Image via WikipediaThe first thing Coach Shroyer made us do at our first Pee Wee Football practice was line up and run sprints. We weren’t being punished, we were being sized up. Coach blew the whistle and we took off.
“Man, this equipment is heavy but I can still outrun all of these guys. I’m the next Walter Payton.”
I crossed the finish line neck-and-neck with Scott. We looked at each other and then looked toward Coach. He was busy writing something down on his clipboard. I imagined he was assigning me number 34 and adding a note that read, “The next Walter Payton.” I imagined he was writing something like, “The next Matt Suhey,” next to Scott’s name. I couldn’t remember Matt Suhey’s number.
“If I’m the next Walter Payton and Scott is the next Matt Suhey, will he make my buddy Carl the next Jim McMahon?”
At the next practice, Coach Shroyer started dividing us up into positions. He put both me and Scott at running back. I didn’t know if I was Matt Suhey or Walter Payton. Then Coach Shroyer did something that blew my mind. He lined me and Scott up side-by-side in the backfield. We were both Walter Payton. He called it the Veer. We learned how to take handoffs and became pros at running our plays between tackling dummies. Dive Right was the first play we learned — a quick handoff between the right guard and tackle. It was simple and fast and my new favorite play.
“Keep your shoulders low and your legs moving. Always keep your legs moving, Jeff.”
On defense we spent the first few weeks learning how to tackle. Our defensive coach was Tom Shade. Tom was a big, excitable guy who loved the emotion of the game. He was the kind of coach that would get into drills with us with no pads on. He’d dare us to tackle him, but nobody could. Then he told us why. “Wrap the legs, fellas! If you wrap up their legs they can’t move and they’ll go down. Get low! Get low!” We got low. We made tackles. When I took someone down he would laugh and the ground would shake, “Yes! Light ‘em up, Little Dude! Light ‘em up.”
“Remember how you wrap the legs, Little Dude? If they don’t wrap your legs, keep ‘em moving and they’ll never take you down.”
I wasn’t nervous for the first game because I didn’t know any better. We won the coin toss and Coach Shroyer decided that we would start with the ball. I ran out to the field with the rest of the team and waited for Coach Shroyer to call the play. On the sidelines, Coach Shade was clapping and firing up the crowd. I heard him shout, “Little Dude!” I looked to the sideline. “Stay low and keep moving!” I smiled through my mouthpiece and turned back to the huddle. Coach Shroyer looked around the huddle and said, “Okay, guys. Dive Right on one. Ready, break!”
“This is my favorite play. We’re going to score a touchdown.”
We broke the huddle and I lined up between the guard and tackle. I looked at the defense and saw the linebacker standing right in the hole. No matter, I just had to stay low and keep my legs moving. Just like Walter Payton. I glanced over at the quarterback and then returned my focus to the hole. He snapped the ball and I burst forward out of my stance. I felt the ball hit my stomach and I clamped down. I kept my shoulders low and plowed into the hole. There was just enough space for me to fit through. I made a cut to the right and I felt the linebacker grab me by the shoulders. I kept my legs moving. I felt another hit. I kept my legs moving. Another defender piled on. I kept my legs moving. I was trudging slowly under the weight of the tacklers, but I was still moving. I could feel the weight pulling me down as I slowed. Suddenly, I heard Coach Shade’s voice shouting over the crowd, “Ha, ha! Look at that Little Dude run! Look at that Little Dude run! Keep going Little Dude!” I bared down and pushed a little more and managed about four more yards before the weight of the tacklers pulled me down. I pulled myself from under the pile and stood up to hear the crowd laughing at Tom Shade on the sideline jumping up and down, “Look at the Little Dude run! It takes a whole team to stop him! Look at the Little Dude ruuuuuuun!”
“I didn’t score a touchdown. I think that’s okay, though. I’m Walter Payton.”