— Vince Lombardi
NFL Head Coach
Packers & Redskins
Football is not a science. It is a game, one best played by little boys because they have the biggest hearts, the broadest smiles and the most to prove.
And the game must be won. If it is not, disappointment will fill the innocent minds and heavy hearts of the less lucky combatants where it will remain for at least the next five minutes. And then the tiny gladiators will move on to their next conquest, one whose personal heroics undoubtedly will be told and retold among all with listening ears and time to hear of those glorious days from years ago.
It was legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi who once asked the obvious, “If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”
In this Thanksgiving Day clash, we kept score. Coach would have wanted it. No time limits. The game would continue until one of two events took place. Either fatigue would overtake us or parents would return in order to claim their young superstars. No one feared fatigue. We boasted energy levels like that of a TVA power grid.
Occupied with his own football team in cold Wisconsin, coach Lombardi likely never knew of our great Thanksgiving Day game which probably came in or about 1965. Had the famous Packers coach seen us play on this cool holiday afternoon, it is likely the careers of gridiron greats like Paul Hornung, Bart Starr, Elijah Pitts, Zeke Bratkowski, Boyd Dowler, Max McGee, Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke would have been less heralded and far shorter.
Falkner, Miss., families lived miles apart so the arrival to my home of several school buddies on this late Thanksgiving afternoon of ’65 came as a special treat. Their families had already hungrily devoured their turkey and dressing at festive gatherings, as had mine. By pre-arrangement using our phone’s party line, the parents began dropping off their 9- and 10-year-old sons to our house with plans to pick them up two hours later.
All families understood the importance of this visit.
Its sole purpose was for the playing of what would become the year’s most talked-about backyard brawl, one destined to become legend in the sports annals of Falkner Elementary School.
Team selection was simple. Captains Phil Rutherford and Danny Cross made the picks. That’s because it was Phil’s football and Danny was the tallest among our tribe. Because it was my backyard, I could have demanded a captaincy, but Mom and Dad would have disapproved. No big deal. We just wanted to play the game.
Our team consisted of Phil, my best friend Joel Jackson, one other lad and me. Danny took Vitalis poster-child Benny James, and two gridiron tykes I’ll label as Richard and Larry. I don’t remember their last names. This game of the year was played 4 1/2 decades ago, so such detail is fleeting at best.
The field’s boundaries were set. One goal line was a pile of firewood. Another was the back corner of the house. Sidelines were sticks of wood retrieved from the same stack of freshly cut oak.
Our contest opened in frantic style. Phil ran the kickoff back for a touchdown, having escaped a late lunge by Benny at midfield. With no goalposts, we bypassed the extra point conversion and stuck exclusively to the six-pointers. As turkey-laden Falkner families sat back in comfy chairs watching the NFL’s late-afternoon game inside, the real contest was brewing outside.
Four touchdowns, leading to a 12-12 tie, were scored before the game’s first brawl. It came on a fumble, a dropped pitchout that led to an eight-player pileup. Arms thrashed, legs stiffened and angry tennis shoes dug into the damp November soil. I don’t recall who finally secured the squiggling ball, but unraveling the pile of boy humanity would have brought a Green Bay crowd to its feet. Coach Lombardi surely would have beamed with pride.
In tackle football, injuries occurred. It was a given, an accepted part of life. It separated boys from ... everyone else.
Someone jammed a thumb on a dropped spiral from Phil, who I remember always wanted to play quarterback for Mississippi State. Another twisted an ankle. One elbow took a splinter from a stick of sideline firewood. Two heads collided on a tackle.
Had our sweatshirts bore buttons, most would have been stripped by smudged hands making game-saving tackles.
As darkness approached, our tally had reached 42-42. Defense was not the game’s strength. The first set of parents’ headlights pulled into the dirt driveway as I clung to a pass from Phil just beyond the pile of firewood — 48-42. One father thankfully had stopped in the yard to talk to another, thus elongating our game.
As fathers laughed at a distance, wishing one another a happy Thanksgiving, Benny dove across one corner of the end zone, his head barely missing a stick of quartered firewood — 48-48.
Another set of headlights pulled up. And then another. We had to hurry. No championship contest of this caliber could end in a gridlock.
Big Danny lumbered across our goal line on an end-around, knocking Joel to the turf and loosening a tooth. But this was football — 54-48. Our team came close to tying the contest, but a lobbed pass by Phil in the end zone was batted into the air and intercepted. Fathers now lined the near side of our field with crossed arms, awaiting a closing play. The picked pass was the closer. Final score, 54-48.
My team had lost in my own backyard. It was dark, save the dim light from the back porch. But our disappointment was short-lived as our dads applauded our efforts. They were good dads, the best.
Falkner’s game of the year had come to its climactic end. One team won, the other did not.
But all was well.
It was Thanksgiving and there was no school on Friday.
Leftover cake awaited each player back at home.
And coach Lombardi was no doubt in Green Bay shaking his head in amazement at this group of tiny stars who played for love of the game.rick