The front yard was for baseball. Strategically planted dogwood trees served as the bases and the grass along the basepaths was worn to dirt by the end of the Summer. My brother and I played “Wiffle Ball” for hours on end, using the rosters of the teams we represented on any particular day.
The grass underneath the half court we had set up for basketball in the back of our yard suffered the same fate. The bulk of the yard was a lush green, but the constant bouncing of the basketball killed the grass thanks to the hundreds of pickup games we had with our neighborhood friends.
However, it was football that captured the hearts of most of the boys growing up in the small town of our youth. We never played flag football, probably didn’t ever even know what that was. Instead, you tackled and got tackled, cushioned by the only grass remaining in our yard by the end of the Summer.
The clothesline served as the goal post as we practiced extra points and field goals. There were three parallel lines and you had to kick the ball over all three lines to get the points. We played whether there were clothes hanging on the lines or not.
This was before the time that you kicked soccer style. I can say with some certainty that a soccer match was never played in our yard during the 1960s. Most of the boys probably never heard of soccer until they were full grown men.
There were no professional sports teams in the south until the Braves moved to Atlanta while I was in the sixth grade. I listened to a thousand Braves games on my small transistor radio, but it was still football that captured the community’s imagination. In the deep south, football was played year-round. You could see pickup games all over town with the new footballs boys found under the tree on Christmas morning.
Friday nights saw most people in town at Hicks Fields in Cottonwood and Rip Hewes Stadium in Dothan. There would only be a college game or two on television. Rivalries were fierce between Auburn and Alabama. Georgia and Georgia Tech were just as strong.
Most people watched Bear Bryant on the Golden Flake Post Game show on Sunday afternoon. Shug Jordan followed sponsored by the same potato chip company. Shug would often say “You are so right, Carl” in response to any comment by his announcer, Carl Stephens. In a sign of the times, the shows were proceeded by a locally produced television show entitled “Pastor’s Forum”. After all, football was like a religion to many.
Almost 60 years later, you can still feel the energy in a community as football season approaches. This past weekend saw wins by most of the teams I follow, along with a blowout by Florida State. The weather was cooler, and the humidity was lower. You could smell burgers being cooked all over town.
Living in a college town now, we heard fight songs being played by mid-morning. The whiteout by the Auburn fans caused a shortage of white T-shirts around town. The only thing in shorter supply was toilet tissue, with the local Sam’s sold out in preparation for rolling the Toomer’s Oaks.
Like most others, I thought college football would never arrive this year. When Spectrum customers discovered Thursday that ESPN had been pulled from their cable lineups in a dispute with Disney, social media lit up like wildfire. I eventually logged onto our cable at Compass Lake, pulled the games up on my cell phone and mirrored the image on our television.
The next couple of days everyone was talking about football, regardless of their team of choice. There was a certain camaraderie that was evident as communities and friends shared something in common. Even the smack talk between fans was civil. What a pleasant respite from all the social posts about politics, religion, and everything else that seems to divide us these days.
I realize that I live in a part of the world where football carries unusual importance. It would take much more than one column to dissect how that came to be and why it seems more important today than ever. Even with the Name, Image and Likeness agreements and the “portal” shifting athletes between schools before you can memorize the roster, college football is still the greatest game in town. In this part of the world, it is just a way of life.
Dan Ponder can be reached at email@example.com