Pregame football ritual

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Rick Ryckeley

A deep rumbling cadence echoed down the gangway long before the first opposition football player emerged from the tunnel. They entered the stadium with a slow methodical procession that soon stretched around the entire field. Eventually the marching and chanting stopped as they stood arms-length from one another, standing on every white, chalked line stretching from midfield to the end zone. Numbering over 130, the warriors of Cherokee High School had arrived.

Some in attendance later described what they had witnessed — the field practically tilting under the sheer weight of the massive bodies in those deep crimson uniforms. In less than 30 minutes, the epic battle for the region title would begin.

But first, in a small dimly lit wrestling room, the pre-game tradition of the Mighty Buccaneers was underway. I was one of only 33 Buccaneers who sat against the cold concrete walls for the pre-game meeting that Friday night.

It was not only our smallest team fielded in numbers, but also our average weight paled in comparison to that of the Warriors from Cherokee. Even our biggest players, Hank the Tank and Big Brother James, were about to be dwarfed as they went nose to nose against the girth of 300-pound linemen.

The epic battle soon to take place was a rematch from the year before. With home field advantage, the Warriors had pounded unmercifully on the Buccaneers in a penalty-plagued game. Buccaneers fans who attended testified that all the referees were “in the pocket” of the home team. I had been there on the sidelines and agree with that assessment.

This fervor only grew during the coming year, stoking the fires of revenge under the biggest game ever to be played in the hallowed Buccaneer stadium. The importance of the game was not missed by any of us in that room.

Coach Reeves and his team had done their job during the last two weeks preparing us for the war we were all about to be thrust into. But in that dimly lit, windowless wrestling room, our attention was not on the epic battle soon to be at hand. It was directed towards something else.

The 4-foot-long cigar-shaped blimp of a balloon slowly flying around the room was compliments of Goofy Steve. Goof was the best tailback in Buccaneer history. Thin, standing just shy of 6 feet and sporting strawberry red hair, a face full of freckles, and arms reaching down to his knees, he always looked like he was tripping over his own two feet when he ran -— a great asset if you were a tailback.

Before graduating he would hold records for the most yards rushing, the most pass receptions, and the most touchdowns in a single game. It was a record that stands to this very day. He would accomplish those astounding feats in the game that was about to be played.

Inserted into the neck of the cigar balloon was a squealer. The squealer allowed the balloon’s air to slowly escape causing a high pitch “squeal.” The controlled release of air propelled the balloon slowly around the room bouncing off walls, doors, and eventually ending its journey bouncing off the chest of Coach Reeves.

The laughter that filled the room just seconds before was instantly replaced with silence except for the squeal of the balloon as it continually pounded Coach Reeves’s chest. Every player in that room would say what happened next had as much to do with our win as our Herculean effort on the field that Friday night.

In a moment of insight, Coach Reeves grabbed the crimson-colored balloon with his huge frying pan hands and twisted it as if he was wringing out a washcloth. In an explosion, the balloon was no more as he growled, “Destroy the Warriors!”

I learned two Life Lessons that day. First, when faced with impossible odds, a few can defeat the many as long as they prepare and the belief in their mission is strong enough. And two, when life is serious and stress weighs you down, step back, take a moment, and laugh. As we exited the tunnel that night stepping into battle, I swear it was Coach Reeves’s laughter I heard behind us echoing down the gangway tunnel.

[Editor’s note: Part 2 is next week.]

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]