sidelined: a story of family, football and fate

sidelined

I grew up in a small coal-mining town in Northeastern Pennsylvania during the 1950s and 60s. As the daughter of the High School football coach, I learned quickly that if anthracite coal was king, football was indeed his most revered son.

The town of Tamaqua lies sheltered in a valley of the Allegheny Mountain range amidst emerald clad hills that stand as testament to both man and the redemptive powers of nature. No one would guess today that these verdant mounds, were once proudly bare and glistening with the ebony residue of anthracite coal. At the base of one of these banks, stood, and still stands, the town’s coliseum, the home of the mighty Blue Raiders. On Friday nights in September and October, as they have done for decades, the hills bear witness to the thunderous clash of plexiglas and bone in the stadium at their feet.

Football wasn’t a game in my family. It was a religion. It had its rituals, its pageantry, its prayers. The majority of my childhood memories involve some aspect of the game, talking about the game, going to the game, cheering at the game and celebrating and mourning after the game. When I occasionally travel to the region to watch my brother Rick’s team, the sounds and smells of my youth come rushing back. Masses of blanketed fans eating fries, bleenies and pierogies, the percussive chanting of “Here we go Raiders or fill in the blank team’s name, here we go”, the undeniable exuberance on the faces, the spirit of the game in all its anticipation. Then and now I have tried to consume its essence, to feel the rush. I have to be honest. Somehow, football let me down.

In our house, the year was sliced into thirds: pre-season, the season and post-season. Most conversations around the table involved football and since my only sibling was male and athletic, the odds were stacked against me from the start. Whenever I tried to best my brother, Rick would simply quip back “ How many touchdowns did you ever score?”. And there it was. As a boy, he was celebrated as the team mascot and enjoyed the privileges of that inner sanctum, the locker room, while I was stuck in old family Rambler station wagon banished to the parking lot behind the stadium (providing me one brief and totally unsatisfactory glimpse at some players in their jockstraps). Let me continue. Pets in our family have been named, Coach, Paterno, Heisman, Punter, Kicker and Nittany. When my father was a young teenager, my grandmother let him miss his own brother’s wedding to attend (not play in) a football game. You see. Mom Mom got it. I don’t. My dad’s vanity license plate still read “coach” forty years after the fact.

Even my resolutely feminist mother disappeared each year near the end of August, morphing into some Stepford-like creature called the “Coach’s Wife”. From what I remember, this role seemed to involve doing whatever it took not to upset my dad for any reason during the season. If you knew my mom, this was no easy feat. She wouldn’t sleep the night before a game, chain smoked and just basically lived in constant fear of an article in the local Evening Courier criticizing my dad’s coaching or my brother’s playing.

Toy6Where was I in all of this? Funny, you should ask. I tried. I joined the pom pom festooned “Knee High” cheerleaders. “Push em back, push em back, way back!” I quietly sequestered myself in my room for entire weekends when the Raiders suffered a crushing loss and my dad agonized over the game films. As if that wasn’t bad enough, this self-imposed confinement was often accompanied by the incessant droning of my brother’s electronic football game from across the hall. Before Sony PlayStation, before Nintendo Wii, there was this: An electronic game that consisted of a metal football field upon which Rick would devote countless hours positioning two teams of plastic football men. After endless setup, he switched on the power (yes, we did have electricity), the men would noisily vibrate around helter and skelter until one would mercifully fall out of bounds or bounce into the end zone. That’s it. Rinse, lather, repeat. I didn’t get it. Rick loved it.

Although, always an onlooker in this high-spirited world of end zones and extra points, blindsides and blocks, one tiny decision sealed my fate for good. You know, that one moment that dashes all future hope of belonging and defines you for the rest of your life. It was the end of the 1963 season. I was nine. My dad had some unbelievable talent and size on the team that year and was headed for the state championships. In fact, he was even featured in a small article in Sports Illustrated about a small town coach that made his offensive line block trees in preparation for the big game. The newsworthiness of this particular practice technique escaped me at the time. After all, they were only blocking small birch trees that splintered quite easily.

In any event, the big day approached and most of the eastern half of the county prepared to head north to watch the epic battle. For some reason that to this day I cannot fathom, on the evening before Saturday’s big game I was given a choice. From my vantage now, I believe it was not a choice, but a cruel test. A test that I failed miserably, the results of which beleaguer me to the present. My mom asked me if I wanted to go to the championship or spend the day at my aunt’s house. Now, maybe it was the mere astonishment of actually being given the choice as to whether to attend a football game, something that had never and was never likely to occur again in a lifetime. Or maybe, it was the allure of that late autumnal day where a little nerd could sit self engrossed reading a book on the life of Helen Keller while happily slurping down chunks of Aunt Ruth’s homemade potato soup. Whatever the reason, I quickly and without hesitation replied “I want to stay with Aunt Ruth”. My fate was sealed.

