Last week’s column ended without you, Dear Reader, knowing the outcome of the biggest football rivalry in Briarwood High School history: the mighty Buccaneers versus the Warriors from Cherokee.
The Crimson Warriors, one hundred and thirty strong, were still on the field warming up as the stream of black and gold-clad Buccaneers emerged from the gangway tunnel. With the Warriors’ warm-up cadences echoing through the stadium, we ran onto the field and into history.
Every statistic pointed to a resounding defeat for the Buccaneers that were undermanned, outweighed, and much slower than the behemoths from Cherokee. That cool Friday night, 33 football players from Briarwood ran onto the field. By the end of that epic battle, bruised and still in shock from the final score, 32 of them struggled just to walk off the field. They shuffled up the steps to the locker room, leaving one player still on the field unable to move under his own power.
Flanked on one side by a concerned father, and Coach Reeves on the other, a lone Buccaneer fought against unbelievable pain trying to rob him of consciousness. He was exhausted from the defensive battle they had fought during most of the game. They carried the player up steps and into the locker room.
On the very last down of that nightmare of a game, the ball was snapped. A moment later so was his right knee. In a few hours the young player would meet with an orthopedic surgeon — a meeting that would end any chance he had of becoming a college football player. But the career-ending injury was not caused by any of the 300-pound Warriors from Cherokee.
With impartial referees, penalties were about evenly split between the two teams. A low scoring game, the Buccaneers trailed the Warriors by a single touchdown at halftime. In the locker room awaiting Coach Reeves, not a single word was spoken. None needed to be. We all knew what was at stake.
A horn sounded out on the field signaling the end of halftime, but we were all still sitting in the locker room waiting. Finally, Coach Reeves and his assistants walked in and we huddled together to recite the Lord’s Prayer. Coach Reeves ended the prayer by saying, “Men, let’s get this job done!”
There are few incidents I can look back upon and say, “That changed my life forever.” The next 30 minutes was just such a time.
The mighty Buccaneers were ahead when, on the last play of the game, the Warrior’s quarterback took the ball from the center. Scrambling around in the backfield, he tried to find an open receiver. Each time he drew back his arm to pass, one of us jumped into the air to block it, causing him to tuck the football and continue scrambling.
With time running out, on his third and last attempt, he let the ball fly. After he had thrown precision bullets all night, this pass seemed to be just one more. The Warriors had a man open in the end zone, and if the ball hit its mark, we would lose the game.
Suddenly out of nowhere, the largest player ever to be called a Buccaneer, Bubba Hanks, a.k.a. Hank the Tank, leapt into the air with one meaty hand raised. He barely tipped the football. But it wasn’t going to be enough. The ball would still hit the receiver and the game would be lost. Or would it?
I was right in front of Bubba when he made that now famous jump. We jumped at the same time swatting for the ball. I missed, landing back on earth standing only on one leg — my right leg. Bubba crashed back to earth hard, rolling forward on the ground and right up my leg.
Grabbing my broken knee, screaming, I rolled on the ground in agony, which no one, not even Coach Reeves, heard over the cheering fans. No one saw my injury either. All attention was directed towards the end zone as the now wobbling bullet of a pass bounced off the chest of their star receiver, missing its mark and giving the mighty Buccaneers the win!
That was over 42 years ago next month. Standing or sitting for long periods of time are still difficult, but like with most childhood injuries, I really don’t mind. I just rub my knee for a little while and smile.
It reminds me of a simpler place and time, growing up a long, long time ago on an old familiar street not so far away called Flamingo.
[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001. To read more of Rick’s stories, visit his blog: storiesbyrick.wordpress.com.]