A while back, I spent four segments of From the Vaults reminiscing about my high school years. Having discovered my old high school annuals (called The Tatler), it was rather fun thinking back to the things that kept me busy and off the street. The vast majority of these memories revolved around both high school band activities and the formation of the first honest to goodness gigging band I was in, The Twig. One area that was conspicuously absent (until my buddy Jim talked me into going out for track the spring of my junior year) was anything resembling an ‘athletic career’. I have always liked sports and have participated in them as long as I can remember, but other than two years of flag football in fifth and sixth grade and the already mentioned attempt at being a shot putter in track, I just wasn’t much on being involved in organized sports. Perhaps it was my lot in life to be a sandlot guy.
Being involved in sports without going out for Little League or school sponsored teams doesn’t mean one can’t have their own mental sports highlight reel. I did thoroughly enjoy playing flag football in elementary school, but not basketball after fifth grade. They had set up roundball using a similar template as used in the flag football program I played in fifth grade but wasn’t very good. When the first practices began in sixth grade, I had missed a chunk of time with some bug or another. Upon returning to school, I could not convince myself to go and start playing in the games after missing all of the practice sessions. My only regret was not getting to wear the neat, shiny looking uniforms the teams used for games, but it still wasn’t enough to convince me to jump back into playing roundball.
LIttle League was another thing that just didn’t ring my bell. One of my first sports memories is playing pitch and hit with two of my older neighbors, Louie and Harold. The were playing a two man game in the field across the street from my house so I wandered over just to see what they were doing. Having another person to shag balls was fine with them so I started in the outfield, moved up to pitcher and then it was my turn to bat. The only thing was, I had never batted a baseball before. Harold told Louie to “give him a good one” (whatever that meant) and whether it was luck of the draw or a hidden talent waiting to bubble to the surface, I knocked the first pitch over Harold’s head deep into the field beyond. My folks must have heard the tale later because the next thing I knew, we stopped at the S&H Green Stamps store where I was allowed to pick out a new baseball glove. After acquiring a glove, my brother and I played catch in the front yard a lot. When there weren’t enough kids to play a game, we played “500” with one person batting and the rest of us trying score points by catching fly balls and grounders. If a few more joined in, we would play a game we called ‘Scrubs’. Scrubs is baseball played with only two or three batters. As long as you scored, you kept batting. If put out, you went to right field and with every out, the fielders would shift over one position across the outfield, then through the infield from third to first and eventually to pitcher. This must be one of my fondest sports memories because it is a game that I put into the seventh grade gym class I got to teach during my last five years on the job.
As much as I liked baseball and softball, my first cheap baseball mitt kind of soured me on playing ‘hard ball’ (aka: Little League). During one pickup game at the Whitman School field, I got stuck playing catcher. In the process of trying to tag a runner out at home plate, he managed to jam the thumb on my glove hand which popped it out of joint. It hurt like the dickens and all I could think to do was grab it and pull it back into place, which also hurt, but not as much as the initial collision. Until I got a better mitt years later, anytime I bounced a ball off the thumb of my catching hand, the darn thing would pop out of joint and I would have to pop it back in. It became such a curiosity I started to feel like the Elephant Man when everyone would crowd around to see my trick thumb. When old enough to actually sign up for Little League, the thought of spending even more time catching baseballs was definitely something I decided to avoid. Once I had a better mitt, such thoughts didn’t keep me from playing softball with the neighborhood kids or with the girls from Spaulding Hall across the street, just not hardball.
The only other elementary age sports highlight for me was actually a lowlight. Dad signed me up for the Punt-Pass & Kick competition that the local car dealerships were hosting at Memorial Field. Whatever the age limit was, I was in the youngest group and it was the first time I can remembering choking under pressure. After hours and hours of punting, passing and kicking with my brother in the front yard, I knew how to do it. Doing it in front of a crowd was something different and I will simply say that if there is a way to fluff every toss, punt and kick, I did it. My dad tried to put a good spin on it (“You were trying way too hard”) but I still felt more than a little humiliated by such a dismal performance. The upside was the kicking tee I got for my birthday that fall. I resolved to learn how to kick a ball better if it killed me so I spent every spare moment kicking a football across the yard. When playing catch with brother Ron, he could throw it a lot farther than I could so I started punting it back. My neighbor Chris informed me he had a bag of footballs in his basement that his dad had collected working at Memorial Field during the summer (his dad was a history teacher and earned a little extra in the summers doing maintenance at the field). That meant we could go down to the practice field on Lincoln Street across from the Armory and kick balls until dark every day after school. I never did play organized football, but I spent hours and hours kicking footballs just for the fun of it.
