Continued from previous post.
Most abrasive of all was late autumn, playoff time, when the ground hardened to granite and touching the football, whether with foot or hand, was something to avoid at all costs for fear of snapping something. Winters were snowbound and schizophrenic, the oscillations in temperature cracking and scarring our pavement playing field with new hazards each week. Come spring, the cracks, for me, were extra defenders when our games began again; a mercenary seventh in a six-man game, adroit at the shoestring tackle and deadly in pass coverage. The scarring of the street was the leveling of the field, the natural evolution of the ground on which we played. When I finally ran on flat, flawless expanses of grass, I could never quite bring myself to trust what was underneath.
To fly-by Long Islanders, Middle-ish Queens appears too crowded and chaotic for anything beyond slapdash games of playground basketball. The streets, flying past in a blur of decay, don’t hint at the existence of sports requiring open fields. From your car, on Jamaica Avenue, Springfield Boulevard or the Van Wipe-it, Queens looks like someone plotted each neighborhood in a grid, abandoned the proposition, numbered the streets anyway, then added named streets and “drives” to further confound the odd outsider blundering in on his way to an airport or a baseball game.
The area’s massive population is its athletic weakness. Because so many people live in Queens and Long Island, football is just another activity in which a young man can participate, hence you’re playing in utter obscurity until word gets out that you’re good. Since the aforementioned association typically only hitches its fortunes to kids and teams they believe to be sure things, you’ll get nothing for playing a sport in this area – no guidance, no encouragement and little coaching – until you’ve already shown some glimmer of ability, at which point, if you haven’t already scrapped the game for some other pursuit, you’re wary of praise received long after the point where it was necessary. So all the best football players from New York City and Long Island who don’t come from the area’s wealthier environs take it with a considerable grain of salt when you tell them they can play. They don’t believe you, and neither did I.
From a football standpoint, I had a fortuitous grouping of innate abilities that helped overcome my rather unusual body type. The first was that, although I wasn’t particularly courageous for a teenager, I was never afraid of anything on a football field. This cuts two ways, as caution can be a virtue in a contact sport and fear can help your mental acuity between the lines, but my utter lack of any kind of trepidation once I had my pads and uniform on meant I could eventually move from shitty-armed, run-at-all-costs quarterback to positions on the field requiring more abandon in terms of bodily sacrifice: running back and middle linebacker. I wasn’t built for hitting, and often looked awkward in my attempts, but the repetition made possible by my deadened-eyed, unthinking mindset allowed me to learn to both do it well and crave it.
Football is a game of triangles, and I was at home within the sharp-cornered confines of an Isosceles. The middle linebacker is the triangle’s tip; the offensive player with the ball stands at either of the two opposite ends. When you conspire to chase down the ball carrier, you do so from the “inside-out,” meaning you want to make sure you’re always attacking from inside your triangle. Broaden your vertex angle, and a shifty ball carrier will cut back inside, causing you to overrun the play and miss your tackle. I was comfortable within this system, and developed a feel for how to keep the man with the ball just on the outside edge of my vector. I still do this in public sometimes, drawing a bead on unsuspecting ball carriers on the sidewalk and envisioning putting my nose across their briefcases and knocking loose a stack of important files upon which the homeless can pounce, then turtle.
I understood this triangularity better than the other kids on most of my teams. This is probably as a result of knowing from my parents, especially my mother, that there was more to the world than our festering little hothouse corner of the city. My mother had introduced me to reading as a toddler; she’d taken me back and forth to rather tense areas of Ireland several times to visit her siblings. So I’d known, from a very young age, that there existed something from which to retreat and seek relief within the confines of our neighborhood. Its streets and back-alleys were protected relief valves from anything happening out on Jamaica Avenue or the world-at-large. To me, each little subdivision off the major avenues of Queens, especially my own, had that wedge-like triangular feel that the other kids, having seen nothing else, neither understood nor treasured the way I did.
To be continued tomorrow.