Hartland football wins number of state titles

Published 6:59 am Wednesday, January 27, 2010

“The NFL is the biggest religion in the United States.”

That’s what the minister told me. He was bemoaning the low numbers in churches on Sundays compared to the magnitude of people who will watch the Super Bowl.

His comment brought back memories of The Hill.

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I tell everyone that it was during a time when my family was too poor to be able to afford water. We stood by the sink and stared at the drain. That’s how we rolled.

It was a time when I first heard rumors that Playboy magazine had thought-provoking articles. When rap was something teachers did to knuckles. A Tweet was a visit with other loafers at Tweeten’s gas station. Facebook was a comfortable book that you opened on your desk, put your head down upon, and fell asleep on during study hall.

My football teammates and I were well-read if you counted comic books. We were smart enough, but no one asked us to do his income taxes, even though some of us had taken the same math class more than once.

We were unbeaten and unscored upon — and getting ready for our first game. We were offensive, and we were defensive about that. If zero is a number, it would be factual to say that our team had won a number of state championships.

We had to run The Hill. It was near the football field upon which we practiced. It was like many hills — it had an uphill and a downhill.

We ran The Hill in full gear. Hostility in numbered uniforms with helmeted heads in the center of wide shoulder pads. Some of the heads were slightly off-center. The shoulder pads and helmets were to us what a phone booth was to Clark Kent. Looking back, the helmets weren’t that safe — no turn signals, rearview mirrors or airbags.

We ran The Hill at the end of each practice. No player did a celebratory dance when arriving at the top of The Hill. We ran until we could run no more and The Hill had become Mount Everest. I think the object was to make us too tired to misbehave after practice. Exhausted players stumbling up and down The Hill became ill and anyone could make a good guess as to what the school lunch had been that day. It was our way of marking territory.

The Hill was made for the likes of me. It didn’t require much thinking, a GPS, or batteries. I ran uphill, and I ran downhill. Then I repeated it.

The coaches screamed at us as we ran The Hill. They called us clowns and girls. They told us to toughen up and that we wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if we didn’t run faster.

A coach was like Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and we were a bunch of Jim Fowlers. We ran up The Hill like Jim trying to perform a root canal on a gigantic crocodile in Australia while Marlin attempted to sell insurance from the safety of an office in Nebraska.

The coaches encouraged us with tales of Three-Fingered Finley. He was the greatest player ever to don the Cardinal uniform, until he enrolled in that woodshop class. A class he flunked.

I thought fondly of the player, weary of the climb, who had dashed to the top of The Hill and kept on going. He didn’t stop running until he got home. The cross country coach recruited him the next day. He was all-conference three years and all-state twice.

“How lazy can you be?” asked a coach who remained a stationary object.

We didn’t answer. We were waiting to see if it was a multiple-choice question.

Each roundtrip was followed by a coach saying, “Just a couple more.”

Our exertions caused us to make more faces than Joan Rivers has had.

High school football games were well-attended. There weren’t many TV channels in those days. The coaches kept an eye out for parents who occasionally strolled by the practice field. If one was sighted, the whips were quickly dropped into the tall grass.

There are two kinds of football — the kind you play and the kind you watch. I liked playing football much more than I like watching the NFL. I enjoyed playing basketball and baseball, too, but it was harder to foul out in football than it was in basketball and it was easier to get a hit in football than in baseball.

I thought about running The Hill again. I’m trying to shed a couple of pounds that I put on over the holidays — of 1989.

I decided against it. Running The Hill was no joy, but having run The Hill is bliss.

Hartland resident Al Batt’s columns appear at every Wednesday and Sunday.