Max Shurley accepted my Facebook friend request last week, NFL teams start training camp on Thursday and my beloved Baylor Bears released their annual football “hype video” over the weekend. Two of those three items obviously relate to football, but it is the Max Shurley reference says the most about the game.
We moved to Texas from Northern Virginia in the summer of 1974. In Virginia I had been a decent swimmer and basketball player; I figured I would do the same in the Lone Star State. Football had seen a recent popularity surge in the region, largely because George Allen had turned his “over-the-hill gang” of Washington Redskins into an NFL power. The Redskins had motivated me to play little league football for a couple of years, but it was not memorable one way or another. Just a bunch of skinny kids, swallowed up in pads, bumping into each other for an hour before going out for ice cream.
Instead, basketball provided the passion. Virginia is ACC country and while UCLA might have been the premier program, there was no doubting who had the best league. Although we lived in Virginia, we rooted for Lefty Driesell’s Maryland Terrapins. In the spring of 1974, the Terps lost one of the greatest games of all time in the ACC Finals, falling 103-100 in overtime to David Thompson and eventual NCAA champion N.C. State. It is no big deal today to lose in the ACC tournament, but in 1974 a conference tourney loss meant elimination from March Madness as conferences could only send one school to the dance. Meaning the ‘73-74 Terps are undoubtedly the best team of the modern era to miss the big show. Disconsolate as I was, recess and after-school playground sessions provided endless opportunities to replay the game. To get ready for next year, the playgrounds were full and James Naismith was king of a nation of loyal subjects, any other sport a distant second.
Imagine my surprise arriving in Texas, where basketball was used as winter conditioning for football. We had heard football was big in Texas, but did not really understood what that meant until our first Friday Night Lights experience. As we approached an almost-full 10,000 seat stadium with dueling 300-piece bands, Dad wondered if we had gone to the wrong place. Surely this was a small college game? When he realized that the visiting team’s placekicker was routinely drilling 50-yard field goals in warm-ups (the kicker turned out to be Russell Erxleben, later of the Texas Longhorns and Philadelphia Eagles), he was sure of it. No, the ticket-taker said, we were in the right place. This was the Douglas MacArthur Brahmas vs. the Seguin Matadors.
One look at the pomp and circumstance and a few glances at the cheerleaders and dance squads was enough for me. Football was where it was at! Converted, I began my career in earnest at John Nance Garner Middle School. In seventh-grade we played under the tutelage of Eddie McBee, a great coach and better man. He indulged my wishes and anointed me second-string quarterback. I had visions of winging my team to victory and all the associated glory that role brings in Texas. The truth was I had no arm strength. Coach McBee let me play quarterback because I could remember the plays and had mastered the art of the hand-off. If the starter went down, I probably could be counted on to get the ball to Chuck Moore, the only heavily bearded seventh-grade fullback in the district. Chuck would do the heavy lifting after that. Which was all great because it allowed me to keep my illusions intact and my uniform clean.
Things changed considerably in eighth grade. Coach McBee moved on to the high school. For some reason, the school district thought it would be fun to replace Coach McBee with a mad man, Mike Roberts. Coach Roberts would eventually achieve lasting football glory by moving on to be a position coach at Texas Tech. The man clearly knew his football. Coach Robert’s teaching strategy, however, was ripped from the drill-sergeant playbook, equal parts volume, insults and physical intimidation. That strategy works great for building armies and college football teams, but it was a little over the top for junior high football. Adding to the hellish environment was an August heat wave that far exceeded even the Texas standard. We ran, we hit and we drilled for hours on end, dripping buckets the whole time. Coach Roberts lived in our ear holes, explaining that our failure to master the fundamentals of the game meant we were, in fact, failures at life.
Comrades dropped daily, checking in their equipment and being re-assigned to a physical education class rather than seventh-period football. Quitting was something I thought about daily. The only thing that kept me from pulling the trigger was Coach Robert’s harangues about his most recent victims at the following practice, informing the eighth-grade elite that Joe and Tommie had quit on them, which just went to show what wussies Joe and Tommie really were. Except he did not say wussies. On a short calisthenic break, we would get together and mumble our agreement about Joe and Tommie because the alternative–that Joe and Tommie were immeasurably smarter than we were–was too horrifying to contemplate. I definitely did not want to be thought a wussy; on the other hand, everyday now had two hours of hell. It was a dilemma.
And that is where Max Shurley comes in. Max was good guy and one of our best athletes. Not all that big, but quick and wiry strong. Unlike most of us, Max seemed to be enjoying all of this. One day we were doing the “head-to-head drill.” Two players lie on their backs, with their heads towards each other, separated by a football. On the whistle, both spin to their feet, with one grabbing the ball and becoming the offensive player; the other attempting a form tackle. Coach Roberts blew the whistle, I spun and grabbed the ball. In the blink of an eye, Max’s arms were behind my knees, his helmet in my chest and he was driving me into sun-baked ground not much softer than concrete. A textbook, heads-up tackle, the effect of which was the forced expulsion of every particle of oxygen in my body.
Coach Roberts convulsed into spasms of glee and rightfully so. That was the way you tackle. Coach probably did not notice that I literally could not draw a breath. As I lay on the ground, thinking I might not have to quit–with any luck I would die and avoid the embarrassment–I also realized that “football star” was not in my future. Forget the long, beautiful spirals; the thrilling break-away runs or even the carefully crafted x’s and o’s on the analyst’s telestrator. All of those things are peripheral; at its core, football is about violence. Off the field, Max was as nice as could be; on it, he could flip the kill switch. My kill switch was missing.
I survived the rest of the practice and went in to see Coach Roberts afterward. I told him I was quitting; rather than the string of the insults I was expecting he surprised me by softly asking me why. I told him that it just was no fun.
The next day I could not wait for practice to end; I phoned my buddy Marcom as soon as I knew he would be home to find out what Coach Roberts had to say about me. Marcom was stunned-he said Coach Roberts started per usual: “Howen came to me after practice and said he was quitting.” Groans, but then the odd part. “Men, let me tell you something-he gave me the one reason I find acceptable. He said he wasn’t having any fun. Football is supposed to be fun. So that’s ok.” I went to bed that night, saying a little thanksgiving prayer that I got to keep my limbs and my dignity.
Two days after I quit, about 25 guys lined up to tell Coach Roberts that they too were not having any fun. I now figure it was all part of Coach Robert’s plan; it was time to get rid of the stubborn fence-sitters so he could spend time with the Max Shurleys of the world. This fall, I will be in the stands and in front of the television, immersed in the experience. There is so much to admire about the game; the speed, grace, strength and teamwork it takes to be great. But more than anything else, it is a game for men who revel in hitting and getting hit. Max Shurley taught me that. And ultimately, Mike Roberts taught me it was alright to love the game even if you were missing a kill switch.