The swimminess, those shimmers that rise over the red cinders, the way the humidity hangs a burlap curtain over your mouth… they are all things I remember from the summer of 1990.
I remember the run lasting longer than it normally did and being almost deathly afraid to stop. I remember, but barely, opening my mouth and letting the cold ice water shoot from my stomach and on to the football practice field below my feet. It had barely had time to mix with the contents in my gut, so it didn’t taste too bad.
Over my shoulder, I knew he was standing there, his hand likely grabbing at his crotch, at the cancer that would one day kill him.
His name was Reuben Berry. He’d been a pro football slothoki coach in Canada and had fathered a son, Todd, that would one day go on to coach Army’s football team. I knew he was watching me, even if he wasn’t.
Rube had a way with words. No one knew for sure at the time why he’d moved from Canada down to a small town in southwest Missouri to coach a small-town football team. They only knew his pre-game and post-game speeches were poetry.
I was not a good football player, but I stayed on the team for years. The pride I saw in my father’s eyes when I caught my first touchdown pass was too much to quit the game. Still, I was not any good.
Ol’ Rube had a way of complimenting his players.
“See Schafer over there? You hear his balls drop? Just like a big bull. Boooom! Boom!”
It was the highest of praise for Rube to hear your balls drop. When a linebacker laid a hit on a running back, you could hear Rube screaming from 80 yards away, “BOOOOOOOOM!”
Early on in my not-so-illustrious career as a wide receiver, I occasionally took on the name Teflon Hands.
Nothing stuck to them, least of all, the ball.
For that reason, and a few others, no one was as surpised as me on the day I found myself running at a dead sprint down the sideline, looking back to see Danny throw the pefect spiral, watching over my shoulder as the ball reached its zenith, appearing to be painfully out of reach. No one was as surpised as me when I threw my body into horizontal flight, extended my arms, and snatched the oblong ball from the air.
I crashed into the sunbaked mud, wishing that the catch had come during a key game rather than a hot, afternoon practice.
But then I heard it, loud from across the field. It was Rube’s crazy injun voice, bellowing through the haze.
“You see Otis over there? You hear his balls drop?”
I waited, rolling over on the ground. He was was going to make my day.
“You hear’em? ….tink, tink.”
He actually said “tink, tink.”
I loved that man, but I’m still not entirely sure why.
I was not a good football player. In fact, I was so bad that I often found myself playing out of position on the practice squad.
One afternoon while playing the role of linebacker, a real sonofabitch (also real talented) named Manary blindsided me with a star-shooting block that left me out of breath and seeing God.
When I finally got up, I found that I was a worse football player than I had been before the hit.
The hit had been so hard, it had scared me. For a week or so, I was ineffective as any sort of player. I had gone from a poor player to a scared player.
Ol’ Rube had been right after all.
Tink, tink, indeed.