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Football and Thanksgiving

Posted by Arlo on Dec 5, 2005 under Life of Arlo

Staring down the line of scrimmage

When I first read about “flashbulb memories” in Psych 101, I immediately understood the metaphor. Sometimes an event occurs that is so perfectly captured by the mind that, in retrospect, time seemed to have slowed down and the tiniest detail can be recalled…

I sprinted off the line as soon as the ball was snapped. It was fourth-and-long and the cornerback, as usual, was giving me plenty of cushion. Without cleats, I didn’t bother to offer a fake. Eyes on the quarterback, he let me pass unhindered. The gusting wind was incredibly strong that Thanksgiving Day (benefiting our team that half) but the accompanying rain cast any throw in doubt. The defender must have decided that I was outrunning the quarterback’s arm.

With the gap between us widening with each step, our QB launched the ball into the air. It arced too high, giving the defenders time make a play, but at least it had some semblance of a spiral. Still, it wouldn’t reach me.

I reversed direction as quickly as I could, the rubber soles of my court shoes almost skidding out from under me on the hard-packed dirt. Now advancing on the backpedaling cornerback, I could tell that he could have a chance a intercepting the descending ball. I ran farther back than I needed to, consciously making the decision to block him out with my body’s position. But now the ball was sailing over my head.

I barely had enough time to think that I had made a mistake; this would be one of those difficult directly-over-the-head catches…

In one motion, I jumped and twisted my body around, losing sight of the defender. I saw my arms out in front of me, coming together from odd angles, and then football was between them.

There was a fleeting moment of surprise, and then the cornerback’s arm was wrapping around my waist. But his center of gravity diverging from my own, and as I spun away, his hand failed to find a purchase on my muddy sweatshirt. The end zone loomed in front of me; I ran.

We were evenly matched in speed, but I knew that his cleats would give him and edge in both acceleration and cutting. It was a footrace, plane and simple, and I put everything I had into stretching my legs for the orange cone that marked the goal. I crossed the line barely a stride or two in front of him, scoring the winning touchdown.

Without fanfare or celebration, I looked back down the field to see almost every other player near the line of scrimmage, some 60 yards back. I hadn’t realized it, but it was to be the last play of the game.

As vivid as that play is in my memory – illuminated as though a “flashbulb” went off, freezing each motion and thought in place – it’s an earlier play, one in which I may have broken my wrist, that I keep going over in my mind.

Strangely, I don’t remember much about it; perhaps because it wasn’t until much later in the day, after my wrist had started to swell, that I began to question what had happened. I know it was another fourth down, that the play called for me to catch a quick pass right on the line of scrimmage, and that I was able to pick up the 7-or-so yards needed by making a beeline for the sideline marker. I also know that, expecting to be simply pushed out of bounds, I was surprised by a centrifugal tackle that landed me soundly on my tailbone, then shoulders, then completely head-over-heals. I came to rest propped up on my knees.

When it comes hurting to my wrist, there’s no corresponding memory, but as I walked back to the huddle after that play, I unconsciously cradled it in my right hand. There was definitely some pain there, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t continue playing. Seeing my left hand dangling from the grasp of my right, my old Tae Kwon Do sensei, Jack, said, “Arlo’s hurt. Let’s throw the ball to him again – he does great when he’s hurt!” I sort of have that reputation with my football buddies.

Thirteen years ago, I broke my left hand (specifically, the fifth metacarpal) during one of our first Turkey Bowls. Ironically, I can’t remember exactly when that happened, either. I do know is that it wasn’t when everyone else thought it was.

Sometime during the beginning of the ’92 game, I returned to the huddle, much like this year, with a twinge in my hand. I squeezed my left hand into a fist, felt pain, and reflexively let it go. That’s weird!, I thought. I tried it a couple more times, experimentally. Yep, that definitely hurts. I put it out of my mind.

Later in the game, I was on the receiving end of particularly rough dog-pile of a tackle and, once everyone else was up, I continued to lay face down on the water-logged, dirt field. Because, you know, it felt better than trying to get to my feet. At least at the time. I had sustained a blow to the shoulder and, for a few moments, my entire left arm was completely numb.

