For kids with fantasies of football greatness, particularly those kids who want to test themselves against the best players in the country in their age group, Philadelphia is a great place to grow up. In my day I was one of the thousands of little leaguers who, after watching cartoons on Saturday morning, suited up for a game. Then, after playing neighborhood ball for six years, it was time to try out for the big leagues. The big leagues meant the Little Quakers.
The Little Quakers are an all-star team of 13- to 14-year-olds from Philadelphia and the surrounding area, including south New Jersey. To play for the Quakers in 1971, you had to weigh less than 135 pounds and survive an annual tryout that attracted about 200 hopefuls. For me, the tryout sessions were intimidating. After three or four sessions the crowded field of multicolored jerseys was whittled down to 45 players. That year I was one of the lucky (and somewhat talented) 45, and I played quarterback.
Our team had a cast of characters right out of Dickens, if he'd known anything about the wishbone and flex defenses. Lacoste alligators mixed it up with leather jackets. There were whites, blacks and a kid who said he was part Mohican—we called him Chief, of course. We also had Catholics, Protestants, Jews and even a 14-year-old atheist. It was not easy to mold us into a team. But Bob Levy, the chairman of the board of a storage business who founded the Little Quakers in 1953 and is the team's coach (with a 132-14-4 record) and one of its financial supporters, whipped us into a unit.
Twenty-nine years ago Levy, says the Little Quaker press guide "...had a dream.... Levy loved children and he loved football. The dream was to put together a football team of youngsters...who had not yet reached the high school level." And put together a team he did. The Little Quakers are one of the most successful boys' football teams in the country.
Everything about the Little Quakers is first class. The team has personalized equipment bags, separate offensive and defensive practice jerseys, home and away uniforms, nine assistant coaches, an administrative staff, a manager, a physician, two trainers, an executive director and a game director. Practice is held on an AstroTurf field, and I still have the turf burns to prove it. Not even bad weather could spoil a Quakers workout, because we could practice inside Haverford College's sprawling athletic complex whenever the need arose.
For me, besides the high level of competition, the most attractive part of playing for the Little Quakers was their away-game schedule. Instead of piling into the coaches' dented station wagons and driving over to the adjacent neighborhood, the Little Quakers boarded buses and planes to places like Hawaii, California, Florida and Arizona. The 1971 schedule included two long trips—one to Houston and the other to Fort Lauderdale.
After eight spirited practices, we played our first game in Philadelphia against the champs from a South Jersey league. No contest. We plastered them, and every player who suited up got into the action. Our pregame speech was inspiring, our calisthenics Marinelike. But what I remember most about my first Quaker game was the press coverage. The following day there was an article, a short one, admittedly, in The Philadelphia Inquirer with my name in it. It said I threw two touchdown passes to Joe Hassett and, although it called me John instead of Jack, I was reeling with ecstasy. I read the story over and over. My first big-time ink. I was a celebrity. Kids at school congratulated me. Maryellen Tomaszewski started returning my stares.
Our next two games were also played in the Philadelphia area. One at Valley Forge Military Academy, which we lost, and the other at Franklin Field, where the Eagles had played their home games before Veterans Stadium was built. Again, more ink.
During the Franklin Field game, fantasy fulfillment really began to rev up. Here I am, I thought, calling signals on the same field on which Sonny Jurgensen had barked out audibles. We lost that day to a team of ringers from Hollywood, Fla. They had a defensive tackle who, if he'd been born three million years ago, would have been a dinosaur. But who cared? There I was, quarterbacking the Little Quakers—and trying to control an ego that was quickly outgrowing my size 7 helmet. But the press coverage, the stadium, the personal recognition I was getting were only peanuts compared to what awaited me.
