The Greatest Game Ever Played

It looks so easy from where we sit in Maryville.  Football has begun its pre-season drills.  As usual, expectations are through the roof here in northwest Missouri.  Can Coach Matt Webb and his high school team where “Tradition never graduates” maintain their unbelievable string of successful seasons?  Can the Bearcats possibly stay perfect for another season and win a third straight national championship?  Those are the expectations.

I haven’t always lived around unrealistic expectations.  The dreams were always there, but reality seemed much crueler.  It all started in 1958.

I’m pretty sure my ascension to the level of crazy sports fan began somewhere around the age of 8.  I can remember the first football game I watched on television from start to finish.  It was the National Football League Championship game in 1958.

The New York Giants, led by Hall of Fame quarterback, Y. A. Tittle, played a home game in Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Colts, with their Hall of Fame quarterback, Johnny Unitas.

It was a great game to begin my sports obsession.  It has been dubbed the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”  It was the first championship game to go into overtime.   Most football fanatics remember the classic picture of Y. A. Tittle on the ground, bleeding from a head wound.  It was a brutal game.

It took a one yard run by Alan Ameche halfway through the first overtime to give the Colts the win and the championship.  I had been rooting for the Giants.  I think I liked them because their quarterback, Tittle, was bald.  That was unusual for an athlete.  My dad was bald.  I had to root for him.

Experts that seem to know what they are talking about say that was the game that was the turning point for the National Football League.  The league’s rise has been phenomenal and that was the turning point for my sports obsession, too.

In 1959, I started listening to Nebraska football on the radio.  I became hooked on the voice of the Huskers, Lyle Bremser.   His famous call of “Man, woman and child…!” didn’t occur very often as Bill Jennings tried to coach wins in Huskerland.

I was at my grandparents kitchen listening to the electric radio on Halloween Day in 1959.  Poor Nebraska was only 2 – 4, but in front of just over 32,000 fans in Lincoln, the Huskers beat the mighty Oklahoma Sooners 25 – 21.  It broke an unbelievable 74 game winning streak by Bud Wilkinson’s coached Sooners.

Sadly, there weren’t many of those moments for Bill Jennings coached teams.  The 1959 team finished with a 4 – 6 record, but I couldn’t wait on Saturday afternoon to turn on radio station KFAB and listen to Lyle Bremser describe the Huskers struggles.

Late in the 1960 season, the Huskers went on a 4 game losing streak with a loss to a terrible Oklahoma State team in the final of the four games.  Jennings probably saved his job by going to Norman and beating Oklahoma again in the last game of the season.

In 1961, another four game losing streak led to Jennings getting fired.  It had started so promising when the Huskers beat Texas in the first game of the season.  I was now glued to the radio every time the Huskers lined up for another disappointing loss.

In 1962, an Irishman by the name of Bob Devaney left Wyoming for the challenge of coaching at Nebraska.  I saw my first Husker game from the knot-hole section.  My ticket cost 25 cents.  That day, Nebraska beat Kansas State, one of nine wins.  The thing I’ll never forget about that game was a Nebraska lineman by the name of Bob Brown.  Brown was huge and dominated both sides of the ball.

In 1964, my very unimpressive high school football career began.  I played for Clatonia High School, an 8-man football team.  Expectations weren’t great since we didn’t win a game the year before.  It turned out to be a successful year as we won our last game of the season, our only win.

Those days were not very happy days for a scrawny, 125 pound freshman tight end.  With all the Brylcreem in my hair, hot fall practices, and a helmet tight against my forehead, it led to an all-time breakout of pimples.  I wasn’t very good at football and I was worse at attracting girls.  Even with only 20 boys out for football, I was so bad I didn’t play enough to letter.

In 1965, the Clatonia school district consolidated with the huge town of Wilber, population of 1,200.  I went out for football but I had no idea why.  Frank Elliot, the head coach, scared me to death.  While Coach Elliot was screaming at us, the assistant would walk around as we did leg lifts and walk on our stomachs.  A coach stood by the water fountain to make sure we didn’t swallow any water at breaks.   Swallowing water would surely give us cramps.

Still, I was just getting a good start on my obsession with sports, especially with football in the fall.  I didn’t come close to playing enough to letter at the new school, but Bob Devaney had turned things around.  In 1965, the Huskers went 10 -1 and I listened to every road game.  I had gotten lucky and had gotten a job selling backrests at Nebraska home games.  Now I was really hooked.

I hated my high school two-a-day practices.  We wore full pads and had hitting drills from the first moment of the first practice.  I was so sore I could barely walk, but I would take hay baling jobs between the morning and evening practices.  I had now grown to an imposing 150 pounds and was turned into a mean, lean offensive and defensive tackle.  As you might suspect, I still didn’t find enough playing time to letter my junior year.

The new school, with the new coaches still didn’t win many games.  My only moments of glory during all those miserable days of holding dummies for the starters were the two passes I caught my senior year as part of a tackle eligible play.  And I finally lettered.

Despite my personal failings, the Huskers didn’t let me down.  They won national championships in 1970 and 1971.  “Man, woman and child,” was the cry of the land.  I now knew what unrealistic expectations meant.  Each year, you could find those expectations in Lincoln.

There are no football follies in Maryville or at Northwest.  There are still those players that will play very little and I feel a little tug in my gut for those guys.  I am now a much older man that has been obsessed with sports all these years.

Last year’s Super Bowl went into overtime.  It was the first overtime championship game since 1958.  I was that eight year old watching “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”

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