by Terry Hargrove
When I was a kid, giants walked the earth, and I knew one of them. He was my junior high school football coach and on a warm September night in 1969, I made him very angry. His name was Bo Culbertson, and he was angry because I missed a block. Now, in my defense, I did block somebody, and it was a fine block. I was assisted by Ronnie Dalton, our right guard. Ronnie was blocking who he was supposed to block and I was helping, and we blocked that poor kid from Pulaski nearly all the way to the sideline. But the person I blocked wasn’t the person I was supposed to block, and the game we tied, we should have won, and would have won if not for me.
Let’s go back to the beginning. In the Tennessee of my youth, a football coach was one of the most revered people in the whole town. The first football coach who ever yelled at me was Coach Bo. I think he enjoyed yelling at me, because he did it a lot, but my dad assured me that what I was doing was good for Coach Bo, and therefore good for the team. I was his emotional outlet. He was a good coach, and for the two years that I played at Connelly Junior High School he had a record of 12 wins, 3 losses and 1 tie. Even though he is credited with the tie, that tie was really mine. I did it, all by myself. I know, people say it takes 11 players to win or lose a football game, but we all know this is something we made up so our field goal kickers won’t leave the team to join the French Foreign Legion after a chip shot sails wide right. One person, all by himself, can do a lot of damage to the team.
Football in 1968 was easy. If somebody was in front of you and your team had the ball, you blocked him. If somebody on the other team had the ball, you chased him down and tackled him. There were no zone blitzes or run-and-shoots or quantum screens. It was a simple game. We didn’t sack quarterbacks (gentleman’s agreement with the opposition) or block punts (gentleman’s agreement with our own stomachs). We played and had fun. That’s why we were the second team.
But all that changed in 1969. Suddenly, we were thrust into the not nearly as fun world of the varsity, and we had blocking assignments. The gaps between offensive linemen were numbered: 2, 4, 6, and 8 on the right side, and 1, 3, 5, 7, on the left. The quarterback was the 1-back, fullback was the 2-back, left halfback was the 3-back, and right halfback was the 4-back. So if the quarterback called a 26 on two, that meant the 2-back would run the ball through the 6 hole, between me and the tight end. I can’t recall what the “on two” part was for, but I’m sure it meant something. Yeah, it all sounds simple now, but we were only 13 and 14 (and our 17-year-old flanker, but he was a secret) and most of us were in the simple math class. It was confusing, but after weeks of practice, we had, mostly, perfected the varsity blocking assignments.
Now, as offensive linemen, we didn’t get a lot of glory, but there was one play that Ronnie and I were very fond of. If the 3-back was going into the 4 hole, Ronnie and I would execute a cross block. He crushed down upon the guy in front of me, and I would stand, pause, and blast the guy in front of him. It was great and it worked every time. The more we practiced it, the better we got, and eventually this simple blocking scheme morphed into a thing of beauty.
Coach Bo loved the cross block. Often he would stop practice just to make the whole team watch as Ronnie and I maneuvered perfectly to open hole after hole. The cross block was money in the bank.
Our second game of the season was against the Pulaski Bobcats, our most bitter rivals. After they fumbled, we had the ball on their 5-yard line. It was fourth and one. The score was tied 6-6. It was still just the second quarter, but the way both defenses were playing, it was obvious that scoring opportunities would be rare. We called a time out.
As our quarterback consulted with Coach Bo, Ronnie and I talked. We knew what was coming.
“He’ll run a 34 and we’ll cross block,” said Ronnie.
“You bet we will,” I answered.
“Wait and see. We’ll run and 34 and cross block.”
“Like taking candy from the bank,” I said.
“No, like money in the bank! Like candy from a baby. 34 cross block. Is the play called 34 cross block, or is it just called 34?”
“I think it’s just called 34, and we do the cross block,” I said.
Our quarterback came back to the huddle and called the play.
“OK, on two. 24 on two. 24 on two. Ready, break.”
