late November brings football thoughts and memories

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 2:42 PM

Kase Johnstun, Standard-Examiner

Late November: the trees shed their leaves; my Labrador’s coat thickens; Facebook friends post photos of Snowbasin and The Canyons in their excitement to strap on their boots to snowboard; inflatable turkeys look down from the roofs of local business and Christmas decorations begin their journey from basements to front lawns; morning frosts cover windshields; furnaces get tuned up for a cold that awaits; but I’m thinking about football.

I’m not thinking about my 9-1 Denver Broncos or my beloved Kansas State Wildcats who started the season 2-4 and, as I write this, have rushed back to 6-4, have become bowl eligible, and may be playing in San Diego in the Holiday Bowl. I’m not thinking about how I should whisper “San Diego would be amazing in December” to my wife while she sleeps, hoping she’ll wake up and say, “You know what? San Diego would be lovely over the holidays.”

And I’d say, “Really, did you know that OUR Wildcats are playing in the Holiday Bowl on the 30th. Maybe we could fit the game in on your vacation.”

I guess I’m thinking about my Wildcats just a bit, but, mostly, I’m thinking about a little league football game in 2006.

It was early October, the sun had set on a mist that hovered over Weber High School’s football field, and two junior midget football teams practiced their plays on the rolling grasses that surrounded the stadium beneath the frosting trees. The three teams had tied on the season, and they had to play each other that Tuesday night to get into the playoffs that upcoming Saturday.

My dad and I coached the Ogden team. We’d spent every weeknight and Saturday mornings with them since early August, and we knew our young men well. We knew who’d be late for practice, who got in trouble at school, where they all lived, and knew who they all hung out with. Half of our kids went to Mount Ogden Middle School, and the other half went to Central Middle School. And they really didn’t like each other. Honestly, a practice week didn’t go by when we didn’t have to split up a fight between young men from different schools. But we didn’t allow bullying. We didn’t allow them to sling around slights. If we heard something derogatory or shaming come out of one our player’s mouths, that player heard from us. We didn’t allow that kind of stuff on our team. But somehow, when their helmets went on, the young men played together and they played with heart.

That night beneath the floating mists of fall, I watched our team warm up. They were what movies like Little Giants and Mighty Ducks and Bad News Bears sprung from. Their uniforms were old and stained and threadbare, hanging to the knees of the smaller kids and squeezing the breath out of the larger kids. Helmets were scratched, dented, and fitted with outdated facemasks, two kids wearing helmets with just the two-barred facemasks of black and white footage from the NFL. None of their helmets really fit. We had to pull out pads from kids who could barely squeeze their heads in and put them into helmets for kids whose helmet fell down over their eyes. “Rag-tag” would have been a compliment.

When they lined up against the other team that night, it was like the other team’s uniforms and helmets mocked ours, like they’d been recently bleached and sewn together, shining clean and bright on the dark green field of the chilly night. An Ogden Junior Midget team hadn’t been to the playoffs in decades, and we had a chance to change that when we lined up against the team from the north. There was something in our young men that night though, and on the first snap of the football, we ran 40 yards for a touchdown. Our opponent’s possessions ended in punts, and my nephew flew from behind our line of scrimmage to make his best tackle of the year to stop their final drive short (I was so proud of him). We won. We would move onto the playoffs.

There has been a lot in the news about football players hazing their teammates and the brutality of the game. To be honest, I’ll probably never let my son play football because of these things, but when our rag-tag team ran off the field that night after the final whistle, they hugged each other, they knew they were rag-tag, they knew no one thought the team from Ogden could make the playoffs.

Their misfit helmets fell off and there was no distinction between Mount Ogden Middle School boys and Central Middle School boys in the cheering huddles that swarmed like bees. And that was cool — that was Ogden.

Now, about the Holiday Bowl — there’s work to be done.

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