Tahlequah Daily Press

October 5, 2012

In Oklahoma, you had to suck it up and play sports

Managing Editor

Tahlequah — When I tell out-of-towners there have been killings here over Little League baseball games, they suspect me of exaggerating to enhance my tale. But violence at ballgames here is a matter of record.

It’s more about spectators than players. My brother was a shortstop when were kids, and my sister and I, along with the sisters of other players on his team, used to harangue umpires for calling our brothers out. I even remember a few girls threatening to “beat up” sisters of players on opposing teams. Around these parts, sports is serious business. In fact, I fear for the health of Bob Stoops if OU brings home another less-than-stellar season.

When I was young, all boys were expected by society – or at least, by fathers – to be in sports. This expectation was introduced by the presentation of a pint-sized football while the future athlete was still an infant. I have a video of my brother slobbering all over a dinky football, since at the time he got it, he could do little more than flail his arms and legs and gurgle. And while disheartened OU fans may insist Landry Jones is doing little more right now than flailing his limbs and gurgling, I think we can all agree he at least understands the nature of the inflated pigskin the center snaps toward him at the commencement of every play.

By now, Jones may have redeemed himself. But even if not, and he has to hire a bodyguard, he’s managed to live the dream every Okie father used to have for his son: to be a Sooner – preferably in football, on the starting lineup. Since that equates to maybe two dozen lads per year, with some remaining four years, and with Texas across the border, the odds of a family being blessed this way aren’t much better than those of winning a lottery.

When I was in grade school at Fort Gibson, Mickey Igert was one of the big stars on the team. My parents took us to games, and people were always yelling that Mickey was “gonna score – he’s gonna go all the way!” Though in hindsight, one can never be sure about these things, I believe they meant he was going to make a touchdown. I have tape recordings of various football games, where fathers could be heard angrily shouting, either at their own sons or someone else’s hapless offspring. One quarterback dad used to scream, “Block for ‘im, boys!” Whatever happened, it was never the quarterback’s fault, but that of the incompetent blockers, who deliberately opened up holes for the enemy to squeeze through.

Ideally, a boy should be “good” at his chosen sport – and his choices in the mid-‘70s in FG were football, basketball and wrestling, and eventually baseball. But lack of skill didn’t preclude or excuse a kid from participating. Sometimes, it was enough to suit out and warm the bench. Teen boys were convinced if they didn’t letter in at least one sport, not only would they disappoint their dads, they wouldn’t get dates with the most desirable girls. But there was a catch: Even if you were warming a bench, you had to look like you were in the thick of the action. For suit-uppers, this was easy, because if nature didn’t cooperate with a good rain, mud could be created with the always-present 5-gallon water jug and a few pairs of cleats. Then, the suit-wearer needed only to alternatively kneel, sit and stand on the sidelines to create the proper “look.”

I was a twirler in high school, and we performed in front of the band, between the sidelines and the bleachers, along with the cheerleaders. (Greenwood Principal Susan VanZant was one of the cheerleaders.) From our vantage point, we could observe a lot of interesting activities on the sidelines, but mud manufacturing was a ritual every Friday night. I have a couple of photos of bench-warmers rolling in the mud. This was augmented by vigorous pacing, which helped work up a sweat to convince a less-than-observant father or teenage girl of real gridiron action.

By the time I had my own son, I was determined not to force him into athletics, although as is incumbent upon every Okie parent, I was obliged to urge him to at least try. When he was 6, we signed him up for Little League, and he was put on a team. At the first practice, when the coach told him to go to center field, he kept going until he was a speck on the horizon. He finally stopped and squatted down. We didn’t know what he was looking at, but it wasn’t a baseball. After a couple of practices, the coach gently told me, “I just don’t think Cole’s ready for baseball.” This wasn’t news.

A couple of years later, we decided to try basketball. My husband got roped into helping “coach” a team, even though he knew next to nothing about basketball. Our sports editor at the time, and his assistant, felt pity and offered to help. As it turned out, there was one kid worse than Cole on the team, but since Chris was one of the coaches,  slinking away quietly wasn’t an option. Mercifully, the season ended quickly, and so did my son’s sports career.

But my son does love football, and knows a lot about it. At the onset of his senior year at Tahlequah, he expressed interest in “going out” for the team. I was mortified, because those other kids had been playing since they were 2-1/2, and I had images of him in traction instead of starting college at OU – where he had no chance of warming any bench outside a classroom. We talked him out of it, and he stayed in band (which he actually excelled at). Unfortunately, a few of the bandies and jocks got up to some sandlot football inside the NSU track after the home games, and Cole eventually cracked his knee. It hasn’t been right since.

A broken knee is enough violence for me, especially since it will ultimately mean a costly surgery. I wonder how parents of kids in my generation afforded the injuries. Perhaps their dads – who forced them to play in the first place – just told them to “suck it up and take it like a man.” That may explain a few things...

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.