football

The best seat at Fenway

2003_Walshes@fenwayAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 16, 2019.

Most of the books my father gave me sit on shelves, their stories as layered as my memories of him. If I’m lucky, I open to a flyleaf inscribed with Dad’s familiar hand and hear his voice again.

“Neat books need swell readers. So saith Dad. Love.” That note appears on the opening page of a John O’Hara novel given for Christmas in 1988. The unsteady strokes of a simpler message written five years later inside a spy thriller – “Happy birthday, John” – reveal my father’s failing health at the time.

One book he gave me was “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons” by Donald Hall. There’s no inscription from Dad in that one; I surmise he was fine with letting Hall’s words speak for themselves. And for good reason. In a series of elegant essays, the former poet laureate of the United States examines how sports and games connect people and bridge generations.

Many of Hall’s lines resonate with me, including this one: “Baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.” A recurring childhood memory of mine is listening to the Red Sox on the radio with Dad as we drove home from the beach to Providence.

Another moment in the book that I return to is “Baseball is fathers and sons. Football is brothers beating each other up in the backyard.”

I can attest to that statement. First, the beating up part.

Our backyard was half dirt, half cement patio; my brothers and I played tackle football on all of it. These contests often degenerated into something we called “muckle the guy with the ball,” which was more rugby scrum than football. When darkness came, we took our game inside, hammering each other in the basement until the commissioner – Mom – intervened from the top of the stairs:

“Enough!”

In springtime, our backyard gridiron morphed into a baseball diamond. Thanks to Wiffle ball, we were able to “swing for the fences” without breaking nearby windows; the darting plastic orbs rapped off panes but didn’t break them. While my father was more academic than athletic, on Saturdays he would usually come outside to toss some pitches and take a few swings. Fast forward 25 years and I found myself instinctively doing the same with my young sons in the backyard at our house.

If playing baseball with Dad was fun, going to a Red Sox game with him was even better. We made the pilgrimage for the first time on the final day of the 1968 season. Unlike the monochromatic ballpark I saw on our black-and-white TV, Fenway that afternoon was a rush of color – green grass, red Citgo logo, endless blue sky, brilliant yellow foul poles.

The memory of that day was still vivid in my mind when I brought my sons to Fenway in 2003 for a Sox-Mariners game. Without looking at a seating chart, I had purchased tickets that I thought would give us a good view of Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle’s superstar right fielder. The boys, then 12 and 10, were big Ichiro fans.

We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed into Fenway’s cavernous right field grandstand. I checked our tickets: Section 1, Row 18, Seats 1, 2, and 3. Up and up we continued, into the cool shade under the roof, until we finally reached our destination – the last row and very last three seats in the grandstand!

Past a green support column, we could see home plate – barely. Our view of Ichiro’s back wouldn’t be much better. I felt like Bob Uecker, the former major-leaguer-turned-beer-pitchman who, in his classic commercials for Miller Lite, always landed in the nosebleed section.

Still, with my two boys beside me, wide-eyed and laughing, I knew I had the best seat in the house.

How the Super Bowl became “super”

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And to think it was originally called the AFL-NFL Championship Game. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

That was back in 1967, when the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs faced off in what we now refer to as Super Bowl I. The Packers won, 35-10. The halftime show featured two college marching bands. And there were only 61,946 spectators in the stands, hardly a sell-out in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

It was the Chiefs’ owner, Lamar Hunt, who first used the term “Super Bowl.” He coined the name in 1966 during merger meetings between the AFL and NFL, inspired by his children’s favorite toy at the time, the Super Ball. In a letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Hunt wrote, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.” It wasn’t, and today Super Bowl Sunday is part of the American vernacular. The game attracts more than 110 million TV viewers worldwide.

Hunt got it right with “super,” the Latin adverb and preposition that means “above, over, on the top of.” Probably seemed a bit grandiose for that first game in 1967, only to be further inflated – sorry – two years later with the inclusion of Roman numerals in the name. But in Super Bowl IIIJoe Willie Namath made good on his brash prediction that his Jets would beat the highly favored Colts, sprinkling pixie dust on the event and launching it toward its place today as an unofficial national holiday.

Enjoy the game – go Pats!

The Mystery and Magic of a Made-up Word

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I was thrilled to hear that the Providence Journal wanted to publish my piece about wishing for a snowy Super Bowl.

