This photo was taken by Joel Klein just prior to the greatest sporting achievement of my youth. I have to admit that my memory might be tainted by time and a desire for self-glorification, but if anyone there that day has a more accurate recollection of events, please come forth.
The event in question was a football game, not touch, but a real tackle football game. I was in the prime of my youth and tackle football was my favorite sport. We’d have choose-up games every Saturday morning during the fall and winter, tackle football without equipment, basically because none of us owned equipment.
I was not really a great athlete. I had some talent in wiffle ball because the bat wasn’t too heavy for me, but I had two things going against me physically. First, I was very short. In those days, the teachers would line you up in size places and I was always the first in line. Today, teachers would never stigmatize vertically-challenged kids that way. Second, I was a slow runner. I wasn’t built for running. My legs were strong, but short and stumpy. However, these physical shortcomings actually turned into advantages when it came to tackle football, especially at the position I usually played, which was fullback.
I was a natural born fullback, a la Larry Csonka. With a low center of gravity and strong legs, I would be able to carry three or four defenders on my back while slogging along with the ball. Being small of stature, defenders couldn’t see me. I could practically run between their legs.
One day it came to pass that our ragtag Saturday morning crew was challenged to game by a much more organized team. The team even had a name: the Undertakers. I never knew if they were called the Undertakers because they would bury their opponents or they were sponsored by a local funeral home. Maybe their name was based on the neighborhood they were from. Most of them lived on Main Street, Flushing, across from the big cemetery.
The teens who lived along Main Street had a bad reputation. Some were members of a street gang known as “The Hood.” This was not slang for “neighborhood”, as it is today, but rather it stood for “hoodlum.” Rumor had it that they carried switchblades and zip guns, like in West Side Story. They were also mostly Italian, whereas most of us kids from the Pomonok projects were Jews. Due to some unexplained freak of zoning, we all attended the same high school on Main Street, John Bowne.
The Jews, supposedly, were the brainy ones who went on to college while the Italians joined street gangs, dropped out, and ended up stealing or fixing cars for a living. Of course, this stereotype simply didn’t hold up. One of my classmates at John Bowne HS was an Italian boy named Richard J. Terrile. Google him. He became an astronomer who worked on the Voyager space crafts and discovered several moons of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, one of which is named after him. Suffice it to say that Richard Terrile wasn’t a member of “The Hood.”
The other stereotype that didn’t stand up to scrutiny was that Jews weren’t good at sports. Even though we didn’t have equipment or an organized team, we had some incredible athletes in Pomonok. The captains in our choose up games were the best – tall, wiry and speedy kids who could throw perfect spirals across a whole field. I envied and looked up to these kids and was just gratified when they wouldn’t choose me last. One of the best all-around athletes in our group was Billy, who later became my best friend. Billy was about the same height as me, but he could out run, out jump, and out catch almost anyone else.
I don’t know exactly how the challenge came about, but we were not about to back down from the Undertakers. The biggest problem was that we didn’t have equipment. That was easily solved when the Undertakers volunteered to lend us some of their extra helmets and pads. That’s how eager they were to humiliate us. They also provided the footballs, first down chains, and a referee, who they insisted would be impartial. The field was neutral territory, the inside of the running track at Queens College, situated between Main Street and Pomonok. We prepared a few basic plays and had confidence that we were athletically the equal of our challengers.
Game day finally arrived, a sunny, brisk autumn Saturday. We donned our borrowed equipment, which felt very foreign and constricting to us. The helmet was especially problematic for me since I had to wear my glasses underneath it. We didn’t have jerseys with our name on them. We didn’t even have a team name, but we looked and felt very cool. We walked over to Queens College en masse.
The sight that met us was on the playing field was very disconcerting. None of realized how huge the Undertaker team would be, not just in numbers, but in size. There must have been thirty of them, all in uniform and some the size of angus cattle. They were warming up by running into each other at top speed and grunting like hogs. The sounds of the impacts were terrifying. Our captain, the kid responsible for leading us to this slaughter, turned to us and said, “That’s not fair. They brought in ringers.” It turned out that the Undertaker team was not just kids from our high school, but semi-pros, possibly enforcers in the Mob.
We couldn’t back out now, we would be branded chickens, but we knew that we had no chance in hell against these guys. After a few minutes of play, it became apparent that our main strategy would be to survive the day without getting seriously injured. And even that strategy proved to be a failure.
Since we only had about 20 players, most of us played offense and defense. I was on the defensive line because I was too slow for anything else. I never came close to making a single tackle. I didn’t even offer much resistance. On nearly every play their two hundred pound linemen would either stampede by me or trample over me.
On offense, I played fullback. The quarterback would hand me the ball and our front line would immediately crumble. Without any gaps, I tried running around the line, but I would easily be caught and dragged down for a loss. If I dared running up the middle, I was gang tackled and pounced upon for good measure after the whistle was blown.
Our first casualty was the quarterback. He was sacked and got up holding his shoulder in pain. On the sidelines, we took off his shirt and we saw that his collar bone was protruding at an unusual angle. After the game, we ended up walking him over to Booth Memorial Hospital emergency room, which was conveniently nearby. Someone took his place at quarterback and then that kid went down with a bloody nose. By then it was half-time and we were losing 49-0.
We really should have forfeited the game at that point, especially since no one was willing to play quarterback, but we went ahead anyway. The Undertakers seemed a bit weaker during the second half. They must have gotten tired from hitting us so hard. After being sacked numerous times, our third-string quarterback finally said that he had had enough. Someone in the huddle asked for volunteers and my friend Billy said, “Andy can throw the ball.” Everyone turned to me.
There are times in your life when you simply have to step up. It was a Hemingway moment, the moment of truth. If I backed down then, for the rest of my life I would consider myself a coward and a failure. So I agreed to put myself in harm’s way and be the quarterback. I would call signals, take the snap, drop back, and get rid of the ball as fast as I could. I did this out of fear, but it ended up being a pretty good strategy. I was able to complete some short passes and keep from getting hit myself. Billy was my main target because he was so quick that he could get free and adjust to my poorly thrown passes.
Then came the play that I have relived in my mind so often in later life. In the huddle, I told Billy that, instead of throwing another short pass, I would fake it, and then he would break down field for a long bomb. This was a dubious call on my part, since I didn’t have the arm strength to throw a bomb.
I took the snap, ran to my right a couple of steps, faked the throw, and then with the opposing herd thundering down upon me, hurled the football as far as I could. The pass was way too short, but Billy, who was far down field already, realized this before the defender. He turned around, ran back for the under thrown ball, grabbed it in front of the defender, and took off down the sidelines for a touchdown. We had miraculously scored against the fearsome Undertakers!
We later scored another touchdown on an interception that Billy made and the final score was 49-14. Yes, we were thoroughly trounced by the Undertakers, but they had not played fair. They had brought in ringers. Yes, we were beaten badly and several of our players were injured, our captain most seriously with a broken collar bone, but we never backed down. And when it came time for me to prove myself, I stepped up to the challenge. It was the proudest moment of my life.