And everybody broke the huddle except for me and Ronnie. We looked at each other.
“24? Do we cross black on 24?”
“No, no,” I said, “We cross block on 34. Not on 24.”
“Line up offense,” said the line judge.
We did, but Ronnie and I had no clear idea of what we were supposed to do. As we were taking our positions, I could see clearly what we were up against. Pulaski had a tackle in front of me, a tackle in front of Ronnie, and a linebacker behind them. Our fullback, Mike, could easily take on the linebacker, if Ronnie and I removed the two defensive linemen. Mike would gain the one yard needed, he might even score. But were we supposed to do a cross block?
“Cross block?” boldly asked Ronnie. The three defenders looked at each other wondering what this cryptic word meant.
“Down, set,” shouted our quarterback.
I didn’t know what to do. Yes and no bounced around in my head, but I didn’t know. Should we cross block on 24? We had never cross blocked on 24, only on 34. Ronnie was waiting for a reply.
“Nes!,” I answered. “I mean, yo…”
So Ronnie cross blocked, but I didn’t, leaving Mike to face two defenders instead of one. He needed a yard, but he only got two feet, a statistically significant amount, but I never had the nerve to bring that up to anybody.
In the locker room at halftime, Coach Bo ordered our starting five offensive linemen to stand up, and he gave us quite a dressing down. Our team had only needed one yard, and we couldn’t get it. Because the first rule of oratory is to end with a flourish, and I was the last person addressed, Coach Bo flourished me in a way I had never been flourished before or since. A soul-raking, esteem cracking, flourish it was. While I wanted to point out that we had blocked the guy in front of me very effectively, I felt it was best to let Coach Bo get this out of his system. When the band director knocked on the door to tell us half time was over, Coach Bo reluctantly stopped flourishing and we filed back onto the field. We didn’t run 34 all night long. That’s the only junior high halftime talk I still remember.
That game ended in a tie. Eventually, Ronnie and I learned to cross block in pass protection, on punts, and during extra points. We even used it to get good seats on the bus after road games. But football was never the same for me after that night. It had become something greater than a game, something uncomfortably real. It was now a hellish vision of what life was going to be like, a man with your faults on display every day. That night, I learned what it means to let others down. I learned what happens when you don’t plan before events and moving time make planning impossible. I learned that hesitation can destroy your plans, and that the people who care most about your actions are the ones who yell the loudest when you let yourself down.
I never talked to Coach Bo about any of this. He told me once that I would never be a great football player because I thought too much, and the best players rely on instinct. When I tried to argue the fact with him, he just laughed and walked away.
And now that I am too old to play football, I have the old football player dream. I hope that when this life is over, I can take my old, accustomed place at right tackle, and in the sparkling light of an endless September night, I can make that block I missed all those years ago. Who knows how life would have been different if we had opened that hole and Mike had scored. Coach Bo died last week, so in the Heaven of my mind, he waits for his players to finish this practice life, and move up, with him, to the first team. Some of us are there already, and even our alma mater, Connelly Junior High School, only exists now in memory. And if I should be lucky enough to play for Coach Bo on that celestial field, I will tell him, after Ronnie and I execute a perfect cross block, that even without that block, Mike’s two foot gain against two defenders was a heroic accomplishment.
And did he even see how well we blocked the guy in front of me? Almost all the way to the sidelines we pushed him.
Categories: Funny, Generations, Sports, United States
This is just fantastic, Terry. And there really is a life lesson in here. And a business lesson, and a lesson for anything else that you can apply sports metaphors to, which is most everything, in my experience.
It takes a whole team to win a game, but only one guy to lose it.
That’s not fun to hear when you’re the one guy, as I have been on occasion, but it’s true.
Great stuff, Terry. Love the truth of these words: “I learned that hesitation can destroy your plans, and that the people who care most about your actions are the ones who yell the loudest when you let yourself down.”
Our coach was also the social studies (history) teacher, as is common in the US. He didn’t teach us anything except academics were secondary to the sports hero.