It was a hot August in 1971. The familiar pre-season ‘two-a-days’ were stretching our youthful, high school, muscles into manhood, whether we liked it or not. The grass on the practice field was sweet and pungent each time our helmeted faces slammed to the turf and bounced back up when “The Coach” yelled, “Down…! Up…! Down…! Up…!” ad infinitum. These were the dog-days of summer, with endless wind-sprints and awkward, twenty-yard, bear-crawls in full pads. Our teenage sweat glands flowed from every pore, and our post-pubescent body-odors mixed intimately in the huddle, on the line, and deep within the pile of tackling bodies, as we eagerly converged on the ball. It’s all so hard to describe, but also, impossible to forget.
Those were easy-living days of “school spirit” and “cheerleaders,” of “letter jackets” with leather sleeves, and pleated, plaid skirts. When girls waited anxiously at the locker room door for their Friday night heroes. Watching with baited breath, as each gladiator emerged, bruised and limping, and victorious. Back then, a burger and fries and a Coke after the game really meant something. And coaches and parents were looked up to, even obeyed. Life was fresh and laced with the anticipation and harmless angst of a struggle yet to be defined. Making our way every new September, aching to distinguish ourselves from the class ahead of us, and those coming up behind.
Now, in my old age, I remember it well, as if it were yesterday, as my yesterdays and yesteryears become easier to remember than what I had for breakfast. The old stadium, the intimidating track, the wide open fields and vacant lots, and the familiar streets that bordered our well-defined universe. Then, there was that one, tall, poplar tree, looming over everything, reaching to the sky at the edge of the practice field. A stately remnant of what used to be, but would never be again. Once upon a time, a glorious row of brother and sister poplars stood next to her, on that ancient homestead that was here long before the school ever was. Each tall tree strategically planted to block the west wind from ravaging the crops as they grew in the field. This very field. The one next to the old Indian trail, that eventually became a dirt road, which was paved over long ago, and now holds busy rush-hour, traffic.
But, we were there long before what it looks like today. Before everything became modern. Before the condos and convenient stores and the Burger King on the corner. Long before we all grew up, and left home, then came back and got married; raised our kids to be more like us, which they could never be.
It was a particularly hot, summer day and we were exhausted, as only indestructible youth can be exhausted. It was the second practice of the day, and our last, before the new season began. The final dog-day of summer, before everything starts over again.
I, for one, wanted to go home early. Hit the showers, and make one last run around town, to stretch the summer out as far as possible. “The Coach” felt our pain, and tried to ignore it. But, only he knew what the challenge of the new season would bring, with our, and his, reputation on the line, against tough and motivated rivals coached by other good-looking, over-achievers like himself. Each with their own personal pressures, parent booster programs, and well-placed businessmen, pressing for a long overdue State Championship.
And so it was, against his better judgment, or perhaps by design, “The Coach” made the statement, which gave us the glimmer of hope of ending our hot, August, football practice, 30 minutes early.
“Listen up!” came the command. “It’s been a good pre-season. And despite some periodic slacking when my back was turned, I’ll make you a deal.” By the tone of his voice, we could tell his proposal might not be that promising. But, what did we have to lose. It was either 30 more minutes of hell, or whatever “The Coach” was about to offer as an alternative.
“One last scrimmage,” he explained. “A field-goal attempt, between the first-string offense and the first-string defense. If Lawrence can kick it over the fence, by the old poplar tree, the whole offense gets to shower early.” Then, with an imperceptible smile, he stated the rest of the challenge. “If he doesn’t, the whole defense leaves early.” Then, with a solid clap of his hands and a motivating, “Let’s go!” we lined up like reluctant gunfighters in the noonday sun.
We instantly felt bad for Dean Lawrence, our mild-mannered, field-goal, kicker. Dean was a big boned kid, and fair-haired. He wore old-school, high-tops for cleats. He was good at his trade. And as far as high school kickers go, he was one of the best. A senior with a heavily ladened letter-jacket anyone would be proud to wear, this was his last season, and like many of us, his last hurrah. But, his current situation was not envied. No matter what he did, at least half the team would be sending unpleasant thoughts his way.
