Yes Virginia, There is a Santa Claus


YES VIRGINIA, THERE IS A SANTA CLAUS AND WE CAN STILL PLAY JUST AS GOOD AS WE USED TO…

This is a true story. The names of the teams, the place and date have been intentionally left out to preclude the possibility of our team trophy being taken away because of the negligible contribution of two old men.

For years I had this recurring dream. It was always the same. I am in my college locker room at half-time when my Coach comes up and grabs me by the shoulder and says, “Boy, am I glad to see you. We need you to suit up and help us out tonight!” He pulls me over to a locker with my name on it and says, “We have your old gear all ready for you!” I look and there is my old number 85 hanging up with all my equipment. After all these years the Coach needs me to suit up!

Each dream was identical. There was never any variation. I start suiting up, get taped, strap on my pads and pull on my jersey. The Coach fires us up with a last minute Knute Rockne speech. We lock hands as a team and shout our battle cry together. Then everybody is yelling, jumping up and down, banging the lockers with their forearms and helmets, hitting each others shoulder pads and storming out the door. Outside it is a crisp, clear, cold night with halos around the bright lights shining on the field. You can see your breath in the air. The crowd is screaming and stomping in the stands as we come running on to the grass. We run through our warm ups and drills in preparation for the coming sixty minute contest.

I run out and line up with the kickoff team. I am unbelievably pumped up and ready for battle. The Ref holds his hand up and we all lean forward in anticipation. The whistle blows and we charge off the line. Then at the moment the kicker makes contact with the ball I suddenly wake up!

I used to lie in bed with eyes closed tight, still as death, trying to fall back asleep. Desperately attempting to get back to the dream – back into the game, dying to make it past the kickoff, but it was no use. It was always the same. The Coach tells me he needs me, I get taped and dressed, run out under the lights, do warm-ups, line up for the kickoff, the game starts and I am wide awake. No matter what I did or how hard I tried – as soon as the ball was kicked I was awake for good. Nothing would bring back the game.

I don’t know how many times I had the dream over the years. More than I can count. No doubt Freud would have had a theory about it, but I just wanted to get past the opening kickoff and get out there and mix it up one more time. I think I just missed playing the game.

As each new season started I would get amped about football. Heck, every time I smelled cut grass from a lawn being mowed it reminded me of the smell of grass smashed into my faceguard at the bottom of a pile and I’d get horny for football. Each fall, watching and envying the players, I would inevitably imagine what it would be like to play one more time. What if just like in my dream the Coach came to me and said he needed me to play? Over the years I had plenty of help, too. My buddies would sit around with me fantasizing and boasting of how we’d play if given another chance – engaging in the old guy’s favorite sport of pre-season mutual delusion.

You know how it goes – whatever your sport is. You don’t have to be good , just capable/ but you have to love it. Long after ability fades and our bodies begin to degrade we kid ourselves into thinking we still have something left. We look in the mirror holding in our gut and pretend that if we hit the gym real hard we could get it back enough to play in some obscure venue. We nurture the delusion until one day we wake up and have to face up to the realization that the dream is over and the chance will never come again. It is a hard truth we all have to eventually accept. Never again will we strap on our battle gear and step onto the playing field. Never again will we feel the fear, pain and sheer exhilaration of a hard fought game. Never, ever again.

For me it came one cruel day when I had just stepped out of the shower. I looked in the mirror and realized that I looked just like my Dad naked! ( When you cross that line you

KNOW your time has come and gone). But even that horrible scare didn’t stop me from dreaming about it or imagining what it would be like to put the pads on for one more round. It’s because of one of those Man-gene things – we can’t help it.

There is something about the camaraderie, the anticipation of a game, playing in the mud rain and heat, trash talking across the line, Coaches pushing us in practice until we were hard and tough and eager for contact. Above all else I think we just missed having a manly contract with the other team to go out on the gridiron for one hour and physically battle until the final second – may the best team win. There is something special about football that touches something deep in all of us – sort of an inner warrior. Refined by centuries of civilization, but still there, that hearkens back to a primitive need to defend the tribe and territory. It is in all of us and football especially seems to trigger the instinctual awakening that occurs whenever the need arises to protect our turf and defeat the enemy.

