Friday, May 2, 2008

The Spirits of Lebanon

As far as prep schools went, Darrow was neither large nor well endowed. Often it seemed to us that we were small and poor, especially when it came to athletics. Take football, for example.

Team sports were not an option at Darrow. We couldn't field teams unless participation was mandatory. And once you had chosen your sport (in fall it was either football or soccer), you were stuck with it, and I was stuck with football.

Our equipment was substandard; the junior varsity team was still using leather helmets. And just as embarrassing were our uniforms. Although our school colors were maroon and white, our uniforms were black and orange - hand-me-downs from Princeton University.

Our coach, Harry Mahnken, had been head football coach at Princeton from 1943 until 1945, when he came to Darrow to coach football, baseball and basketball. When the Princeton team had worn out its uniforms and had gotten new ones, the Tigers' equipment manager sent the old ones to his old friend Harry.

Coach Mahnken had the visage of a man who had played football too long in a helmet without a face guard. He was a big, gruff man who revered toughness and despised foolishness. Our daily afternoon practices were hellish. Every day, he required us to conduct a brutal one-on-one drill: One player was required to stand still while the other sprinted toward him and tackled him. I seemed always to be paired with a classmate named Mike who resembled the Incredible Hulk, but with shoulder pads and without the green skin. Mike was enthusiastic about football. After sailing with me airborne for eight feet, I'd land on my back with his enormous shoulder grinding the wind out of my chest. On my hands and knees, trying to recover, I could hear Coach yelling at me, "C'mon! Get up and hit him back!"

The coach had a couple of favorite plays that bordered on foolishness. At least twice a game we'd run the double-reverse. The quarterback would take the long hike, hand off to a halfback running right, who would hand off to the other halfback running left, who would hand off to the receiver running right. The play was only successful if our linemen were able to stop the rush by knocking down the opponents and lying on top of them long enough for the play to be executed.
His other favorite play was a trick. The end would not join the huddle but rather trot to the sideline and pretend to be talking with the coach, although still standing on the field of play. Our team would break from the huddle and line up for a quick count. The quarterback would then find his receiver sprinting away from our coach uncovered.

My senior year on the varsity team was cut short by a bout with mononucleosis. I was never so happy to be fighting disease. I was the happiest boy in the infirmary, waking from long naps to listen to the whistles and grunts of football practice drifting through the window, hearing the HHRRRUNCH! of another victim having the wind knocked out of him by the Incredible Mike.

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