Number 56?

I suppose it was a futile endeavor to put me in a football uniform.  When I think of 7th grade, I remember how my height and weight flat lined.  Around me, boys were growing, sprouting mustaches, stinky sweat, and cracking voices.

It made no sense that I would play football.  But, playing football tempted me. I already loved the sport. I spent many Sundays watching professional players beat each other up.   Like any childhood sporting fascination, my interest was partially focused on the costumes.  In football, the players strutted in muddy pants.  There was grass stuck in their face masks. The lineman left the field with blood dripping through the athletic tape on their knuckles.

Still, I was less than 98 pounds, less than even a standard weakling. I was certain, though, that if I could get into pads and stretch a nice blue jersey over my new neck brace, that I would be a terror just like my Sunday heroes.

To get a uniform of my own, I had to go to Mr. “Tortoise’s” room for some “issue.” Mr. Tortoise was about 5’2″ and 180 pounds.  He had a booming New Hampshire accent and he only referred to us by our last names, or by ‘Son.’  Usually, it went something like this:

“Wickersham,” he would growl,  “tell your motha I’m not cleaning up your pee out of these paynts at the eynd of the seezon.  Take #10. Now get outta heyer.  You heyer me, Son?”  “Vietor, I see you stayering at Wilbourne’s butt.  Heyr, geyt me some watah, son. Vietor, one mah thing.  Ya cain’t wear those durn boat shoes on my field.”

I walked up to Mr. Tortoise.  He had his back to me.

“Mr. Tortoise, ” I said, clearing my throat in the modestly hopeful expectation that he would understand.  “I would like number 56.”

56 is a great number.  Many of the greatest linebackers of all time have worn 56.  Lawrence Taylor wore 56.  (If you want to have a sense of LT, check out this video, at about 48 seconds.)

If I could digress, this was the early 80s.  It was a joy for any sports fan to witness LT.  He was already changing football.  He play was a manifestation of Death itself. There he was, lined up on the corner barely out of the QB’s eye, but haunting his mind.  He peered through his darkened mask in a Dickensonian gaze.  He brought swift, unforgiving, and absolute punishment.

He pretty much invented the need for a fast left tackle.  After that play on the previous link, he made the Redskins coach invent the two tight-end offense, so that there could two or three blockers on him.

Anyway, the point is that pretty much any football fan can tell you that there is something special about 56.  If a pro team gives a player the number “56,” it tells you that they expect him to be an All-Pro.  Mr. Tortoise knew that.  He knew it better than probably anything else.  He knew it like he knew that his mother loved him, or that the Red Sox would never win the World Series, or that he was never going to be 5’3″.

He turned around.  He put two fingers on his chin, sat back in his chair, and smiled.  He sort of pursed his lips, like he was trying to think more clearly about something.

“Fifty-six,” he said.  Then, he said it again, but it was more of a question.  “Fifty-six?”  He puts his hands on the chair.  I could tell there was a “disconnect” here.

I can’t help but feel that in this moment, there was a point of no return, where the trust between two short guys would either be broken or bonded.  It was not in my hands.  It was in Tortoise’s.  He was short first.

“Wait, you, Mister Rust, you, want to wear FIFTY-SIX?

“On a football team?”

“Yes, that is about right, sir,” I said.

My dream was slipping through my fingers.

“Oh geez, Rust” he said, rolling his eyes.  “I get to hear everything in this job…..Gimme a break!”

“Son, I’ve got problems enough.  Your mathuh doesn’t have the sense to tell you to go out for cross-country.  Now I’m supposed to give you fifty-six. No, I caan do some things, but I hayve my limits.  Giving you fifty-six…woo!”

He paused, resting one hand on his hip and the other against an office chair.

“There’s no fifty-six for you.  I’m gonna seeyeh if I can find a ‘1’ that doesn’t spread too fah against those things you call shoulders.”

He reached into a large canvass bag festering under an old carpet.  He threw the shameful #1 shirt at me.  It draped my face.  I drew a breath through its mildewed fibers, backed up, and tripped on a surge protector cord.

He stood above me, pointing his finger at my shrouded face.

“Son, go play your football, and stop trying to worry me about silly things like you having number 56.  Geez!”

I spent the rest of the season keeping my uniform clean and having Lechin pull me around by my facemask.  The next year, I played soccer.

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One Response to “Number 56?”

  1. dkiddoo Says:

    I demand that you rename the “hit bull win steak” category to the more progressive “hit grass win salad” moniker. Immediately.

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