Eric Luthi: Turkeys, Clydesdales and Guided Missiles (fiction)

Southern Legitimacy Statement: i was born in Hollywood, California (yes, really) to parents who came to America after the war in Europe. My wife has a more interesting history, having ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.  My dad did teach me how to shoot, though. Once I shot two perfect bullseyes back to back. The third shot went wide. He smiled and said, “Did you have your eyes closed? I got real good real quick after that.

Turkeys, Clydesdales and Guided Missiles

During my last two years of high school, and a few years afterward, I worked part-time in a grocery store.  More specifically, I worked in the produce department where I didn’t have to interact as much with customers as did the cashiers up front.  As a result, I developed a greater rapport with fruits and vegetables than I did with people. 

 Across town, four miles distant, stood another one of our grocery stores.  Every year on Thanksgiving, the guys from our store would meet the guys from their store for an epic football battle.  We called it what everyone else calls their Thanksgiving Day football game: The Turkey Bowl.

Every year for the past three years, I played in our Turkey Bowl.  I was a big guy and so I was assigned to the line.

“Take two steps forward and then turn toward the quarterback and contain him.”  These were invariably my instructions followed by, “Stop the guy with the ball.”

So, the quarterback would say, “Right tackle,” and I would play right tackle until I was told otherwise.  I never played receiver or running back or anything else requiring a fast launch.  I was big and that meant inertia.

Inertia means things at rest tend to stay at rest while objects in motion tend to stay in motion and moving in a straight line until some outside force acts upon them to change the direction or speed.  That was me.  I was the object at rest and therefore slow off the line.   So I was limited to left guard, right guard, right tackle, left tackle.   Not that I couldn’t get up a head of steam.  I wasn’t slow, but I wasn’t quick.  It took me a long time to get up to full speed.  Watching me run was like watching a freight train pull out of a rail yard.  Eventually, it moved fast.  Just not at the start.  

In the sports world, people like me weren’t called freight trains.  That could be construed as a compliment.  Instead, we were called Clydesdales.  Big horses more suitable for pulling a wagon full of beer or plowing a field than running a race.

 In our game, the rules for eligibility were simple: in order to play, you had to work at the store.  Many of our guys played football in high school.  We had some talent.  Not me.  I never played anything requiring cleats, pads, or helmets.  I threw discus and played water polo.  Still, I was a big guy and size was an asset on the line.  So, for three years, I played.  For three years in a row, we won the game.  

I do not claim credit.

This year, our cross-town-rival store showed up with one player no one from our store had seen before.  Six feet tall and stocky, but he moved well.  Later, we would find out that he played running back for USC.  Third string.

“Yes, he works at the store.”

“Never seen him.”

“He’s part time.  He’s still in college.”

“So how come we never seen him?”

“He just started.  He works nights.”

We had no roster so, in the end, we let him play.  

We received first and marched down the field to score.  Easy.  This was looking like the last three years.  We kicked and they returned the ball.  Then the USC running back, third string, came onto the field.  

Their strategy was simple.  No passing.  Hand the ball to the USC running back, third string, and let him go.  They didn’t even block for him.  Their linemen stepped aside and let him run.  He didn’t try any end runs or anything like that.  By the time he reached our line, he was moving.  He smashed straight through our guys, made four or five or seven yards and we would gang tackle him and drag him to the ground like a pack of lions dragging a charging cape buffalo to earth.  Except that here, the lions were getting trampled.  When he got tired and needed a break, they’d hand the ball to someone else who invariably lost yardage.

They scored on their first possession.  We scored again.  They scored again.  After our third touchdown, we ran in for a conversion and an extra point.  They missed the extra point on their next touchdown.

After nearly two hours of play, the score stood at twenty-two for us, twenty for them.  It was our ball on their ten yard line.  Fourth down.  A score here would put the game away.  We ran the play and dropped the ball.  They recovered.

Their first play after that, I was right tackle.  The quarterback handed the ball to USC running back, third string, and he charged straight ahead toward our left side.  On their side, the right guard and right tackle stepped away and let him through.  

As did our linemen.  

I guess our linemen thought someone else on our team would stop the guy.  But everybody just sort of stopped moving right where they were and groaned.

Three more steps and he was past our quarterback and everybody else on our team.  I turned and ran after him.  There was a second communal groan behind me as my whole team realized the only person in pursuit of the USC running back, third string, was me.

We passed the twenty-yard line and the thirty and the forty.  By the time I crossed midfield, I was running all out and still a full ten feet behind him.  At the fifty yard line, I was the freight train barreling downhill with no brakes.  But it had taken me forty yards to reach speed.  And as hard as I ran, I couldn’t catch him.   He stayed ten feet ahead of me most of the way across that field.  He could hear my feet pounding the ground.  Clydesdales aren’t quiet when they run.  He knew I was there and he didn’t slow down.  He was going to run all the way into the end zone.  And I would chase him every step of the way.

I didn’t breathe.  Six more seconds and it would be over.  During my chase, I almost gave up.  Everyone else had.  I knew I couldn’t catch him the moment I turned to chase.   I ran because no one else did.  

We passed the forty and the thirty.  I gained maybe a foot over the last twenty yards.  He was tiring but no way would it be enough.    We crossed the twenty-yard line.

And then the guided missile appeared.

To my right, without looking in that direction, I saw movement.  I knew right away who it was.  It was Javier, the smallest guy on our team.  He was also the fastest man on the field that day and he came in at an angle aimed right at the USC running back, third string.  

Javier was clear on the other side of the play when the ball snapped.  He also didn’t start running when I did.  When the USC running back, third string, broke through our line, Javier thought it was over.   He saw me give chase and he saw that I was the only one.  He wasn’t about to leave me out there all alone.  So he went in pursuit of both of us.

The USC running back, third string, saw Javier about the same time I did.  I know this because he did something that surprised me.  He took a sort of half step.  It was enough to shift his momentum.  He slowed down, just enough.  Javier overshot and struck only a glancing blow and spun off to the left.  Mr. USC running back, third string, tried to accelerate again.  And this is where inertia really comes in.  He couldn’t speed up fast enough and I never slowed down.

At the ten yard line, I crashed into him at a dead run.  I wrapped my arms around him and lifted my feet.  Inertia now carried us forward.  During the fall, I tried to strip the ball from him, but he was good, USC running back, third string and all.  He held onto that ball, but it meant he couldn’t use his hands to absorb the impact.   He went in face first and I came down on top of him, all six-foot-three, two-hundred-twenty pounds of me.  We hit the ground hard enough to make divots in the grass.  

The referee marked the ball on the four yard line.  My team trotted up to Javier and me and took their positions on the line.

“Nice run, Simon,” said one of my teammates.

We held them there on the four yard line through four downs and the game ended.  The USC running back, third string, did not take the field during those last four plays.