A week later, Levy and I cruised down the Atlantic City Expressway in his powder-blue Lincoln charting that afternoon's game plan against the New Orleans Vikings as we went. Bobby Levy Jr., who wasn't even a teen-ager and whose line of vision barely cleared the speedometer, steered while the cruise control maintained a then-legal 65-mph clip. We rolled along the highway with this peach-faced kid sitting atop a pair of shoulder pads, controlling our destiny. I kept my right eye on Coach Levy's X's and O's and my left on Chauffeur Levy. We arrived at our destination, Atlantic City Convention Hall, unscathed and ready to attack the Vikings' inverted secondary.
Layers of freshly cut sod had been placed on the Hall's concrete floor to create a handsome, TV-ready field, but one that seemed to have no give whatsoever. Waiting for our game to start, we sat just beyond the end zone in full pads and watched Delaware thump C.W. Post 72-22 in the Boardwalk Bowl. The Hall looked like a gymnasium with elephantiasis.
Our game plan, which relied on a mix of passing and wishbone running plays, worked perfectly as we breezed to a 32-7 win. Hench Murray, our offensive coordinator, called a perfect game of triple options, flares and post patterns that drove the New Orleans D-backs insane.
Our next game was in Houston. Up to then I had ridden in an airplane only once, when my friend, Huck Farrell, had stolen $10 from his mother and he and I had taken a 15-minute tourist flight around the City of Brotherly Love. It had been in a single-engine clunker built by the Harbison Milk and Airplane Company. I suspected Delta Air Lines would be different.
The Little Quakers gathered at 6 a.m. in Philadelphia's International Airport, feeling important and professional. Our blue blazers, personalized bags and military haircuts drew attention from many travelers. "We're the Little Quakers," we said. Most men recognized us as a football team, while the majority of women wanted to know more about our church group.
We arrived safely in Houston, slightly shaken by our first taste of air turbulence. But there was no glad-handing mayor. No bands playing fight songs. I had envisioned myself standing at the top of the plane's stairs, waving to a pompon-wielding throng and squinting into the glare of the television lights.
We stayed at the Astro Village Hotel on the same floor as the San Diego Chargers, who were in town to play the Oilers. Our game, the penultimate of our season, was scheduled to start after the completion of the Oiler-Charger encounter inside the Astrodome.
We had a guided tour of the Astrodome on Saturday morning and later that afternoon we practiced on the turf to gain a feel for it. The tour was intoxicating. At the time I felt everything in life would surely be a letdown after playing in the Astrodome. What else could possibly match it? Little did this Little Quaker know.
Just before our game, we hustled from our locker room to a sideline area the stadium security force had cleared for us to loosen up in. More than 40,000 fans were in the stands, cheering in vain for their Oilers to beat the Chargers. I warmed up my throwing arm—putting all of my 125 pounds behind each throw in case there were any scouts watching—with my favorite target, Hassett. He turned many 10-yard outs into 40-yard TDs that looked impressive in the next day's sports page. John Hadl, the Charger quarterback, intercepted one of my warmup passes on the sideline, spun the tiny ball—we used one three-fourths the size of a regulation ball—in his fingers and urged us to "beat up on a Texas team" the way the Chargers were. I stood like the Scarecrow facing the Wizard of Oz, mouth open, trying desperately to look cool. I fooled no one. Hadl threw the ball back to me (I dropped it), chuckled and jogged away. Just what I needed. I normally grew nervous and anxious before game time, but this was almost too much; the Astrodome, 40,000 fans, a game just 10 yards away and a brief encounter with John Hadl.
Our matchup with the Baby Longhorns, representing Austin, was tied 16-16 with a minute and some to go and we had the ball on their 25, third-and-20. We had just been penalized for holding. I dropped straight back, faked a screen left and heaved the ball into the end zone. Hassett deftly took it over his head for six points. What a finish! I sprinted to Joe with congratulations—low five, then—when I realized he wasn't as excited as I. He'd already spotted the red flag lying in our backfield.
We were robbed. The backfield judge said our halfback, while pass-blocking, clipped a defender. I never heard of that call. Neither had our coaches, who were screaming their objections. I had been homered at the tender age of 14. The game ended tied.
