The Night the Tigers Got Out of Their Cage
“It would have taken a dinosaur to knock down those doors but– unfortunately for ‘The Coach’ … he was line-bred back only to the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch!”
by Don Kenton Henry
It was a crisp “Indian Summer” evening and a full moon hung over the playing field like a white china plate. It and an Indiana October sky of 1969 had the best seats in the house for our homecoming game with arch-rival, Blackford County. They were an undefeated, perennial state football powerhouse known for crushing their opponents by fifty points or more with their “All-State” offensive and defensive lines. Their reputation was so fearsome, they didn’t require a mascot and were simply referred to as, dreaded, “Blackford”.
My team, the Peru High School “Tigers”, had compiled a less than stellar record of one and six coming into tonight’s game. We were a “rag-tag” band of math majors and merit scholars better suited for academic game shows than “blood and guts” on the gridiron. Our quarterback would one day be a state appellate court judge; our running back-–my wife’s psycho-therapist. Perhaps the most brilliant and enterprising among us was our center, Bob. He became a bio-chemist by way of Purdue, and patented a chemical which–when added to raw sewage – made it smell like perfectly good tacos. Bob would come to claim he had sold large quantities to the city of Tijuana, Mexico allowing him to retire early. Though, we came to refer to him as the “Ron Popeil of Poo” at all future meetings of the Rotary, we remained skeptical. Years later, walking across the border from San Diego, I was alternately confused and convinced.
Trailing only 24 points (24-0) almost mid-way through the game, in reality we were playing well above our heads. Suffice it to say, we were in desperate need of a hero–any hero! We couldn’t afford to be picky. And that was lucky because, sitting on the bench, weighing one hundred three pounds in full pads–I was definitely in disguise as far as football heroes go. I wore size thirteen shoes at one end of my five foot six inch frame and had a twenty-four inch head at the other – appendages you would normally find on an NBA draft pick, not a “walk-on” from the debate team. My head, in fact, was so big that, until tonight’s game, I had gone the entire season without a helmet. (Not that it mattered because, at this point, “Coach” had not seen fit to take me off the bench.) But just before game time, Clem, a toothless, fifty year veteran of our janitorial staff, pulled me aside and proudly presented me with a helmet he had found, just the day before, in a crate in the far reaches of a storeroom under the stadium bleachers. It was a leather model (one without a face-mask) from Knute Rockne’s heyday. “Now you’re official, kid!” were the words from his grinning gums, as he handed me the helmet. I squeezed it on and ran to the nearest mirror in the locker room. I fancied I looked just like Ronald Reagan in Knute Rockne, All American filmed at Notre Dame – only about fifty miles up the road. Aside from the fact neither Ronnie or George Gip had braces and rubber bands on his teeth – I could make no distinction.
The coach had been trying unsuccessfully all season to persuade me to return to Mrs. Sims’ speech and debate team or, at the very least, convert to “first string” equipment manager. To encourage me, the coach had me–practice in and practice out–serving as a blocking bag for the varsity or as the kick-off and punt returner on special teams. Off the record, the assistant coaches told everybody to, “fall back and let Henry take the ball!”
“Wake-up! Wake-up! Henry!” became the all too familiar mantra, as the equipment managers kneeled over me, waiving smelling salts beneath my nose. “You only lost ten yards on that return before you went unconscious!”
Having already “lettered” in record time on the debate team, I had yet to prove my athletic prowess and would not be deterred. Game after game, I sat the bench at the end opposite “Dorfman”, future proctologist to our parents. Dorfman had barely accumulated more PT (playing time) than me and we both occupied our time on the bench–when meteorological conditions allowed–making mud pies. Mine were of the basic, “Smiley Face”, type.
“Hey, Henry! … Check this out!” Dorfman pleaded, while sliding down the bench and simultaneously displaying in his out-stretched hands another creation resembling an anatomical or biological anomaly.
“Uggghhh!–What’s the diagnosis this time, Dorfy?”
“Don’t know–the lab results aren’t back yet,” he answered with a somewhat demented gleam in his eye.
It had been twenty-two years since The Tigers had defeated Blackford. Many of our fathers had played on that “Cinderella” squad back in ’47 and it was with the greatest earnestness they implored us, do them proud and kick Blackford’s tail! Sitting on the sidelines, calculating the possibility of history repeating itself for the sake of our fathers, I concluded the odds to be about forty-three million, one hundred fifty-seven thousand, three hundred and twenty to one. Still, I sat there secure with the thought that I, and any physical short-comings on my part, would have no bearing on the out-come of this game. It was this thought, which comforted me as, mercifully, halftime arrived and we made our way deep into the bowels of the stadium, to our locker room commonly referred to as … “The Dungeon”.
“The Coach” had reason to be mad. The score remained 24 to nothing, in favor of Blackford, leaving us well on our way to losing to them for the twenty-second season in a row. Though he may have been a man with a vocabulary limited to one and two syllable words, there was nothing limited about Coach Werner’s physical expanse. A former defensive lineman for the Kansas City Chiefs, he stood six foot six and weighed over three hundred and twenty pounds. His complexion fluctuated from lesser to greater shades of purple and – when he spoke – “The Gods” trembled and the wire-reinforced plate glass windows in the walls of the dungeon pitched in their frames with the caustic crescendo of his indictment of our heritage and manhood. As evidence, he cited: Mother; God and … Apple Pie. He addressed us as “Commies”; “wimps” and “Girlie-Boys”. (I interpreted this was meant in general and did not refer to me specifically.)
