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Original Issue

Football as a Form of Disorderly Conduct

On the vacant lots of suburban Minneapolis 30 years ago, the game lacked style and perhaps even sense—but it called for iron character, healthy lungs and certain improbable skills

Football as played today by 10- to 14-year-old boys is a continual source of wonderment to this veteran of the 1932-36 juvenile football wars. Modern youngsters look and act like pint-size versions of the Baltimore Colts. They wear plastic helmets and nylon stretch pants. They are superbly coached. And they frequently execute plays that would leave Y.A. Tittle frantically taking notes.

The game as we played it on the sand-lots of suburban Minneapolis some 30 years ago lacked a measure of this surface glamour and polish but it had a lunatic skill of its own. Normally, for a routine pickup after-school game, all one required was a vacant lot, a football whose dimensions met certain minimum requirements (it had to be as long as it was round) and at least six willing participants. A team needed at least three players: one to center the ball with reasonable accuracy (no one in our group had yet heard of the T formation snap-back), a ballcarrier and a blocker. The blocker's sole responsibility was to run ahead of the ballcarrier making fearsome faces.

A major contest between two teams from different neighborhoods was something else. Return with me to Saturday, October 21, 1933, when the Hubbard Avenue Hornets and the Welcome Street Wallopers collided fiercely in their annual big game.

Several days earlier, in the gloom of the coatroom of Miss Clovestad's seventh-grade classroom, we—the Hornets—had won the toss to determine on which field the game was to be played. We promptly chose the Wallopers' home grounds. Does this sound like quixotry? Not at all. Our strategy virtually guaranteed us victory.

The Wallopers' home terrain severely hampered the running game. A 40- to 50-foot-wide building lot does not lend itself to sweeping end runs. Aside from that, the field was bounded on one side by a concrete sidewalk and on the other by a thorny hedge.

That left two primary ground weapons: the off-tackle play and what we called the center plunge. Running them was mere exercise when faced by only three or four defenders. In our traditional game with the Wallopers, however, two well-manned teams of 13 or 14 players each were to square off across the line. The carnage was sure to assume heroic proportions.

Shortly before 9 a.m. on Saturday, we assembled on the Wallopers' field. The casual passerby could not have told which team was which. The uniforms consisted of a loose gray cotton pull-over, referred to as a sweat shirt; a pair of trousers of the type now known as Levi's or jeans; and high-top rubber-soled canvas shoes.

Several players were equipped with heavy high-top work shoes, familiarly known as clodhoppers. They slowed a running back, but they had a way of keeping the defense remarkably honest. The prospect of getting clipped beneath the chin by a clodhopper made one extremely conservative about launching a flying shoestring tackle.

All but a handful of participants wore authentic Charles A. Lindbergh aviator's helmets. Since the Lone Eagle's historic flight only six years previous, most boys found it impossible to survive a Minnesota winter without one of the heavy fleece-lined leather headgears. Lindbergh's unconscious gridiron legacy undoubtedly prevented scores of split skulls and lacerated scalps.

Before the game we Hornets stood around in a loose circle, studying the Wallopers. They boasted some famous players. Their names were renowned and feared by 12-year-olds in other sections of town as far distant as 15 or 16 blocks.

There was Donkey Roberts, an enterprising fellow who had discovered that, without incurring more than nominal damage to his torso, he could knock a ballcarrier galley-west with a flying body block. The Roberts block tackle had been adopted by nearly everyone, but he was by all odds its most devastating practitioner.

There was also Jamie Rooney, a crafty Irish type and a standout defensive player. The general lack of protective gear led, quite naturally, to extreme prudence on defense. Rooney was adept at waiting until the ballcarrier was passing by, then leaping on his back. He was also the leading exponent of another admired technique, the horse-collar tackle.

We noted with ill-disguised glee that the Wallopers' great halfback, Pint Boone, was missing. Unfortunately, among those Wallopers present was Indian Joe, a wild and tricky runner whose touchdown output was prodigious. He was no Indian, but then neither was his name Joe. He owned a complicated Middle European name. But he was dark-complexioned and smoky-eyed, hence his nickname.

We had touchdown producers of our own, stars like Hugh Clausen and Sidney Pugh. Sidney is not a name to conjure up visions of broad-chested heroes, and his surname was pronounced exactly like the exclamation one makes when sniffing rancid chicken fat. Yet Sidney, in addition to being a frantic runner with a remarkable instinct for survival, was equipped with a firecracker temper. We could always count on him for an additional touchdown or two whenever a member of the opposition imprudently made snide references to either his first or last names.

