John Shearer: Memories Of Playing Tackle Football

Tuesday, October 19, 2021 - by John Shearer

Now that I am 62, memories of events that happened 40 or 50 years ago are starting to come vividly to my mind. 


One that has come to the forefront is that 50 years ago this fall, I first took part in organized tackle football as a sixth-grader at Bright School.

It would be the first of nine straight football seasons of playing tackle football through my sophomore year of college, and I still remember each season well.


I never served in the military like many who did and are to be greatly commended, but I always felt like I did something that still required a lot of physical and mental courage, not to mention being put in harm’s way.


But a football player also gets to enjoy the cheer of the crowd and other positive attention, and that always kept me going amid the challenging practices, tough games, and fear of injury.


And more than 40 years after running onto a practice or game field, I still vividly recall all that I enjoyed -- and maybe did not always enjoy -- about the game.


I am sure such love-hate relationships are true for many others who also played tackle football or the other more-combative sports like wrestling and boxing. And hopefully many of you also realize like I did that the sport taught you positive lessons along with giving you a thrill of accomplishment.


I was probably not naturally inclined toward playing tackle football. I did not have an Alpha male personality, nor did I like roughing it up or being tackled hard. 


But I was blessed with some foot speed, so that along with enjoying watching college and pro football on TV ever since I could remember drew me to the sport. Besides countless hours of tackle and touch football in my neighborhood of Valleybrook while in grade school, I had also played flag football for Bright in the fourth and fifth grades.


So, I was ready when Bright announced it was going to have a tackle team my sixth-grade year and we were going to play in the North River YMCA Gra-Y league.


The new Y there off Hixson Pike was just in the process of opening and I do not believe had any fields, so we played at a variety of places: the Baylor School lower fields, the old Hixson Junior High and Northside Junior High (now the Normal Park magnet upper school site). Sometimes we would play that fall of 1971 on a Saturday morning and sometimes on a Sunday afternoon, and maybe even once or twice on a weeknight like Thursday.


Among the other elementary schools we played against were DuPont, Alpine Crest, Hixson and maybe Rivermont.


Our coach was the father of classmate Rick Crawford, who would go on to enjoy a career as a triathlete and become involved as a coach in top echelon bike racing. His father overall seemed to have a good style of coaching, but I remember quickly realizing that practicing was not quite as fun as playing flag football or weekend pickup ball in the neighborhood.


I think I remember having a conversation with my mother about not enjoying the practices and maybe even wanting to quit, but somehow after a week or two I began to feel more at home, probably thanks to an encouraging play or two using my foot speed and agility in practice.


Foot speed would carry me through a lot as a shy youngster, and not just on the football field.


If memory serves me correctly, when the time came for our first game on a Sunday afternoon at Baylor School, we lost. I was a running back and safety on defense, and I do not remember being involved that much carrying the ball.


However, late in the game, when the outcome was already decided, I went back to field either a punt or kickoff. I remember it bounced on the grass, I picked it up, and before I knew it, I was sprinting down the left side of the field untouched for a touchdown. I remember neighborhood buddy Kurt Schmissrauter was there with my parents, and he started loudly cheering for me as I ran down the field.


It was the first experience in tackle football of enjoying some personal accomplishment amid a team’s overall disappointment. For the next few years of playing tackle football, I would battle that personal desire for fulfilment amidst the team’s goal in a contrast that was simply the story of human nature.


I think all of us were building up a good rapport on the Bright team, though, and many of us even went out to the local sporting goods stores like Martin-Thompson, Lookout and Northgate and bought U-bars for our helmets like Larry Csonka of the Miami Dolphins wore.


As the season wore on, our team – the Bright Colts -- might have lost one more game or so than we won, but I remember it all came to an end one Saturday morning on another Baylor field adjacent to the other one that ran along the river. 


I think even three or four fellow girl sixth graders came to that last game along with possibly our teacher, Janet Reeve, and I remember the temperature was a little chilly as the fall was moving either into late October or early November.


If memory serves me correctly, I think we won, and I got to score a touchdown again on a run, so it was a successful end to my first season. I also realized for perhaps the first time it is fun playing in front of girls, even though I realized later many of them don’t follow the intricacies of football as closely as I thought!


I would go on to play in the seventh and eighth grades at Baylor under coach Bob Polk and enjoyed his coaching that was challenging without being too harsh. I also was able to contribute plenty there as well. 


And then there was ninth grade football under first-year Baylor coach Bill McMahan, who just retired from Baylor in 2021. Coach McMahan was a little more intense than coach Polk, but we also grew to appreciate him as time went by.


Baylor at that time under varsity coach E.B. “Red” Etter had become a local powerhouse, so a few additional good football players, including some playing my position of running back, began arriving, creating additional competition for me.


But I realized later that is life, and competition is going to be found everywhere.


I was able to play three years on the varsity at Baylor under coach Etter, who was a master tactician and focused greatly on fundamentals. I enjoyed playing there but perhaps some injuries slowed me down and kept me from personally having the kind of high school career I wanted, even though I tried to help support the team as we went on to finish second in the state my senior year.


Realizing I had not accomplished all I wanted to in football, I decided to walk on at Georgia after graduation, but more as a pass receiver rather than running back. I will never forget the scare of walking in the athletic dorm and having to check-in to begin football camp. It was probably like the feeling of checking in for military basic training.


But, somehow, I survived it and was able to catch some passes and run the ball in some freshmen/JV games in 1978 at major college stadiums like those at Clemson, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Tennessee. At Neyland Stadium, I also received the greatest thrill of my sports life by scoring a touchdown on a pass.


And this was while playing under “Doc” Ayers, Mike Castronis and the former varsity players serving as graduate assistants, who, in contrast to the more cerebral coach Etter, were all about conditioning, hustle and rah-rah.


It was a culmination for me that had begun at Bright School 50 years ago and went on through Baylor, where I learned to survive football two-a-day practices and eventually overcame an initial fear of contact.


Like my JV walk-on teammates at Georgia, we were all playing simply out of a love for the game, despite the challenges that were much different from being a regular student.


In 1979, my sophomore year, I played another year of JV ball while also serving on the Georgia scout team before a small broken bone in my foot ended my season.


I then retired from football. I was finally going to say goodbye to this sport that required a lot of time, work and, yes, fear of getting hurt.


I had survived mostly unscathed other than a couple of hairline fractures in high school and college, and a thigh bruise my 11th grade year. 


I got hit hard in the head once or twice at Baylor and Georgia, but I was not knocked unconscious and hope the injuries do not cause any problems down the road. I always feared injuring a knee but never did that, and I feel for those who get broken legs or even the very rare paralyzing injuries.


It is a tough sport, and I have often thought that maybe I should have focused on other sports where I could have used my speed and agility without the hard contact or injury potential. Baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer or lacrosse come to mind along with two other sports in which I did compete on a varsity high school level, track and golf.


But you know what, I would not trade my experiences playing tackle football for anything. It shaped who I am. 


I do have one genuine regret, though – that I did not keep playing at Georgia another year or two to see if I could have broken into the varsity. Just getting to run the ball once or catch a pass once in a varsity game would have made the extra couple of years well worth it, as I maybe have written about before


As evidence of my feelings, in my 30s and 40s, I used to dream occasionally that I was back out at Georgia playing and getting a chance to crack into the varsity.


But during the waking hours and after developing plenty of other interests, I am thankful I had a chance to play that crazy sport at all.


May we all never lose the young football player in us!


* * * * *

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