Like I said, I knew my time had come and gone long ago. Then one day I received a telephone call from a college buddy. He said his high school was set for an Alumni Game that Friday and they were short defensive lineman. He wanted to know if my cousin (also my former roommate /teammate) and I would consider driving down and help them field a team! When? Friday? I thought it over for a whole half nano-second before committing.

“Yes! No problem (don’t worry that I am forty-eight years old and haven’t run any farther than the bathroom in recent years). “Yes, yes, yes!” There was magic in the air. The sun was shining, birds were singing, “Coach needs you!” – I was ecstatic! Yes Virginia, there IS a Santa Clause!

So a few days later my cousin and I hopped into the car and headed south as excited as two little kids. We were going to play football again! Not that wussy flag or touch stuff either. This was the real thing. Helmets, pads and full contact. Wahoo!

On the way we stopped at Sport Mart and bought shoes and mouthpieces. Next we stopped at McDonalds and dipped the mouthpieces into their boiling hot coffee to melt and shape them to our teeth. Sweeeeeeeeet! Soon we were on the freeway again practicing growling with our mouthpieces in and grimacing at the other cars. We were psyching up, getting ready to kick some butt!

We made it to the field about an hour before game time. We man-hugged our buddy, signed useless insurance waivers promising not to sue no matter how badly we were maimed, got fitted for our pads and uniforms and hit the locker room. It was like going back in time. Everybody was in high spirits, talking and joking and excited about the game. They had been practicing together and knew each other. We only knew our host and we were so excited we forgot who were even playing for and almost got busted a couple of times when our “teammates” asked what year we played and who the Coach was. We mumbled made-up names for our fictional Coaches and had to fudge a little on when we played. It turned out that my cousin and I were the two oldest players on BOTH teams! The next oldest after us was the guy who invited us. Some of our teammates had not even been born when we hung up our cleats. Hell, I had shoes at home older than most of them.

But as we dressed the years fell away and the old competitive feelings came back. We weren’t old, fat used-to-bes any longer – we were players! I even got into it in the locker room before the game with a couple of guys from the other team (when they refused to let me borrow some of their tape). Momentarily forgetting that I was old enough to have played with their grandfathers, I reverted back to the old form and told them I would pay them back on the field. – Much to their glee.

They offered me to get me Geritol and a box of Depends, but told me I was too old to use tape all by myself. I was a bit taken aback by the lack of respect, but mustered up my dignity and walked away declaring that they would respect me after the game. As I left they called out for me to remember that the school had a policy of no “walkers” on the football field Funnnnnnnnnnnnnnny.

Back in our locker room I pulled on my stuff and couldn’t wait to see what I looked like. In the day, I looked big and tough in my pads so as soon as I dressed I ran to a mirror to admire my fierceness. It was at this moment that reality first started to rear its ugly head. What I saw looked like my Dad again – this time dressed up as a football player for Halloween! (Whose belly was that hanging out beneath my jersey?) I didn’t look scary – I looked silly! Like a player in a bad SNL skit. Now, looking big and mean to intimidate your opponent is part of the game, but, looking in that mirror I realized that nobody was going to be intimidated by me. No wonder the jerks from the other team laughed at me! My confidence took the first hit of the game as I started to consider the wisdom of taking the field with my old body against a bunch of young athletes in their prime.

From there it only got worse. Out on the field the air, the lights and the crowd were just like in my dream, but as we were warming up an enthusiastic teammate came up and brought both fists banging down on my shoulder pads. I turned to my cousin and mouthed an alarmed, “OWWWWWW!” His eyes got big and we shared one of those “Uh, Oh” looks. I was thinking if that hurt what was the game going to be like? This wasn’t exactly like I had imagined. Across the field the other team was looking awful big and mean (like I had imagined I would look). I couldn’t help wondering how banging into them was going to feel. If I had the time, I would’ve run back right then and put on a cup and maybe one of those rubber dog training suits…. I had a feeling I was going to need all the protection I could get.

