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CHRIS ERSKINE / THE GUY CHRONICLES

A Boy's Dreams on the Line of Scrimmage

November 11, 1998|CHRIS ERSKINE

Here we are at the high school field on a damp Sunday, practicing field goals against the November sky.

"Nice kick," I say, as the boy pops one through the uprights.

"Thanks," says the boy.

"You know, Stanford is always looking for good young kickers," I say as the boy lines up his next practice kick.

"They are?" he asks.

"Yep," I say. "Especially a smart one like you."

"They are?" he asks.

This is the fall the boy discovered football, attended a high school game, and heard the hits and saw the cheerleaders, and decided this was the sport for him, a fall spectacle designed with guys like him in mind.

"You think I could go to Stanford?" asks the boy.

"Maybe even Ohio State," I say.

"I think I'd have a better chance at Stanford," says the boy.

He's been looking around a little at football factories, and so far Stanford is his first choice, a school with a fine gridiron tradition and a pretty decent academic program, a place where pro scouts might gather on autumn afternoons to sip coffee and discover hungry young players like him.

The boy prepares for Stanford almost constantly, either by watching football on TV or by calling around trying to get a game of his own, working the phone like a guy selling cemetery plots.

"Hey," he says.

"Hey," his buddy says.

This is how he and his friends talk on the phone, in one-syllable sentences, the kind of sentences cavemen used when proposing marriage.

"Hey," he says again.

There is a long pause as both boys wait for the other to speak.

"Wanna play some football?" the boy finally asks, stunning his friend by stringing together four or five words at once.

"Sure," the friend says.

Then they both hang up and look for their shoes.

"Dad, I'm playing football!" the boy yells.

"Where?" I ask.

He doesn't really know. The conversation never gets that far.

"Hey," he says on the phone again.

"Hey," the friend says.

"Where we playing?" the boy asks.

After an hour of this, he has enough players, sometimes six, sometimes 30, a bunch of seventh-graders eager to get out of the house and roll around in the grass for a few hours.

By midafternoon they'll all show up at the field and start playing without warming up, sometimes just throwing the football straight up in the air, then tackling the person who catches it, grabbing his T-shirt and punching at the ball.

"Hey, how about a real game?" someone eventually will say, and they'll split up into two sides and play a real game, stopping only to argue about the rules or who should be quarterback or where the out-of-bounds is, their lungs and muscles growing stronger from the arguing alone.

"OK, here's the next play," the quarterback will say, drawing in the dirt. "I want you to go left, then right, then up, then around, then tackle the guy who's covering you, then get up and fall down like you hurt your knee."

"Then what?"

"Then I throw you the ball," the quarterback will say.

"What do we do?" the others will ask.

"Same as him," the quarterback will say, repeating the play two or three times so everyone knows the route.

The plays take 10 minutes to design, then are over in a heartbeat, followed by arguing and accusations and laughter, after which they all huddle up again to design another 10-minute play.

It's hard to understand how they do it. The boys are pretty much by themselves out here on the torn-up field. No parents. No refs. No screaming coaches. Just a bunch of boys, all hollering at one another until they are a little dizzy and out of breath.

After awhile, they'll all lie down in the grass, exhausted from the hollering, and look at the sky and make fun of one another and practice being irreverent, a sure sign of impending manhood.

"Hey, Matt?"

"Hey, what?"

"Know what I like about you?"

"What?"

"Nothing."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

They'll be irreverent for a while, then someone will throw the ball straight up into the air and somebody will catch it, and everybody will try to tackle him.

"Ouch."

"What?"

"My knee."

"Thanks."

"You're welcome."

They'll play until dark, then they'll play some more, stumbling around on the soggy turf, rolling with laughter at the dumb plays and miracle catches.

And as they play into the night, the pleasure centers in their brains will gradually begin to change, until the pleasure centers become shaped like little footballs. Little oblong pleasure centers that will show up mysteriously in dental X-rays or retinal exams for years to come.

"What's that?" some young dental technician will one day ask, pointing at an X-ray.

"That?" the dentist will say. "That's a football. We see it all the time."

Next week: his first tailgate party.

Chris Erskine's column is published on Wednesdays. His e-mail address is chris.erskine@latimes.com.

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