Super Bowl Sunday Special Blog and Special Blogger… Welcome Steve Ephraim!! 👩🏻🏈👨🏻
GET YOUR HELMET!🏈
A few months ago, I attended my 45th high school reunion in south suburban Chicago. Of the 425 students in my Evergreen Park class, about 40 had come to celebrate. As the evening progressed, I somehow found myself surrounded by a half-dozen former football players reminiscing the old days. Marc, the coach’s son, talked of those grueling three-a-day workouts in the August heat. I recounted how players stood in line for water breaks as Coach Geyer stood watch at the water fountain. “OK, Ephraim. Your five seconds are up. Next….” Tim remembered how Coach Aulwurm once picked up a player and threw him into a practice dummy… “There, that’s how you’re supposed to block!”.
The memories came back quickly for me to that first freshman game against Marist High. There I would experience my first thrill of the gridiron when the coach barked, “Ephraim… Get your helmet!” But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the rest of the story.
Football was pretty big in our family as I was growing up. Our father, Max, had played in high school and had a natural talent. My four older brothers established a legacy in two high schools. Phil, the eldest with his towering 6’4” frame, played receiver for Calumet in the Chicago city championship. Dan started at Calumet and transferred to Evergreen Park where he was named all-conference tackle. A college scholarship followed. Gary established himself as a tenacious linesman; I recall the crowd reaction when he once leapt over the other team’s center to block a punt. Paul had a sturdy frame and played through most of his high school years.
Skipping over myself, I’ll mention that little brother Jim made a name for himself at linebacker and started in the state football playoffs. That leaves me, Steve, the one who aspired to greatness when I signed up for freshman football.
The first day of practice was exhilarating. We were issued equipment and listened intently as coaches and assistants explained how to dress properly. They furnished us baggy pants with pockets for hip pads and extra pockets for thigh and knee protection. We struggled to put on floppy shoulder pads and tie them in place with underarm straps. Each of us was given a half-sleeve jersey, all-white to match our all-white pants. Someone scrawled our names onto strips of white duct tape and placed them on the backs of our jerseys. Last names only.
After suiting up, we waited in line to get fitted with a helmet. These hard-plastic globes had faceguards in front and padding inside to protect our heads. By today’s standards they were primitive, but still far better than the leather helmets of Dad’s day. Helmets came in a variety of sizes, and after trying on a few, I settled on one that was slightly smaller than average. I pulled it over my head and buckled the chinstrap. At that moment, an air of invincibility came over me. I was ready to do battle.
When it came to athletics, my elementary school days were unremarkable. I tried out for basketball in seventh and eighth grades and didn’t make the cut. In intramural volleyball, I performed at a mediocre level. Most of my sports experience came from pickup games of soccer, football and baseball on school playgrounds.
Despite less-than-stellar prowess, I was determined to excel in football. Never mind that I weighed 107 pounds soaking wet and had, at best, an average build. Not to worry that 88 boys had signed up for the freshmen team…. that’s enough for eight football teams! I thought I was pretty good with snapping the football and immediately set out to capture the position of center. For those unfamiliar with the game, the center is the guy in the middle of the offensive line who “snaps” the ball to the quarterback.
As luck would have it, my freshman locker-mate was Pete McGinley; he was in the running for starting quarterback. During our second week of practice, the coaches started to run scrimmages. As they picked sides for these practice rounds, I maneuvered into position to be Pete’s snapper. That worked until one fateful day when our squad lost a practice game. The coach ordered us – except for Pete – to take a lap around the track as punishment. When I returned, someone else was snapping the ball to Pete. I would never be asked – or allowed – to play center again.
Not to be dissuaded, I set my sights on making the first team at whatever position they would give me. I still dreamed of playing center but would be happy to play at guard if the coaches would let me. Feedback from the staff was rare. Once in a while, they would comment if you made a good tackle or impressed them with a block on your opponent. Most of the time they seemed to operate as if they knew exactly who were the chosen ones. Perhaps that’s because they did know.
