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THE GUY CHRONICLES

Getting in Touch With the Inner Kid

November 15, 2000|Chris Erskine

These are the little truths that Sunday brings, that despite what everybody says, my buddies and I are getting younger, not older. Thanks to football. Touch football, our fountain of goof.

"Come on, we've got a game," I tell someone over the phone.

"When?"

"Sunday," I say.

"I'll be there," he says.

They ask about beer and they ask about cleats, the two question marks preceding any pickup football game. I explain that the game is at 10 a.m., so beer should be OK. Cleats, on the other hand, are definitely discouraged.

Football cleats, I've found, only increase the wear and tear on the legs and joints, raising the risk of injury. So we discourage cleats in our little Sunday games, though I myself will wear them, since I have no joints left, just hollow former joints, like dried gourds that rattle when I run.

Lots of 44-year-old guys have joints like me. Montana, for one.

"I'm bringing cleats anyway," one of the players says.

"Suit yourself," I say.

"Steve wants to know if he can wear his Cincinnati Bengals plaque around his neck," another guy's girlfriend asks.

"Why?" I ask.

"For safety," she says. "Like armor plate."

"Of course," I say.

And one by one we gather, on a little patch of grass over near the Rose Bowl. Leafy. Lush. A nice trysting spot for squirrels.

It's the perfect setting for a Sunday touch football game, because the night before, a bunch of fans had a tailgate party here.

Some of the fans--probably Stanford's--dropped chunks of cheese in the grass, which will cushion us when we fall. Everywhere, there are pretzels and empty cases of Jim Beam.

"Nice field," someone says.

"Here, have a pretzel," says someone else.

"Anybody see that Northwestern game yesterday?"

It is mid-November, and there is football on our breath, point spreads and injury reports and predictions of the upcoming USC game.

I can't remember a football season with more exciting finishes, more upsets, more unbelievable plays. Jets-Dolphins. Wildcats-Wolverines. Packers-Vikes.

And it's not over yet. Right here near the Rose Bowl, we have eight guys and a lumpy little field with chunks of cheese in the grass. It could be the best game yet.

"You guys ready?" I ask.

"Not yet."

"OK," I say.

At first, we just sort of roll around in the grass, getting loose, snoozing, getting loose some more.

Then we begin to fling the ball back and forth a little, grabbing our shoulders after every wobbly throw.

After 15 minutes of this, it's unclear whether we will ever actually get a game going.

Instead of picking teams, someone suggests singling out one player and picking on him, like in "Lord of the Flies," to chase him around the field until he collapses, then pile on top so he can't breathe.

"That'd be kind of fun," someone says.

"How would you keep score?" another guy asks.

So we decide to play football instead--two-hand touch, three completions for a first down, that sort of thing.

On the first play, someone runs a little hook pattern, only the quarterback throws a post. No big deal. Little miscues like that happen.

On the second play, someone runs a quick slant and the quarterback throws a post. No big deal. The game is young.

On the third play, there is a major injury.

"Ouch!" the guy hiking the ball says.

"What's wrong?"

"Wedgie!" the guy hiking the ball screams.

"Oh jeesh."

"He's done for the day."

And that's pretty much how this game goes.

*

As we play, we seem to get younger. Thirty. Twenty. Twelve. On Sunday mornings like these, the aging process reverses itself for an hour or two. By halftime, we are all in sixth grade again. Our muscles are 40, but our minds are in sixth grade.

"Go long," says the quarterback as the second half begins.

"My leg's shot," I remind him.

"I know," he says. "They won't bother covering a gimp."

Now, as every guy knows, when someone tells you to go long, you just go long. It's the big play. The game breaker. Griese to Warfield. Bradshaw to Swann. Only fast guys get asked to go long. Or gimps like me.

"Just go long," the quarterback says again.

So I go long, which is OK for about 10 steps, then my thigh muscle seizes up again, and I start to do this Kirk Gibson thing with my leg--step-LIMP, step-LIMP, like that--which makes the guy covering me sort of laugh, which would be bad enough by itself except that the quarterback decides to throw it to me anyway and lofts a pass over my left shoulder. My bad shoulder. But my shoulder nonetheless.

And we both go up for the ball, me and Steve the Bengals fan, who's not laughing anymore. Instead, he's taken to hammering on my neck and head, like I'm some kind of snare drum and he's a member of the Grambling Marching Band. It's homecoming. And I'm the drum.

Meanwhile, the ball seems to hang in the air forever. It's the kind of pass thrown by a guy with three cups of coffee and a Denny's breakfast in his belly, a wobbly floater, a Sunday morning prayer.

Finally it falls, gentle on my fingertips, soft as cellophane.

"Ouch!" I scream.

"Touchdown," the quarterback yells.

"Wedgie!" someone screams. "Wedgie!"

Women have their wrinkle creams. We have our football. Touch football, our fountain of goof.

*

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

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