i am writing a personal account of my life for my grandson, Samuel James Jewell Gander (his two middle names honor my father, not me). Both of my grandfathers died before i was born, and i have always regretted not having a chance to know them. Since Sam is in Texas and i am in the Southwest Corner, our time together is extremely limited, and i wanted to give him some idea of who i am/was and how i thought about things. i’ve always wondered what my grandfathers thought about life.
i have written about half a dozen chapters and sent them to Sam as they were completed. i suspect he is not too terribly interested about who the hell i am at this stage of life, but i wanted him to have it for later years when he might be curious about such things. There are still some things about my father i do not know and wish i had asked while we were together.
So when i started organizing my cache of old photos and ran across my football photos, i skipped few years and wrote the below. It will be a later chapter in Sam’s book, but i wanted to share with all of you now.
American football at any level today is not football i remember while growing up. i shall not comment on what football has become, at least not here. i prefer to think about my football.
i loved football. My uncle Snooks Hall gave me a football for my second Christmas and i had one with me pretty much all of the time until i finished my last season at Castle Heights in 1961. Even afterward, i sought out pickup games and played some version until around 1973 when Earl Major and i played with a group of junior Navy officers on the lawn of the Worcester Sauce baron’s palatial estate at the beginning of Newport, Rhode Island’s 10-mile drive of mansions (Earl and three other officers attending Destroyer School (as was i) lived in the huge apartment which had previously been the dining room, kitchen, and adjacent rooms of the mansion.
i loved baseball and basketball and not many other sports even existed in my mind, but i loved football. i dreamed of being a college star running back and defensive back and idolized almost every running back that came across my attention span. But mostly, i wanted to be like Clifton Tribble, Lebanon’s star fullback when my father first started taking me to Friday night games. i continued my dream into the pro ranks. i wanted to play football forever.
i played organized football exactly six years.
At Lebanon Junior High, i was introduced to the realities of the sport. Surprisingly, i loved the practices in unmitigated August heat and humidity on the hard, crusty earth most frequently used as the Highland Heights recess playground. i watched and supported the eighth grade starters as they ran through an undefeated season.
The next year, was my best year, as far as playing in games. i was the fullback on the 1957 squad. My position nearly became a lineman as the weight limit for backs in our junior high league was 125. At five-six, i weighed in at 124 liberal pounds, sometimes creeping up to 126 without telling anyone.
i scored one touchdown on a punt return. i think i’ve mentioned before my father was in Atlanta on a business trip for Pontiac and did not see it. It is the only touchdown i ever scored.
Our team in my eighth grade year lost one game. i was devastated. i did not think that was supposed to happen.
When my parents told me i would go to Castle Heights for high school, i resisted. All i wanted to do was to be a Blue Devil football player with my friends at junior high and be the second coming of Clifton Tribble, who by that time was the coach. Parents won.
At Heights in my freshman year, we played hard, and even now, i think we had a pretty good team but ended up 1-2-1.
The next season i went out for the varsity. i never even considered i might not make the team. But when everyone else began their growth spurts, i stopped. That sophomore season, i remained five-six and weighed 128. i was on the “T” squad who scrimmaged the first string. We ran the single wing, and the subs job was to give the first stringers, primarily post-graduates en route to college careers, a look at what they would face during the Saturday games. In our single wing, i was designated blocking back. The position and i never really became friends.
On defense, i excelled, at least as much as a tiny linebacker could excel against older and much bigger first stringers. i was the only sub who could consistently tackle our incredible fullback Snookie Hughes. Snookie, from Carthage, was about five-ten and weighed about 195, all muscle. He was redheaded with a cheek scar from a youthful run-in with a barbed wire fence and a smaller forehead scar he received when another baseball player let go of his bat, which caught Snookie in the on-deck circle. When Snookie got hot, his face turned red and those scars turned lightning bolt white. He would run lowered to about waist high. He looked like a locomotive coming through the line with the ball. But i was small enough i could get under his helmet and torso and hit him around the ankles.
It impressed the coaches so much i made the traveling squad on our first road trip, a doozy to Marion Institute, which is about 80 miles south of Montgomery, Alabama. i was the only sophomore to make that trip and made all of the rest of them through my four varsity years. The team had a 3-5-1 record. The Marion junior college team beat us, 28-7. It was a really physical game, and they were big. The coaches had me enter the game in the fourth quarter. Crazily, i was a linebacker. We were typically in a 6-2 defense, occasionally 5-4, and if we sniffed a run coming, we would go into a 7-1.
When the Marion quarterback saw this little goofy kid at linebacker, he called an audible. The tight end who went to Alabama the next year and reputedly made All-SEC, was 6-4 and weighed about 220. He cut across the middle. It was my job to defense against him. i could not get around him to knock down the pass. After he caught it, he pushed a stiff arm at me. Unable to do anything else, i grabbed his arm. He slung me across the field like a rag doll. i slid through the sandy red clay field for about ten yards. It felt like thirty. There was little grass. Thinking it was macho, i had rolled up the sleeves of my maroon and gold jersey before the game. When i got up from the fling, both of my arms were raw red skin from the slide. i never wore my sleeves up again.
My junior season was pretty much the same as my sophomore year. i had settled in to the defensive roll and really don’t recall playing any offensive except in practice. i was also the second team punter. We finished the season 4-4-1. My highlight was at Baylor. They beat us, 22-0. the loss was our eighteenth straight at the hands of the Chattanooga school. My Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Pipey Orr arrived at half-time to see their nephew in uniform. Coach Stroud Gwynn put me in shortly into the third quarter. i never knew if they thought it was time for a substitution, or if coaches Jimmy, Allen, Frank North, or David Robinson had realized i had relatives there.
