Lionel James, the sixth grade, and the pass I didn’t catch

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 25, 2002

Sports Editor

Wow, that ball looked big.

A 1984 peewee football game and the only chance that I ever had to catch a pass. It soared off the hand of our quarterback and disappeared for a second, hidden in the glare of the stadium lights. Then down it came.

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The pattern I had to run was nonexistent. One step off the line of scrimmage, turn around and look for the ball.

Of course, I dropped it.

I think it hit my finger. I jogged back to the huddle, shaking my hand and looking back at my coach as if to say, ‘I tried, Coach! Honestly!’

I think I’ll take that pass to the grave with me.

I know, it’s silly. But every once in awhile, mostly when the fall nights become cooler and the sound of a marching band echoes across a small town street, I’ll think back and wonder.

I was in the sixth grade and my uniform – pads, helmet and all –

weighed more then I did. You know the scene in Rudy when the Notre Dame groundskeeper dresses Rudy up one side and down the other? "Look at you; you’re five-foot-nothing, a 100-pounds-of-nothing…" That’s me.

It was the sixth grade. School started to get a little harder. Science and math classes started blowing my mind. I discovered girls. I had a girlfriend for the first time in my entire life and I gave her a red rose for Valentines Day.

Then she broke up with me. She sent me a break-up letter through her best friend. How spineless.

But then, as now, I learned that new love was just right around the corner. ‘Boy, that brown-eyed girl cheerleading for the Cowboys sure is cute. Did she just smile at me?’

I saw my first collegiate football game on campus that year. Auburn vs. Mississippi State in Jordan-Hare. This was the year that the Tigers won the SEC and played Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Pat Dye ran the wishbone. Bo was the franchise player, but Lionel James was my favorite. The ‘Little Train,’ they called him. I guess I liked James because he was small, like me, but he’d lower his head like he was a 6-foot-2, 230 pound locomotive.

Back to those Monday night peewee games. We had a guy from Tennessee coaching us and he cussed like a real football coach. We won a single game during the regular season and he told us we were the "best damn team" he had ever coached. He chewed tobacco and talked as if his mouth was filled with molasses. I thought he was great. When the season was over he took us to Pizza Hut.

I snagged an interception in a practice game against the Rams. I dropped an interception in a real game against the Rams. I hit the ground, frustrated, and pounded my hand into the field, just like I had seen those hot shot professionals do on TV.

Hey, it got some attention. One referee shouted out, "tough luck, No. 30!"

I’m amazed I can remember some of these things.

Memories are what makes growing old tolerable.

That, and having friends whose eyes perk up when you start a sentence with, "remember when…"