As we took our positions, we wondered what “The Coach” was thinking, given the potentially disastrous effect his field-goal challenge could have on our always tenuous team unity.
When the ball was snapped, it all began to unfold in slow-motion. The crashing of heavy bodies and hard-charging legs. The ball grabbed in mid-air by the kneeling quarterback, placed down, and spun into place. The raging bulls on both sides of the line cracking each others’ pads, pushing and snorting. The linebackers and defensive-backs launched themselves into the air with hands stretched high. And like some Hollywood movie, the big, high-top cleats of Dean Lawrence’s powerful right foot found the ball’s sweet-spot and launched it into the air, with a mighty force, into the west wind.
Then, in one, heart-stopping, moment, it was over. The ball sailed on its way, carrying half our youthful fates with it. Both the offense and defense spun around to follow the bullet’s trajectory, calculating and recalculating in thousandths of seconds, the possibilities, pro and con, that only milliseconds would prove to be true or false. To everyone’s disbelief, not only did Dean’s massive leg send the pigskin over the fence, it blasted through the leafy center of the old poplar tree and kept on going! It crossed the road and bounced into the vacant lot, into the weeds, where the new condos now stand.
Dean, of course, was momentarily elated. His offensive teammates mobbed him, slapping his back, and gave a collective sigh of relief, that it was all over for them. They were going home early.
“Defense, take a lap!” was all “The Coach” said, confirming the next phase of purgatory for the other half of the team, who had come up with the short end of the stick. While the offense gratefully headed for the locker room, the rest of us lowered our heads in the hot, summer sun, and reluctantly leaned into another long, lonely lap of shame.
But, then, something unusual happened. Something that old men still talk about in the hot, August, shade, on long, summer, days.
Dean Lawrence, the half-hero of the moment, started it. Then, it took on a life of its own. Instead of following his offensive teammates to the locker room, he put his sweaty, foul-smelling, helmet back on his aching head, and slowly jogged off after his doomed, defensive teammates on their plodding, defeated, lap.
It didn’t take long. And not a word was said. No one had to. Because, when it came right down it, they were all in it together; in this one moment in time, in their incalculably short, teenage, lives. One by one, then twos and threes, and eventually, every last one of the offense, snapped their chin-straps again and followed their teammates, turning the lap of shame into something else. Showing their solidarity, the ones at the head of the pack slowed and waited for everyone to catch up, so they could run as a team. “The Team” they will always will be. When they finally finished, they stood together, holding hands, as young men, who once were boys. They waited there in front of “Their Coach,” reconciled to his next command, the next drill, no matter what he would throw at them. Because now, they had resolved to do it together, until it was finished, and everyone left together.
“The Coach” looked everyone of them in the eye, with the steely gaze of one who has been there and done that, and said, “Now you’re a team. Take the rest of the summer off.” That moment was golden and will live in the young hearts of old men forever.
Later that day, Dean Lawrence shagged his own ball from the vacant lot across the street, which I hear he still has today. He, of course, is alive and well, and a fine pillar of the community. But the glorious, old poplar tree is gone. I drove by the high school the other day and saw her laying on the ground, next to the new, AstroTurfed field and the old Indian trail that now holds rush-hour traffic. I felt sorrow for her when I saw her lying there, in giant bolts, already cut up and ready to be hauled off. I parked and walked over to pray with her. To thank her for being there all those years, doing what poplars do best. And I remembered that day, so long ago, on this very spot, on that long, hot, August afternoon, and smiled a single tear.
I hope they have poplars in heaven. If not, I’m sure there will be soon, if “The Coach” has anything to say about it.
RIP: “The Dean Lawrence Memorial Kicking Tree.”
— By Michael W. Hall
Michael W. Hall, a 1971 graduate of Edmonds High School, is a local attorney who enjoys fly fishing, writing and “all things Fortean.”