That sounds scarier than it actually was. It didn’t feel like it was injured, exactly, more like it had gone to sleep. Someone noticed me lying there in the mud and offered to help me to my feet. I was awkwardly yanked up and wobbled my way back to the huddle.

Jack was playing quarterback that year and he asked me, “Are you okay? Do you think you can catch another pass?”

I told him I thought I could.

“Good. They won’t expect the ball to go to you after that!”

My arm was still tingling when I did the button-hook at 8. I might have made a few more up-field yards before I was clobbered again. I was slow to get up again and, back in the huddle, got a few pats on the back from my teammates. Jack said, “Okay, now they’ll never expect us to go to you again.” I rolled my eyes, but accepted the responsibility with a smile. Third time was the charm, too. I scored a touchdown.

All the regular Turkey Bowlers remember those three plays and, despite my half-hearted attempts to correct them, remember it as the time when I broke my hand.

If all this sounds rather violent, I should assure you that it really isn’t. Since there are no pads, we play “gentleman’s tackle,” which means that you can call yourself “down” at any time. Unfortunately, there’s always that competitive spark, deep inside, that flares up whenever I have the ball. Maybe, just maybe, I can break that next tackle and score…That’s probably when the accidents happen.

It’s not as though I’m the only one who has ever been injured, either. Jack, himself, was carted off the field a few years ago – in an ambulance – after going up for a jump ball and coming down on his head (concussion symptoms are freaky, man!) Billy broke his collar bone, though that wasn’t actually on Thanksgiving. And I suspect everyone spends the weekend after the big game in the same state of aches and pains and scabs and bruises.

It’s fun; we’ve been doing it for years.

Just how many years is open for debate. This year I heard that this was either the 14th, 15th, or 16th annual Thanksgiving Day game. All I know for sure is that I hadn’t yet been introduced to this group of footballers while I was still in high school, so my first game couldn’t have been in ’89. In ’92, I broke my hand. My best guess is that I started in ’90 or ’91… and I’ve missed only one game since.

No doubt, there’s a lot of history to our Turkey Bowl!

Ever since little league, when I played for the North Lauderdale Raiders, I’ve had a passion for football. Two years I played for them and we never won a game; the first season, we never even scored a point! It was a sad little team, but I gave it my best and loved being out on the field.

When I moved back to Ketchikan, I fell in with the wrong crowd. Or the right crowd, depending on your love for nerds, but, nevertheless, a non-athletic crowd. Because of that social decision, I had been naturally selected not be a part of high school football team. It didn’t seem like a great loss at the time – jock integration did not score highly on my list of social goals – but I did miss the sport.

I graduated and remained, directionless for a time, in Ketchikan. A friend had joined a Tae Kwon Do class and, though I wasn’t terribly interested in the martial arts, mentioned that many of his classmates got together on the weekend to play tackle football. I wheedled myself an invite and joined them one fall afternoon. It was just as fun as I remembered it and, as a bonus, there were no egos to contend with. Before long, the group had me enrolled in Tae Kwon Do, lifting weights three times a week, and generally just pulled me into their own social circle for the next year or two.

Memorable injuries aside, I think back most often to the varied weather conditions of the Turkey Bowls. We’ve played in unseasonably warm weather (for November), cold sunshine with the ground frozen solid, sideways rain, and blankets of player-equalizing snow. And then there was the slush. Imagine, if you will, being flung face first into 3 inches of slush floating on an inch of chilled water. We refer to that year as the Slush Bowl, but we could just as easily switch it to the “Hypothermia Bowl.”

I’ve gone back to play in peak physical shape, having previously set a rigorous jogging and ultimate Frisbee schedule for myself. On a “good year,” I can hardly believe it when some players want to quit, breathless, after only an hour and a half on the field. Other years, I’ve prepared by doing nothing more than playing countless hours of video games. (And because I can’t switch off my competitive nature, I invariably ended up pushing my out-of-shape body too hard, and, well, let’s just that after a couple “bad years,” I have a reputation of vomiting on the field.)

