Somewhere in my youth, in the mid-1970s, mid-football career, mid-healthy years, pre-arthritis, pre-injury, there was a shining moment. Like most shining moments, it was in the past before I recognized it.
I always loved football. American football. My brother and I had played the other football (soccer) with the Turkish kids when we lived there. It was screaming fun, but it seemed more to me like a mixture of wind sprints and the board game Chutes and Ladders—run all day just to lose the ball. Besides, back in those days, just about any Turkish kid could smoke the living daylights out of any American kid on the soccer field. No, it was American football for me. I started when I was no bigger than a bobble head. That’s exactly what we looked like—I’ve seen the pictures. I played football there until ninth grade, then Uncle Sam abruptly sent us home to the States. I was sad, but then I remembered where American Football was invented.
When we got back to the USA, I couldn’t wait to see what our football team would look like. The Maconaquah Braves of Bunker Hill, Indiana, Mid-Indiana Conference, somewhere between Indianapolis and the Great Lakes on the map. Red, white and Columbia blue were our school colors. I wanted to wear number 76 because that was my class. How cool would that have been? The bicentennial year of our country, red-white-and-blue school colors, and the number 76 on my jersey!
“You can’t wear 76, it’s already taken. How about double zero?”
DOUBLE ZERO? What an insult, what an outrage, what a …
At least I had made the team. Besides, 00 had a certain kind of mystique to it, I figured.
I worked year-round, lifting weights, running bleacher laps, staying after school in the off season. I wanted to play inside linebacker on our defense—the old “4-4 stack”—and linebackers had to be considerably faster, and lighter, than the “down” linemen, which I was.
After a solid year of grueling work and studying the game (and I wasn’t the brightest player on the horizon, I can assure you), the coaches gave me a shot at my dream position, inside linebacker.
Sometimes, we played at home, sometimes away. It was always in the chilly, early Autumn of north-central Indiana, on evenings that saw hints of reds and yellows starting to sneak their way into the trees around the fields. Stands filled with boosters, parents and fans, pretty cheerleaders with earmuffs and pom-poms, and band music that celebrated no matter who was winning.
Our quarterback was a kid named John Porter. He was so poised and confident that the whole team carried his attitude. Tony Fowler (I thought of him as Superman) was our best running back, and you could count on him for any needed yards. But there were a couple of other guys that got on a tear every now and then. Once, in the third quarter of a game, one of our running backs—a skinny buddy of mine named Thierry Martell—looked up at the scoreboard. We were behind. I watched him set his jaw, and from that point, every time he touched the ball he got us a first down. He scored twice in that game, I think, and we wound up winning.
Our defense was a brick wall. In those days, the game wasn’t as complex as it is now, and the 4-4 stack was just like it sounds. Four guys down front, and four linebackers right behind them. Try running into that. Even the tricky teams didn’t get by with a lot against us, because our team worked to exhaustion on the basics: speed and tackling. My season was perfect. I don’t remember strong stats or trophies or award dinners, though I’m sure all of that happened. What I do remember is that my coaches believed in me enough to let me try out for what I really wanted to do.
As the last game of the season ended, none of us quite realized what had happened. We had just played a season of football without a loss.
We came home on the bus, congratulating our star players, swearing we would never lose track of each other for life.
When we got back to our home field, some guys hit the showers and some just sat there, savoring that split second in time. “Midnight Train to Georgia” by Gladys Knight and the Pips was playing in the locker room. I looked around, unable to believe that a perfect season could so quickly become history.
Epilogue: I’ve never since in my life been undefeated. John and Tony were Air Force brats like me. They wound up gone the next season. I had a muscle injury that slowed me back down to the defensive line. But, my last season at Maconaquah, they let me wear number 76, and become a placekicker.
Thierry Martell is on Facebook. He still looks pretty tough.