In Sheepshead Bay where I grew up, sometime late in August you put away the friction-taped baseball (sometimes called a "rocket") and the old bat and the worn glove and the sweaty flannels and the cap (always worn fore & aft, and never backwards!), and got out the football.
If you had cleats, you tried them on. If they didn't fit, you traded with another kid whose feet were growing faster, or slower. There were always shoulder pads and a leather helmet on the floor in the back of the bedroom closet. There might be football pants; otherwise, jeans would do. Some years everyone on the block put up a few bucks and you went down to Davega, the sporting goods store on Avenue U., and ordered new jerseys. Red and white. Or blue and gold. With numbers on the back (though no names; back then the team was the thing and not the individual).
The scrimmages began around Labor Day and the first game was the following Saturday and sometimes we went up to the Parade Grounds at Prospect Park where they actually had goal posts and, sometimes, white lines. I was skinny and not very good at tackling so I played quarterback. Our best player was the only black kid around, Johnny Stowers. Or, alternately, Stokes. He answered to both and to either and I never knew what his real name was but he was some player. Tommy Gordon who became a cop and is dead now, he was awfully good, too. So was Joe Torpey who later played minor league baseball and was married at home plate. Bobby McKay was big. Joe Hanley owned nice football pants. Armand Ligouri was fat so we put him on the line.
We played Saturday mornings so in the afternoon we could listen to the big college games on the radio. Bill Stern was always the announcer and Notre Dame was playing Northwestern or Southern Cal. The war was on and so the best teams were Army and Navy because their guys didn't get drafted. They had other service teams, too, and on some of them they had not only college stars but pros: Great Lakes Naval Training, Iowa Pre-Flight, Bainbridge Naval Training, teams like that.
Sometimes we got to go to a game. My old man was always broke but everything was so cheap we'd take the railroad or the Hudson River Day Line up to West Point and see an Army game. That was the best. You never saw a place like that, and Army always beat Wake Forest or Michigan about 40 to nothing, and the cadets chanted, "Run the score way up/ Run the score way up/ So they'll never want to play us anymore. . ."
Fordham had a team then and used to play St. Mary's of California at the Polo Grounds. I think it cost 50 cents to go to a college game then if you were a kid. St. Mary's always had some guy running at halfback named Presto Podesto from Modesto. Later in life I realized it was probably a press agent that made up such names but back then, I thought, wow! he must be a great player to have a name like that!
Frankie Sinkwich played halfback for Georgia and he came to town the week after he broke his jaw in a game and they made a big thing in the paper that his jaw was wired shut and he lived on milkshakes sipped through a straw and was very weak. But being an All-American, naturally he scored about four TDs.
I can't tell you today the name of a single college player. Back then, it was always Tommy Harmon-Harmon of Michigan. Or Frank Reagan of Penn. Or the quarterback was Bertelli of Notre Dame. Johnny Kimbrough of the Texas Aggies. Whizzer White of Virginia who became a justice on the Supreme Court. Harry Gilmer. Hugh McIlhenney of Washington. Frankie Albert and Norm Standlee of Stanford.
We knew the coaches. They wore camel's hair coats and fedoras.
There were NFL games Sunday but no one went. You could stroll up at 2 p.m. Sundays at the Polo Grounds and get a ticket to the Giants for a couple of bucks. The Dodgers played in Ebbets Field and Ace Parker was quarterback and my cousin Si Titus from Holy Cross played in the line. He joined the Marine Corps and went to the Pacific. Tuffy Leemans played for the Giants. Sid Luckman quarterbacked the Bears and Don Hutson played for Green Bay. Sammy Baugh on the Redskins. Everyone played both ways.
In Sheepshead Bay we played two games of tackle every weekend, one Saturday morning, the other Sunday afternoon. Even now, I remember the early fear on the opening kickoff and how I hoped it wouldn't come to me or hoped I wouldn't have to make the tackle. And then, later, after a time, you relaxed and got into it, and I can recall that smell like no other, when you were at the bottom of the pile with guys all on top of you and your face is ground into the earth, your nose down and the smell of sweet, crushed grass.
Nothing ever smelled better than the grass you played on in football games. Well, later on, maybe, when you got to know girls. And smoked your first cigar. And when you lived much later in Paris, and the sommelier opened the bottle of