The Best Years
By Phil Thompson
It ends for everyone. Its ends for the pro making $10 million and has his face on magazine covers and his name in all the records books. It ends for the kid on the high school team who never gets off the bench except to congratulate his teammates as they file past him on the way to the locker room. And so, on Nov. 22, 1969 it ended for me too. On the beautiful Bermuda grass of the University of Kentucky’s Stoll Field, I had experienced the last game of my football career against arch-rival Tennessee. But instead of battling on the field with my teammates, I was injured and relegated to watching as my friends struggle valiantly against a superior opponent before losing our final game.
As we filed out of the noisy stadium the air was still saturated with the aroma of bourbon and tobacco. As we walked across the street toward our locker room sixty-five sets of steel-tipped cleats clickity-clacked on pavement, a sound so unique that it’s hard to imagine. Yet, all the sounds and sensations slowly diminished as we turned into the hallway of Memorial Coliseum, then into the dressing area and the doors closed behind us. Everything became quiet. There were no cheers, no boisterousness and especially, there was no joy.
A few players talked in muffled tones, many sat silently staring at the floor trying to deal with the emotion that was playing out in their hearts, and others silently wept tears of sadness. Even underclassmen that had more years of playing-time ahead of them were quiet out of respect for the emotion that was playing out around them. It was over for the seniors who had been the leaders, the guys to whom they looked up to -- their “big brothers”.
For the last ten or twelve years -- half our life -- everyone one of these young men had lived for the game of football, and many maintained a personal dream that maybe, somehow, someway, it might never end. But it does. On that glorious, crisp autumn afternoon under a vivid blue Kentucky sky, it was over.
A few days later I cleaned out my locker at the Sports Center and I fondly remembered the locker room in happier times. In a dizzying array of quick vignettes, it all came back to me…the rambunctious behavior, the joking around, the towel-slapping and moreover, the male bonding of young men into that unique and select fraternity of a football team. I chuckled to myself as these memories raced through my mind, but then I remembered again, it was all over.
The last thing I remember seeing as I left was a row of helmets waiting to be cleaned and refurbished by the equipment managers. I studied the wildcat decal and ran my fingers over the gouges and the paint smudges from opposing teams we had played. Was that gold from West Virginia or Vanderbilt? The red, was that from Georgia or Indiana? I found my helmet amongst them and looked inside it and smelled the dankness of a season of sweat that had become a part of the canvas suspension. I remembered the big hits…and I silently thanked God that I had never been seriously injured, like our two teammates had been a couple of years before.
Later that afternoon, I walked over to our stadium and found a gate that could be pushed open. I walked underneath the old concrete stands and up the entrance ramp to the bleachers. As I emerged from the tunnel, I squinted against a blast of late afternoon fall sun. I shielded my eyes in order to see the field from a vantage point I had not seen since my Dad had taken me to the UK-Miami game when I was in the 7th grade.
As I lingered there in the old stadium, sitting high up, all alone, looking over the quiet field of grass, I picked out various spots on the turf and began silently remembering the big plays, key blocks, passes caught and touchdowns scored. I even noticed that I was pointing and talking out loud as though recounting these events for an invisible friend. And occasionally, I smiled at the memory.
I also remember the not-so-great moments on that field…the injuries, the interceptions thrown, the fumbles lost, the big plays by the opposing team…all the things that kept us from glory.
And, I remembered the night of THAT practice. The one held under the lights after we had traveled six hours by bus to bury Greg, our teammate and friend. I remembered the excessive sprinting, the vomiting, the cursing, the fighting and the yelling of the coaches. I remembered the exhausted and bewildered players, some who never returned, walking off the field wondering “Why”.
As the late afternoon sun started to dip below the horizon, I stared at the bleachers running in silver ribbons around the gray concrete and it seemed like the loneliest place on earth. It was the place of so many hopes and dreams and memories, but I realized, it was over now.
I was only 21 then, yet I believed that nothing I would do for the rest of my life would rise up to those days when I wore the Blue and White. I might go on to a satisfying career and make a lot of money, I might marry a beautiful woman and fill a house with perfect kids, I might make a mark that would be of some significance in other peoples eyes. But I would never have it any better than when I played football for UK.
That may seem to some as “living in the past” or sugar-coating a difficult expereince, but it’s not…really… it’s simply recalling a very special time, a “coming of age”, if you will, in a young man’s life. A time that can never be revisited, never duplicated, never surpassed. A time of growing, learning and maturing which all young people experience, yet we did it while engaged in an intense and personal struggle to endure, persevere and hopefully succeed…and we went through it all with our friends, our teammates…our brothers.
Many a man’s life has been defined by that period between 18 and 25. Failure has left some with wounds that never healed. Success has given others a lifetime of pride and a perpetual feeling of accomplishment that few can boast of. Such is the lifelong impact of that period of time in a young man’s life.
So whenever you feel that nostalgia come over you during the autumn months when the leaves are vibrant colors, the wind is chilled and the smell of cut grass is in the air, don’t dismiss the moment and or think that you’re living in the past. Accept it for what it is, a time of reminiscing about days gone by and friends long separated. It’s your memory of a time where all things were possible, where summers lasted an eternity and we were bullet-proof and destined to live forever.
But as we all learn eventually…it ends for everyone.
May God bless you all, my Kentucky teammates and brothers…and may we always remember those days as a few of the best years of our lives!