Coming of Age in the Locker Room

What the players say about their life in the game.

A coach likes to have a lot of those old trained pigs who’ll grin and jump right in the slop for him. —UT Coach Darrell Royal

Ah, yes, Daddy D! Don’t they, now? You summarize so beautifully even your enemies despair of better saying it. You capsule those grim, sappy communal teachings I most took to heart in my burnt West Texas village about five lives ago. In one burst of cracker barrel candor you bring back the former cotton-mouthed guilts, agonies, and humiliations of the practice field; you fill my head with ancient losses: fumbles, blocked punts, imperfect tackles, fourth and nineteen. Forgive me, Daddy D. Royal, for I have sinned . . .

Our Midland High School coaches, wearing their rumpled good luck clothes and otherwise as faithful to rituals as witches, stomped the sidelines and ranted as if exorcising luck’s bad demons; at half-time they implored, threatened, cursed, kicked ass, sometimes cried. After losing games, as we wearily shed purple-and-gold jerseys, we avoided eye contact and shrank from view. In the showers we berated ourselves, offering contrite confessions of malpractices that might have done credit to felons hoping for the grace of a lenient court’s mercy. My fault, gang, goddammit . . .

Our defeated coaches tramped the steamy sullen dressing room like wandering gypsies, puffing cigarettes and muttering grief as if their collective dogs had died: Dammit, my ole trained pigs just wouldn’t jump in the slop tonight. It became near to unbearable to watch those intense, salaried Boy-Men who had goaded, cheered, pushed, punched, cajoled, and otherwise instructed us in the fine arts of Bash-and-Cracking, while preaching that some vague dark dishonor awaited those unwilling to Pay The Price. In defeat, we reacted with the shamed guilt of True Believers caught at heresy. Erring backsliders, we awaited our punishments.

No matter that one may have played near to one’s top potential, or had lost by a single point or by luck’s ill-whim; no, the sense of unworthiness—of failure, of ineptness, of having somehow dropped the soap—washed us in great melancholy waves. In permitting defeat one had somehow betrayed one’s team, one’s town, one’s self: had lost one’s youthful, uncertain gonads. “You’re not even in the backfield,” a high school temptress slurs her interior-lineman boyfriend during a lover’s spat, and shortly after his team has newly known dishonor in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show . She sensed, yes, where young Texas boys might be most effectively kicked. Now her lover knew, for certain, that never would he dash for the winning touchdown with the Thalia wind in his hair . . .

After a double tough loss to Abilene, as we sat in stricken silence listening to the noisy celebrations of our conquerors in their adjoining dressing room, our coach said: “One more good block, boys—hell, just one more good hard tackle—and that could be us livin’ it up in there. Did you play your best? Or did you dog it? Can you look in the mirror and say you gave it all? Do you feel like men?” Forty sweaty young heads dropped to stare at four-hundred sweaty young toes, each certain in the indictment applied directly to him. It didn’t help when our First Baptist pastor prayed from the locker room in a way seeming to apologize to God for our football transgressions; where had his prayers been when we faced third-and-long?

During the post-game meal one gloomy Friday night in San Angelo, after we’d been thoroughly battered by the defending State Champion, fullback Bobby Drake grumbled: “Shit, even steak don’t taste good when you lose.” I guess one of our coaches heard him: Monday’s pre-practice pep talk ran to the theory that even steak don’t taste good when you lose, thence progressing to affirm that steak tasted absolutely wonderful in victory’s aftermath. I wondered—but knew better than to ask—how steak might taste after a tie.

Do not think that Midland High School’s Bulldogs constantly dealt in dishonor. No, we won as often as not in the early 1940’s. But at night, now—though past my forty-fifth birthday—when my sleepless spooked old ranging mind unaccountably strays back to West Texas football fields long replaced by housing developments or shopping centers, it is not the good times I recall: not our whomping of Fort Worth Poly, not the 18-13 upset of Pampa, not the 32-6 pasting we laid on Austin High of El Paso. No, I remember what might have been . . ..

The Lamesa Golden Tornadoes are giving us a mean, close game. Such was not meant to happen, and substitutes bring reports form the bench of increasing ire and disgust. Running a deep pass pattern I am suddenly and magically in the clear near Lamesa’s goal line. The ball is coming in over my right shoulder, spinning and accurate and lovely; I hear again the grunting pounding desperations of the defensive back, and rejoice in having the knotty little bastard beat. I place my hands in welcome for the certain grab but a single step from touchdown glory, feel the good sharp sting of the ball and— Jesus, I’ve dropped it! Just flat dropped it. I cannot say how, or why, though that old brain movie has reeled in my head since shortly after the matching tragedy at Hiroshima. The day ends in a tie as unsatisfactory as a sister’s kiss; I learn that tie-game steak tastes remarkably like bitters and sawdust.

Reel Two. We closely tail Big Spring. The Steers are punting from inside their ten. Time is short. As our offense has been unusually inept, we agree that we must block the punt to salvage victory. Word comes from the bench that the Bulldog blocking it need not practice on Monday and may reap bonuses of free hamburgers or milk shakes. Royce Higgs and I desperately shoot through, clawing and cursing. Thawhunk: together we get large, stinging, thrilling pieces of the ball. Blood pounds and surges in the ears

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