Fifty years ago, as a junior in high school, I threw a 70-yard touchdown pass as Bishop Scully High School (in upstate New York) defeated Broadalbin High School. Surprisingly, however, I never attempted another pass that year. Nor did I throw any passes during my senior season, and I was perfectly healthy during both seasons. So why did I never get a second chance? Let me tell you the story.
First of all, I really did not belong on the football team. At age 16, I stood 6’ 4” but only weighed about 160 pounds. In other words, I was like a big piece of celery that could be crunched in two at any moment. I was much more comfortable with baseball and basketball, two sports that I played pretty well despite my lack of weight and strength.
Why did I try out for football? Because I was stupid. I sincerely believed a line from a song that was popular during that era: “You’ve got to be a football hero to get along with the beautiful girls.” Who wouldn’t want to get along with the beautiful girls? Unfortunately, with a helmet on my head as I stood on the sideline, most girls didn’t realize I was even on the team.
I did have another reason for trying out, though. As a boy trying to make the transition into manhood, I wanted to test myself. I wanted to see if I were tough enough to play a tough game. I wasn’t. I really wasn’t. I only made the team because our school was small, and the coaches never cut anybody. However, I was terrified pretty much every day at practice. I didn’t really have the heart or the passion or the desire to hit people. Yes, I did learn to block and to tackle, and I survived somehow, but I didn’t get in the games very often, which was fine with my mother who didn’t want her little Jimmy to get hurt. “Just stay on that bench,” she used to say to me on Saturday mornings before I headed out to the games, “and I’ll be happy.”
I was pretty happy there, too, I have to admit. But one day before practice started, Coach noticed that I could throw the football pretty far and pretty accurately for a piece of celery. “LaBate, let’s try this end-around play with you, and maybe we can surprise the opposition someday.”
“Sure, Coach. Whatever you say.”
For this particular trick play, I lined up at left end, but instead of blocking or going out for a pass, I turned and ran toward the backfield. There, I was supposed to take a handoff from the fullback who had just received it from the quarterback. Then, I had to scramble to the other side of the field and throw a long pass to the right end who had sprinted down the sideline.
Surprisingly, the play actually worked a few times in practice. As a result, our coach was willing to give it a try during a game late in the season. In the fourth quarter, when we were already well ahead, Coach called me over and sent me into the game with an order to the quarterback to run the play. And so we did.
The first part of the play went smoothly. Our center hiked the ball to our quarterback who quickly turned to his left and handed it to our fullback. This is when everything exploded.
Our fullback was an ornery senior, a muscle-bound knucklehead who did not want to give up the football. He was used to running the ball into the end zone, so the idea of handing it off to a skinny basketball player who would probably throw it into the bleachers did not appeal to him. He knew he had to run the play, though, so he gave up the ball but did so in his own boneheaded way. Instead of actually handing it to me or placing it in my gut like a regular handoff, he disgustedly threw it at my knee pads, and then he proceeded to carry out his fake as if he still had the ball.
Thus, I was left alone in the backfield trying to glue together this busted play. Fortunately, the ball had bounced off my knee pads, hit the ground and bounced up to where I could easily corral it. Then, since my intended receiver on the other side of the field was covered, I scanned my side of the field to find another option.
When we all looked at the game film a week later, I actually looked pretty good in that pose, like a thin Roman Gabriel, then the quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams. I stood erect, ball pulled back and held high in my right hand, eyes focused downfield, with my left hand extended for balance. If I ever had a football card, this would be it — number 82 in green and white, captured forever in a cardboard time capsule.
Naturally, though, the moment could not last. I had to do something: run, throw to a receiver, or get tackled by the approaching linemen. Amazingly, in that instant, I noticed that our fullback, the same guy who had blown up the play in the first place, was wide open about ten yards away and waving his arms like a lost hiker trying to signal to a search team in a helicopter.
Wow! This is going to work out beautifully, I thought as I easily lofted my pass toward him.
“Not so fast, big guy,” a linebacker for the Broadalbin Kens must have exclaimed as he rushed in to intercept. This 6’ 6” giant beat our fullback to the ball, snatched it out of the air like a hawk grasping a tiny bluebird, ran right over the top of me with ease, and scampered 70 yards to a touchdown.
Yes, I have to admit, my 70-yard touchdown pass went to the opposing team, the only points Broadalbin scored that day. Thus, the play not only made our offense look bad, but it also infuriated our defense which was deprived of a shutout. It’s no wonder I never had the opportunity to throw another pass in my otherwise forgettable high-school football career.
Still now, as I watch the games every fall, I wander back to that faraway moment — a moment that becomes both dimmer and more vivid with each passing year — and I reminisce and I wonder: What was our coach thinking when he put me in that game?