The Unlikely Athlete

Anybody that grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s and loved sports has a childhood story of neighborhood competition.  In my tiny hometown of Clatonia, Nebraska, there were about 20 boys within three or four classes of each other.

All kinds of baseball competition went on during the summer.  The thing about baseball, the normal kid got his fill of baseball through an organized little league.  There were several communities about the size of Clatonia so there were plenty of teams to form a league.

Football was more difficult.  There was no organized football in or out of the school system for any age.  If the neighborhood kids wanted a game of football, they had to organize their own games.

I think I was about in second or third grade when my brother, Roger, and I got our own football equipment.  I’m not sure if it was birthdays or Christmas, but somehow, we got equipment just made for kids.

I can remember that equipment like it was new in my young hands.  The helmet was red with a white stripe down the middle.  The shoulder pads were red, too, and just barely covered our collar bones. The pants were yellow and had slots for thigh and shin pads.  A red shirt came with it, but it was too small, so we wore larger t-shirts.

Sometimes the town kids would just play two-hand touch, but if we really wanted to make it real, we would gather in this downtown lot.  It was the perfect size for a football field, but there was a lot of broken glass and rocks and not much grass.

I was a pretty tall, skinny kid and Roger was short for his age.  When we put on our pads and headed for the lot to play with the older kids, they just laughed at us.  We had to talk them into letting us be “all-time centers.”  

An all-time center would snap the ball to the quarterback in the shotgun position, although we didn’t know it was called shotgun.  We snapped it standing up from the side.  After the snap, we were required to sprint to the sidelines and let the big kids do all the heavy lifting.  

I had all my gear on and the most contact I got was if I tripped on a rock.  I was pretty clumsy, so that was a definite possibility.  Then one day my big chance arrived.  It was during a kickoff.  Roger was at midfield on one side of the field and I was opposite him.

We weren’t allowed to participate in kickoffs.  That fateful day, I think it was Rodney Koch that kicked off, but it went off the side of his foot.  It rolled right to me.  What was I to do?  Of course, I picked it up and took off for the end zone.

Amazingly, I dodged a couple of tackles and suddenly I was in the clear.  All I could see was the end zone and all the glory of scoring.  I think the older kids were just trying not to hurt me, but I felt like Jim Brown breaking tackles, refusing to go down.

I was only 10 yards from immortality. The older boys would have to let me play now.  Out of nowhere, I was tackled from behind.  The embarrassing part of it was the guy that tackled me, Dick Rehm, was the chubbiest guy in town.  How could Dick catch me from behind?

Not only did I suffer the shame of losing a touchdown to a guy I should have been able to outrun, but almost all the older boys were rolling on the ground in laughter.  One kid, Steve Henke, claimed I looked like a peanut running past everyone (but Dick).  That’s how I got my nickname that stuck with me all through high school, Peanuts.

This isn’t a story about my football accomplishments, but about that chubby kid that tackled me from behind, Dick Rehm.  Actually, Dick was much more athletic than he looked.  As a second grader, I didn’t know the word athletic.

Dick’s parents owned the local tavern, Rehm’s Tavern.  Despite only having 220 people in town, downtown businesses were thriving.  Rehm’s Tavern was the hub for social activity.  Dick left Clatonia after high school and moved to Lincoln.

A certain group of those Clatonia boys stayed close.  As a manager of the Carpet Mill in Lincoln, Dick even put together a low-level slow-pitch softball team that played in the Capitol City.  I was a member of that team.

I have to warn you that I may get a few of my facts wrong.  But the theme of the story is very true.  Dick never kept very good care of himself.  Physical exercise wasn’t a part of his routine.  He gained weight on an already chubby body.

The way I heard it, one of the group got in an argument with Dick about his athletic ability.  He bet Dick he couldn’t run a quarter of a mile without stopping. Right on the spot, they decided the distance of a quarter mile at an apartment complex in Lincoln.  Dick took off but lost the bet.  He couldn’t make it.

Dick may not have been in great shape, but he was stubborn and determined. He promised himself he would get into shape.  During this process, he moved back to Clatonia to take over the bar from his parents, who were retiring.

There were no internet workouts or fitness manuals.  Dick did not have a running coach or anyone that gave him advice.  He just put on a pair of shorts, bought running shoes and took off running.

He didn’t run as far as Forest Gump, but he was as determined.  Each night, after the last customer had left the bar, Dick would go for a run.  He figured out if he ran from his bar to the longest diagonal at the end of town and back, it was exactly one mile.

Weather meant nothing to Dick.  It could be hot, still and humid or windchill indexes below zero, although they didn’t have windchill indexes back then.  It didn’t matter what time he would start his run.  If the last customer stayed until 1 AM, Dick would start his run at 1:30.

He always had the bar open at 5 or 5:30 the next morning with the coffee on and pastries in plastic bags to keep them fresh.  There were coffee drinkers most of the morning.  Factory workers would stop before their journey to the plant. Farmers would take time out to have a cup of coffee.  Even if you didn’t drink coffee, you showed up.  Many times, it would be free.  You see, if it was your birthday, you bought the coffee.

Dick would have someone work the afternoon shift while he either caught up on sleep or ran errands.  Each night, he would be back behind the bar.  Every night after work, Dick would be running the town loop.

At some point, Dick decided to run a marathon.  He increased his miles.  His shoes would wear out and his legs would get sore before he was forced to buy new shoes.  One Saturday, he ran to Highway 77 and back, a total of 12 miles.

I don’t remember what year it was, but Dick ran his marathon.  He completed it and did much more.  He learned to swim and went deep sea diving with a friend. He hung pictures he took under the ocean on his bar wall.

When my high school team won the state championship, I was in Rehm’s Tavern when Dick locked the doors at 1 am. There were about 10 of us that refused to go to bed.  We stayed with Dick behind the bar until the newspapers were delivered about 4 AM.

I used to run, then slowed to a jog, then sort of slogged, then just plain walked.  If I’m ever out there in cold weather, rainy weather, snow or anything else and want to stop, I think about Dick.  He never played a college sport, but he might be the most determined athlete I ever met.

Dick is back in Lincoln.  I don’t think he runs anymore, but I hear he’s healthy and looks great.  I guess I don’t feel so bad about getting caught from behind on my way to football glory.

(Note: I have written a book about Clatonia and all the characters I often talk about in the blog.  The book is fiction but the heart of my childhood is in it.  You can contact me if you would like a copy)