Evanston Township High School wasn't looking for 5'5", 125-pound football players in the 1950s, or so I told myself. The truth was, I wanted no part of contact, especially the college-level blocking and tackling that made the Wildkits the terrors of the Suburban League and the state of Illinois. To put it plainly, I was as short on courage as I was on inches. I knew my place all right: in the flag football league at the Evanston YMCA.
I wasn't any braver when I entered the University of Illinois in the fall of 1954. I was a phys ed major, determined to become a basketball coach despite having been cut from every team I'd tried out for at ETHS. One of my required courses that first semester was Beginning Football, which I assumed would be a class in theory. I was in for a big surprise.
The first morning the class was divided into three sections, one under varsity Backfield Coach Ralph Fletcher, one under End Coach Bob King, and my group under Line Coach Burt Ingwersen.
After taking attendance, Coach Ingwersen sent us upstairs to "draw equipment." I didn't like the sound of that, but then maybe they'd just be giving us T shirts and shorts with ILLINOIS FOOTBALL stenciled on them. When I arrived at the equipment cage, one of the two attendants slid a pair of shoulder pads across the counter toward me.
"What's this?" I asked.
"This, kid, is a pair of shoulder pads," he said. He wasn't trying for a laugh, but his response broke up everyone waiting behind me.
By now I was starting to get the picture: we weren't going to learn football in shirts and shorts or in a classroom. My fears were confirmed when the last piece of equipment came sliding across the counter: a new, black Riddell suspension helmet. A few minutes later I learned that things would be even worse than I had imagined. Each of the three sections was loaded with freshman and varsity players.
Our classes were as demanding as varsity practices. We were taught to block, then we blocked. We were taught to tackle, then we tackled. Coach Ingwersen didn't much go for anything that involved the ball. In fact, we didn't see a football the first two weeks of class. After that, we spent almost no time on passing, catching, kicking and running.
It was just my luck to end up with the line coach. My one hope was that the team players would take it easy on a little fellow. They didn't, and for eight weeks every muscle in my body throbbed. Not a day passed that I didn't consider quitting—not just Beginning Football but everything: school, fraternity, the lot.
But as the days went by, the pounding hurt less and less. I realized that when you've never been blocked or tackled, those first few hits make your body feel as though it's coming apart. After a thousand blows, however, what's one more? Or 10 more? Where could they hurt me where I didn't already hurt? I wondered if a lot of football players weren't the same: not so much fearless as numb.
Coach Ingwersen made us play every position on offense and defense. But no matter where I lined up, I couldn't seem to avoid the thunderous shots handed out by the two hardest hitters in our section, a freshman guard I remember as "Bull" Durham and a classmate, Tackle Roosevelt Dugger. They not only hit hard but also laughed while inflicting their punishment. Service with a smile.
Durham and Dugger were an equal-opportunity combination. They went after 6'4", 250-pound Wayne Bock as fiercely as they came after me. The "D-Boys," as they called themselves, were always anxious to show Coach Ingwersen what they could do against somebody the size of Bock, and Coach was only too happy to oblige.
Durham and Dugger enjoyed watching others get hit almost as much as they relished belting players themselves. If there were a loud popping of pads across the field, they'd say, "Must be Nitschke." They were referring, of course, to the same Ray Nitschke who later leveled backs from his middle-linebacker position on the Green Bay Packers. Nitschke was only a freshman, but his hitting was already the talk of the campus.
There was one other player in the section who bothered me, though we never banged into one another. He was "Spike" Harvey, a 9.8 100 man and the best running back in the freshman class except for future All-America Bobby Mitchell. It seemed as though I was always at defensive end when Spike carried the ball during our scrimmages. He turned my corner every single time, but that's not what upset me. What got me was that he ran right past me without ever looking at me. I knew I wasn't going to lay a hand on him, much less tackle him, but I would have appreciated at least a glance acknowledging my existence.
He never gave me one, and that hurt as much as any cross-body block from the D-Boys or even the elbow I took to my right cheek on Tuesday of the fourth week of class. By the following Friday the swelling had gone down, but I was left with one whale of a shiner. I decided the world had to see it, which meant going to Bidwell's, the campus hangout. I had seldom set foot in the place, being the only male student on campus who didn't care for beer, but this was a special occasion. I had me a Big Ten bruise.
While trying my best to look natural, I heard a soft voice say, "What happened to you?" A quarter-turn to my right and I was face-to-face with a young Lauren Bacall lookalike.
Like most 18-year-old boys, I hadn't had much experience with beautiful women, but my response wasn't bad under the conditions: "You know, playing football with the big boys."
"You poor thing," she replied. Right then and there I knew why guys played football. I also knew I was going to make it through the full eight weeks.
During the last week of class we were tested: performance drills on Wednesday, a full-scale scrimmage on Thursday and a written final on Friday. I wasn't worried about the final; I was as prepared for that as anyone in the three sections. It was Wednesday and Thursday that concerned me.
