My greatest ambition was to be a football hero. Evan’s too. Evan’s my twin brother. We look so much alike that even our parents couldn’t tell us apart. In high school we were the smallest kids in the whole school. Smaller than lot of the girls. But that didn’t hamper our football aspirations.
I wanted to see my picture on the cover of a game program and on the first page of the sports section in the Journal. We’d seen movies about Knute Rockne and Crazylegs Hirsh and the greatest of all, Jim Thorpe, and we wanted to be them.
Over six seasons, first in junior high and then in high school, we warmed the bench on the sidelines, waiting for a chance to play. On the practice squads we were used sparingly at halfback and tried our churning legs as kick returners, and finally we were switched to defensive backs, which seemed absurd because we were too short to guard pass receivers, even though we certainly had the speed and could leap like crazy. I thought we were pretty damn good in practice, but Coach never seemed to notice. The problem was he was afraid we would get hurt. I guess he thought it was all right for us to get hurt in practice, but not in a real game. Oh yeah, that made a lot of sense.
And get this, another reason we didn’t get to play was that we did what the coaches told us. The supreme irony of that drove me crazy and made Evan mad as a crazed bumblebee. That was a big difference between us. When I was overlooked, I felt hurt. Evan got mad. But here’s an example of what I mean by doing what the coach told us being one of the reasons he wouldn’t put us in a game.. On the playground the kids played a wild and dangerous brand of football at which Evan and I excelled. No uniforms, no pads, no teams, no scoring and no rules. They called it killer ball. On any given day there would be anywhere from fifteen to twenty kids playing. Someone would throw the ball up in the air and all the players would scramble for it. Whoever caught or picked up the ball then ran in no particular direction, not going for a score but trying to see how long he could run before he was tackled. To avoid being tackled, the runner could throw the ball to another player. Evan and I were almost impossible to bring down. We were slippery as greased pigs. We could change directions, stop on a dime and spin out of tacklers’ grasp. I often thought that if only the coach could see me running in those games he would realize what a talented runner he had on his team. Running the ball from halfback position in team practice was quite different. We were instructed to follow our blockers, who may or may not do their jobs. There were pre-planned patterns, and we had to keep moving forward. The wild scrambles allowed on the school yard were not allowed on the practice field, and that took away our greatest offensive weapon.
One day a new guy tried out for punt returner. He was short, almost as short as me, but fifteen pounds heavier. We watched him catch a high punt and take off running toward the opposing goal. We watched him spin and change directions and circle back a good thirty yards toward his own goal and run toward the far sideline before heading up field again. He did all the things the coach had told us not to do. He was like us playing killer ball, but I think we were even better. That guy, on his first day on the team, on his first punt return, made a touchdown. He was an instant hero and was the team’s kick returner from then on. It wasn’t fair.
Finally, in our last season, in the last game for Tupelo High School, the coach put us in as left and right cornerbacks. At five-foot-four and a hundred and twelve pounds (Evan was larger at a hundred and fourteen) we were assigned to guide six-foot tall, hundred and sixty pound wide receivers. It had rained earlier in the day and the field was still soggy. I lined up ten yards deep. When the opposing receiver headed downfield I backpedaled a few yards and then turned and ran with him stride for stride. The receiver cut to his left and I tried to go with him. My cleats dug into the wet field and my foot refused to swivel along with my leg. I felt something move sideways with sudden and searing pain and my right leg collapsed. It was my knee, a badly torn cartilage. As I lay on the ground in agony the receiver angled to the other side of the field completely unguarded. I tried to push myself up and take after him, but the moment I put my weight on the injured leg my knee gave out and I crashed to the turf. From the ground I looked downfield and saw my brother Evan suddenly turn and rush to guard the open receiver just as the quarterback released a long lob of a pass that went wide of his target. Gaining ground with amazing speed—I didn’t even know he had it in him—Evan leapt for the ball and easily picked off the pass. He hit the ground running, and with a couple of neat spin moves to avoid tacklers ran into the end zone. The crowd went wild. Evan’s touchdown on his first ever play in an actual game was the winning score. His teammates mobbed him, slapped him on the back and on the side of his helmet, and ran with him off the field. It was only after the cheering settled down and the team prepared to line up for the extra point attempt that they saw me on the ground at the thirty yard line.
Coach had been afraid one of us would get hurt because we were so small. My career-ending injury came on a play when nobody even touched me. Size had nothing to do with it.
*When Alec Clayton was in high school his parents owned a cabin at a fishing camp on Mary Walker Bayou near the Mississippi Gulf Coast where he spent many weekends and summers swimming and fishing and exploring a labyrinth of rivers and streams. That camp is now a primary setting in his Freedom Trilogy. Visual Liberties, just published, is the third book in the trilogy, which began with The Backside of Nowhere and was followed by Return to Freedom.
When not writing novels Alec writes art reviews for the Weekly Volcano and theater reviews for The News Tribune. He lives in Olympia, Washington with his wife, Gabi.