“I went to Ohio State, but I didn’t play football,” is my standard answer to questions about where I went to college. This response to a question not asked and not plausible confuses people for a few seconds until I release them with a chuckle, and they chuckle with me. At 5’9” and 158 pounds, it’s unlikely that I played football in high school, certainly not with the behemoths that play for Ohio State.
I did play for the St. Gabriel Elementary team. In the 6th grade, I weighed a scant 69 pounds, but it was not hard to make the team because we only had 25 boys in the 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. In 1955, our new school opened to serve students who lived in nearby subdivisions and rode buses to more distant parochial schools. A few transferred from what we called the “protestant school,” actually the public school. Most of these were Catholic, but some were protestant kids whose parents were attracted by the parochial schools’ reputation for strict discipline.
Football imbued Columbus at least as much as it did other towns, cities and states with major football programs. The horseshoe-shaped stadium built by convicts in 1922 held 81,000 fans (short for fanatics) for the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes were usually among the top twenty teams and won several Big Ten Championships and trips to the Rose Bowl in the 1950s. My uncle took me to several games. Some cigar smokers had season tickets near us, and the aroma of cigar smoke always reminds me of cold Saturday afternoon high above the field watching Heisman Trophy winner Howard “Hopalong” Cassidy evade tacklers.
St. Gabriel’s principal, Sister Neri, believed a football team would bring the student body together. She declared that the team’s colors would be rose and blue and the name would be the Couriers. Red would have been a more appropriate color than rose, and the name hardly struck fear in the hearts of opposing teams. The angel Gabriel had appeared to Mary to announce that she would be the Mother of God; hence, Sister decided our team would be the Couriers. Cheers from the sidelines rarely included the team name. She also wrote a fight song, but it was seldom heard.
Our pastor, Father Faistl who recently returned from a tour of duty as a chaplain in the Korean War and wore combat boots while saying mass, was enthusiastic about football. He found several men in the parish who agreed to buy uniforms and equipment. Some offered to help with coaching, and Joe Autello, my classmate Gary Autello’s uncle, volunteered to coach the team. He worked a night shift for the Pennsylvania Railroad and was available after school for practice after school.
Mike, Bernie, Ronnie, John, and most of my buddies wanted to go out for football. Their parents readily signed the short permission form Sister had prepared. Most bought their growing boys high-topped cleats and knee-length football pants. Father Faistl’s boosters had agreed to pay for blue helmets and jerseys, navy blue with rose numbers.
Dad had earned a letter in track at Holy Rosary High. The doctor said he should not play football after suffering multiple leg fractures when hit by a car. Dad was delighted to take me downtown to Berry’s Sporting Goods where I was outfitted from head to toe including an athletic supporter Dad quietly said would prevent a hernia. I nodded and was proud to have a “jock strap” After putting on my uniform, I paraded around the house several times to get assurances that everything (except the jock strap, of course) fit properly.
I lay awake in bed thinking about what position I would play, whether I would evade tacklers and sprint across the goal line or score by catching a long pass on the tips of my outstretched fingers, maybe with a diving catch. As a ball carrier, I envisioned each cut, spin and stiff arm on my way to a touchdown. I struck in the Heisman Trophy pose in front of the mirror on Mom’s closet door. I imagined glossy back and white framed pictures of me smiling broadly with my helmet under my arm would be in Joe Craig’s barber shop along with OSU All-Americans Vic Janovicz and Dick LaBeau. I also rehearsed a modest response when congratulated by teammates, friends, and everyone I knew for a touchdown, giving credit to my blockers and the entire team. It was a long time before I fell asleep.
At our first practice on the open grass field behind the school, Coach Autello had a clipboard in hand and a whistle on a chain around his thick neck . Not much taller and only ten years older than our eighth graders, his big biceps and broad chest were on display. He wore tight black T-shirts, black pants and short boots with a strap and buckle across the instep. His black and white Harley leaned on its kickstand beside the field.
