I don't remember the first time I tried to catch a football, but it must have been in my front yard in the early 1950s with my Dad. I marvelled at the strange shape that caused it to bounce uncontrollably and to spiral beautifully in a long arc through the air, at the numerous little dimples that roughened the pigskin, the double white stripes, and the raised laces that guided the fingers of the passer. For the next dozen years I would pass, pull-in, punt and pursue this weirdly proportioned projectile like my very life depended on it.
As was customary in the excellent sports program in St. Lambert, we routinely signed up for hockey in winter, baseball in spring, followed by football in the autumn. My friends and I registered for the 8-man football team at our specific age level and went about acquiring or cleaning up a helmet, pants, shoulder pads, and other male protective wear. It took a while to come to an agreement regarding who would wear certain numbers (on jerseys kindly donated by local merchants), but in the end, we all ran out on the field a more-or-less coordinated team, under the guidance of a volunteer coach.
We tried to emulate the older players on the South Shore Combines,
whose games attracted great crowds at L' Esperance Park.
A serious and dedicated group of students would lead the large crowds at L'Esperance field in cheers to encourage the players. Getting ready for another rousing cheer we see Bonnie Grant, Judy Fieghen, Evelyn Kay, Marie Ferris, Glenna Bates, Jean Dyer and Darlene Allen.
In those days, around Montreal, the Canadian Football League was almost as popular as the National Hockey League. My personal hero was Sam Etcheverry -- one of the greatest passers for the Montreal Alouettes, an All-Star from 1953-60, and a Grey Cup-winning Head Coach from 1970-73. Part of Sam's success was due to the skill of his favorite pass receiver the great and unforgettable Hal Paterson, one of the finest receivers in CFL history, and a perennial all-star.
I recall the long hours of practice in the heat of early fall, when we trained hard to build up strength and endurance, and to fine-tune our timing at plays. My favourite was the “flea-flicker,” in which I would run down and in, catch the short pass, and faking a turn downfield I handed the ball off to the other end receiver, who was running at top speed in the opposite direction. This play was used sparingly, but to great effect when other plays were not working.
We also had night practices under the lights at L' Esperance Park,
and then rushed home afterwards to catch up on homework.
Since I was light of frame and anything but massive, I gravitated to playing offensive left end, where all I had to do was run downfield to catch passes, and occasionally block or tackle an opponent. While in practice, I dropped my share of passes, but during games, the most-miraculous thing would happen. As long as I could reach the football with as few as a couple of fingers of one hand, the ball somehow stuck, as I absorbed its energy by drawing it down and inward at just the right time. I, and sometimes my coach and team members, were amazed with catches I made, and they soon nick-named me “Hands.”
John Milligan, my close friend and our quarterback, practiced with me often after school, so he had my moves and running speed down pat. With his exceptional arm, he could power a throw like a bullet into my chest, or float the ball on long flights right into my waiting arms. We developed little tricks to throw off defenders during a game, like changing sweaters and helmets with team mates secretly while on the bench. One of my favorites, while running for a pass and being pursued by a tall defensive player downfield, was to use his tactic of watching my eyes for the incoming football. I pretended to react with my eyes and arms as if to receive a pass, when actually John had only begun to release the ball. The defender would jump up with arms raised to block the imaginary ball, only to come down and lose his balance while the real pass descended safely into my hands. Of course I sometimes paid the price for such deception and embarrassment by an extra-hard tackle later in the game. But because I was thin and dodgy, I seldom took the full force of tackles from big defensive players. John and I were able to score at least two touchdowns per game.
During tackling and blocking practice (which I found to be an ugly exercise), my larger team members had little trouble running over me (It felt like through me!), until one night, our coach's instruction of “go low” finally sunk in. What a revelation! Tackling the ankles worked like magic, causing even the tallest and heaviest ball carrier to trip 'head-over-heels,' and sometimes resulting in a fumble. I just had to time it right, knocking my opponent's foot into his other one, or dropping low enough to take both feet out at the same time. Avoiding his upper body, especially the padded shoulders and hard helmet, saved me from getting injured, although a couple of times I had the air knocked out of me or took a low blow to the mid-section. Sometimes stars come out even in daylight. I had to wear eye-glasses, and so finding the football in flight at night with the glare of the lights was a real challenge, and on a few passes, I lost them entirely against the black vastness of the universe. Fortunately they never descended and hit me on the head.