Now the end of the season, which was coming up much too fast for me, was just seven days away. The Margate (Fla.) Blue Devils, from an area just northwest of Fort Lauderdale, stood between us and a winning season. Our record at that point was 2-2-1. To Little Quaker fans, that was an abomination. But it didn't bother me. I was having too much fun to care about winning.
We arrived in Fort Lauderdale at noon on Dec. 26 to sunny Florida skies and 85° weather. The Margate mascot, an emaciated kid dressed in a brilliant blue devil's outfit, poked a rubber pitchfork at us as we deplaned.
We tossed our duffel bags onto a Greyhound and headed to city hall to meet our opponents and get some sort of certificate from the mayor. Along the way, a Chevy full of college girls trailed our bus. Alabama and Nebraska were also in the vicinity, getting ready for the Orange Bowl, and apparently these girls mistook us for one of those teams or the other. The bus windows were thickly tinted so they only saw the vaguest outlines of 45 males in blazers. The guys in the back of the bus motioned to the girls to follow us. They did. I worried what their reaction would be when they discovered that most of us hadn't begun to shave. When we arrived at our hotel, the girls stopped and jumped out to greet us as we got off the bus. When they saw we were half-pint football players, they laughed, we laughed, and they kissed one of our players anyway. They were still laughing when they drove off.
Our game with the Blue Devils was taped to be televised in Philadelphia a month later. Minutes before kickoff, we lined up to introduce ourselves to the camera. We were told to give just our name, weight and position. I was second to go. I thought about pounding my chest and clenching my fist, but at 14 that was just too radical. "Jack Maley, 125, quarterback," I said, conservatively and without a hitch. I was fortunate. Jim O'Reilly experienced some stage fright. He said, "Chim Reilly, ah...I play, no...I'm 130 pounds old and run defensive back. Thank you."
We won the toss and elected to receive. Our first series produced just four yards, giving our punter the chance to loosen his leg. As I was jogging to the sidelines to converse with Levy, I recognized an old friend of his who had dropped by to say hello and offer some advice.
Ara Parseghian looks much larger face-to-face than he does on TV. The sight of him gave me goose bumps. This was, after all, Knute Rockne and John Wayne rolled into one hero sandwich. "Hello, Mr. Parmesian." I said, shredding his name into grated cheese. "Hi, Jack," he replied. "My God, he knows me," I thought. He knelt on one knee, put his arm around my shoulder pads and said, "Listen, on second down those middle linebackers are stacking over the guards and the down men didn't pinch. The middle is wide open. Next time you see that formation, no matter what you have called, keep the ball and sneak it." His voice was high and raspy, not one you would expect from a legend. But although he sounded like Slim Pickens, his words might have been etched in stone and delivered hot from Mount Sinai.
On our very next series, the Devil linebackers stacked over the guards. "Here goes nothin' " I thought. I took the snap and started forward. Open field! I cut left and sprinted up the sideline. Just as Parseghian had said, the play worked perfectly—right up to the point when, 35 yards downfield and with nothing but green between me and the goal, I dropped the ball and a Blue Devil fell on it. I wondered if this would damage my chances of getting an athletic scholarship to Notre Dame.
Parseghian and I talked often during the rest of the game, and he helped us to beat the Floridians, 13-7. He left before it was over, so I never thanked him for his insights or for providing me with my biggest thrill of the season.
A month later Channel 6 in Philadelphia televised our Florida game. I watched it at a friend's house along with the rest of the kids in my neighborhood. It may not have approached a 50% audience share, but it was a felicitous ending to a season Chip Hilton would envy.
Being on TV, dropped ball and all, didn't signal the end of my football career, however. I was the quarterback for William Penn Charter School my senior year and was named MVP of the city all-star game. I also was the starting quarterback at Dickinson College for three years. But never again did I play in a dome or meet a Charger or get flown to a game. You're only 14—and a Little Quaker—once in your life.