Monday, October 09, 2006

My Football Exploits / My Son's New Dominance in Basketball / Detroit Tiger Pride

I had some fun today with two of my sons. My second oldest is almost 6 feet at age 13 and very much into sports and intensely competitive, just as I was at his age (and still am, really). He's been playing tackle football regularly at a local park. I used to love playing that when I was his age: breaking tackles and making interceptions.

Now, however, I have less than no desire to either: 1) run around for any length of time, or 2) be tackled at the age of 48: already stiff from typing too much and with an almost perpetually sore back. I got the notion that it would be cool to try to kick field goals on an actual football field. I don't believe I've ever done that in my life. And it was a gorgeous fall day: about 70 degrees and marvelously sunny.

So the contest was on between my son and I. Who could kick the longest field goal? First we did the after-kick or conversion field goal, which is about 12 yards. I blew the first one and made it the second time (with regular old gym shoes on: no steel toed shoes here). My son also made it. Later my youngest son (9) also did this kick, which was very good for his small size.

These first kicks were like a field goal in an NFL game, in that another person held the ball until it was kicked (except my youngest son). But soon we decided to do all subsequent field goals like a punt (for you non-football devotees: that means kicking it all by yourself out of your hand).

It took two or three tries to make a 20 yard field goal. Same for my son. So now it remained to be seen, whether we could do a 30-yard field goal / "punt". Remember, the bar it has to go over is ten feet off the ground, so you have to kick it 30 yards with the ball still at least ten feet up at the end and between the cross-bars too (a 10 to15 foot space), so that the actual distance from kick to landing is even further (maybe 10-15 yards more).

This took some doing. We both kicked about eight balls I think, without making one. My son was kicking wild balls right and left, and low. Mine were usually right on the money direction-wise, but would fall short. I needed his power and he needed my control. At length he gave up on the 30 yard field goal, but nothing was gonna stop me from getting one before we left that field, because I was close enough to know that it could be done. So I tried five or six more times till I did it.

Wow! That was a thrill: a 30 yard field goal with regular shoes, by a 48-year-old geezer like me. I haven't gotten this excited about some athletic feat since I hit the softball over a double fence at a regulation-size softball field a few years ago, or made ten straight basketball free throws (foul shot) two years ago. It was particularly satisfying because yesterday and earlier today I could barely bend over. My lower back had gotten inflamed for who knows what reason.

Now my son wanted to see who could throw the furthest, too. Another challenge (and we both love those!). 20 yards was easy, so was 30. But 34 yards was the best my son could do. I was determined to throw a 40-yard pass. We would go to one of the yard lines and then throw to the goal post, to get an exact measurement. My arm felt good, and it didn't take long to throw a 42-yard pass. Could I do 50? Well, that was quite a challenge. I made a few tries, but my numbers were getting lower and my arm more sore, so I decided I should stop so I wouldn't injure my arm (since I type for a living, after all, and tore a rotator cuff in my left shoulder last year, playing basketball - it's now much better and almost healed).

The old man thus won the two contests today. But to give my son his due, he has now beaten me two straight in one-on-one basketball, for the first time, which meant a lot to him and made me very proud of him indeed. He is a monster defender. I call him "Bendsey": a combination of former Piston Ben Wallace, who has won defensive player of the year four times and is known for blocking, and Lindsey Hunter, the Pistons guard known for extremely tenacious defense of ball handlers. He has also developed a fade-away shot which is impossible to block because you shoot it above your head while falling back.

I need to come up with some equivalent or I may never beat him again. Plus I didn't make a single long shot the whole game and missed some easy layup-type shots, too. Boo! Not to mention I get awful tired with all that running around. I was never good at that, at any age. My abilities and accomplishments in sports always had to do with eye-hand coordination, quick wrists, form, balance, and intense competitiveness, but not speed and endurance. I've also never taken the heat very well, so anything above 75 tends to wipe me out, energy-wise, especially if it is humid.

So the Armstrong vs. Armstrong Sports Escapades continue . . .

In other sports news, our Detroit Tigers whooped the mighty Yankees in four games. Now we play the Oakland A's for the pennant. It was an amazing display. Our pitchers (best ERA in the American League) almost completely shut down the Yankees. They got one run in the last two games. This was sweet. The announcers said that some think the Yankee line-up is the best ever (and that's saying something if you consider the classic 1927 Yankees' "Murderer's Row" of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig et al).

It was particularly meaningful for the Tigers because they had been, for most of the year, the best team in the major leagues, record-wise, but went into a tail-spin at the end of the season (just like the Red Wings and Pistons: both of whom had the best record in their leagues, did), even losing the division title on the last day of the season, after five straight losses. Then the Yankees won the first game. But from the middle of the second, the Yankees offense was almost completely shut down.

I'm only a fair weather fan of baseball now (I watch only basketball for whole games; and an occasional football game), but I used to follow it religiously in the late 60s and early 70s, still maintain an avid interest in the sport's history, and it remains (as it always has been) my favorite sport to play. We won the World Series in 1968 against the St. Louis Cardinals, heroically coming back from a 3-1 deficit. Denny McLain had a 31-6 record that year and a 1.96 ERA and 280 strikeouts (the first pitcher to win 30 since Dizzy Dean in the 1930s). He only had one more good year, though, because of stupidity and gambling habits and crooked dealings (he is now in jail).

Mickey Lolich was the series hero, with three victories. All that drama, plus the great Cardinals' base stealer Lou Brock and pitcher Bob Gibson (who had 17 or 18 strikeouts in the first game), yet in Ken Burns' massive documentary Baseball, he completely skipped over 1968 and concentrated almost totally on New York and Boston antics. It was pathetic. Nor did he cover the 1935 world champion Tigers, who had Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg (the first Jewish player of note in the Major Leagues), and Mickey Cochrane. Talk about regional bias . . .

I remember imitating (to my family's amusement) Lou Brock, looking right and left, before dashing off to steal another base. This was what got me interested in baseball and sports generally, at age 10. There was also a human interest story in 1968 in Detroit because the year before we had the terrible riots, where 43 were killed, and thousands arrested and whole neighborhoods burned down. The epicenter of the riots was (as a matter of trivia) only about a half-mile - if that much - from the famous Motown studios. It is thought that winning the championship the next year helped the city to heal.

I was at the 1971 All-Star Game in Detroit and saw Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente (we also saw him walking down the street outside the park), and the famous home run by Reggie Jackson which went out of the park (it traveled right over us because we were in the upper deck in right field). I was also at the final game of the 1972 playoffs when the Tigers lost to the A's. I ran on the field afterwards and got a piece of grass. In 1999, the last year of the old Tiger Stadium, we all got to walk the bases and go in the outfield, too, before leaving the park. This is where Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth and Ted Williams played. Now there are only three of the old parks left: Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Yankee Stadium (I've seen all three).

The other funny thing is that when the Tigers were last in the World Series, in 1984, I was on my honeymoon (our anniversary is October 6th: we planned it to coincide with the fall colors because we are autumn fanatics). We watched every game down in our honeymoon house: a cool rustic place near the Smoky Mountains, loaned to us by relatives. The fall colors were spectacular: the best I'd ever seen, except for perhaps in New England in 1997.

Anyway, thanks for reading all these personal / Detroit native sports reflections. It was a lot of fun writing this. Sports (along with music and outdoors adventures) has been a huge interest in my life. You may not have known that, if you know me mainly as a Catholic apologist. I haven't written too much about it, except for a series of posts about the Detroit Pistons when they were the NBA champs back in 2004.

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