, then cut right back into all the wide open space on the right. For the play to work, Cousin would have to bite on the misdirection and I would have to throw accurately against my own momentum. I took the snap from Dave and started left. NK had to follow me along the line of scrimmage to guard against the run. I feinted toward the line and Cousin froze just as Dave made his cut to the right. Dave was so open that I had time to plant my heel and lob a soft floater that he pulled in for the touchdown. 42-42. At long last, we were even.
One more kickoff, not as deep as our last, but high enough that Dave and I were able to prevent a long runback. Still, our rivals had decent position and a chance to win the game. Cousin lined up as QB. That meant Dave was on the line and I was defensive back. I was giving NK some room as we had been burned long so many times already. NK snapped the ball. Then a weird thing happened. After taking just two steps up the field, he turned and Cousin lobbed an easy pass which he caught for a completion. I quickly tagged him, but the play bothered me.
“What are they up to?” I asked Dave as we huddled near the ball, “That’s the shortest pass they have thrown the whole game.”
“Maybe the interception scared them.”
“I doubt it.”
Dave looked thoughtful. “We’ve outscored them 42-28 since their two lucky TD’s. Short stuff works.”
“Yeah. But, I can’t play too close.”
Dave gave me his trademark grin. “At least neither of them can throw a decent pass.”
We fidgeted restlessly by the ball while they continued to scheme in their huddle. Finally, they came up to the ball.
It was second down, a bit short of mid-field. With one completion, they had lots of options. Cousin took the snap. Instead of setting up to pass, he darted up behind NK who had turned to screen Dave. The two of them kept going downfield in tandem, reaching me in another couple of strides. Their forward momentum combined with NK’s bulky leading block, made it hard for Dave or I to get both hands on the runner. We ended up forcing them out of bounds, which, in this case, meant crashing into a neighbor’s picket fence. Thankfully, not hard enough to damage either the fence or the runner. But they were well past midfield, within striking distance of our end zone. And only third down.
Another long huddle by the offense.
While they whispered, Dave and I conferred by the ball.
“They’ve already used their run.”
“So?” I replied.
“I’ll fake the rush and drop back on pass defense.”
“Dave, you’re a genius!”
Double coverage on the receiver was a gamble, because the QB could run at the end of the 5-count no matter what. If the receiver ran a long pattern, the QB would have lots of room to run. But if they were planning a short pass, we hoped they would not be able to adjust on the fly.
I set up deeper to guard against the long pass. Dave lined up as if he was going to defend the line of scrimmage as usual. NK looked back at Cousin, pleased with the way things were shaping up. Cousin took the snap. Dave let NK go by, but as soon as Cousin’s arm went back, Dave started back-peddling. NK did another button-hook, just a step or two deeper this time. They wanted a first down. I came up as Cousin threw the pass, but was out of position. Dave, though, had dropped back far enough to get a couple of fingers on the ball and tipped it out of reach. The gamble had gone our way. 4th down.
NK picked up the errant ball and slammed a frustrated fist into it a couple of times before setting it back down at the line of scrimmage.
“Great play,” I told Dave. Another smile. He had an unlimited supply.
“Just one more and we get the ball back.”
They had a short huddle. Cousin set up to take the snap. Our plan was to have Dave drop back a few steps again in case they tried another short pattern. That wasn’t their plan. NK ran straight down the field. Dave stayed with him for a few steps, then had had to move back towards the line to keep Cousin from running when the 5-count expired. By the time that happened, the ball was in the air. As I saw the arc of the ball, I could almost hear what NK had told his cousin in the huddle:
“Just throw it high in the middle of the end zone and I’ll jump for it.”
In that Cold War era, the ball reminded me of an incoming ICBM as it reached its apogee and began to descend. I had a vague sense of inevitable, impending doom. This moment was all about height and timing. The angle of the incoming ball would make it a difficult catch, but if NK timed his jump right, his hands would reach a good foot above mine. And there was nothing I could do about it.
We jockeyed for position as the ball wobbled down. As we jumped together, I was right under the ball, so he had to reach over me. For a brief moment, I could feel the pebbly skin of the top-grain leather on my fingertips, then NK’s bigger hands snatched the ball away as we came down. I fell awkwardly when one of my feet landed NK’s. We were literally on the short end of another play and now on the short end of the final score as well, 42-49. That day, there was to be no dramatic underdog victory.
I sat on the ground while Cousin and NK hooted and celebrated. Dave walked over and offered a hand to pull me up. Once I was back on my feet, Dave spoke.
“It was a good game. We stayed with them the whole way.”
“Yep. They were just too stinking tall.”
“We should tell them, ” he replied.
“That they were too tall?” Dave knew I was only half-serious.
We walked over and congratulated our opponents.
“Good game, guys.”
“Thanks. You guys played good, too.” Gracious in victory. “Maybe we can do it again next time my cousin is over.”
Then they headed into their trailer and left us standing there.
“I better get home,” Dave said.
“Okay. See you later.”
He turned up the cross-street that led to where he lived one block over. I took my ball and slowly mounted the steps into the trailer. The adrenaline gone, I felt suddenly bone-tired. Once inside, I saw that it was nearly 1 o’clock in the afternoon.
The rematch was not to be. In fact, I never saw the neighbor’s cousin again. As often happened in the trailer park, our new neighbors were transient and moved on before we did. Dave and I continued to hang out together until our family pulled up roots one more time and headed to the plains of Wyoming. For a kid that was always a foot short and 40 pounds too light, pickup games in the street were the closest I ever came to competitive football. And for three hours on a balmy Saturday, it was as real to the four of us as any game ever played.