As our first game approached, we were issued our game uniforms after a Monday practice… We, the fighting Mustangs, would wear those green and grey uniforms making us look – and feel – like champions. “Mustang”… that name conjures up images of a mighty beast, raring back on its haunches, breathing hard, nostrils flaring. Our mustang was adorned in green and grey.
Game day arrived and we boarded the bus to play the Redskins of Marist High. As the bus cruised down Kedzie, Pulaski and 111th streets, the coaches barked out the starting lineup. When they were finished, it seemed they had made a mistake. No mention of Ephraim! Despite the football legacy my family had established, the coaches had somehow overlooked an Ephraim. I was not disheartened, as I was sure my chance would come. We unloaded the bus and marched across the parking lot with helmets in hand.
As the game got under way, it quickly turned into a see-saw frenzy. The Mustangs and Redskins stubbornly pushed each other up and down the field. Substitutions were made to keep the troops fresh. I stood at the ready, next to coach Guzinski’s side, waiting for the call into action. In what seemed like a few short minutes, halftime arrived and neither team had scored. I had not been summoned.
Following a rousing halftime talk, we took our places back on the sidelines. While most players sat or knelt on one knee, I followed the coach wherever he went. To miss the call would be a terrible mistake; no sitting for me! Meanwhile, we scored the first touchdown and led 6-0.
Midway through the third quarter it happened. The moment I had been waiting for. All of those hard practices would finally pay off. Coach G’s voice rang out clear as a bell … “Ephraim! Get your helmet!”. Like a soldier jumping off the landing craft into the shallow water, I came running. It was hard to contain my enthusiasm as Gary Fast (that was his real name) was trotting off to the sideline. He was a starting guard and this was my moment to replace him. I was the “next man in”.
In a flash, I rehearsed the offensive play book in my head. “T24 on 1”… when the quarterback says “1”, I’ll bury my left shoulder into my opponent’s side while our halfback runs off my right hip. Plays I had memorized for weeks were suddenly flashing like a slot machine.
As I strapped on my helmet, Coach gestured for me to take it off. He quickly explained the real reason he had called me. “Gary here just broke his helmet and yours looks to be about his size. Give him your helmet.” Obediently and without emotion, I reluctantly handed it to Gary. He sheepishly muttered “thanks” and trotted back onto the field. I watched in awe as my helmet went off to battle. I wouldn’t see it again until after the game.
History recorded a win for Evergreen Park on that day. When the clock expired, we trotted to the end zone to celebrate and await Coach’s final words. He talked of the sweetness of victory and rewards of hard work, of how this would be the first of many great games to come, of how proud we had made him and the other coaches. As his speech wore on, my mind drifted off to a most wonderful thought. Had I played in this game? No. But a part of me HAD played and quite bravely at that.
When someone else’s helmet failed to do its job, mine stepped in to carry the day. Had it not been for my helmet, the Mustangs might have lost that day. It reminded me of that proverb:
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of the shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of the horse, the rider was lost;
For want of the rider, the battle was lost;
For want of the battle, the kingdom was lost;
And all from the want of a nail.”
If you substitute “helmet” for “nail”, well, you pretty much get the picture…
The rest of freshman football went pretty much the same. I only saw action in twelve plays on the “B” team. That’s the team made up of the not-so-good players from our team who played against the scrubs from the other team. The field of play was usually a long hike to the farthest reaches of the school property. No lights or spectators, just a rough patch of grass with faint white lines and makeshift goal posts.
In my first game, I didn’t see action until the final minutes against Rich East. I was called in to substitute at left offensive guard. When the ball was snapped, I threw my body into a charging linebacker. He hit me so hard that I nearly passed out. Not to worry, as my trusty helmet protected my head (or so I thought) and I picked myself up off the ground. Mercifully, the game ended in three more plays. Still a bit woozy, I held my head high, helmet cradled under my arm, as I headed for the awaiting bus.
FOOTBALL TEAMMATES AT 45TH REUNION
From left: Pete McGinley, Phil Blomberg, Tim Maday, Bob McGrath, Steve, Gary Fast, Bob Pype
Thanx Steve and Thanx to all the future helmets that “play” in the game!!🏈
“Do you know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.”
1 Corinthians 9:24
And… May the best team win!! 🏈