Saturday, January 9, 2010

The New England Patriots and the Sundays Before Handheld Games

As each calendar page of my life falls slowly to the floor, I spend ample time reminiscing about my childhood. Blessed with a file cabinet of a memory, coupled with my Dad's gift of storytelling, I seem to have an ever-present audience, eager to hear about my days growing up in Spencer.

Be it my first kiss with Roberta Welch or the time the bird pooped in my ear at Pleasant Street School, playing baseball in the middle of High Street with my brother, Keith, or the time my Dad and I built the last-place car in the Pinewood Derby, I always seem to have a tale to tell.

The time of my life where I fell in love with football and the New England Patriots is perhaps the most warm and wonderful days of my life.

I see many kids today who never leave the couch and I fear that with handheld games and widescreen TVs comes a loss of physical fitness and imagination. Playing with John Madden's game while sitting on the living room floor is, oh so different than being Madden's Oakland Raiders in our backyard on High Street.

Mom and Dad worked at the apple orchard on weekends in the fall, so Keith and I had the entire day to play. Mom started working seven days a week in the fall at Brookfield Orchards. She started working there in 1966 when I was five and Keith was three. She's now held the position for 42 years.

Dad sold fresh apple cider on Saturday and ran "Pick Your Own" on Sunday in between long weeks traveling on the road. It amazes me that the two of them still have the energy they do at nearly eighty years young. Both still work at the orchard today and are as much a part of the orchard experience as apple dumplings and ice cream.

While Mom and Dad were off to work each week, Keith and I would wake at about seven o'clock. We'd get ourselves ready for a Sunday filled with football.

We had just discovered the sport the year before. I'm not really sure where it was all of those years, but somehow it remained buried behind baseball and All-Star Wrestling on our list of sport favorites. Once we discovered it, however we became full-fledged football junkies.

We'd start preparing for our game on Saturday mornings by watching "This Week in Pro Football" with the familiar voices of Pat Summarall and Charlie Jones. Each game from the week before was recapped in five-minute vignettes.

Archie Manning and the Saints against Roman Gabriel and the Rams. Roger Staubach's Cowboys against Sonny Jorgenson's Redskins. Fran Tarkenton's Vikings taking on the Frozen Tundra and Bart Starr's Packers.

Keith and I would watch the long bombs of Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath and the bone jarring hits of Carl Eller and the Purple People Eaters.

We'd wait patiently for nearly the full hour of the show hoping to catch the recap of the Patriots, even though the highlights of the game usually involved the opposition. Each week we'd watch wide-eyed as Bob Griese chewed up the inept Patriot defense or Joe Capp got picked off by a swarm of Baltimore Colt defenders.

I think it was about the third week of watching that we figured out that the team we decided to love was the "Bad News Bears" of the NFL, but we loved them just the same. After all, they were from Boston and so were we.

It was the period of my life before I had adopted the philosophy that "one must truly experience failure before they can appreciate success," but somehow in their losing they were a little more endearing. Keith and I knew we'd never be Y.A. Tittle or John Brodie, but hoped we could at least be Mike Taliaferro or Bob Gladieux.

Each week the TV Guide had the rosters of the two teams playing in the televised game. Keith and I would fight for the guide to see who would play the role of the "Washington Generals" of our weekly back yard battle.

We'd make believe that our bedroom was the locker room and gear up for the approaching game. We didn't have shoulder pads or helmets, just two Patriots winter jackets that Mom had bought us at Mortie White's Five and Ten.

We'd paint on eye black, which we snuck from Mom's make-up bag the night before and stuff toilet paper in our gums to act as our mouth pieces. We'd pump air into the under-inflated football we had bought with our weekly allowance money and head out to the gridiron.

We'd jog out of the cellar door and into the backyard for the announcements of our starting squads.

"Starting at quarterback, No. 16...Jim Plunkett," Keith would announce and I'd run to the center of the field.

"No. 18, at wide receiver, Randy Vataha."

"At running back, No. 32, Jim Nance."

One by one, player by player, Keith and I would take turns announcing while the other took the field. After Carl Garrett and Larry Carwell, Charlie Gogolak and Randy Beverly had taken the field, we'd do the same for the opposing "victim of the week."

After about half an hour of pre-game festivities, we would kick off and start our day of football. For the next seven or eight hours, Keith and I would draw out plays on the dirt of the back yard and play act as if we were real live Patriots players. In our game, the Patriots always won and the opposition always seemed especially inept.

Slant routes, draw plays, corner patterns, and long bombs were drawn like cave art on the dirt below and quickly erased so the invisible opposition couldn't see what we had planned.

As the years passed, Nance was replaced by Sam Bam and Plunkett by Grogan. Randy Vataha became Stanley Morgan and Julius Adams always seemed to be Julius Adams.

Week after week, Sunday after Sunday we'd use our imagination and our "Billy Kilmer" autographed ball and run play after play in the backyard behind 26 High. As each season past, the players changed, but our love for the hometown team grew stronger.

I remember vividly the games we played in the rain and mud and the contests we had in the waist deep snow of an early New England winter storm. Much like the post office in those days, nothing could keep us from our scheduled game.

We'd play for hours and tuck our muddy clothes in the bottom of the hamper in hopes that Mom wouldn't notice when she did laundry that night. I'm sure she did, but her boys were happy and she was probably tired from a long day at the orchard.

We were really not very good and over threw many a long bomb despite not having a defender on our backs. We didn't really care. We ran an "efficient offense" and a "ball hawking defense" and enjoyed a Sunday filled with imagination and bonding.

As I watch my son, Dakota, play with his Nintendo DS, he fantasizes about Super Mario slaying a dragon or something like that. I pray that he soon finds the desire to play football and that he befriends a teammate as good as Keith was.

Or I at least hope that Bleacher Report develops a page for handheld games.

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