Growing up there were lots of backyard football games, lots of Saturday and Sunday November afternoons, lots of different neighborhood kids wandering their way onto one of our teams. But all the games and days and kids fade into a single memory in the yard of the house on Red Bridge Road.
As always, we are gathered in our backyard lined up to be picked. The Methodist Church where I attend Vacation Bible School, but never Sunday services, borders us on the right. The Faroses’ house is on the left. Chris Faros, “Big Chris,” tall and skinny and thirteen, maybe fifteen, is always the captain and his younger sister Cathy, short and bossy, is our babysitter—but we let her play a little. The five Voss kids live directly behind us.
They join us sometimes, but the only people whose faces I see clearly on the field that belongs to us are Chris Faros, Rusty, and me.
Rusty at seven or eight or nine or ten is already an elite athlete in little league. They call him “Dave” at Warford Elementary although his given name is David Harris Hill II. He inherited that name and his ease on the field from Daddy, his dark hair and deep dimples from Mother, and the name he has grown into from my Pepa’s hound dog. If Rusty is nine, I’m seven, nearly eight. My sometimes-straight, sometimes-curly hair is growing out of a pixie cut. I look more like Daddy, and what I lack in finesse on the field I make up in grit.
I spend hours inside reading and playing Barbies and coloring while wearing pants grass-stained from playing tackle with the boys.
Mother is inside with the Faroses. They are drinking scotch and soda and screwdrivers after watching Daddy block and protect his quarterback and create holes for his running back all in living color on our TV set. During half-time Daddy is huddled in a locker room with Len Dawson and Ed Budde and Bobby Bell and other Chiefs players, listening to Hank Stram in Oakland or maybe Boston. If it’s Oakland, Mother is wearing her lucky black and grey Oakland Raider dress, believing she can hex the Raiders with their own colors. Her hair is blond now and teased just enough. My younger brother, “Little Chris,” is hiding somewhere or sneaking sips from the cocktail glasses when no one’s looking.
We are on the other side of the sliding glass door on our own field.
In my memory it’s always cold, although I’m sure we sometimes played in the heat of a Kansas City September. The leaves are always brown and blowing away, although I’m sure we also played surrounded by the oranges and reds of October. Almost fifty years later, I automatically go to November but I don’t know why. Sometimes Chris picked me, sometimes Rusty, but in my head I’m always in the huddle with both of them. Our hats and mittens are thrown in heaps in the yard. The wind cuts through layers of sweatshirts and chaps our faces. The boys spit on their hands before they toss the ball. We wipe our noses with the backs of our sleeves.
Rusty, or maybe Chris, calls the plays. The Statue of Liberty. The Quarterback Sneak. And my favorite, The Center Sneak, where I pretend to snap the ball on “three,” but instead bully my way through the defensive line of two or three and run toward the goal line that is marked off with patio chairs or sandbox toys. If the play is more complicated with posts and flats, then the route is drawn on a palm with a finger.
If I get to touch the ball, then the route is drawn on my hand too so I can see and feel the play in ways that the football words don’t travel from my brain to my body.
The quarterback chooses my hand and begins to sketch because this time he is throwing to me. I hike the ball on “two,” and take off. My body, like my brain, flails a little when it’s in motion, so my steps aren’t efficient. But my feet gain momentum with each pump of my arms. I run a corner toward the Vosses’ fence and then cut back straight just inside the out-of-bounds line marked by twig-like plum trees. With his fingers light on the seams, my QB1 hurls the ball my way. I’m the youngest, the smallest, maybe the only girl playing instead of watching from the picnic table, and the air burns my throat. Somehow my feet follow the invisible route and I turn in time to reach out, grab, tuck, and sprint for the end zone just short of the Methodist Church parking lot. With my back to the wind, I look to find his smile and watch his arms raise like goal posts.
And the glory or the cold stings my eyes. I ran the route.
I didn’t know then that football routes are organized into route trees. It seems like something I should have known growing up in a football family but I didn’t until recently. Routes like “flat,” “come-back,” and “go” spread out left and right and straight ahead from the perspective of the wide receiver. There are nine of them on the diagram I found, but I know coaches and quarterbacks, both in stadiums and in backyards, draw dozens more borne out of necessity and creativity on whiteboards and clipboards, in the dirt and on their hands. My story hangs better on this kind of tree than on the elaborately drawn family trees I see in memory books or on ancestry sites with branches or horizontal lines filled in with the names of great-great-grandparents and third cousins, stagnant and steady and unknown. The story is in the movement, in the routes—the ones run before me, the ones drawn for me, the ones I chose, the ones I ran, and the ones I run. All hanging together with a whisper from the huddle, “Sandee, keep your hands on the ball.”
Cover image by Brandon Mowinkel