Walter Griffiths tried to kill me the first time we met.
In 1968, when I was in seventh grade, I tried out for Junior High football- I think our team was called the Eagles- I made the team and was the third string right guard. That meant I didn’t play a whole lot. But, I was on the team and if my memory serves, we went undefeated that year. My jersey number was 56.
Now, I don’t know why the coaches made me a guard. I certainly didn’t have the size for it. Just to give you an idea, two years later in 1970, my freshman year of high school, I didn’t stand five feet tall and weighed all of eighty-five pounds! I don’t know what I weighed in junior high but you can bet it was considerably less! I was a small kid.
One sunny fall afternoon, we were playing a home game against Seven Oaks Junior High and we were beating the pants off of them. Coach Chandler, a quiet and soft spoken history teacher and Coach Long, a surly and sometimes ill-tempered Math teacher, huddled together in an impromptu sideline conference and decided that they were far enough ahead to give their less than sterling and talented players some field time. Coach Long turned and sneered at me.
“Peterson!” He squalled. “Front and center!”
I leapt from the tail end of the splintered bench like if I had been shot out of a cannon.
“Take a play in to the Q.B. and play right guard!” He ordered.
I looked out into the scrubby field and surveyed the battleground. Across the line from the right guard’s position was Seven Oak’s left guard, Walter Griffiths. He was squat. He was round. He was a hundred and twenty pound fireplug in a uniform, pads and a helmet. He looked as dangerous as a Badger in a burrow.
“Uhm… Coach,” I stammered, “he looks pretty big. I don’t know if I can take him.”
“Ah!” Coach Long the ill-tempered mathematician scoffed. “Just hit him low and hard and he’ll go right over!”
I was immediately buoyed and brimming with self-confidence. Hey, Coach said he’d go right over and Coach Long knew what he was talking about, right? I charged the field like a mad raging bull, a warrior; a gladiator ready to do battle to the death, if even for only one play.
I gave the play to the Q.B. It was an all student-body mad stampede to the right side, my side, on three. It wouldn’t be enough to simply block and hold my man. I would have to obliterate him, knock him senseless, ring his proverbial bell; kill him if at all possible. And, I knew I could because Coach Long, the demigod on the sidelines said I could and more, he ordered it!
“Knock him down and make sure he doesn’t get up!” Coach Long commanded.
I lined up across from my unsuspecting prey. In my mind, it was all but a forgone conclusion. He was going to be my helpless victim and I was going to be a champion! This was too easy! Why hadn’t they played me before now? This was going to be my moment of glory and I was destined to be a hero!
The quarterback barked the signals into the brittle autumn air. The backfield shifted and the receiver went into motion. We were to go on three. I took my down stance with savage authority and steeled my killer’s eyes onto my hapless opponent. I ground my teeth. I dug in my heels. I prepared myself mentally for the victory to follow that surely included being carried off the field on the shoulders of my teammates while the cheerleaders danced wildly, their short skirts all a-ruffle, around the jangled periphery of a newly crowned football legend.
The center hiked the ball and I surged forward like a fierce and roaring lion, all my muscles and sinews taught and leather tight. I hit Walter low and hard, just like Coach Long told me to do, supremely confident that victory was at hand.
Walter ran the full length of me, stomping his cleats into my crisp clean uniform from my socks to my neck, bruising me from head to toe. I’m not sure what it looked like but it sounded something like this…
“Hut one, hut two, hut three- hike (!) Hiiyehaaaa!” Thump, Thwap, Bap- crunch, crunch, crunch- which was immediately followed by, “Ow, ow, ow!”
Walter and the rest of the Seven Oaks line mashed me into the dirt like a crazed herd of buffalo trampling Howdy-Doody. I was bewildered. I was confused. I was in pain! That hadn’t worked at all, but why? I lay on my back on the hardscrabble ground staring into the blue sky in a tangled and bloodied mess wondering what had gone wrong. Coach Long, the surly and sometimes ill-tempered mathematician, who had to be well versed in statistical analysis and the laws of physics, couldn’t have been mistaken, could he? I was about to be carried off the field all right, but not on anyone’s shoulders and I wasn’t sure but I didn’t think the cheerleaders would be dancing wildly, their short skirts all a-ruffle, around my stretcher.
That was pretty much the end of my football career.
About two Sundays later, Walter and his parents showed up at our local worship service, at the Lebanon Free Methodist Church. I was hanging around in the hallway with Steve Porter and we were the cool-kids, at least at church. It was 1968 and I was wearing the cool-kids uniform- brown bellbottom corduroy slacks, a paisley print bell-sleeve shirt and love beads around my neck. Walter, on the other hand, showed up in a one each, Government Issue, standard dark blue FBI suit and skinny tie and was carrying a Collegiate Reference Scofield Bible that was big enough to choke a plow horse! He looked like a Fed!
I recognized him immediately and was just as immediately incensed. After all, I was still confused about the whole, ‘Hit him low and he’ll go right over!’ cleats, mashing and ‘Howdy-Doody’ thing.
“I’m going to go and straighten him out!” I growled to my friend Steve. Steve was a Seven Oak’er and knew Walter rather well. He stayed me with a cautionary hand.
“Uhm, maybe you better not…” He warned me.
For once in my young life, I let discretion be the better part of valor and decided maybe Steve might be right.
After opening services, everyone was excused to their Sunday school classrooms for some holy instruction. The adults went one way, the children went another and the teenagers filed off to the rec-room behind the parsonage, where Dale Twinge, (That’s pronounced Twingy, like Swingy but with a ‘T’) was the teacher. After a few minutes, Mr. Twinge was called away, leaving the rowdy teenagers unsupervised. Leaving us alone was the first among several painful mistakes that were soon to follow.
There was this bigmouth red-headed kid- I can’t remember his name, so lets call him Dale- who was long, tall, lanky and square shouldered, and he took some exception to Walter’s rigid attire and began to razz him about it. Walter sat erect and serene with his bible in his lap and tried to ignore Dale, but Dale, the bigmouth wasn’t about to be dissuaded. He kept after Walt, issuing insults, threats and epithets but Walter remained stoically unmoved. Finally, Dale reached over and pinched Walter’s cheek and said something derogatory about his weight. As calmly as you please, Walter stood, placed his bible carefully and reverently in the seat of his folding metal chair and turned to face the errant Dale. Dale was already dancing about like a boxer with his fists clenched.
“C’mon!” He challenged.
Walter balled his massive fist and quick as a dancing bear on ice, hit Dale square in the chest with the most devastating over-hand right I have ever seen. There followed an ugly hollow thud and a massive exhalation of air as Dale hit the ground and landed square on his narrow little butt. There also followed a string of surprised curses, but Dale knew not to get up. When he did, it was only to slink back to his chair, where he sat in a pained and sullen silence. Without uttering a word, Walter adjusted his skinny FBI tie, picked up his plow horse choking Collegiate Reference Scofield Bible and sat down. That whole cleat, mashing and ‘Howdy-Doody’ thing was suddenly beginning to make a little more sense to me. Walter was something I wasn’t. He was a tough guy and tough guys, even if you hit them low and hard, don’t fall over! I looked at Steve, who was sitting across from me.
“Thank you.” I silently mouthed.
Not many weeks after that, Walt invited me to his house for Sunday dinner. The Griffiths lived on a farm a few miles out of town and Walt had a mini-bike. We were both rough and tumble country boys, well, he was, and we hit it off right away. Walter and I immediately became best friends and remained inseparable all the way through high school and college.
After all, if you can’t beat the tough guys or knock them down, befriending them and living in their back pockets isn’t so bad, if you are one of the little guys! And I was…