Not so long ago
120 hopefuls and 60 pants and pads
In this photo from the 1963 Memorial High School TAPS yearbook, All Conference halfback John Harris brings down a pass in a 1962 game.
One hundred and twenty anxious incoming high school sophomores and juniors jammed into the band room of the sparkling new Memorial High School. Their anxiousness quickly turned to sweat in the crowded, un-air-conditioned room on this Aug. 15, 1962. They awaited the arrival of Memorial’s first head football coach, Bob Kauffman.
Soon, he entered. Tanned, stocky like a fullback and stern like the Vince Lombardi-era coach he was. He glanced around the room.
“Men, 120 of you have signed up for football,” he said. “I really appreciate that, this being our first season ever. But we only have 60 sets of helmets and pads, so eventually we’ll have to make some cuts. But until then, you are all welcome.”
It was around 6:30 a.m. The first day of two-a-day practices. The hour was early in a futile attempt to escape Oklahoma’s summer heat. After a few more preliminaries, we walked down the hall and out the door toward the Francis Scott Key Elementary School playground, the Memorial High School football practice field in 1962.
I bring this up in February rather than waiting for the 50th anniversary of this occasion because of the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association’s 100th anniversary. That group has set up an e-mail address (email@example.com) for “great memories” or “impact” stories involving secondary school activities. You should send in yours. This is mine.
Within minutes of jogging to the playground, 120 hopeful linemen, backs and confused teenagers were doing rapid-fire calisthenics. The most memorable of which was the six-count burpee. Think of it as a pushup from a standing start. Then, we ran. And ran some more. In 1962, there was no such thing as recreational jogging. As a result, the collective “shape” of these 120 fledgling football players was comparable to Charles Atlas before Dynamic-Tension.
Within 10 minutes, some were on hands and knees losing breakfast. And dinner from the night before. Possibly yesterday’s lunch. A handful stumbled back toward the high school — and blessed deliverance from further torture.
I thought my summer construction job had rounded me into shape. It had, if shape can be defined as endless hammering in hot weather. Doing six-count burpees and wind sprints. Fifty yards as fast as you can. Again. And again. This was an altogether different kind of shape. Plus, the football shoes I had not worn for a year or so were creating Himalayan-sized blisters on my heels.
There was a pause.
“Backs over here. Centers with the backs. Ends with the backs. Guards over there. Tackles down there.”
I hesitated. The last time I had played organized football was with the highly disorganized Southeast Eagles in the eighth grade. I was a halfback then. Possibly the slowest halfback in the history of the Southeast Eagles. I observed that the backs and ends were running pass patterns. The guards were doing something involving running and rolling in the dirt. The tackles were sitting in the grass listening to a coach.
I became a tackle.
Over the next several days, attrition continued. And, yes, the thought of tossing in the towel, figuratively speaking, and leaving dreams of football fame and gridiron glory behind entered my mind more than once. It would have been the sensible thing to do; I was the only 150-pound tackle on the team and last on the depth chart.
By the time pads were passed out, there were exactly 60 dirt-stained students left to fill the 60 pants and pads provided for the first Memorial High School football team. I was one. And damn proud of that fact.