As high school juniors, we got to rule gym class because we were mixed up with the sophomores. Flag football was my chance to shine. The student teacher we had that year wanted to break us into teams so first we did punt, pass, and kicking skills tests so he could see where we ranked on his list of ‘football potential’. The first test was throwing the football as far as possible in a straight line. Tossing the football around was something I always enjoyed and in my own humble opinion, I had a pretty good arm. On my final throw, everybody got on my case because I mumbled that the ball had ‘slipped’ out of my hand: “Oh yeah, 47 yards and it ‘slipped’? Oh come on!” The truth was, it had slipped and I knew I could get 60 yards on a good day . . . but 47 yards was still the best toss and good enough for that day.
Punting came next and I had punted enough footballs and studied enough punters that I could kick a decent spiral. However far it went, it racked up my second ‘first place’. We didn’t do kickoffs like a real Punt-Pass-Kick competition, rather we kicked extra points from the ten yard line. Twenty yard kicks were a piece of cake and the PE teacher gave me credit for the one that sailed over the right goalpost upright (“home field kick” he called it). The next week, my test results put me in charge of a pack of sophomores and a couple of juniors about to do battle with the other teams our student teacher had arranged.
To say we had a ball would be an understatement. Having never played organized football after sixth grade, being the captain and QB was something I took rather seriously. It would be a stretch to remember if we won all our games, but my highlight reel would include a punt run back for a score and an invitation to come out for varsity football as a kicker from one sequence of plays that did get us a win. Running out of time, I angle punted the ball out at the one yard line, (which prompted the student teacher to tell me it was a lucky shot). We were able to pressure their QB into an interception that gave us the ball on their ten yard line and we were able to score on the last play of the game. Afterward, I informed our student teacher that kicking the ball out at the one was no accident, so he upped the ante by calling over the gym teacher who also used to be the varsity football coach and asked me to prove it. I proceeded to repeat the feat a couple of times when the student teacher asked, “Where did you learn to kick like that?” I replied, “ I just like to kick footballs” spurring the former varsity coach to ask, “Why aren’t you playing football?” My explanation that playing drums in the marching band was my reason for not playing football caused them both to shake their heads in a bewildered manner. When I began my teaching career in 1975, one of the first question I was asked, (“Have you any experience with flag football?”) and the affirmative answer ended up as a 27 year run coaching, organizing, and reffing games with the Ontonagon Junior High Flag Football program (eventually doing all three things each season).
Tennis was another accidental sport acquisition for me. We had an old tennis racquet that I used to hit rocks from our gravel street just to see them fly. The summer after seventh grade, band buddy Nick’s mom pointed out that long time Marquette Senior High tennis coach Mickey Johnson would be giving free tennis lessons on the NMU courts. She dropped us off and we joined dozens of other beginners getting the basics from Mickey. After the second day, he told us that he really couldn’t show us anything more and the best way to learn to play from this point was to just find someone with similar skills (meaning: another beginner) and play. Nick and I did just that until he kind of lost interest. By then, there was a small gaggle of neighborhood kids who would wander up to the high school courts and play with whoever else showed up so tennis joined our regular summer rotation along with swimming and loafing.
The two lessons I got from Mickey Johnson were as close to playing organized tennis as I ever got, but we played tennis a lot over the next summers. My first PE class at NMU was tennis so I was a little intimidated by the presence of a couple of class members who had actually played high school tennis downstate. When we were told to go to one end of the court or the other depending on whether or not we had played before, I found myself in a foursome with three former high school tennis team players. As the class went on, the instructor (Lee Fredericks who also happened to be NMU’s JV Basketball Coach) organized a little tournament with me again getting paired off with the former team players. My tennis game was still erratic in those days but on a day when things were clicking, the one thing I could do was serve. My opening round match was against a kid named Slatter and I still feel bad for him because it was a day when I was on top of my serve and he wasn’t. Fredericks must have had a little thing about former high school tennis players because every serve that Slatter missed, Fredericks would holler something like, “Slatter, did you ever win a game when you played high school tennis?” Nine out of ten days, he could have wiped the court with me, but not on the one day when it counted. The more Fredericks yelled, the worse Slatter’s ground strokes got so it was hard to be happy about winning. I gamely gave him a ‘Good game Slatter’ at the end but he just sighed and said, “You had a nice game, I sucked. I think Fredericks hates me for some reason.”
Someday I will have to recount the epic clay court tennis games we played during the years when I worked at the Huron Mountain Club. It wasn’t exactly like playing in the French Open, but playing on a clay surface was definitely different than playing on a hard court. Who knows, there might also be a few roundball stories out there, but those too, will have to wait until another day!
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