As i went in, there was some confusion, and we were directed into a 7-1 defense. Johnny Hagewood, another junior and significantly larger than me, and i tried to determine who would be in the line and who would be linebacker. With Baylor breaking the huddle, there was no time for discussion. i lined up next to the nose tackle. i was splitting the gap between a 245-pound guard and a 255-pound tackle, both of whom made all-conference and both garnered football scholarships to Georgia Tech the next year.
Once again, a fairly bright quarterback noticed the pipsqueak on the line to his immediate right and called an audible. Being fairly bright myself, i understood they were going to run right at the smallest player on the field and quite possibly the smallest defensive guard in the history of the game. Realizing i was about to be creamed, i launched a pre-emptive strike for self-preservation. i dove low in what what we call “submarine.”
For a reason i do not understand ’til this day, the behemoth guard and tackle double-teamed me. One of them could have easily wiped me out. Why both? With my submarine move, they ended up squarely on top of me, 500 pounds of mass. My face, my entire body was in the dirt as i lay spread eagled under the load. My arms from the forearm out were the only parts of my body visible. i started waving my hands in desperation, hoping the big boys would take pity and let me up.
The halfback cut through the hole in what a play-by-play guy would have described as “big enough to drive a truck through.” As he cut, his left foot caught my frantically waving left hand. He went down with a thud. No gain.
The coaches took me out, quite possibly having some concern about whether i was a walking dead person. i was the hero. Teammates were pounding me on the back, yelling and laughing hysterically. My aunt and uncle were on the sideline behind our bench cheering for my derring-do. It was a perfect irony.
My senior year, i remained five-six and had gained weight, topping out at 145 pounds. My offensive contributions stopped completely. i entered the season alternating at linebacker with Harper Ruff, a 5-10, 190-pound post graduate who played fullback on offense.
Castle Heights and Lebanon High School, had an unheard of pre-season scrimmage at what is now Stroud Gwynn Field on the Castle Heights campus. It was pure smack-mouth football. A number of Castle Heights post-graduates had played for Lebanon the previous year. i remember feeling like i had just got the hell beat out of me. David Grandstaff, the Blue Devil quarterback and punter extraordinaire, told me forty-five years later, it was the toughest game they played all season. Lebanon went through the season undefeated. Heights won the mythical Mid-South Conference championship for prep schools with a 6-2 record.
We lost our first two games, the second, 19-0, to Tennessee Military Institute in Sweetwater, a team we should have beaten handily.
i think it may have been a letdown after the loss to Ferrum Junior College, 6-0, on our home field the previous week. Ferrum was the number four ranked junior college in the country. The Virginia team’s starting line up had only one player, a halfback at 185, under 225 pounds. The quarterback weighed 225. Every other starter was bigger. Harper and i were alternating on each defensive series when Harper suffered a knee-injury on a fullback run midway through the first quarter. Coach Gwynn sent me in when we went back to defense with the admonition, “We’re depending on you, Jimmy.”
To this day, i’m not quite sure how it happened, but i had my day in the sun (it was a night game, but the sun was shining on me). i suspect a great deal of what happened was the huge Ferrum players either couldn’t see me because of my size or they simply ignored me, treating me like a gnat.
Regardless, i had a total of sixteen tackles for the rest of the game, about half of which were solo tackles. It seemed like no one blocked me. The one tackle i clearly remember was on a sweep when the 185-pound small halfback turned up field, and i hit him about five yards behind the line of scrimmage. It was a classic tackle. i caught his midsection with my right shoulder, picked him up and drove him into the ground.
It remains one of the sweetest feelings of success i have had.
The next Wednesday, i was rushing the punter in a scrimmage toward the end of practice. i dove in vain to block the punt. It just cleared my fingertips. i landed squarely on my left knee. It hurt but i got up and when the coaches asked me if i was all right, i said of course and went back into the scrimmage for the three of four remaining plays hurting like hell.
The next morning my knee was about the size of a basketball. i was on crutches for about a week and only played a couple of token plays against Maryville Junior College and the Lees-McRay College “B” team. Not being put in the Columbia win, the last game of the season still hurts me to think about. We won 20-7 on our home field in a game that included a bench-clearing brawl, which only lasted about thirty seconds. As i took my gear off in our locker room after the game, i broke down and cried, damn near uncontrollably.
After the season, Coach Gwynn sent the Ferrum game movie to Centre College in Kentucky. They were interested in my playing football. The school did not have athletic scholarships, but i was offered a $2000 academic scholarship with the intent for me to play football. It was where i really wanted to go, more for football than any other reason. When i was accepted for an NROTC scholarship to Vanderbilt, i could not turn down a full-ride to such a prestigious academic school, and my last opportunity to continue playing football faded.
The rest is history.
So this goofy guy played organized football for six years. i was knocked out three times, separated my shoulder, suffered knee ligament damage that almost kept me from being accepted to the NROTC program, and numerous other minor injuries. My ego would not let me admit my size would keep me from my dream of being a major college triple threat. In many aspects, i would have been much better off if i had not been so devoted to the sport and spent more time of activities that would have served to make me more academically qualified for college, like studying.
In today’s world, i don’t think i would recommend football as a pursuit for any youth. i’m am glad my grandson is not interested (and his mother would not let him play the sport even if he was interested).
But those six autumns were some of the happiest days of my life. i couldn’t wait for classes to end so i could get to the practice field and knock heads. i loved the physical aspects of the sport. When i suited up in our game day uniforms, i felt like i was walking on air, that i could rule the world.
Undoubtedly, football was a major influence on how i ended up where i am today, both good and bad.
i’m fine with that.