Tuesday, January 24, 2012

First String

The previous article illustrates the trek of a few youngsters as they progressed from their earliest exposure to organized sports to their encounters with the culling process at EH that thinned the herd into its eventual “A” Team.  That same process was at work long before we went through it and has continued in the nearly half-century since we left—at almost every school in the country. 

As you watch your college and professional football games, maybe you would keep in mind that the players you are watching at that level are very rare birds, even the dorks.  The best of them are almost a work of art in their own right—and it’s a renewable resource.  There will be another batch next year, and the next!

Even after entering EH, there were subtle additional goals and barriers set in front of each boy still in the hunt for a spot on the team.  I’m not sure they were so much there by design as they were there by practical necessity.  For instance, having played on one of the “B” Teams did not ensure a spot on the “A” Team.  Recall that each year there were just over 40 on the “B” Teams, but only about 20 openings on the next “A” Team.  I think the number on the “A” Teams were limited by UIL regulations to something on the order of 45…and there were 2 classes available from which to choose, as well as an occasional extraordinary Sophomore and a talented transfer or two, such as David Bane.  And it was in the coaches interest to be sure they had a supply of returning Seniors each year from the previous year’s team.  Actually, it was a necessity; otherwise the next year’s team would be completely inexperienced.

Once you passed the “B” Team cut and progressed to the “A” Team, there were several more goals for which to strive.  First was the recognition of getting your picture and a short bio published in the Booster Club brochure.  If you were in it, you knew you had the coaches’ attention, if not…well, your tenure on the team could be tenuous.  Inclusion in the brochure had the additional benefit of being an unmistakable ego boost.  However, there were only 24 players shown in the 1961 brochure and 30 in the 1962 publication.  They could be viewed as the coaches best pre-season estimate of who was going to letter that year.  But, they were not always accurate because there were always a few who either showed poorly or others who greatly improved after those brochures were printed.  It was a very fluid situation.

Depending on how well you had done in Spring training at the end of the previous school year, your status with the team was ranked by the coaches in an unexplained manner.  And following a 2-week pre-season conditioning period that started in the miserably hot days of late August, the starting lineups were announced.  Those lineups were never fixed and always subject to change, depending on individual performance and any subsequent injuries.  The coaches were always focused on having the very best of their players on the field for each game. 

The team pictures in the previous article usually show 35-45 team members and those pictures were usually taken sometime late in the season (note the few injured players at the ends of the rows in some of them).  However, if you ever counted the names on the game programs, in 1962 you would see 34 names.  The difference between the 45 shown in the 1962 team picture and the number printed on the programs account for the number that could not fit into a City bus for the short ride to Farrington Field!  The bus carried 34, and that was how many players were permitted to suit up for a game.  If the game was held out of town, a “traveling squad” was picked which were a few less than 34; perhaps 28, if I recall correctly.  So, in those 2 events was another “cut” of sorts.  If you read a lot of “Rudy” in this, you’re right.  Getting picked for the traveling squad or being permitted to suit up for a local game became another small goal for an “A” Team player to achieve.

First Stringers never gave these situations much thought, but for those who were on the cusp of making the team or being dropped off, those hurdles were very important indicators of one’s status relative to others.  Of course, the next cut off point was the qualification for earning a letter.  Of the 45 shown in the 1962 “A” Team picture, just 23 earned that 1962 “E.” 

Starting with our 1962 team, Coach Mitcham had the photographer take a pair of “First String” team pictures showing the usual starting teams, both offense and defense.  It was probably seen by him as a tribute to his starters, the ones who logged the most playing time on the school’s first city championship team.  Of the 22 positions shown, there were 16 different players—6 of them played “both ways,” offense and defense.  The result was a fine image differentiating the first string players from the larger supporting squad…and yet another subtle goal for future aspirants.

Actually, the starting players could vary somewhat from one game to the next.  This was due to there being a few players at certain positions who were very evenly matched.  If this week’s starter was faltering, there was a second stringer right behind him standing ready to take the position.  Of course, injuries could reorder any starting lineup at any time. 

Someone recently suggested that the football teams were a kind of school social club beyond their common interest in playing the game.  Something like that may have developed in the years following ours as I do recall some circa 1980s stories reporting that kind of atmosphere nationally.  However, I think the most accurate description for these teams was that they were similar to a light infantry squad.  Each player was well trained, depended on the others to do their jobs, and trusted his team mates.  In general, the team members had been playing ball together for several years.  Most of them had girl friends to occupy their free time and I have no knowledge or suspicion of there having ever been any drinking and drug use. 

These “First String” pictures are found in each of the CLAN yearbooks of 1963-1964-1965-1966. after which the pictures were no longer published.  Coach Mitcham’s tenure lasted just one more year, through the 1967 season. 

Subsequent to the 1962 picture, all others were taken with the helmets removed, so you could see the faces.  But, you know I prefer the helmets-on shot…that’s what our opponents saw.


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