But the coup de grace came when he thrust his right hand high in the air and beseeched us, “Do as I do!” (we all reached high in the air) “Now, jam your hand between your legs! (afraid not to–we jammed!) “Now squeeze real hard … and …if you feel anything at all–though I doubt you will!–I want you to go out and kick Blackford’s butt!”
I was so deflated (and not wanting to admit I’d squeezed and come up short) that, by the time the coach got to the team prayer, I slipped through the locker room doors into the archway of the stadium for a breath of fresh air.
And, then … it happened. Why? … I do not know. To answer that, is like answering the question, “How long is a string?” … I just don’t have enough information. All I know is, I reached over and grabbed the case-hardened padlock which hung from the heavy dead-bolt; quietly shut the double, four-inch-thick steel doors of the locker room; latched the latch; slipped the padlock in; and … locked the lock.
In an instant – a tidal wave of horror rushed over me! What had I done? I had just taken an entire team hostage! Thirty odd teammates, managers and coaches on the inside … and me – one, one hundred and three pound sophomore, third string wimp on the outside! I stood paralyzed – afraid to flee through town in my uniform–“A Deserter!”.
The team had just finished its prayer as the marching band played the last note of our fight song. I heard one or two anemic rebel yells, followed by the sound of cleats against concrete, as “The Tigers” trotted toward the doors. The first bump against the door was subtle and muffled. The second – not so much so. And then–the incredulous cry–“Hey, we’re locked-in!” and the shoulder pads began to bang. “Umph!-Bang!” … “Uuummph!-Bang!” came the sound, as wave after wave of players hurled themselves into the wall of steel. But the doors did not give. Even when the entire defensive line hit the doors as one, the doors did not give. Then …IT” came–like a bellow from the depths of hell: “Outta my way you mothers!” Have you ever heard a bull elephant in rut? Well I don’t need to for I heard Coach Werner as he smashed like a bowling ball through pins of players–sending them sprawling in all directions–just before hitting the doors at Mach IV! Did you know steel can scream? I know it can stretch! For I saw two-inch thick hinges stretch like taffy as Coach hit the doors! They stretched but did not break.
I saw a lock you can shoot with a thirty-ought-six … bend before the brute. Bend … but did not break. Time after time, Coach hurled himself against the doors. Time after time, the doors screamed … but did not give. It would have taken a dinosaur to break down those doors, but–unfortunately for “The Coach” … he was line-bread back only to the beginning of the Pleistocene Epoch!
Then–like a dying rhino–I heard him bellow, “Hennnrrry! … I’m gonna kill you! Now … how … did he know … it was me? What had he done–taken a “head-count”!
Well–that’s the only encouragement I needed! I sprang from the archway of the stadium to take the field. No sooner did the crowd see me fly from the bowels of the stadium, then it roared to its feet. As I dove through the paper-covered hula-hoop, the noise was deafening! I was a’ high-steppin’; a’feared the coach was right behind me.
I was in the middle of the fifty-yard line when the crowd finally realized something was amiss – as the ovation began to subside – dramatically. (I guess I was a bit conspicuous being the only player for the Tigers to take the field.) Not one to bask in the limelight, I quickly made my way to the end zone to engage in a flurry of calisthenics at a rate I only hoped would make me invisible! Blackford had already taken the field and was warming up in their end zone, but now paused to stare at me in puzzled amazement.
Have you ever heard a sports announcer silent for lack of words? Have you ever seen a band director freeze, band baton in hand, in mid-note? Not a drum beat; a trombone boned or a tuba tubed. Cheerleaders were frozen in mid-flight. I know. I was there–all by myself in the end zone. I proceeded with a hyperactive display of jumping-jacks and was so scared, I ripped off seventy-five one-arm push-ups! I was standing on my head bicycling when the astute janitorial S.W.A.T. team of Peru High finally succeeded in freeing the coach from the confines of his cage. Like Godzilla, Coach thundered from the archway. Again the cry–“Henry! … I’m gonna kill you!” This was the only sound, and it reverberated, like the bombs over London, off the walls of the stadium.
Who would have thought a three hundred pound purple mass could travel so fast? Who would have thought someone with size 13 feet and “chicken legs” could outrun him? I dodged. I darted. But when I zigged–he zagged! When I hid behind the goal posts–he almost knocked them down! He was insane in his pursuit!
It was in the ranks of the marching band that he finally caught up with me when I was clotheslined by a trombone slide. He picked me above his head; shook me till my fillings came out and body-slammed me head-first into a tuba. Then–with the tuba still on my head–threw me into a fireman’s carriage and bore me into the locker room.
The comeback was great! The score was 24 all by the end of the third quarter. We were awesome! We completely shut down Blackford in the second half and won the game 31-24 in the closing seconds!
Call it luck. Call it skill. Call it anything you will. I call it … Inspiration”! I know … for I heard the roar of the crowd when the coach took the playing field without me. I felt the incessant pounding of 4,000 stomping feet above me … could feel the electricity of a man and team …inspired.
Yes–even bound–and gagged with dirty jock-straps . . . and stuffed inside a locker–deep in the bowels of the stadium . . . I knew “I” . . . had inspired The Tigers – to victory.