One experience I'd rather forget; it still makes me shiver. It was a cold and dark late-fall Saturday at L' Esperance Park, and a week of wet weather had left the grounds soggy and muddy. Of course we tough football players are supposed to be able to take any weather, so out on the field we went. In no time at all, we were so sopping wet and covered in mud that it was hard to tell which team the players were on. I managed to hold onto a couple of short passes, but when I was hit, both of us slid many yards, building up a levee of mud on the way. At a mercy intermission, I was so cold I was s-s-shaking uncontrollably. For relief from my impending hypothermia, I stood in a hot shower with all my equipment on, which was a big mistake. I didn't understand the physics of the experiment, but ten minutes back out in the rain and chilly wind, I got even colder, and was rendered useless as a receiver. I couldn't even get my fingers to snap closed the chinstrap on my helmet. To this day I still hate the cold (and yet I ended up in Winnipeg!).
Our team played others in nearby communities on the South Shore and occasionally on the Island of Montreal. One thing I noticed that on away-games, the other team always looked so much bigger and more powerful than ours, especially when dressed in black uniforms and sporting thick, black smudge marks under their eyes (to reduce sun glare). The opposing players were meaner too, and once when I was piled upon after catching a pass, one guy tried to punch my face below the helmet bar. With my arms pinned, I managed to shrug my head enough to prevent his knuckles from greeting my teeth. The observant referee saw his elbow come up and down, and threw him out of the game. Sometimes-hostile crowds didn't help either. After another game (at Verdun I think), our team had to run back to the bus after the game, with the rowdy crowd close behind; I guess we must have won in their backyard! The old adage of home territory really meant something back then. St. Lambert fans would never stoop to such crude behavior.
The high of my brief football career came one sunny Sunday afternoon at Molson Stadium on Mount Royal, Montreal. Our team had been selected to play a short game at the intermission of a Montreal Alouettes' game, in front of tens of thousands of fans – a few more than at L' Esperance. Fully dressed, we climbed aboard a bus and made our way over the Victoria Bridge, then past McGill University, and then disembarked near the Stadium. I can still clearly remember the clattering sounds of our boot cleats on the concrete sidewalk as we jogged into the massive building, helmets under our arms, like Roman gladiators ready for battle. Few words were spoken; we were so intense and excited about our big debut. When our turn came to hit the field, a huge roar went up from the fans to greet us. We stopped in our tracks and turned around and up in amazement. With so many watching, including my older cousin 'Big Bob' Woodburn, I kept telling myself to concentrate and to secure any pass thrown my way before I broke for an opening. The few minutes available passed quickly, and then John called for me to run a 'down and out' pass pattern. My wobbly legs carried me, slow-motion-like, on the predetermined route and as soon as I turned around, the pass was at my left shoulder. I snatched it out of the air and was immediately tackled by two defenders. While they were on top of me, I heard the crowd applaud loudly in approval. Big smiles greeted me as I rejoined the huddle.
The low happened during a game at L' Esperance Park. I went 'long' downfield for a pass but was covered, and I saw John begin to run toward me with the ball. Since he was by far the fastest runner on the team (and maybe in St. Lambert at the time), he could pick an opening and sometimes outdistance all the opposing players for a touchdown. I wheeled around and came back to take out an opponent on his tail, but then heard John get tackled heavily. The thud of bodies and equipment colliding head-on can be quite sickening. He rolled on the ground in severe pain, clutching his broken leg. It was the most-serious injury my friends and I had witnessed during all our years playing sports. We walked home later still in shock and feeling so sorry for our great quarterback. I don't remember anything about the remainder of the season.
Many of my school friends had little interest in football or in sports in general, and I wondered if they missed out somehow, although they pursued other activities. We learned at an early age that on the sports field, a victory required the full effort of every member. The old saying that group sports help build cooperative teamwork later in life seems reasonable, and being a biologist, I observe this behavior in the animal world as having great survival value. And I must add a note of thanks to the more-than-a-dozen coaches who donated their time and experience so that I and my friends could enjoy years of fun on the sports fields and rinks.
Since I had to study hard to keep up my senior high-school grades, and the players continued to grow and reach weights way beyond mine, I wisely decided to retire from football.
To this day, 50 years later, I still have an occasional dream from my youth. I crouch down low on the line of scrimmage at left end, waiting for John to call the count, then burst ahead, executing a couple of wild 'dekes' to confuse my coverage. Then running at full gallop down the field, with some huge defender one step behind me, quarterback Johnny prepares to unleash one of his great passes. Our line holds off the on-charging players long enough for John to spot me in the open, and he instinctively calculates my speed and direction. He then winds back and unleashes the ball in a magnificent spiral in the direction of where I will be in a few seconds. As it arrives well over my head, I make a spectacular leap with one out-stretched hand, absorb the ball on my finger-tips, and pull it safely into my chest, just as the defender pounds me into the hard ground. I twitch violently awake in bed, disturbing my wife and the cat, then turn over, punch the pillow, and chuckle to myself – "The old football player still has the moves."