Sports

A Thanksgiving football tale

by Terry Hargrove

Yesterday, Nancy asked if I’d look at the car because it was making a funny noise when she accelerated.

“Sure, I’ll put The Finger on it,” I said.

“Enough with the stupid finger,” she replied. “I don’t want you to put your finger on anything, I want you to look at the car.”

“All right,” I answered. “But I can look at the car from here. It looks fine. Are you sure you don’t want me to go out there and put The Finger on it?”

She mumbled something and wandered away. I looked at the car. It needed a wash.

I guess I can’t blame my wife for ignoring the miraculous powers of The Finger. She was never a football fan, and even if she was, when The Finger made its foray into the miraculous, she was only eight years old and 358 miles away. Maybe I should start from the beginning.

When I was a junior in high school back in the autumn of 1971, I was part of something great. My high school football team started the season with four wins and all four were shutouts. We still hadn’t been scored on when we traveled east to take on the perennial powerhouse Maryville Rebels, and on the ride back home we had a fifth shutout to contemplate. They’d beaten us 14-0. But the next week, we shut out another opponent, then another. We were 6-1, with five shutouts, and the whole state was paying attention. Then we took a ride north to play a high school in Nashville that no longer exists. We weren’t afraid, since we’d beaten that same team, a senior laden squad, the year before by 30 points.

Now, I have to be careful about this, because that school that no longer exists produced a lot of competitors who might be up for parole soon. I’m not going to come right out and say their roster were stacked with ringers, but the players who showed up at game time weren’t the same guys we saw on the game films. These guys were old, with wedding bands, beards and tattoos. It wasn’t a football game so much as a mugging, and the referees were in on it, since they rightfully feared for their cars in the parking lot. At the end of the first half, the score was tied 0-0.

Our coach gave a rousing and memorable halftime speech that started with a prayer for our safe deliverance from the stadium and ended with a plea for few turnovers. When we went out for the second half, I saw the other team smoking and drinking in the concession stand. It was kind of spooky, but we had another 30 minutes of football to survive. And though I didn’t know it then, I was blessed with The Finger.

We kicked off to start the second half. The ball fell into the hands of a guy who was, I’m not sure, but I think about 9 feet tall. He began a speedy lope down the left sidelines, made a cut here, got a block there, and he was gone. Surely, I thought, our safety would stop him. We always had one guy who didn’t charge down the field, but stayed back as a last line of defense to prevent a kick returner from doing what this leggy freak of nature was doing. Where was our safety? Oh, yeah. I was the safety. So I took off after him. He had speed, but I had a great line of pursuit. He was at the 40, but I was closing. At the 50, I was almost to him. At our 40, he was getting away. I only had one chance. When I knew I couldn’t possibly get any closer to him, I dove in the direction of his canoe-sized feet. I caught the back of his left shoe with the last digit of my index finger, and he stumbled and tumbled, and finally fell. I had prevented a touchdown, and kept out shutout record alive for one more week. Our coach was so overjoyed at the play that he completely forgot how I’d blown my safety assignment in the first place. They fumbled on the very next play. We marched 73 yards for the first of two second half touchdowns.

My tackle not only brought down their freakishly tall returner, but also all the other old guys on his team. After that kickoff, they weren’t the same. I like to think that in the great plan of reality, I did them a favor. I know people who spend their entire lives reliving the same play or the same game or the same season, as if their lives hit the highest point of glory when they were 17. I feel sorry for people like that.

Or maybe it was the beer and cigarettes they enjoyed at halftime, because once we were ahead, they became uncomfortably friendly, wanting phone numbers and other personal information. The final score was 16-0, and despite the promises I’d made to a couple of their defensive backs, I never went back to that part of Nashville.

It was quite a year. By the end of the season, we’d won 9 games and shut out our opponents 8 times. We had not one, but two running backs who rushed for over a thousand yards. I caught a pass and made several tackles. Ironically, the two games we lost were also shutouts, and those two teams, Milan and Maryville, played each other for the state championship. I neither know nor care who won that game, and if the universe cared then somebody from one of those teams would be writing this to gloat about it. But I do know that that year was a close as I would ever come to being a part of something that was truly great, and if we couldn’t taste the greatness of our season, then we could certainly smell it and hear it. It smelled like cut grass and autumn, like dew and Atomic Balm, and the sound of that season was as crisp as the snare drums in the band, and as loud the roar of the home crowd.

Sadly, The Finger hasn’t done much of anything since then, but I still think it has a few more miracles in it. Every November, I think back to those warm Friday nights, and the teammates I had, and the blocks and tackles and endless runs we made.

Last night, my son Joey came downstairs with a bad scratch on his knee. Between his sobs, he gave a rambling narrative about how he was surfing on the bed, but wiped out and landed on one of the few toys he still owns that hasn’t been recalled by the manufacturer. Now his knee had a scrape and it hurt him mightily.

“Do you want me to put The Finger on it?” I asked.

I did, and he stopped crying and fell asleep on my lap. Maybe my touchdown- saving dive wasn’t The Finger’s greatest moment after all.

But it was an amazing tackle. You should have seen it.

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3 replies »

  1. When it comes to football and a finger, you bring up an interesting phenomenon. How often we see top runners tripped up and lose their balance when brushed by just an outstretched hand.

    I think even top runners are tightly muscled and lack the flexibility required to keep their balance. They might try skiing, surfing, or skateboarding during the off-season to improve their balance.

  2. Russ, I think it’s really just that a runner going full speed in an open field is already on the edge of balance. It doesn’t take much to trip him up in that state, unlike, say, a running back going through the line at 3/4 speed while keeping a low center of gravity.

    Great article! I really enjoyed it.