Tamaqua defeated Blakeslee 14-0 and grabbed the Eastern Division title. I’ve been told that as the buzzer blew, fans stormed into the end zone tearing down goal posts which were later carefully cut, painted the school colors, inscribed, dated with the score of the game and sold as souvenirs. As for me, let’s just say that there has not been a single holiday or family occasion at which my family with complete and utter puzzlement has not discussed that fateful decision. The confusion is somewhat akin to “why would anyone choose to eat rocks when they could eat chocolate?”.

At this point, I should have quit, but I didn’t. I would be part of this game. With the dedication of an Olympic athlete, every night for hours, I would practice cartwheels, handsprings, splits and straddle jumps on an old mattress in the basement. It paid off. My cheerleading career spanned two decades beginning in fourth grade and ending as four-year varsity college cheerleading captain. I made other sacrifices too. I dated football players. I used to joke that between high school and law school I went from one “End “to the other! In fact, I married a football player, but just not a good enough one for my dad.

As my dad grew older, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. There was a period of time pre-diagnosis where he had to undergo exploratory surgery at Miner’s Hospital, formerly Coaldale Hospital (in spite of my proud heritage neither of these names did much to assure me dad was in good hands). I just kept picturing the surgeon with his miner’s helmet lighting the operating table. He turns to the nurse and commands “nurse pick please”. I remember waiting for hours in that excruciatingly tiny room with my mom and brother. My mother was pacing the floor like she was going to come out of her skin. She was so scared. My brother, sat calmly scratching out new plays for his team on a clipboard, little o’s and x’s and arrows going every which way indicating the direction of the play. It was almost August. Rick was getting ready for the season. I hated him in that moment. I hated football. I wanted to grab his goddamn clipboard and shove those x’s and o’s up his ass. Then, dad pulled through and Rick had a 9 and 1 season and made it to the playoffs.

No matter how hard I instinctively pull away from this game, I cannot escape its undertow. My son and husband love football and, as if games on TV every night of the week aren’t enough, there’s the whole fantasy league thing now. It’s a bond they have that I envy and cannot share. A few weeks ago, my husband Bill and I had tickets for an Eagles’ game. He couldn’t find anyone else to go so I was it. I was in a bad mood. We got in the wrong line. When we went finally went through security, they purloined my cherished Kate Spade handbag just because it was bigger than allowed (Now, really I even emptied its entire contents into a clear plastic bag; they just cavalierly tossed it in the trash. Who makes up these rules). Well anyway, our seats were in the nosebleed section. I forgot my glasses. And there was this obnoxious, drunk guy two rows down who kept standing up during key plays not that I could see anything anyway. The young man on my right started talking about the game to me, discussing plays and strategy like I understood what he was talking about. I looked at him. He was just so into it. I looked over at my husband Bill cheering himself red in the face. I still didn’t get it, but they did and I realized for the first time that that was kind of nice.

Stories from PA History, Mining Anthracite http://explorepahistory.com/story.php?storyId=1-9-B

The coal in the “region” as it is called locally was special. It was anthracite or hard coal. Due to a particularly violent geological upheaval called the “Appalachian Revolution”, the coal formed here was harder, purer and contained more carbon than its bituminous brothers. Four score and many years before fears of global warming and climate change took root, at least where I grew up, coal was king. Towns like the one I grew up in supplied 95% of the world’s demand for anthracite.

CORRECTION: I originally reported the Blakeslee score as 14-13.  Two readers of the blog  who are obviously way more competent and know Raiders football  corrected me. The score now properly reads Tamaqua-14, Blakeslee-0.  Thanks Doyle Dietz and Dave McKay.  I know without doubt that my father is up in heaven mutterly “Dumb Kid”!

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12 thoughts on “sidelined: a story of family, football and fate

  1. What a great story. Somehow, I think the game helped make you who you are Rhonda — in many ways. And there are a lot of people you have touched in your life who are happy about that. You are, perhaps, a lot more balanced because you experienced that goofy insanity that is football mania and came out the other side. I grew up (in Columbia, Missouri, home of the Missouri Tigers) with a lot of football coach’s daughters. They’re very special people. Every one of them.

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      • That was very well put. I remember playing football in your back yard with Ricky. He would tell me we have to play in this direction so we don’t knock down my dads Tomato plants. That year with George Barron was one everyone will remember I was at the game and have a piece of the gold post somewhere in
        the house. I’m not sure but I think the score was 14-6 Anyway it really doesn’t matter your dad was one of the best high school coaches in the game.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Good memories Rhonda, but you short-changed the Blue Raiders defense in the 1963 Eastern Conference championship game: they beat dem Blakely Bears 14-0.

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