Gone to the football game
Hiking the Arbaney Kittle trail on an early fall day, the activity and the warmth of the sun bring forth eye-stinging, vision-blurring sweat, and long-banished memories well up, carrying me back to a warm day at Wagner Park. A simple play: The quarterback fakes to his left, I hesitate and then charge into the line just off the right guard, taking the hand-off as I go by the quarterback. Lined up in position, listening to the count, looking at the defense, all eyes on me (they know we’re gonna run it) and the sweat runs underneath the helmet, off my forehead and temples and into my eyes. Blurred vision and no time to wipe it away. The snap comes, I briefly delay, then charge ahead, grasping the football, unable to see much, but know where I’m going on instinct and can feel the hole created for me without seeing it. I hit the line hard, snap a couple of tackles and emerge in the secondary, eyes still blurred with the bite of never-ending sweat. Most of the time, I get tackled before I can dance through the defense, but every once in a while, I kick free of the congestion and put on a show. That was almost 40 years ago, back when I was a running back for the Aspen High School squad and can tell you there weren’t all that many games during which the sweat poured off us. We played more than once with the temperature in the teens and a snowstorm wasn’t unusual at all. We found the heat in other locales, such as Silt or New Castle, maybe Minturn or Basalt, Eagle, Oak Creek, Grand Valley, or of all places, Colbran. The names of the schools didn’t always match up with the towns and there were names like Plateau Valley, Riverside, Roaring Fork and Battle Mountain. I’d like to think we put the fear of God into them when it was uttered that “Aspen is coming to town,” but I suspect that was not usually the case. We weren’t the best team in the valley, but there was something in us that made that not be an issue. Many of us played both offense and defense in the same game and I’d get up on Sunday mornings with trouble breathing ’cause my rib cage and lungs were acutely sore from the ravenous hunger I’d had for oxygen the day before. It meant I’d played hard and it brought a smile to my face. There wasn’t much going on in Aspen back in those autumnal days, and football was about the biggest thing in town. We played in downtown Aspen on Friday or Saturday afternoons around 1 p.m. and drew quite a crowd. The town merchants simply hung a note on the door, “Gone to the game,” and wandered over to the park, joining most everybody else in town. We were a motley crew at best, with divergent interests. Some of us went on to become writers, artists and musicians; others made more money than they should have and some became satisfied in a chosen field. We’ve had at least one suicide, an alcoholic or two; maybe somebody got too fond of chemicals and a couple of us are still wondering what it was we started out to accomplish.When we all finally lay the hammer down, it’ll be as we played the game, each of us in his own way, but still part of a team from long ago. Our names won’t be on the front pages of the newspapers or on the town marquee, but those who remain will feel the loss simply because we were part of something so seemingly big in our youth. Sometimes today, when the sting of the sweat makes it hard to see, the thought comes that perhaps there is a tear or two for unforgettable days gone by mixed in, making the burn more poignant.Tony Vagneur would like to hear the sharp crack of pad against pad, up-close, just for old time’s sake. Read him here on Saturdays and send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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