November, 1964 – another crisp, sunny afternoon in Great Falls, Montana. We got out of McKinley Elementary at 3:15 and like most other days headed over to the Willetts’ house to see if the other neighborhood kids were up for some football.
The Willetts’ house was set back quite a ways off the street, and had a big front yard of thick, green grass littered with fat orange, yellow and red leaves from the huge maple trees that graced our older middle-class street. It was irresistible to a bunch of grade school boys with lots of energy and no homework.
By 3:30 a dozen or so kids had arrived, and the captains picked their teams. The team captains were the biggest, toughest, or oldest kids – the alpha males of the bunch. You were proud if you were one of the first boys picked, and kind of embarrassed if you were the last. But everybody got to play.
Seems like the captains always got to play quarterback, too. Like it or not, they were the natural leaders. There might be an occasional challenge – “Hey I want to be captain!” – but usually it was pretty evident who was going to be in charge. The captain had to be smart enough to call a play that actually might work. He was usually the best athlete. And he had to have the respect, or at least the obedience, of his teammates.
Bobby was fast as the wind, a natural running back. Randy could catch anything. He always got to be a receiver.
Roger, the fat kid, always had to play center or guard. I mean let’s face it, he just couldn’t run fast enough to catch a pass or defend one. Plus he had no idea how to call plays. But Roger didn’t mind, he knew his place. And heck, he could block two or three of us at a time.
Our neighborhood was very mixed, from one end of the socioeconomic scale to the other. Some of us were scruffy kids from poor families. We were the ones with no dads at home. The middle-class boys had real families and belonged to the cub scouts. They had to be home at 6:00 for supper. Some of the gang were actually upper-crust; in fact, Mr. Willetts ran for mayor.
But on a blue-sky late autumn afternoon in the sixties it didn’t matter what your dad did for a living, or if you had one. It was all about run, throw, catch, score, and WIN. Nobody cared what you looked like or how worn-out your shoes were. You succeeded or failed on your own, and you weren’t going to get any respect for free.
We learned about leadership. About the joy of competition. About how to fit in and contribute to a team effort, and to share in the rewards. About getting knocked on your butt, and getting back up. Some kids learned that they just weren’t cut out for football. They found something else they could do well. Or not.
And all of this happened without worried parents hovering over us, coaches having tantrums, or lawyers and TV news crews waiting for somebody to get hurt. No rules committees, safety equipment, or umpires. No government programs to shelter us and tell us what to do.
There was never any mention of “inequality”. Everybody got to play, and the boys who had the most skill, experience or drive had the most success, and the most fun. But we all wanted to compete, and to win.
That bunch of boys became men, and our generation did pretty well with what we learned on our own in those front yards and vacant lots. Now, sadly, the notion of kids being able to – and allowed to – organize their own rough-and-tumble football games is unthinkable. That level of freedom and opportunity for kids is long gone.
In today’s “fairer” progressive social structure, everybody will get to play quarterback. We will all have new shoes, but they will be low-quality, made in China. We won’t pick teams or keep score because that is just too damaging to self-esteem. There will be no losers, and no winners – just shared mediocrity.
I don’t know about you, but if Roger is going to be the quarterback, I don’t even want to play.
Tom Balek – Rockin’ On the Right Side