The ball spurted out of Adam’s hand like a greased coconut and went bouncing away from both him and the horde of eighth graders chasing him. The rules of Smear the Queer were pretty simple, pick up the ball and run from everyone else who was trying to catch and tackle you. The ball scooted and bounced in the unpredictable way that only a football can and eventually jumped right into the hands of a streaking Dave, the teams star running back. Even in dogged chase I could see the twinkle in Dave’s eye, this was his domain, carrying the ball, dodging slower and less athletic kids and making them look foolish in their attempts to tackle him. He immediately switched the ball to his right hand, palming it like a basketball ready to race by would be tacklers, fake them into falling on their faces in humiliation. “GODAMMIT DAVE! DON’T CARRY THE BALL LIKE THAT! YOU’RE GOING TO FUMBLE IT! WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE WALTER PAYTON?!?!”
Coach Dody was a youth town football lifer, long brown hair under a painters cap with overalls and a handle bar mustache. No one knew much about Coach Dody’s family or career but we all knew he was a pillar of football passion. He somehow cobbled together the equipment for a team of elementary school kids to field a football team. Our equipment room was the attic of an old town church where we go each year to fight over the coolest helmets and newest shoulder pads. When it was too dark to practice at the field he had found for us we would move to a small strip of grass between a parking lot and a tennis court so we could steal the light from both and eak out a chilly and truncated practice. Coach Dody was a a forgiving and imaginative coach, he could see what might become of your chubby childish body and always gave encouraging yet stern advice to stear you towards your football destiny. Even a game as stupid, pointless and offensive as Smear the Queer didn’t escape his watchful eye. Seeing one of his best players holding the ball so nonchalantly, without a care for the game altering mistake of fumbling, was infuriating for the coach. It was even more infuriating because the best running back in football, Walter Payton, was so smooth and talented and fundamentally sound but insisted on carrying the ball in one hand, like a loaf of bread.
Running backs stopped looking like Walter Payton pretty much immediately after Walter Payton retired. Sweetness as he was known was thin and proportioned. He moved fluidly and was both fast in the open field and quick in small spaces. Payton could leap both teams entirely for a touchdown but he was also a vicious blocker. It was if the modern game couldn’t find enough Walter Paytons so they split him in two people and exaggerated both sides of him. The position of one Walter Payton is now played by a hulking bruiser who can block and ram through the line of scrimmage and much smaller stockier man who is quick and can catch. Despite all of Payton’s grace and power on the football field his lasting legacy for kids all over the country was his habit of holding the ball out from his body, in one hand. Kids all over emulated him with disastrous results. Unless your hands were as large and strong as Walter’s there was a great chance of someone slapping the ball away from you as it wasn’t protected in the crook of your arm, tucked and safe from slapping hands.
That was probably the hardest lesson that sports and Walter Payton taught us all, that at a certain point an athlete becomes so good at his chosen sport that the normal rules of fundamental football no longer apply to him like they do to the rest of us. Something as simple as carrying the football, tucking into your elbow to prevent fumbling it away to the other team was an afterthought to a football immortal like Walter Payton. And even the best player on a very good kids town league football team couldn’t escape this harsh reality. It was Coach Dody’s job to drill this into our heads – “Who do you think you are?? Walter Payton?!?”