But there was one glitch.

“Muckle?” Ed Achorn asked me on the phone. Ed is the Editorial Pages Editor at the Journal. “It’s not in the dictionary,” he said.

I laughed. I knew “muckle” wasn’t in the dictionary. I had looked it up, too. But that didn’t stop me. In my description of how my friends and I loved to play football in the snow as kids, I had left “muckle” in:

“We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and muckle each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb.”

I explained to Ed that “muckle” was the word we used when we really wanted to hammer the guy with the ball. Muckling was tackling and then some. Muckling could land you in the ER.

I offered to re-write the sentence, but Ed had a better idea. He simply referenced in parentheses that “muckle” was a “kid verb denoting violent tackling.” I’m glad he did. The piece had 570 words, but none hit home more than “muckle.”

A retired Providence firefighter emailed me: “Muckle,” he wrote. “When I saw that word, my face broke into a broad smile.” He told me how he had played football in the snow at Neutaconkanut Park in the Silver Lake section of Providence.

Perhaps “muckle” was a local colloquialism, I thought. Then another emailed arrived: “I found myself transported back 45 years to Lindell Lot in St. Louis where there was plenty of mucklin’ going on in the early 70s.”

So muckling wasn’t regional. Turns out it wasn’t exclusive to football, either. A good friend told me how a girl muckled him behind a dumpster when he was in 4th grade. Sounded better than getting muckled on the gridiron.

If “muckle” were in the dictionary, what would its etymology be? Maybe a combination of muscle and tackle. Or mug and tackle. Or mud and knuckle. Or muck and kill. That seems about right, especially in bad weather.

I gave my son, Evan, the backstory on “muckle” before he read the column. He texted me later: “Had you not said that, I would still 100% understand the usage.”

High praise for a word, especially one you won’t find in the dictionary.

With thanks to Ed Achorn of The Providence Journal.

Playing Football When You Can’t Find Grass

City Games, Part 1

On Sunday afternoons during football season, I’d go to my best friend Chris Riccio’s house to watch the Giants game on TV, though we rarely made it past the first quarter. Sure, the Giants lost more than they won in the early ’70s, but that’s not what drove us from the television. Watching football made us want to play football. Question was, where?

We lived in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the typical house sits on a small lot – not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you can say “Pete Rozelle.” Sometimes we’d head up to La Salle, but the Brothers usually sent us packing, too. Forgive us our trespasses? Forget it.

So we always ended up back on Rankin Avenue for touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole, Billy and George against Chris and me. Rankin was perfect for street football – no tree obstructions, only the occasional car, and streetlights that let us play through dusk. The macadam roadbed tore up your hands and knees when you fell, but we didn’t care. Just rub the loose gravel out and get back to the two-man huddle… Chris is Fran Tarkenton and I’m Ron Johnson. “Go out to the manhole cover and turn,” Tark tells me. “I’ll pump fake, and then you go long for the bomb.”

Basketball is known as “The City Game” and rightfully so: it’s more suited to the urban hardscape than football or baseball. As I grew older, basketball would indeed consume most of my athletic energies. But back in the fall of 1970, as I sped past the telephone pole and looked back for Chris’s pass, playing touch football on Rankin Avenue was the best game in town.

In A Word: The Story Behind “Scrimmage”

Football has given us lots of weird, cool words. Take “scrimmage,” for example. During Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game, you’ll hear a lot about the “line of scrimmage,” the point at which each play starts. But there are actually two lines of scrimmage: the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage. These are the imaginary vertical planes at either tip of the football before it is put in play and parallel to each team’s end zone.

The space in between the two lines of scrimmage is called the “neutral zone,” a gridiron Switzerland. (“Neutral” comes from the Latin “neuter” which is a combination of ne- “not, no” + uter “either.”) No player can line up in the neutral zone at the beginning of a play except the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback. When he does, the teams engage in a “scrimmage,” which is an alteration of the word “skirmish.” “Skirmish” derives from the Germanic “skirmen,” which means “to protect or defend.” It has come to have the broader meaning of “a minor or preliminary conflict or dispute.”

At www.etymonline.com, we learn that the meaning of “scrimmage” in rugby and U.S. football today dates from 1857, when it described “a confused struggle between players.” Clearly, the people in charge of definitions back then had never seen a Belichick team play.

Go Pats!

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