We called him Spanky because he looked like the Our Gang star. He played left tackle on our high school football team. Started on offense and defense. Yet what distinguished Spanky, in 1981 mind you, was his size. Spanky weighed 310 pounds.
A good, corn-fed, Minnesota boy of Swedish stock.
The name of our team was the Cambridge Blue Jackets. Blue Jackets evidently referring to those worn by sailors long past. Our coach was a gruff, chain-smoking, drill-general named George Larson. By the end of his career, he went into the record books as the coach who won the most games in state history. If you were unfortunate enough to experience him breaking his clipboard over your helmet as he shouted Judas Priest! What do you think you’re doing? you can still probably detect the ring.
So it was tradition every year for our team to go to the state playoffs and compete against bigger schools from the cities. Cambridge lies an hour north of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Now it’s a bedroom community, but back then over half of the people who lived there were farmers.
One of my friends, Peter, who also played football and was a wrestling star, had a trap line. I once stayed for a sleepover at his house. In the morning before school, we pulled on hip waders and marched through the snow and slush of creeks and swamps as the sun came up, checking for caught muskrats or mink. That day, no luck.
But this year, our team started the season with little expected of it. The team to be on was the year before. They were the All-Stars. We the Bad News Bears.
Nevertheless, to everyone’s chagrin, we found ourselves playing the number one ranked team, who had been all year, in the tournament’s first round. St. Thomas Academy. They recruited heavily and even tried to steal our co-captain and quarterback Jon. We hated them. But what really fired us up was a radio interview with their players on the day of the game.
The most popular show came from an AM station called WCCO. A lot of news and talk long before that format became popular. On game days another tradition for the players was to wear their jerseys to school. So I’m sitting in fourth hour English, when unexpectedly over the P.A. system comes the familiar voice of the WCCO radio D.J. asking a St. Thomas Academy player what they think will happen next. Well after we play Cambridge, we’ll probably play Rochester John-Mayo in the semis.
What?! someone in the class said. Which expressed perfectly the sense of indignity we all felt. How arrogant! How typical coming from those people. How sinful!
As we walked into the locker room at half-time leading 7-0, Spanky took off his helmet and slammed it into a locker with a booming crash. We can beat these fuckers! he shouted. And we all knew at that moment, as Coach Larson agreed with him, that he was right.
Being a team with low expectations added to the stress that came when St. Thomas tried to kick a field goal from the 17-yard-line at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Wedgola! bellowed coach Larson. The secret play we had rehearsed all season and never used. The idea was to focus the considerable mass of our line, who averaged 265 lbs. from tackle to tackle, like a log-splitter over the center. In high school, that person was generally a third string quarterback of smaller stature. Such was the case tonight. Send in the six-foot four-inch leapers afterwards and you may block the kick.
Now even though Spanky had his tender side, one morning at the beginning of the season when we practiced three times a day, he clamored to his feet caked with mud and commented how beautiful the sun was glinting off the dewy grass, as it is Spanky nodded coach Humphries beaming, but this was not that kind of moment.
The quarterback came up to center. Just before he started calling the signals, Spanky, hunched in his four-point stance looking more like a giant black widow spider with the other guys’ shoulder pads and girth fanning out from his, says Guess who’s gonna die, fucker.
They mowed him and Jon blocked the kick.
Though paramedics carted the kid off the field on a stretcher after the play, later he was fine. As we shook their hands after the game, most of the Tommies looked stunned. Except the center who experienced Spanky in ways I had during practice when we were quote en quote live. The kid cried and was cursing. When my teammates behind me saw him, they cracked up laughing. Then one added, Poor baby.
Walking off the field my father said to the head referee, You called a great game. The man stopped, took off his black cap and said as he rubbed his head That was one of the best games I’ve ever ref’d.
April, 2005 December 1991