Coach had us choose up sides, and play touch football for an hour. He moved some boys from one position to another every few few plays. Sister Phillip Neri stood beside him and identified those who ran the ball and caught passes. He made notes on his clipboard after each play. Then he lined us up for races of about fifty yards, and wrote down the names of the winners. We milled around for a few minutes before he put the ball on the ground and called for Butch to play center, John and Tony to line up beside him as guards, and assembled a team on one side of the ball and another on the other side. It was obvious to me and the rest of us chosen second that we were not on the first team.
The first team played against my team in a scrimmage. In the huddle, Coach showed each play with a rough sketch on his clip board. As the player got up, he announced for all to hear who was out of position, ran to the wrong spot, or missed their block. He often called on God or Jesus H. Christ under his breath, but not in prayer. Some guys were sent to the second team. He had a dozen basic plays, and we practiced them repeatedly. Later the second team went on offense, and Coach instructed the first team pass defenders to run backwards and watch the quarterback’s eyes. He taught linemen the correct one-hand stance and how to position themselves on the line of scrimmage. Out of Sister’s hearing he said, “For Christ’s sake don’t line up offside. It’s the dumbest, god-damned thing you can do. A five-yard penalty for offsides really pisses me off!” His face was contorted and his hands were fists.
Those of us on the second team listened to the Coach’s instruction to the starters. Occasionally one of us was shuttled into replace a boy who Coach said had done some “dumb ass thing,” but soon the starter was back in the lineup.
My dad and some other fathers came to practices when they could and assisted with drills for punters, receivers, and other positions. Some mothers with younger children watched practice and came to games.
We lost our opening game to St Catherine 48-6. Coach rapidly paced the sideline in front of me and others on the bench, stopping only to yell some advice toward the field, and then resumed pacing with his arms crossed and biceps prominent. The first team stayed on the field during the entire game. Coach told them at the half and during every timeout that they could make a comeback. The other substitutes and I watched from the bench. We became a cheering squad, leaping to our feet to cheer on our team when big plays were made. We all wanted to play and were ready to go in at a nod from the coach, but we took pleasure in being part of the team even if we were bench warmers.
We lost to St James, Corpus Christi, and Immaculate Conception. St. Dominic, the colored school that didn’t even have full uniforms, slaughtered us. We finally tasted victory by narrowly defeating Christ the King; we heard that an outbreak of flu kept their best players home, but as Coach said, “A win is a win.”
Coach put us second-stringers in the game during the last quarter when games were out of reach. Most teams reciprocated by clearing their bench, but some had their first team run up the score.
At our next practice, Coach Autello called us together and gave us a pep talk. He said, “It took us a while to come together as a team, but we upset Christ the King, and if we defeat St. Matthew, we’ll show how much we had improved in our first season. We could hold our head high.” He called for practicing hard to prepare for our final game, the one that would salvage our season.
After we all ran laps around the field, the linemen blocked each other, and the backs ran through some plays, Coach blew his whistle and called for scrimmage. He told the first team, “Imagine that these guys are St. Matthew’s. Go hard. Run over them. That’s how we win on Saturday. Winning is everything!” We second stringers prepared to stand in for St. Matthew as best we could.
Linemen assumed their one-hand stance for the first play. Some of us saw Coach coming toward us. He took one last step to position himself and swung his leg to hit Mike Rodenfel’s rear end with the side of his boot. Mike didn’t see it coming and found himself stunned and facedown on the grass. “You God damned idiot! You lined up offside!” bellowed Coach as he stood over Mike and glared at the other line men, and said “If you’re offsides, too, I’ll kick all your asses into next week.”
We lost to Christ the King; it was not even close. Mike Rodenfels’ dad, my dad, and other fathers met with Sister Neri and Father Faistl. Both had heard about the booting incident and Coach’s foul language. We heard that they were disappointed with our dismal record of one win and six losses, but this was not mentioned. It was quickly agreed that Joe Autello would not coach next season. Father Faistl had already identified a former coach from St. James who said he missed coaching. An interview was arranged and Mr. Cain became our coach for the 1956 season.