At game time the Wallopers stalled. They were short two men. But they became eager to begin when their ace, Pint Boone, appeared. Pint was scarcely garbed for football. He wore a new-looking sweater and corduroy knickerbockers. He explained disgustedly, "My ma made me go to piano practice."

Enter Mother

We kicked off. Pint Boone scored in three plays. We received and promptly fumbled. Pint scored again. We took the kick again, couldn't get our offense in gear and punted 17 yards downfield. Pint broke loose for another long touchdown run.

As we vented our frustration by attempting to bend him double in our end zone, the morning was rent by a cry of pure feminine anguish. Pint had gambled and lost. His mother, passing by with an armload of groceries, saw only that her son's Sunday-best clothing was being expertly dismantled. The mere sight of a minute hole in the backside of a pair of new corduroy pants could send even the calmest dollar-minded, Depression era mother into a broom-swinging rage.

"Donald Boone! You come home with me this instant." Despite this bitter blow, the Wallopers were committed to continue.

We Hornets, on the other hand, were so elated by the miracle that we braced on our goal line and quickly scored two touchdowns. The Wallopers now were leading 18-12.

The forced departure of Pint Boone was offset when we lost our star, Hugh Clausen. We were driving nicely for our third touchdown when a Walloper lineman pointed to Hugh's feet and hollered in choking disbelief: "Look, he's wearing spikes!"

Hugh, the only son of a professional man, owned more toys, games and sporting equipment than our entire neighborhood combined, and he had sought to gain additional broken-field running traction by donning baseball shoes. He was summarily banished.

The game wore on. We matched them touchdown for touchdown. Marty Norstad returned to our huddle and announced, "Goodpaster's got wooden legs or Somethin'. I kick him in the shins and he just laughs." The Wallopers' Emmet Goodpaster had come up with a remarkable innovation. He had constructed an admirable pair of shin guards simply by stuffing magazines inside his knee-length stockings.

Play halted suddenly. Paul Rasmussen's father had been standing nearby observing us. Adults were not encouraged to hover about the sidelines at our games. They were a nuisance. We railed at Paul, "How'd he find out? Betcha told him." Rasmussen's father was an even graver threat to our peace of mind than most. He sometimes went so far as to offer advice to players.

The Wallopers were equally vehement. "Get him to go or forfeit the game." They were not being unduly nasty. The appearance of an adult could cause a game's speedy removal to another site, or even end it completely.

Paul sheepishly engaged his father in whispered conversation. Mr. Rasmussen strolled off.

The game ceased once more at the approach of the Wallopers' Bunny Kjeldahl. Bunny, or Bernard as he was known in school, was an undistinguished football player, yet the legendary Bronko Nagurski could scarcely have caused more excitement among us.

Bunny was wearing a complete football uniform, a supreme rarity. He announced that it had been bequeathed him by a former college star, a friend of his father's. The elegant golden jersey caused unabashed awe. It boasted a fierce red lion on its front, and we all envied Bunny. Our huddle reeked of sour grapes as we voiced dark suspicions that he suffered from an infirmity known as "chicken."

But the Wallopers rejoiced in Bunny's equipment. They thought it made them invincible, and they were pretty close to right. A team owning a real football helmet could hand it around the huddle to whoever had been elected as the next ballcarrier. This detracted from whatever slight deception the attack may have possessed. But it gave the ballcarrier extraordinary confidence. He saw himself, grandiosely, as a human battering ram, immune to physical pain.

This terrible offensive weapon could be countered, though. By begging or borrowing a pair of shoulder pads, one became a veritable defensive Goliath. Like the helmet, shoulder pads were passed around as needed, in a rough and ready sort of socialism.

But a whole football uniform! Our spirits quailed. Depression overcame us.

We became so unsettled that the Wallopers, with Indian Joe running wild, promptly counted three touchdowns. We were saved from complete disaster only because the football, an ancient heirloom, deflated in midplay with a sad sigh.

So routine was this that it caused no comment. Gus Dorais and the immortal Rockne had long since made a devastating weapon of the forward pass. To accommodate it, the football was becoming increasingly slim. But the balls we used were black with age, fat and stub-nosed, relics of the dropkicking era. A football was a treasure handed down from older to younger brother.

We removed ourselves to the shady side of the hedge while Marty Norstad, a bicycle owner, unlimbered his tire-repair kit. We rested while Marty pedaled off to the nearest gas station to reinflate the ball. Football repair was a problem requiring foresight. It was considered prudent to have an in with a friendly shoemaker who, free of charge, would mend a torn seam. When laces rotted, we replaced them with a shoelace. When a ball was really old and no longer repairable, we stuffed it with rags.