Some years are jam-packed with players, with friends bringing friends until we almost have too many people on the field. Other years it can be sparse at best; as when just three regulars showed (good thing Billy brought his kids along or we wouldn’t have even been able to pretend we were playing a game.)

We’ve been at it so long, that I’ve watched Jack’s kids grow up in yearly snapshots. When they first started playing, at maybe 10 or 11 years old, they’d square off against each other and any adult would “tackle” them by simply lifting them off their feet. Now they’re the type of players that you fear to be tackled by and dread the responsibility of covering.

This year, there were at least six regular players on the field, myself included, and only two of them can claim to have been at every Turkey Bowl. I was the last to fall out of that elite club, in 2003, when Oksana and I decided to stay in Juneau and celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves. Although we had a wonderful time, I regret not going back to Ketchikan. Not only for the Turkey Bowl, but also because it broke a routine – no, a tradition! – that’s been going on for almost as long as I can remember.

It goes a little something like this:

08:30am – 10:30am Football with the old gang
10-30am – 12:00pm Bath/Shower/Vitamin I and warm, dry clothes
12:00pm – 3:00pm Watch the Dallas Cowboys, my favorite team, play in their Turkey Bowl
3:00pm – 4:00pm Eat way too much really, really good food
4:30pm – 7:00pm Take a nap; digest
7:00pm – 9:30pm Enjoy the company of my family, eat pie
10:00pm Sleep like the dead

Starting in 1997, for seven straight years, I spent Christmas and New Year’s in a foreign country. At first, I missed my family terribly over the holidays but, as in most things, I came to expect their absence in time. Because I wasn’t planning to be stateside in December and January, Thanksgiving became the family holiday I looked forward to. And now, even though I’m home for the holidays, I can’t imagine not “going home” to Ketchikan in late November.

But I was talking about the possibility of a broken wrist.

Just before I reached the “sleep like the dead” part of my immutable Thanksgiving routine, I noticed that my wrist had starting to swell. It was very minor, not at all like the balloon my hand turned into when I broke it all those years before, but its pain and mobility were getting worse. I confided in Oksana and, the next day when the swelling worsened, in my mom, as well. I repeatedly thought back to the game, but couldn’t actually remember landing on my wrist; but there was an obvious (though overlooked) clue in the bloody scrapes on the heel of my hand. Hoping it was only a sprain, but definitely not ruling out a break, I decided to give it more time.

We flew back to Juneau on Friday night and Oksana convinced me to go to Urgent Care for X-rays on Saturday; why not? I’d already met my deductible for the year. Urgent Care had no one on staff that weekend that was qualified to take X-rays, so we decided to check out the line at the Emergency Room.

Why is it that hospitals are understaffed on the weekends? If I’m any indication, wannabe athletes always hurt themselves on the weekends and holidays.

Fortunately, there were only a couple people in the waiting room and I was triaged right to the front of the line… just so we could wait around in an empty office for the next couple hours. A doctor and nurse came and went, a radiologist photographed my skeleton, and then the doctor returned to tell me that they didn’t see anything but a “bone island” on my X-rays.

But. Though the doctor looked closely at my X-rays, he wasn’t actually qualified to read them. No one working that day was. Not only that, but a there was a slight possibility that I had fractured the scaphoid carpal bone, a break that occasionally doesn’t manifest itself in an X-ray until the after a couple weeks of healing.

So, the good news is that I probably only have a sprained wrist. The potentially bad news is that I have broken a bone that, because it doesn’t receive great blood flow, is notoriously difficult to heal. We’re talking 3 to 6 months in an above-the-elbow cast and/or surgery to pin things back in place. They gave me a splint and some advice: If it still hurts after 10 days, have it looked at again.

It’s been 11 days and, though the swelling has disappeared and some of the pain has diminished, it still hurts. I wear the wrist brace most of the day and night – not to assist in any healing, but rather to prevent me from bending or twisting my wrist too far in any direction.

I’m worried enough that I have scheduled an appointment, three days from now, with the same doctor who X-rayed my knee. I’m hoping to cancel it, but we’ll see.