So You Want to Be a Football Hero (July 30, 2003)

Saturday night, the fairgrounds. The alumni football game against Deep Valley and hordes of Panthers old and new prowl the bleachers and field. I see Don Summit, Deep Valley’s hoops coach, and my old teammates Bryan and Brent Roberts patrolling the Hornets sidelines. From my seat halfway up the bleachers I begin to delude myself into believing I should have played. But then I move closer to the field and see the quick, vicious hitting. No thanks. One of the hardest hits comes on a Deep Valley touchdown, as the receiver catches the ball, then makes a nifty sidestep to avoid three Boonville defenders bearing down on him. Unfortunately, our three guys steamroll each other, with linebacker Theron Miller (on loan from Mendocino, and a former teammate of 49er QB Jeff Garcia at San Jose State) and cornerback Victor Rossi ramming into each other with a violence that echoes in the stands. Ouch. Ryan Parrish also puts a ferocious (and clean) helmet on two Hornets late in the 4th quarter, knocking them into the turf like a sledgehammer. 

The Panthers put up a good fight, but the Hornets are quicker and crisper. It must also be noted that moments before kick-off Deep Valley asked our coach, Danny Kuny, if he would agree to no blitzing. Ever a gracious host, Danny agreed. Deep Valley then went on to score all three of its offensive TDs on passes, of course. Call me a homer, but if our stellar linebackers, Jason Squires, Clint Wyant and Theron Miller were allowed to bring it without any restrictions, all those quick slants Deep Valley completed would have been disrupted, and their star QB Cetani would have spent much of the game picking himself off the ground. To be fair, the overwhelming majority of Deep Valley’s players were only a couple years out of school and still familiar with their formations and schemes. And experience as a team is hard to beat, especially in a fundraising game in July. But if blitzing is allowed, I doubt if the Hornets offense scores. Another cruel blow to our chances was the unnecessary ejection of star running back and all around tough guy Mike Abbott early in the first quarter. He and a Hornet were tossed for merely shoving each other. It should have been a non-call, with a warning from the referees. Abbott’s loss severely hampered the Panthers’ ability to move the ball. But I’ll quit whining now. Congrats and kudos to all the players and coaches for working hard and taking their lumps for a good cause. 

More Panther memories. It’s the late 1970s. G.P. Price and I are the managers of Coach Gene Waggoner’s powerhouse varsity Panther basketball team, led by Don Summit, John Stevenson, Terry Hughbanks and Charles Davis. Our duties are to cut the oranges for the half-time snack, keep the water bottles full, lord over the towels, and pass out and retrieve the balls before and after warm-ups. We are in Geyserville, a place that is weird even by Boonville standards. It’s a joyless place. The campus is sterile: squat cement buildings, a shabby, uneven lawn, and a giant asphalt parking lot surrounding the Stars and Stripes sulking on a lonely flag pole. In short, a joyless enclave typical of America’s two defining institutions, schools and prisons. No smiling kids, no squirrels, no nothing but harsh fluorescent lights, dim corridors and the smell of disinfectant. Geyserville High is the kind of place only an administrator with one of those phony mail-order PhDs could love. 

The game begins. I don’t remember much of the action, but since we and Mendocino are the class of the league, I imagine we give them a good thrashing. Geyserville’s starting guards are brothers. During the second quarter, one of Geyserville’s guards dribbles the ball upcourt, he approaches half-court when — WHAM! — he’s attacked by his TEAMMATE and BROTHER, who starts throwing punches and screaming, “You’re hogging the ball! I’m going to kill you!” The game stops, the Heckle and Jeckle siblings are separated. G.P. and I are ecstatic — this is the kind of nutty fun that makes a three-hour bus trip worth it!

Now it’s after the game. The players are in the locker room, showering and getting dressed. As G.P. and I trudge with the ball bag towards the bus, one of the Geyserville coaches charges toward us. G.P. and I are in seventh grade, and the coach is about 6’4” with a demented look in his eyes. G.P., who survived the unforgiving streets of San Francisco’s toughest neighborhoods, can spot a seriously deranged person a mile away, and immediately stiffens up. The normally jovial G.P. is in attack mode, and won’t give up the basketballs without a fight. Why should he? They’re ours. The guy has a better chance of stealing an ice cream cone from G.P.’s always hungry clutches. For my part, visions of being sold to Caspian Sea fur traders danced in my adolescent mind. “You’re stealing our balls!” snorts the coach. “What?” “I watched you two punks load some of our balls in your bag.” “No.” “Open the bag. You’re lying.” “No.” G.P. stares hard at our accuser, no doubt deciding how to inflict as much pain as possible. I do the sensible thing and scream, “Gene, some guy’s trying to steal our balls!” Gene comes out. The bag is opened. All the balls are plainly marked the property of A.V.H.S. The coach stalks off without saying a word. Geyserville might be better these days. But I doubt it. 

More G.P.: It’s a football game at the Boonville Fairgrounds against Mendocino, our hated rivals. At 6’3” and well over two hundred pounds, G.P. is one of the biggest guys on our team. Naturally he’s a defensive back. He is a happy-go-lucky guy 99% of the time, unless moon pies or some other treasure in his possession (see above) are being threatened. I am playing linebacker, and can hear G.P. talking to one of the officials, P.J., while the opposing QB brings his team to the line of scrimmage.

G.P.: “I sure am hungry.” 

P.J.: “Me too.”

QB: “Blue, 47!”

G.P.: “I could go for a couple Big Macs right now.”

QB: “Hut one!”

P.J..: “You like ‘em with pickles?”

QB: “Hut two!”

G.P.: “Yeah, I like pickles. Special sauce too.”

QB: “Hut three!” The center hikes the ball and the play begins.

I miss those days.

More P.J.: P.J. was a buddy of the Brad Shear’s. He coached Pop Warner with Brad, reffed basketball games with Brad and others, umpired baseball games, and even coached hardball teams in Ukiah’s summer league. I think P.J. was the coach on the Veterans of Foreign Wars squad that my cousin Wayne and friend Nick Pallazola played on for a little while. P.J. couldn’t pronounce Nick’s last name, and called him “Pappagaga,” “Papazoliolio,” “Peter,” and “Hey You.” Among P.J.’s strengths was his batting orders. One night it would be arranged alphabetically, the next night in order of height, or according to how many letters were in each player’s last name. Once I heard one of his players ask, “Hey coach, how about we hit according to our astrological signs?” “What’s that, kid?” “You know, like I’m a Scorpio, you might be a Leo, Mercury’s in retrograde tonight, that kind of stuff.” P.J. narrowed his eyes and said, “Listen, kid, I don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about it. I’m going to give you a break, because this is a summer league and it’s supposed to keep kids like you away from the pokey. But any more of this bullshit and you’re off the team.” P.J. walked away. They batted that night according to how many fish each said they caught in Lake Mendocino. 

More P.J. Part Two: P.J. was the kind of ump and ref high school kids deserve. Once I ran over the catcher against Geyserville, knocking the ball out of his glove and scoring a run. P.J. was the homeplate ump, and pulled me aside before making the call. “Zack, what’s the rule?” “What rule?” “Okay, you’re supposed to slide in high school, kid, this isn’t the goddamn big leagues.” “Sorry, P.J., I didn’t know.” “Okay, I won’t warn you again.” Then P.J. looked up and motioned dramatically with his arms: “He’s safe!” The coach went berserk, but P.J. held firm — he’d obviously seen enough of those Geyserville bozos too.

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