Max McGee, one of the stars on the great Green Bay Packer teams of the 1960s and a self-confessed night owl, in a book told the story about how he tried to sneak back into his house at 6 a.m. after a night on the town and was confronted in the kitchen by his irate wife.
After she bellowed for a bit, McGee quickly formulated an excuse that went like this: "Honey, I got home just before midnight but forgot my key. I didn't want to wake you and the kids, so I slept outside in the hammock."
To which his wife angrily responded: "You no-good, drunken louse. We took that hammock down three weeks ago. It's in a box in the attic."
Feeling cornered, McGee came up with a Hall-of-Fame response: "Oh, yeah? Well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it."
Now junior college football isn't remotely the same game that was played by the teams of the Packer dynasties. But they do have one thing in common. Excuses. Lots and lots of excuses.
As junior colleges begin serious training for the upcoming season, coaches get the privilege of listening to some really fine excuses that players or would-be players offer for being late to practice, missing practice, being out of shape and sometimes for being out of place.
Junior college players are masters of the the alibi for a variety of reasons. For the most part, the lives of their four-year counterparts are very structured: Players live on campus, eat together and take many of the same courses. Junior college players live off campus and often must hold jobs. Anyone over the age of 18 with college eligibility can try out for a junior college team, and coaches often spend the first days of practice separating the blue chips from the flakes.
Excuses begin shortly after the initial whistle sounds to commence practice. The most common is the dead relative excuse. Or, more commonly, the relative-who-has-died-many-times excuse.
"We have it all the time," Valley College Coach Chuck Ferrero said. "We call it the dead-grandmother syndrome. We get guys whose grandmother has died three times. We have a rule around here to cover it: The third time she dies, you're out of here."
At Glendale, Coach John Cicuto has encountered the same excuse more than a few times.
"We had one kid this year who told us he missed practice because his dad had a heart attack that day," Cicuto said. "So I called the family to give my condolences and the kid's mother says, 'What are you talking about? He didn't have a heart attack. He's sitting here, having dinner. He's fine.'
"But that kid wasn't so fine the next time I saw him. I think he's still running laps someplace."
Sometimes, a player doesn't want to take that extreme step of saying a relative has died or has been stricken gravely ill. The next step down is a relative who is merely arriving.
"We hear all the time about having to pick up relatives at the airport," Ferrero said. "Or his mom is going to the airport and he has to drive her there. We refuse to believe that one. We pretend that just doesn't exist. This morning a returning tailback told me he had to pick up his aunt at the airport and he'd be an hour late for practice. I told him, 'That's OK. You just dropped from second to sixth string.'
"And you know what? He was here on time for practice. I guess his aunt must have taken the bus."
Dead, dying or incoming relatives, of course, are not the only excuses coaches hear. After a few days of wind sprints and having large people slamming into them, some players will do just about anything to take a day off.
"Cars breaking down is a popular one," Cicuto said, "especially for kids without a good imagination. 'My car broke down.' I hear that all the time. Once a kid was real late for practice and came up and gave it to me . . . 'My car broke down.' What he had forgotten is just the day before we were sitting around making small talk and he told me he didn't have a car."
All that had broken down in this player's case was his memory.
"So I looked at him and said, 'Yesterday you said you didn't have a car.' And now he panics. I see his eyes get real wide and can almost hear the kid thinking, groping for something. Finally he said, 'Ah, oh, it was my \o7 mom's\f7 car that broke down. I borrowed it.' "
For some coaches, no excuse will do. Or, at the least, it had better be original.
"I've heard so many excuses that now I just leave room for one each year," said Brent Carder, the coach at Antelope Valley. "This year, for example, the only one I take is, 'Sorry, Coach, I just got out of the service yesterday.' "
Other problems that add to the chaos of the first week of JC football practice are the walk-ons, the kids who come in unannounced and tell of their dreams of playing football.