Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Chapter 3: Mamas Don't Let Your Kids Grow Up to Play Hockey

There were many more days and stories from our time playing hockey on Lake Phipps.  It was the souce of much fun, excitement and mischief.  I enjoyed a few more winters of this kind of tom foolery until I went off to college and then eventually moved away to California.

My friends and I continued to play on the lake in the winters and then on the high school and summer league teams at the rink and around Connecticut.  We all improved, getting pretty good, pretty quickly.  We played JV hockey our freshman year, then 3rd line my sophomore season for the varsity.  

While hockey was my life and my passion, being "the man with the golden hands" I continued to play football for the high school team.  I also played baseball until I got to the Babe Ruth League.  I was an excellent fielder with a so-so arm and an above average bat.  That all changed when the pitchers starting hurling curve balls.  I was sure that ball was coming straight at my face and then whoosh....it would drop and go right over the plate.  Or it would be coming right down the middle and I'd find myself swinging at a ball three feed outside the stike zone.  I was rendered helpless and looking like a fool.  Thus ended my competitive baseball career.

Football was another matter.  It was in my DNA....and it helped my hockey game.  I was more physical and a better hitter thanks to football.  I was also stronger and in better condition because of it.  The other thing that helped me with hockey was the fact that before I got my drivers license, my friends and I rode our bicycles everywhere.  I developed a massive hockey butt and thighs from all the leg work.

For football, we had spring training, weight lifting and what we called triple sessions in the muggy sweltering August heat the week before we started back to school.  The biggest drawback to me for football was that it went until Thanksgiving day and the hockey team started practicing the first week in November.  We weren't allowed to overlap, so those of us on both the football and hockey teams had to wait until after the final game in late November before  we could start practicing with the hockey team.  

My friends and linemates Dave Depew and Frank Longobardi and I were expected to be a big part of the hockey team for the upcoming season, my junior year of high school.

I was the starting tight end for the football team.  Tom Hunt was the head coach.  He was an old school mean SOB.  I think he had a cup of coffee with the Denver Bronco's but he had bad knees.  There's a good chance he would make headlines were he to be coaching in today's more sensitive atmosphere where beating and berating players is frowned upon.  But that was a different time.  So we were beaten and berated on a regular basis.  And we didn't complain.

It was Thanksgiving day, 1971.  We were playing Hillhouse High School, a New Haven  inner city school.  Always a tough opponent.  It was a cold, drizzly miserable Saturday morning.  

I was on the kick receiving team for the opening kick off.  My assignment was to go across the width of the field from the left side and block a kid who happened to be a 230 lb all-state tackle.  I weighed about 170.  He was bigger.  My advantage is he had no idea where I was coming from.  His advantage was 60 pounds of muscle.  

The kick off ensued. I sprinted across the field and dove, stretching my body out in front of said large tackle as he made a beeline for the ball carrier.  I nailed him.  He never saw it coming.  He went flying ass over tea kettle over me. I noticed the effect of his unsuspecting knee which sunk deep into the middle of my gut.  I rolled on the cold hard ground and got up clutching my left side, making my way back to the offensive huddle for the first play call of the game.  I could not catch my breath, much less a football.  The pain in my gut was immense.  I had to keep my left arm tucked into my stomach to try to contain the pain.

The first play was called.  Great.  Thanks.  It was a pass play.  A crossing pattern about ten yards deep, to me.    I ran, if you want to call it that, the route.  I made it across the middle.  Pete Riccio, my quarterback from midget football (no midgets played) fired a bullet in my direction, slightly above and away from my reach.  I could not lift my left arm away from my stomach.  I couldn't reach it.  The ball was catchable.  But not for me.  I got my other hand on it, but to no avail.  Incomplete pass.  Second and ten.

I limped back to the huddle.  That was the last pass ever thrown my way.  Mercifully the half ended.  During the break I went to Coach Hunt.  "Coach" I stammered, "I don't think I can go anymore".  

Coach Hunt turned and barked, "Herzog-you're in.  Balaban is a pussy."

I never played another play.  I sat on the bench huddled up, clutching my side.  I was covered with the Blue Devils poncho in the drizzling rain for the second half of the game.  I don't remember if we won or lost.

I rode the yellow team school bus for the twenty minute ride back to West Haven High School. Bouncing and bumping, feeling every little vibration, I continued squeezing my arm to my side all the way back to the school.

I got myself changed out of my football uniform and into my street clothes.  I don't remember how I got home, but the next thing I recall is sitting in the dark downstairs on the couch.  My sister got home.  She had been at the game.  I doubt she had a clue about what I was going through, but she recognized my pain when she came downstairs and saw me sitting there.  This was another moment in a life long string of instances of me not acknowledging pain.  I told her I was fine.  Thank goodness she didn't buy it.  "You arent' fine! You are as white as a ghost".  My parents weren't around.  She got Mr. Steinberg to come over.  He drove me to the hospital.

Next thing I know I'm waking up with my mom telling me at least I won't have to go to Viet Nam.  "Say what?".

As it turns out that knee in my gut on the opening kickoff ruptured my spleen.  A spleen I no longer possessed.  All I had left was a large scar on my belly and the realization that I was done for the year.  No hockey.  I needed about six months to recover.  Damn it.  

As for Viet Nam, it turns out my lack of spleen meant I was susceptible to Berry Berry or some tropical disease and I would not be eligble for the draft as a result.  I think I would have rather gone to war if it meant not missing my hockey season.

So that was that.  I didn't play that year.   I don't even remember one thing from that hockey season.  I did show up for spring training for football but I quickly realized I wasn't willing to risk my senior hockey season.  So I gave up football.  There were a lot of people disappointed in me, but I stuck to my guns.  Quitting football was a big deal.  I probably could have handled it with more maturity.  I honestly don't recall much that went down then but I still have the letter from my big brother, who was away at Brown University by then.  He expressed his disappointment at me being a quitter.  

By the way, Herzog.....Donny Herzog, the tight end who replaced me the day I got hurt, grew over a foot and went on to be named all-state defensive end and went on to play college ball at Northwestern.  The team, the West Haven Blue Devils or the Westies went on to go undefeated and win the state championship.....without me!

At least I could now prepare for my upcoming senior hockey season.

more to come......

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