R. F. “Bob” Cain, sold advertising specialties like key chains, pencils, and dozens of inexpensive items stamped with the name and logo of a business. Although he enjoyed football’s strategy and tactics that made him feel like a WW II military commander, he reveled in applying the morale-building techniques of a sales manager to his 13, 14 and 15-year old team members.
By the following year, at 84 pounds, I had gained a little more weight and became a starting end. My dreams focused on catching touchdown passes. In our “end around, double reverse” play, I would carry the ball. In my fantasies, I scored many touchdowns. In practice, Coach Cain decided that I was too slow and the other end would be the ball carrier. He said, “Michael, you may be small, but you sure are slow.” I did catch a few short passes that year.
Coach had us gather around for “chalk talk” with X’s and O’s on the blackboard in an improvised locker room. He diagrammed blocking assignments and drew arrows pointed at the hole in the line showing the ball carrier’s route. There were dive plays, a quarterback option and cross-bucks. Receivers had “buttonhook” patterns and down-and-out routes. We even had a “flea flicker” play with the halfback faking an end run and passing across the field to the end on the “weak side.” Sister Neri mimeographed ia play book in the her office. It was far too elaborate for us, but Coach Cain couldn’t help himself. In any case, we had a winning season.
Coach Cain had undoubtedly had seen the movie about Notre Dame’s iconic coach, Knute Rockne, who invented the forward pass, forced his players to learn ballet steps for balance, and gave inspirational speeches. Pat O’Brien played Rockne, and Ronald Reagan played an ailing player nicknamed the “Gipper.” After the character dies, Rockne’s next pre-game speech for the Irish to “Win this one for the Gipper” became legendary Coach Cain’s talks were eloquent orations. He occasionally glanced at an index card with his notes.
By the following season, I had grown a little taller and reached 107 pounds. Joey and Dick Reider were starving themselves to meet the 120-pound limit as the “weigh-in” drew near. I was stuffing myself with bread slathered with margarine, peanut butter and honey to gain weight. Before our first practice, Coach Cain assured us in a long talk that 1957 was destined to be our year. We believed him.
Dad had become an informal assistant to Coach Cain. Since he was not working, he come to most practices and always took a carful of us to the games. After our third victory of the year, Dad handed me a business card after dinner. R. G. “Bob” Calvert, Advertising Specialties. He was impressed with Coach Cain’s success in sales, and he hoped to enjoy the same success in sales.
They shared with other Catholics across the country a passion for Notre Dame football. They often spoke of the Knute Rockne film. Notre Dame was their favorite along with Ohio State. They could support both because the teams hadn’t played against each other since 1935. I repeatedly heard about Notre Dame’s comeback victory in that game, miraculously scoring twice in the last four minutes to upset Ohio State. Dad asserted, “Notre Dame is afraid to play Ohio State and has not scheduled a rematch.”
Coach Cain and Dad were well-versed in the writings of the great sportswriter, Grantland Rice. In his nationally syndicated columns and on the newsreels that prefaced movies in the thirties and forties, Rice elevated football to a metaphor for “the great game of life.” Gentlemen went all out to win the game, but when the final whistle announced the end of the game, they were obliged to abide by gracious sportsmanship. Dad solemnly recited Grantland Rice’s most famous lines on numerous occasions:
“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost –
But how you played the Game.”
Dad and Coach Cain taught me that you played the game through teamwork. Everyone had a position to play and a responsibility to perform whether it’s blocking, tackling, throwing, catching, or running with the ball. The halfback who faked taking a handoff, the receiver who ran a decoy route, and the guard who pulled to make a hole for the fullback, and every other player were as important as the quarterback. We depended upon each other. We were a team.
I no longer fantasized about becoming a hero on the football field. I became a team player and relished working together with my teammates. That’s how you played the game.