Sports for Poor Folk

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Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Growing up in a small town in South Carolina, playing football required an obloid ball and that would do it. Didn’t need to be leather, and it wasn’t often inflated to regulation, but someone needed to bring a football, or we were SOL. None of us had pads and helmets, and unless the entire gaggle (usually four to six at best) wore them, it wouldn’t have been fair. So we bounced off each other, dove for the runner’s feet, clobbered him with elbows to the face unintentionally or not, tore holes in our jeans, and otherwise paid the price for full contact engagements.

On occasion, when enough of the neighborhood kids were feeling mean, we’d play smear the queer with the ball–because? I don’t think it was the rhyming scheme, and none of us knew anything about being gay–it certainly wasn’t something we talked about. All we knew was it was ba-a-a-ad and made for potent ridicule.

The rules were simple. You’d toss the ball to someone, and everyone would pile on. I remember the resulting scrums had some poor kid at the bottom of the pile, or running for his life. Nobody knew about rugby.

And if you were called queer, a fight was surely in the offing. I’m just reporting what happened. Taming the beast is a lifelong task. Only thing worse you could be than poor back then was being Black.

No girls played that game, nor football, given it was tackle football. It wasn’t a matter of a disparity in size in elementary school days. I just don’t think the neighborhood girls enjoyed getting knocked around, and you sure didn’t want to be beat up by a girl, given that pride was about all any of us had.

We hardly ever played tag football–just wasn’t challenging if you couldn’t tackle the ball handler. We’d get away with playing tackle at recess until somebody went running inside crying to the nuns. At boy scout troop meetings, tag football was all that was allowed, but our normal sandlot games were full contact.

But you can see the problem: a serious lack of equipment.

Baseball, by contrast, needed a much larger space to play–a bat or two and at least one ball with its innards still intact–and gloves when your turn on defense came up–especially on the infield when the balls came burning back from ten feet away. The nearest little league field was miles away, and they didn’t want you playing on it, so we made do.

With a short field you needed quick reactions. Gloves were frequently shared between teams so we could recruit enough players. Three base pads plus home plate and a pitcher’s mound, though most often we’d just mark off the four places with whatever we had and call it done. Regulation, smegulation. Softball worked better, since space for the outfield wasn’t as bad an issue.

Kickball was OK, and we played a lot in the backyard, boys and girls alike. If you could get the girls to play, it was easier rounding up enough kids for a game. Again, with kickball all you needed was the ball. In spring, my sisters would set up a badminton net come the weekend, and my biggest joy was whacking the hell out of those birdies to see how many I could drive into the net aggravating my sister, Susan, something bad.

Barry wasn’t particularly interested in badminton–nor were too many of our buddies. So we’d take the badminton net down and get back to real sports.

Come the cooler weather, basketball was a different story. Yes, a ball was required and this time it needed to be round, so substituting the football wouldn’t work. The football bounced weird, and you needed a hoop with a backboard–set somewhere high enough overhead but not too high or no one could land a shot. It was great if the hoop had a net, but not essential. After sunset, porch lights helped. Ever try dribbling a ball on dirt in the dark? Or in the mud after a good rain?

I didn’t see the inside of a basketball court until high school, and my dribbling game never improved, though I could do the jerk my head one way and move the other way pretty well. Problem was I could only do that move a few times before the opposing person figured it out–me and Barry played a lot of one-on-one, and his juke moves were way better than mine.

Golf–what the hell planet did you hale from–golf? A bag of clubs and shoes, and fancy shorts and green fees meant your parents had money. Golf was played on the other side of town, to be sure. We played football growing up.

Simple gear, and the mud was optional, if expected. A mediocre quarterback, and a not so great blocker, best I could do was run like hell along the ditch on the sideline, catch the ball, juke a neighborhood kid or not, and for a couple hours life was that simple. But I loved football as a kid, and I didn’t quit playing until Barry started growing full size and I didn’t. Tackling him became too difficult–and painful. He went on to play high school football and did pretty well at it, no doubt because I’d showed him all my tricks and we’d honed our skills in the backyard.

Years later–enough later I should have known better–when my son, Sean, went with his troop to a Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort A P Hill (one of the bases they’ll be renaming) an Army installation near Richmond–and the boys were clamoring to play football–it was a bunch of scouts, and two adults, me against the square-built US Marine father–still in active service and years younger. In the tent after taps that night, I found it beyond painful just to roll over on the hard ground. It had been fun while it lasted, but tackle football wasn’t what it used to be; that was my weekend’s takeaway.

So the point, you ask? We hadn’t the proper gear for sports, so we made do.

Maybe back then we didn’t worry so much about what life might throw at us. We didn’t let it bother us. And being too polite with insults just meant you were a pussy. And times when Barry and I played on the same team, we didn’t much care who else we had to pick, because right there we had the makings of a winning game.

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