The Wide Angle: The school of hard knocks

Published 6:11 pm Tuesday, August 15, 2023

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On Monday, student athletes hit the fields, courts and swimming pools as the fall high school sports season got under way.

It’s an exciting time for students. I too remember, vaguely, this time of year. A boy of 15 years, I was bound and determined to be on the sidelines of our high school’s football team.

However, my wiry frame of five-foot whatever I was at the time, filled out with a lean 80-some pounds would never allow for a long football career in high school. As it was, I believe I made it through that freshman year before realizing that I was never really running for glory, but rather I was usually running for my life, especially prior.

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Our school, the formerly mighty Chandler-Lake Wilson Mustangs, were joined by that time with Edgerton and were called the Ridgerunners, a sad spindly take on the roadrunner  that to me was kind of embarrassing. Schools in our area had mighty feathered mascots. Southwest Christian, also in Edgerton, had a flexing eagle. Faith Christian, which folded not long after I was in school, had a strutting falcon.

We were roadrunners. Buffalo Ridge ran between our two communities. Why not the Buffalo or better yet, copy our amateur baseball namesake of the Bison? Both noble creatures — large and strong.

Nope. we were Ridgerunners.

The first solid notion that hindsight was a good indication that football wasn’t for me was — Eddie Nelson.

When we were still Mustangs, I was in junior high football and our practices and games were in the bowl of Chandler. It was a neat little football field. The school itself was located in the loftier portions of Chandler, which was built along the side of a fairly steep rise for the area.

Each day we had to walk from the locker rooms of the school, down the sharply inclined street, and to the field itself, passing the concession stand which I swear to this day was an actual train car altered to be a concession stand. I’m sure I’m wrong, but that’s what I see in my mind.

It wasn’t US Bank Stadium, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was quaint, homey and surrounded by hills. It was striking.

As you well know by now, size was never my thing and ultimately played a role in every level of football I tried to play, not only from a physical standpoint, but from an outfitting standpoint. Finding the proper equipment could sometimes be a struggle.

And of course, because we were in junior high, everything we wore was a hand-me down. My helmet that year was of the fashionable three bar variety that seemed to have come form 1974 — two bars across the lower face and a vertical bar going down the middle. I thought at the time it made me look imposing, and I needed that for my own self-confidence.

The shoulder pads were big and bulky on my narrow shoulders and sometimes would hang too far forward or too far backward after strapping. Getting the jersey on was likewise a hassle as I wrestled to reach my short and straw-like arms into a position sufficient to get anything down over the shoulder pads. Getting it all off wasn’t easy either.

The pants and pads were alright I guess, but hung loose, as you might expect. Overall, I was incredibly top heavy and usually required nothing more than a shove from an opposing player to get me falling head over heels.

If memory serves, I started late in my final year of junior high, probably because I was weighing the scales of risk — Nintendo and life, football and death. After a week had gone by I had made my fateful decision and that first day should have been a red flag.

Now let me say unequivocally, I liked Eddie. He was an upperclassman on the varsity and like everyone else, was much bigger. Like older classmen, he picked on me a little, but it was always good natured and never mean.

In those days, varsity, JV and junior high practiced together. With only one field, we couldn’t really afford our own space and we didn’t have a lot of players anyway.

We made the march from the school to the field and my group, was Eddie and a smaller smattering of players of various levels — and no coaches. A bunch of players with no coaches is a always dicey, but for the most part all we did was mill around.

And then came the question, as best as I can remember. “Hey Eric, do you have your helmet on?”

I turned to the sound of the voice and then promptly found myself staring at equal parts cloudy sky and Eddie’s goofy smiling face as the air escaped my body in a low airy whine, not unlike air being released from a pinched-off balloon.

Tears formed at the corners of my eyes, not from pain I’m proud to say, but rather from the gasping feeling of trying to reintroduce air into my lungs.

Eddie dutifully asked if I was okay, with a face still displaying the goofy grin of a kid who just took down Joe Montana. He was proud of himself I would say from what I assumed would be my vantage point the rest of my life. Before I could protest though, he pulled me from the dewy ground, patted me on my back and congratulated me for taking the hit.

“Thanks,” I wheezed, checking to make sure my head was still firmly attached to my shoulders,  and weakly smiling in return at the knowledge that I took a shot from one of our biggest players and lived to tell the tale.