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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

How To Mangle Friends
and Influence Coaches

by Clay Coppedge
My boyhood pal Ricky was either an accident waiting to happen or a pretty fair country football player, depending on whether he was injuring himself or someone else. He was what the coaches liked to call a “headhunter” but he was also something of a fall guy.

Like a lot of us of a certain age, Ricky and I grew up watching the Dallas Cowboys long before they were America’s Team. With competition from the Dallas Texans of the old American Football League, there was some doubt in the sixties as to whether the Cowboys were even Dallas’ team.

We watched anxiously each Sunday to see if quarterback Don Meredith would be knocked unconscious before he could loft a deep ball to Bullet Bob Hayes, or if Cowboy linebacker Leroy Jordan would knock the snot out of an opposing running back, put him out of the game and thus give Dallas a chance for one of its few victories that season.

Leroy Jordan was Ricky’s hero from the start. “I want to hit people,” Ricky said. “I want them to wake up the next morning in pain, and remember me.”

That wasn’t hard for me to believe. The first words Ricky ever said to me when we moved into the northeast Lubbock neighborhood where I grew up was, “Do you wanna fight?” When I said quite honestly that I didn’t he called me a chicken, turkey and other fowl (and foul) names.

Two days later he ambushed me as I was riding my bicycle home from an errand to the grocery store. He suddenly jumped out from some bushes, screaming like a banshee. He knocked me off my bike and stomped on the loaf of bread that I had dutifully fetched for my mama.

At home my dad told me I was going to have to stand up this kid or live in fear. The next day I went to his house and asked his mama if Ricky could come out and play. She eyed me suspiciously because, as I found out later, other kids didn’t often ask Ricky to play.

Ricky was also suspicious but he stepped outside anyway, where I promptly punched him in the stomach and busted my knuckles on his head. He was about to retaliate but his mother came outside, grabbed her son and sent me home.

Naturally, we were best friends from that day forward.
* * *
When the time came to “suit up” for football, Ricky appeared to be a natural. He had enjoyed a bit of a growth spurt and was nothing if not aggressive. The qualities that made him such a liability in the neighborhood and the classroom endeared him to the coaches.

But Ricky’s road to gridiron glory was to be full of detours. A week before workouts began Ricky took it upon himself to climb a tree at the local skating rink to impress an older girl of 16.

That wouldn’t have been so dangerous but for the fact that he was wearing roller skates at the time. He slipped, fell and broke his two favorite arms. He had to sit out most of the season.

The next summer Ricky was working in his father’s woodshop when a girl walking down the street in a miniskirt caught his eye. His attention wavered and the next thing anybody knew, he had sawed off two of his favorite fingers.

The missing digits were not considered a deterrent to playing football, and he was doing just fine during his first two-a-day workouts but Ricky had discovered that he didn’t like football as much as he thought he would. He liked playing just fine; it was the coaching dictatorship that bothered him.

While we discussed the matter, Ricky munched on some doughnuts that he found on top of the washing machine in the garage. I took one too but threw mine away when I found a dead ant curled up in the icing. “Mine’s fine,” he said, helping himself to a third one.

A few minutes later his mother came home from the store and broke the bad news; she had laced those doughnuts with ant poison. She had to convince him she had done this to kill the ants, not him. The family left for yet another trip to the emergency room, where the personnel knew the whole family on a first-name basis.

Our coaches were glad to have Ricky back, swaggering around the practice field without a splint, cast or sling of any kind, but they could see that he was just going through the motions. They yelled at him, tried to make him mad, to make him want to play football. But Ricky had basically fought his war with the world at an early age. He was mellowing a bit as he staggered and stumbled into adolescence.

When he fell of a skateboard and broke two fingers, keeping him out of practice for an entire week, he came up with a plan. He unveiled it to me following a particularly grueling practice.

“Here’s the deal. I’m accident prone, right?”

“’Maybe a little,” I allowed.

“All I have to do is get hurt. The guys who get hurt don’t have to work out. They just sit on the sidelines or go see the trainer and that’s it. How hard can it be to get hurt playing football!”

While most of us aspired to be a first-string player, Ricky’s fondest desire was to go on the disabled list.
* * *
Ricky set out to do just that. The results were truly startling. He threw himself into workouts with such reckless abandon that he finally came to resemble the headhunting linebacker he had fancied himself when we were kids.

Practices became so hazardous to the rest of us that the coaches gave Ricky a colored practice jersey so his teammates could be forewarned of his frequent and spirited kamikaze attacks.

Results were mixed. While trying to hurt himself he hurt a lot of other people, mostly his teammates. He became a starting linebacker and struck terror into the hearts of opposing teams. Even the high number of unnecessary roughness and personal foul calls were not enough to offset the damage he did to the psyche and bodies of our opponents. People took notice of him for the first time.

“The weirdest thing is that people who used to pretend I didn’t exist want to be my friend now,” he said. “My grades have improved, but I study less now than I ever did. It’s weird.”

After a few weeks of his mission to self-destruct, Ricky found that he liked football and its perks pretty well.
* * *
Ricky’s call to gridiron glory came to an abrupt end halfway through the season. One of his favorite knees got twisted during a pile-up, and the doctors said it would be best if he took the rest of the season off.

While convalescing, Ricky discovered the electric guitar. He also discovered that girls liked “geetar” players as much or more than they liked football players – not that it was easy to play the instrument with two missing fingers.

“The thing is, I don’t have to get my brains beat out every day just to meet chicks,” he told me. “I just have to strum a few chords.”

As Lubbock songwriter Terry Allen once wrote about another fallen football hero, “He growed his hair and gave up prayer and said football days is done.”

And that was pretty much the story of Ricky’s football career.

As a postscript it should be noted that Ricky, the man who worked hard to be a football casualty and who was the most accident-prone person in the history of Lubbock County, grew up to be a construction worker.

On nuclear power plants.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
September 11, 2008 Column
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