Dave's Note: I first wrote the column below in 1974, when I was a sophomore in high school; I'd just discovered, to my chagrin, that 120-pound defensive tackles aren't destined for superstardom in Class 5A football in the state of Texas. Over the years, I'vetouched it up here and there, but the premise of the piece remains the same to this day: a salute to all those anonymous faces who toil in obscurity, but whose competitive spirit remains forever unquenchable.
There are two entirely different types of people who play football. Everyone knows about one type: call 'em Friday Night Heroes, Saturday Afternoon's Collegiate Conquerors or Sunday's Gods of Football. Each team has at least 11 of them — the guys who get to play.
But few recognize the trials, tribulations and travails of the other type of football player. He rarely wins respect, rarely wins the praise, rarely wins the adulation heaped on his more popular counterpart; in fact, he rarely "wins," period.
The life of a scrub is a harrowing one, filled with danger. But the scrub is necessary to any football team ... for without him, who would the first string practice against?
Injuries in practice havebeen known to destroy many a budding superstar's career, so it is imperative to find someone for the superstar to hit who can't hit back. The scrub is typically shorter, lighter, slower and weaker than the gifted superstar, which makes him the perfect choice for refining the latter's superior skills.
The first task most scrubs haveto face on the practice field is to hold the blocking dummies while the first-stringers vent their frustrations. This is where the scrub first meets the team's Lurch-lookalike offensive tackle—that 6-foot-7, 275-pounder with 4.5 speed the college scouts are so hot on. This is also usually the first place the scrub learns to moan in a weak voice after being exhumed once the tackle has flattened him and shredded the blocking dummy.
The scrub is also responsible for training his team's defense, by repeatedly taking the ball on a handoff from the scrub quarterback and running directly into the maw of the team's ravenous defenders—the ones with nicknames like "Jaws," "Hit Man," "Doctor Doom" and "Terminator." He rarely finds blockers to accompany him on these little excursions, since the linemen assigned to defend him are scrubs, too.
Training luxuries are rarely part of a scrub's regimen. While the first-stringers ease their aches in the whirlpool, spend hours each day with massage therapists and havea handful of trainers begging for the chance to wrap their ankles, the scrub counts himself lucky to get five minutes in a cold shower, two band-aids and a couple of aspirin.
The scrub also has to be more careful with his equipment than other players. Being shorter, weaker and more gullible than a first-stringer, he is a prime target for the team's practical joker, who is almost always one of the first-stringers. Finding out that "Ultra Thermonuclear Hot Rub" is smeared all over one's jock strap can make for a long day at practice.
Practice and the training room are hazardous for the scrub, but nothing can compare to a real game.
Hours before the contest, the scrub has reached the plateau of motivation: his fingernails are chewed to nubs, his teeth are chattering and his knees are wobbly. As the team runs onto the field for the big game, it is the scrub who will become entangled in the huge paper poster the cheerleaders hold up in the end zone (provided he doesn't hit the goalpost).
It is the scrub who will anchor the "wall" of players as the first-stringers secretly practice one last time that play the coach has introduced specifically for this game.
It is also the scrub who will turn beet-red when that plaintive little voice wafts from the stands: "Mommy, is that little skinny guy really Harvey?"
As the game begins, the scrub sets up at right end — right at the end of the bench. For most of the first half, he will scream himself hoarse along with the head coach, following in the latter's footsteps until both become hopelessly entangled in the coach's headphone wires.
But by late in the game, if his team is either hopelessly behind or winning by a landslide, the scrub might finally get his chance.
Trotting confidently onto the field, he's already considering what he'll say at the post-game press conference when they ask him about that incredible twisting, turning touchdown run.
Even as the quarterback calls a flop play in the huddle to kill the final five seconds, the scrub still envisions every possibility — especially the one in which the ball somehow miraculously pops loose and winds up in his arms and he's forced to "do it on his own."
But the final gun sounds on time and the scrub is, more often than not, forgotten and trampled in the ensuing melee as both benches empty, the pretty girls mob the superstars and some wag pulls the plug on the stadium lights.
Somewhere amid the mud, blood and hubbub, though, a weak smile crosses the face of the scrub as he nestles the forgotten game ball to his chest. He has found true satisfaction.
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