Wednesday, June 19, 2013

My Closest Brush with Professional Football

Currently I am posting daily on Facebook a series of old photographs under the theme “70 Days to 70.” As I approach my 70th birthday, I’m providing a retrospective on some of the highlights of my life. Most of these are brief comments, but today’s post involves a story that cannot be recorded in the short space available on Facebook. So, I am moving today’s post to my blog.

Beginning as a 6th grader in 1954, I played football for Edgewood Elementary School. The football league was sponsored by the YMCA. Players had to provide their own equipment, practiced everyday after school under the guidance of a coach, and played a series of games against other elementary schools in the southern suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama. At the end of the season, an All-Star game (“the Sun Bowl”) was played on the football field at Shades Valley High School between players chosen by the coaches. All-Stars from the schools to the east played against the All-Stars from the West. I played on the West All-Star team as a 7th and 8th grader.

The photo I have posted on Facebook today (Day 29 in the projected 70 posts) is a football card of Rebel Roy Steiner, who became my uncle when he married my mother’s youngest sister, Doris Richardson, in 1952. My cousin Margaret and I at the age of 9 were included in the wedding party. You can only imagine how a 9-year-old boy would feel to have a professional football player marry into his family.

Years later while I was in high school, I visited Rebel’s mother. Mrs. Steiner pulled out all of the old scrapbooks that she had kept recording Rebel’s career from high school days through his professional football days. It was quite a collection that disclosed a truly all around outstanding athlete. Rebel had been chosen for the all-state team in high school, but not just in football. He had been all-state in football, basketball, and baseball. He went to the University of Alabama and played football for an outstanding team there. He played offensive end with an All-American quarterback; and as I recall, this was around the time in the mid-1940’s when Alabama was a powerhouse football team and played in the Rose Bowl.

Rebel was drafted by the Chicago Bears but was called into military service and could not accept that draft. After two years in the military, he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. He played two years (1950-51) in the defensive backfield for Green Bay, the second year in excruciating pain from a knee injury. He intercepted 10 passes in his career, and one of those interceptions was a 94-yard touchdown return. The scrapbook I saw had a large picture from the New York Times showing the entire field and with a white line tracing his runback for the touchdown. I believe that was the NFL record interception return at that time. Because of the injury, Rebel retired from football. A year or so later he married my aunt.

All of this is leading up to my football experiences in 1956. At the beginning of the 1956 YMCA football season, Rebel came to visit me. He brought along the hip pads and pants that he had worn as a Green Bay Packer. He gave them to me to use as my equipment for my eighth-grade football season. I would guess that I probably weighed about 120 pounds at that point, and the equipment was mostly too large; but we made the hip pads work, and my Mom took up the shiny gold Green Bay pants so that they fit enough where I could play in them. Out on the front yard of our house, Rebel gave me a few lessons about the importance of staying low in blocking, etc. I took those back to the team the very next day and gave our lineman the lessons I had learned.

Edgewood School’s football team had a very good year that season, and my year (partially equipped in the Green Bay Packers uniform) was excellent. I was chosen again that year as an all-star to play in the Sun Bowl; and I started as right end on the All-Star team—but I was not destined for stardom.

I mentioned in an earlier Facebook post about my discovery in my 8th-grade math class that I needed eyeglasses. My near-sightedness made it difficult to read items on the chalkboard from a distance. The same impact began to affect my football playing—though it is only in retrospect that I recognized the impact of my near-sightedness. I had an increasingly hard time seeing the football clearly on pass plays, and that issue came to a climax in the All-Star game—the only game we ever played at night.

I started as an end on the All-Star team, and we were playing in a close match against the East All-Stars. Near the end of the second quarter, my team was forced into a fourth-down punting situation. As an end, my job was to go down field and cover the punt. The ball was snapped to the punter, and I went down field to cover the punt. The snap was a bad one, however; and the punter had to scoop the ball up off the ground and tried to evade the opposing rushers. He looked up and spotted me wide open down field, so he heaved the ball in my direction. I stopped and turned toward the ball. I don’t know whether it was my failing eyesight, the night-time game with artificial lighting, or the opposing player who was bearing down on me as the ball approached my outstretched hands, but the football went right through my hands and fell to the ground. An adult on the sidelines hollered out, “You couldn’t catch a ball with a bushel basket!” My coach pulled me from the game and did not put me back in the game during the second half. My All-Star career and my Green Bay Packer pants went down the drain in one flubbed play. I tried to play football the next year at Homewood Junior High School, but a pulled muscle in my back and continuing sight problems kept me from even making the starting team. So ended my football career, touched by the glory of my uncle’s Green Bay Packers uniform and smothered by the agony of defeat. It was a hard year for a 13-year-old, but I was a life-lesson for what I was to become.

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