Thanksgiving Day was a special day in 1961. I had looked forward to this day since the beginning of the school year. It had nothing to do with the usual turkey dinner served with mounds of mashed potatoes and candied yams followed by pumpkin pie lavishly topped with whipped cream. No, Thanksgiving Day meant football in Chicago and the sixth and seventh graders of St. Mel Parish would actually play in a game instead of sitting on the side lines – warming the bench- as they did during the regular season. The eighth graders – the A Team – were done for the year at home resting on their laurels. Even the head coach position was shifted to another of the parish priests for the day.
Unable to sleep any longer, I awoke early that morning at 6:00 A.M. filled with anticipation and excitement. I ran to the window of our basement apartment to see what the world had to offer on this wonderful day, but I couldn’t see much as an unexpected snow storm had found its way to Chicago blanketing the city with at least 3″ of the fluffy white stuff. Large flakes were still falling and I could already hear the objections to game day in my parent’s voices. When they awoke, I heard what I had expected.
“The game will be cancelled; no use in even going,” said my step-father.
Mother, in her usual rant and rave, said, ” You are NOT going out to play football in this weather!”
But I already had my pads and gear ready to go. I argued with them and fumed in a display of stubbornness that later won me the distinction of being the black sheep of the family. I was adamant that I was going and undaunted by their threats of disciplinary actions. When it finally became clear to them that I wasn’t backing down, they did and all that was left was compromise.
“You have to wear a pair of long johns.”
” Already have them here,” I said pointing to the couch
“You need to wear your long rubber boots.”
“And you’ll wear your leather mittens.”
That’s where I drew the line. “I’ll wear them till I get there and then take them off. You can’t hold a football wearing mittens.”
They both looked at me in dismay, shaking their heads as I dressed . I walked out the door and down to the bus stop. Not one in sight. Must be at least 4″ on the ground now. I began the eight block journey to the park and arrived fifteen minutes before the 9:00 A.M. start. Never saw a bus. But the officials were present and members of both teams were arriving. Our opponents were under the same rules; no A Team.
The field was covered with the deep snow, but the yard lines were marked with little red flags along the side line. The game was on and ready to go. There was a slight modification in the coin toss. The ref had to catch the coin rather than letting it fall to the ground and risk losing it in the snow. Our coach called out the starters, one by one. My name wasn’t called and I sadly started for the bench, doomed to be a bench warmer for a cold bench. Then the coach was reminded that he had only called ten names. He slapped my shoulder as I walked by. “Left end, Ness.” Jubilantly, I ran out on to the field.
From the first snap, we all played as if NFL scouts were standing on the sidelines ready to pick us up then and there. We hit each other and tackled each other with all we were worth, which wasn’t much since you couldn’t build up a head of steam to gain traction on the slippery , snowy field. We were all cold and shivering. Wet snow seemed to find its way through any opening in the uniform. But it might as well been the middle of September for all we cared.
In the third quarter we were deep in our opponents territory, I guess, since it was difficult to tell exactly where anyone was on the field of play. It was third down and one to go for a first. My name was called in the huddle. A simple jump pass over the middle and all I had to do was catch it and fall down in order to continue the drive. The ball was snapped and I headed into position for the catch. . I caught the ball squarely in my chest and started for the ground as planned, but one of the opposing players hit me slightly and I straightened. I began to run or plod as really was the case. Players all around me were slipping and sliding , falling flat on their faces. Those boots; those marvelous deep tread, metal buckled, above the ankle, rubber galoshes , over my gym shoes boots led me toward the end zone. It felt as if I had run for days over hundreds of miles when in fact the TD was measured, finally, as only twenty-six yards.
I stood there alone in the end zone, panting, trying to catch my breath, alone except for the one official who made it down there to retrieve the ball. Everyone else was sprawled in the winter wonderland. Not one of my teammates was able to make it down to congratulate me. But I had a smile on my face as I headed back up the field.
We won the game. The snow stopped and it was time to trudge back home as once again no bus was in sight. I entered the little basement apartment wet and disheveled. I began to remove my boots and uniform at the door so I wouldn’t track snow through it.
My parents just looked at me shaking their heads. Just a “Well?” came from them in unison.
“We won,” I replied without expression.
Their silence was deafening. No congratulations; no hugs; no cheer. I just went to bed and slept as a smile of satisfaction crossed my face. I didn’t need any recognition or acknowledgement.