When you get to my age one of the first things you read in the morning paperâ€”usually between the crossword puzzle and the sportâ€™s pageâ€”are the obits. It is one of those habits that has gradually taken on a life of its own, done without thought on my part, a habitual search for something. Sort of like standing in front of the refrigerator door and not really knowing why youâ€™re there. It does, however, have some merit. I do gain some information, usually about the life of a former acquaintance, colleague or maybe the wife of some guy I bowled against. Most are lives well lived and deaths that arenâ€™t unexpected. Most, that is, except when I come across an obit of one of my former students. While accidents can happen to people at any age, when they die of one or the other of those maladies of â€œold ageâ€ it comes as a shock to me. How could it be that kids I knew when they were in their late teens be old enough to have become victims of one or the other of those things that should be taking out my generation?
That happened last week: A former student, age 61, died of a heart attack. It doesnâ€™t seem possible.
Now this isnâ€™t the first time this has happened, not even the first time in the last month. It is not that he was a special student, so gifted in some learned way that he was bound for greatness. In fact, if truth be told, he was an indifferent student in my math class. Nor was he an especially old and dear friend that Iâ€˜d had a close post-high school relationship with. (Although, this being a small place, in later years we both sold items in a local craft cooperative.) No, the thing that made him special was the memories that, seeing his obit, came back to me. You see, he was the first â€œkickerâ€.
(Disclaimer: Iâ€™m going by memory and not going back to look up dates but, given his age at death and the fact that he would have been 17 or 18 as a high school senior, Iâ€™m guessing he played football in the early to mid1960â€™s.)
In the 1960â€™s high school football in this area was entirely different than it is now. For one thing teams played in leagues that were geographically set up for all sports (male only, by the way) and not football specific divisions arranged according to the size of the schools to allow for a maximum of divisional â€œchampionsâ€ (routinely with 2 -1 but overall losing records). In addition there were no sectional or state playoffs. A school played six or seven league games plus one or two nonleague ones for practice. In our case, we were in a seven-team league and played 8 games: six in the league and two nonleague, the second of which was traditionally played as the last game of the season against Greene. (This made no sense inasmuch as Greene had then, as it does now, about half again as many students as we did. This game was a traditional David vs. Goliath match in which Goliath not only won but inflicted a great deal of damage to Davidâ€™s players.) In short, our high school team had three goals at the beginning of each season: win the league, go undefeated and beat Greene. Success at any one would be considered a good season. All three would make the team immortal. In the 60â€™s it was rare for any one of the three to happen. (Another might have been, given the limited number of male athletes, to come out of the Greene game with enough healthy players to field a basketball team.) One final difference: with school traditionally starting on the Wednesday after Labor Day, this was also the first day of football practiceâ€”July and August were for other things.
Aside from the above, things were pretty much the same then as now. Boys followed their fathers on to the gridiron. Families and friends gathered on Saturday to watch gamesâ€”only one team in the league had lights and played on Fridays. It was a small town team from a small town school where games were played on real grass fields which; given multiuse, turned into quagmires in the rain and, at least once per season, snow. It was a game where boys became men and the men who fathered them didnâ€™t think they knew more than the coach because they watched three or more pro games per week. And, oh yeah, there wasnâ€™t much foot in football.
There were a couple of rules that prevented this. First, the point-after touchdown (PAT) could be scored by either kicking through the uprights, or moving the ball over the goal line with a run or successful pass. Either way, it was worth only a single point. Second, if a team gave up the ball by either punt or field goal try, the ball went to the defensive team either where they recovered it or, if it crossed the goal line and stayed there, at the 20-yard line. This latter rule meant that, as long as you had a kicker that could get it high enough early enough and kick it far enough, a field goal try was as good as a punt. That it was worth 3 points wasnâ€™t a consideration since no one was that accurate anyway and failure to score was not consider a bad thing. With these two options for the kicking game, there wasnâ€™t much call for a player that specialized in place kicking. If one came along and the coach recognized him, fine, otherwise kicking was an afterthought at best. That is until the first real kicker came along.
The story at the time was that it was his fatherâ€™s idea and, given his closeness to his Dad, the father probably was responsible, maybe even pushed him into it. Nonetheless, the son practiced in the backyard kicking over telephone lines; against the neighborâ€™s house, whenever he could. He might not have been diligent about his school work, but he was about his kicking and, by the time he reached high school, he was good at it. Now this wasnâ€™t some foreign, soccer style, sidewinder kind of kicking. It was straight ahead, Lou Groza style kicking: get behind the ball, line it up and boot it straight through. He was, for a high school player, able to hit them accurately from the 30-yard line in and rarely missed a PAT. In short, for that time and place he was a pioneering wonder, a specialist, and, because the coach wasnâ€™t afraid to use him, a winner of football games. Touchdowns became a sure 7 points and fourth downs inside the 20 turned into 3. The team won games by slim margins, even beat Greene. Strangers showed up to watch and local sportâ€™s writers took notice, sportâ€™s page stories were written. Sure, he would have been more than an adequate football player as a back and defensive player but as a kicker, he was special. He also begat a culture whereby in the ensuing years the team had a series of kickers the like of which no local team has produced. Coaches changed and the kicking style changed but the kickers kept turning up, some good enough to continue on to the next level. So long is the list that, when the latest kicker was written up by a local paper, the writer failed to know the history and succession of kickers so the original wasnâ€™t even acknowledged.
Maybe thatâ€™s why Iâ€™m writing this. Maybe it is because I remember standing behind an end zone on a crisp fall day and watching a 30-yarder off his toe, arcing high, tumbling end-over-end and splitting the uprights. Maybe it is because I remember this and think others should as well. Remembering that there was a time when things began and, when all is said and done, those who were there first should be remembered. RIP George Genung, you were the â€œkickerâ€.