My luck couldn't have been worse. I drew Bull Durham for the one-on-one blocking and tackling drill. My spirit vanished. Not only was I not going to pull an A, but I also was going to be seriously injured. We each would have three turns on offense, three on defense. A ballcarrier would attempt to use the blocker to elude the tackier while staying between a pair of dummies set two yards apart.
As I braced myself for the worst, the rest of the class—as it had done on every preceding "duel"—started cheering. Some, including Dugger, were yelling for Bull, which convinced me that both guys were indeed sadists. Others, however, were pulling for me. When I looked around to see who was supporting me, Wayne Bock nodded and said, "Stay in there, kid, and take him low."
I got down in a four-point defensive stance, keeping my eyes glued on Bull's down hand. As I saw it come up, I tried to submarine him, to "strip the play," as Coach Ingwersen said. But Bull was no stranger to such tricks. He got down even lower and faster than I. He peeled me off the ground with his huge forearms, and then lifted me up just enough so that he could use his stocky legs to drive through me. A perfect block.
Whatever ploy I tried on offense or defense, Bull demolished. When we finished, the cheering turned to clapping. There had been real contact all right, and Bull had hit me with some shots I'd never forget. But I was satisfied. I would always know what it feels like to be hit all-out by a major-college lineman.
The Thursday scrimmage was by far the most exciting event of the eight weeks. Coach Ingwersen divided us into two even teams and, for a change, put us into logical positions. I lined up at right halfback.
I was happy to see the D-Boys on our team, Durham at right guard, Dugger at right tackle. We also had Dick Walker, probably the best all-round player in the class, at right end. Spike Harvey was on the other team, as was Wayne Bock, who played left defensive tackle, opposite Durham, Dugger...and me.
Our plays weren't very sophisticated, mostly dives and sweeps. Coach couldn't have cared less. Plays, he said over and over, didn't win for you. No sir, execution, i.e., blocking and tackling—that wins football games.
As might be expected, our execution left much to be desired. I had not gained one yard in eight weeks, but on that final Thursday, on one magic play, I found out what it's like to cross the line of scrimmage without getting shellacked.
It was a straight dive, a play Bock had stopped all morning, burying me and my blockers under his massive frame every time. Just before the snap our left half went in motion. As he passed in front of me, I thought about Coach's disdain for men-in-motion and wondered what the halfback might contribute to this play.
The ball was snapped and the quarterback came down the line as I stepped forward. After taking the handoff, I closed my eyes, put my head down and lunged in anticipation of the usual rib-shattering impact. But there was none this time. In fact, when I opened my eyes, I didn't even see Bock.
Because I knew every player's assignment, a benefit of Coach Ingwersen's policy of teaching us few plays and making us learn them from all 11 positions, I didn't have to look around to see what had happened to Bock. The D-Boys, tired of being shown up, had executed a "post and lead" block on him, Durham breaking his charge while Dugger drove him off somewhere in the direction of our left end. I looked past all that.
I also knew the defensive end wouldn't touch me. He'd almost certainly come across the line of scrimmage to "establish a flank." So I looked past him, too.
I didn't bother to glance at the middle linebacker, to my left, or at the outside linebacker, to my right. Since they had not already stopped the play, I could assume our center had handled the middle linebacker and our man-in-motion had drawn the outside linebacker out of position. So I looked past them as well.
Suddenly I understood why Spike Harvey had never looked at me. Why check on men who are no longer dangerous? Why not find out what the real troublemakers are up to?
I had discounted the right safety; the way the play was developing I was sure our left end had taken him out with a roll block. I shifted my eyes to the right, just in time to see our man-in-motion take down the left safety.
That left just one man between me and six points, Spike Harvey, who was playing middle safety. I knew that, unless someone reached him before he reached me, the play was over; he was just too much of an athlete for me. Just then I saw Dick Walker cut in front of me.
The instant Walker leveled Spike I realized I had made a serious mistake. My center of gravity had been too far forward when I took the handoff, and now I was stumbling without any chance of regaining my balance. All I could do was see how many strides I could make before I fell. A few steps later, untouched, I was nose-deep in the wet morning grass.
I wanted to stay there, face down until the class was over and everyone had left. But I had to pick myself up because the referee wanted the ball. Instead of handing it to him, I left it on the ground. "I've contaminated it," I thought. When I came to my feet, the official moved the ball back two yards to where my skid had started. It had been a 10-yard gain.
I jogged back to the huddle as slowly as possible, head down, cheeks burning with shame. Before anyone could utter a word, Coach said, "Fellows, that play was well blocked. Little man..." I knew he was talking to me, but I didn't have it in me to look him in the eye. He came closer, put his hand on my shoulder pads and gently straightened me up. In an even voice he continued "...next time keep your chin up, your neck bulled and your eyes open."
I never did get a chance to try out his advice. We were intercepted on the following play and spent the rest of the session trying to stop Spike. Before he could score, class was over and we all went our separate ways.
More than a quarter-century has passed since I enrolled in Beginning Football. It's taken me years of careful thought to sort out all the lessons. While the whole thing may not have made me a man, it certainly knocked a lot of the boy out of me. I had stuck it out until the end when, for one fleeting moment, I was looking past people.