During calisthenics while everybody else was touching their toes I was barely able to reach my knees. When it came to drills I couldn’t get down into a proper stance so I assumed a stylized crouch. On one drill we had to run out and pop a linebacker. He hurt me so bad I almost lay down and called for a stretcher. I was seriously starting to worry. The closer we got to kickoff the more anxious I became. My whole body was in pain and the game had not even started yet. By the time we lined up for the kickoff I started wondering what the Hell we were thinking when we agreed to this.(I was also thinking I’d sue our “buddy” who had talked us into this if we got hurt too bad). Looking at the other team I had already decided to amend my goal of impressing everybody with my strength and prowess to just making it through the game without ending up in the local ER. My cousin said he was just hoping to live until morning. We both took the precaution of writing our blood types on our inner arms with Magic Markers and jotted quick notes to our families before taking the field.

It turned out that enough people showed up for the game that we were able to field two defensive teams. So we divided up and alternated series. I was surprised at the amount of talent and how well the game was played. Our side boasted a former USC linebacker, a wide receiver from Stanford, a former Canadian League Quarterback and a couple of lineman from BYU – among others. Both sides played hard and it got very physical. Pent up aggression was vented and glory sought for four hard hitting quarters. It was pure primeval football. It was what everybody came for.

It started out as a pretty even contest, but as the game progressed we began to hammer the opposition and they started to wear down. Offensively we took it to them for the entire sixty minutes. Our wideout from Stanford made a series of spectacular catches until he got his bell rung early in the second half. But then our other receivers stepped up pulling balls in all over the field and racking up the yards. Our ex-Canuck QB was throwing bombs

Up front, our line opened hole after hole and we had a couple of halfbacks that went through their defense like hot knives through butter. Our defense crushed every drive their offense tried to put together. It was beautiful. Our side played well together as a team and it showed.

We totally dominated through four of the shortest quarters I have ever experienced. Because we were alternating series our side was fresh and well rested the entire game.

We won easily by a four touchdown margin. I played defensive end and my cousin played nose guard. We both made a couple of tackles and got in a few assists. I’ll admit I got pushed around the first ten minutes or so, but then I got warmed up and did alright.

I got in my crouch with my back to the sideline and nobody got around me all night.. For me, it was a great game. For a little while we forgot our age and we were young and tough again. It was way more fun than any two old guys should be allowed to have. It was by far, one of the most cherished experiences of my life.

We drove home euphoric. We had pulled it off. We had suited up with the young guns and lived to tell about it. We were beat up and bruised, but still ambulatory. Nobody nominated us for game MVPs, but we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves either. For a little while we had been part of a team again and as one teammate crowed in the locker room after the game, “We came to their house and ate their dinner!”

I brought a video of the game home and drove my family, friends and neighbors crazy with it for weeks. Every time I rummaged around in the media cabinet my kids would start groaning,”Not the football video again, Dad!” The neighbors would suddenly remember something important at their house. I’d be like, “Wait, just watch this!”, and I’d run it back and forth three or four times showing my plays. Even my best friends would roll their eyes when I brought it out. Finally, I couldn’t find it anymore. (I am guessing it had a little help getting lost.)

And remember the two guys I had words with in the locker room before the game? The ones who offered to send me Geritol? One of them played offensive tackle and every chance I got as soon as the ball was snapped I lunged over and forearmed him under the chin and slapped his helmet with my other hand (the way we used to in the old days before they changed the rules). As the fourth quarter was starting I looked across the line and saw a look in his eyes like he couldn’t wait for this night to end. Seeing that I went after him even harder right up to the final gun. After the game he walked over where we were taking pictures. He put his arm around me, smiled and said, “I guess the old lions still have a few teeth.” What could have been better than that? I’ll probably be remembering that the moment I die.

Oh yeah, the dream? Never had it again, but that’s OK – Now I have the video of the WHOLE game (somewhere).

B.D. Fenton is a freelance writer living in Southern California.

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