During this enforced rest period. Horse Swanson rekindled Hornet morale by pointing out that the fearsomely attired Bunny Kjeldahl had been unable to wreak the havoc of which he appeared capable simply because he lacked the minimum ingredients of agility and courage. Horse clinched his argument. "Notice they don't let him carry the ball none."

Reassured, we stormed back. As we broke for lunch, the score stood at a respectable Wallopers 42, Hornets 36.

When play resumed at 1 o'clock we decided to vary our attack with the tricky hidden-ball play. The plan was to shove the pigskin up the back of the sweat shirt of Sam Dodd, who had replaced the departed Hugh Clausen in our backfield. As we all ran down the field like crazy, Sam was supposed to amble goalward down the sideline wearing a bemused expression as if he had suddenly decided to withdraw from play.

Naturally, the play fell apart, as it usually did. The hidden ball required a boy with the nerves of a parachute jumper and the poise of a confidence man. It was necessary for him to stroll downfield with studied casualness while knowing full well that at any moment he might be belted unmercifully from the blind side by an opponent who had not been suckered by the stratagem.

As the afternoon wore on, play was punctuated by bitter complaints of limping ballcarriers: "Come on! Cut out the clipping, will ya!" Devotees of the Donkey Roberts block tackle were addicted to throwing it from the rear.

The game came to a temporary halt when Sid Pugh punched Jamie Rooney in the mouth. This led to several auxiliary scuffles. Sid accused Jamie of raking him across the face with his fingernails. "I'll probably get gangrene," he predicted, wiping his bleeding cheek with his grimy hand.

The fight hardly caused a ripple. Since there was no referee or other supervisor, general riot was always imminent. Common offenses included the usual tripping, elbowing, kneeing and kicking. These violations, along with refinements such as clotheslining with the forearm across the face, if perpetrated too often, usually brought the offender a clout in the teeth from his irate victim. On the other hand, techniques such as poking in the eye with a finger, if judiciously and infrequently employed, could in most cases be explained away as accidental.

At midafternoon, we Hornets could smell victory despite the fact that we stood on the short end of a 78-60 score. We were convinced that the home-field whammy was about to plague the Wallopers. Paul Rasmussen was most vocal. "Just watch. Every Saturday, Indian Joe's gotta sweep the basement. His old man'll call him. Just watch."

Paul's prophecy generated such wild enthusiasm in our ranks that we tried a forward pass. It was utterly foolhardy. The obese pigskin did not lend itself to throwing. Even the most expert 12-year-old could, at best, cradle it in his hand and push it forward erratically and inaccurately. The Wallopers promptly intercepted and lateraled off to Indian Joe. We trailed 84 to 60.

We got the touchdown back when Donkey Roberts waited until Sid Pugh was looking straight at him, then held his nose and made a distasteful face. Sid scored in two plays, and several moments later scored again. Score: Wallopers 84, Hornets 72.

The Wallopers picked off an errant lateral from Sam Dodd and scored. Not a whisper of criticism was leveled at Sam. The lateral pass was much esteemed, especially by cornered ballcarriers facing certain inundation.

The sun poised on the far horizon. Still Indian Joe was among us. We needed three touchdowns to tie, four to win. By common consent, the game would end when darkness prevented further play. Soon the shades of early evening began to fall and the dinner hour was close at hand. Indian Joe remained on the field. We waited to hear the bull-throated cry of his father, "Vladimir! You come home! Right now!"

In desperation, we scored again. It was slow, tough work in the twilight. Two touchdowns to tie, three to win.

We huddled, defeat surrounding us like a fog. We failed to see two Catholic nuns who had halted on the sidewalk.

"Vladimir Syczkronski," said the taller nun, staring hard at Indian Joe, "Jamie Rooney and Charles Roberts. You'll be late for the altar boys' dinner. Run along home, boys, and change your clothes." In one instant the Wallopers ball club had been ruined.

After that it was easy. We tallied as we pleased. Final score: Hornets 102, Wallopers 90.

You might think such grizzled veterans of the sandlot wars would have gone on to glory in the more effete form of the game known as regulation football. Not so. In high school not so long afterwards we went out for football as naturally as we breathed. We soon learned that the coaches—who wore clean sweat shirts that fitted and baseball caps and whistles on cords around their necks—were not looking for 125-pound sandlot whizzes.

Boys we scarcely knew, older fellows with muscles, who could run, pass, kick, block and tackle, were selected to play the tough, driving single-wing football.

So there we were. Neglected. Washed up. Has-beens at age 15. We sat around under shade trees on autumn afternoons like retired gladiators, reflecting on the days of our gridiron glory so recently vanished.