Confessions of a Middle School Gridiron Warrior

As I drifted into my sixth hour of fantasy football drafting the other night, a wild and random thought suddenly hit me.

I used to play this game. For real.

Full disclosure: I didn't actually play football, per se, but I did put on a football uniform that matched 30 other guys' and participated in an activity that somewhat resembled football for four years.

Oh, not my high school years, of course. I was a Middle School Gridiron Warrior.

My town had kiddie football that was played in a municipal park on Saturdays under the brutal Midwestern sun. My game in grade school was Little League baseball, and I was pretty good.

I'd always loved watching the Chicago Bears play on television ever since the 1985 Super Bowl team basically dominated the state of Illinois for three years, at least until William "the Fridge" Perry's morbidly bloated waistline and coach "Iron" Mike Ditka's insane temper blew the whole thing up into a Man Opera of spite and recrimination.

However, even at age 8 I knew that kiddie football was not where it was at.

First of all, it was expensive, with equipment costs pushing into the $100 range (a fair amount of cash for a struggling Midwestern family in the Gipper years) and, well, it looked boring.

Kiddie football made no sense then, and it doesn't now. It looks like a hundred helmet-clad goldfish swarming around a flake of fish food.

I happily kept hold of my Wilson mitt and honed my middle-infield skills with my uncle, Glenn, in my backyard.

Yet, the allure of the gridiron proved too much to ignore, and I finally persuaded my parents to let me play beginning in fifth grade.

By that time, the boys of Casey, Ill., had grown lanky and strong enough to resemble a football team and not said warring goldfish.

I trotted out onto the field for my first practice, all 65 pounds of me, and proceeded to bumble and stumble around enough to gain the attention of my coach.

I remember him — his name was Art, which is the coolest middle-school-ball-coach name of all time — coming up to me after one early practice and asking me if I wanted to play on offense. I'd originally opted for defense because I worshiped the Bears' fierce quarterback-maiming corps of Mike Singletary, Richard Dent and Wilbur Marshall.

"I'm not really sure you can be a running back, Chris, but you're a hardnoser, and we want that on offense," Art said.

To my mind, "hardnoser" is enshrined as the Best Compliment of All Time Ever. I use it only in select situations when I want someone to know they've deeply impressed me. When my pop survived a massive thoracic aneurysm and came out stronger on the other side, I told him he was a hardnoser. When I heard the first monster riffs off Soundgarden's "Superunknown" album, I said to myself, "These dudes are hardnosers."

If at some point I'm seeing a girl who could be marriage material and she asks what it is I love most about her, I will say, "I love that you're a hardnoser."

I didn't fly on offense, so Art sent me hardnosing back on defense, where I served as a functional defensive end. I loved chasing quarterbacks. Problem was, I rarely caught them. Instead, the top-notch players on the opposite end from me always managed to make the big plays.

I expressed my frustration to Art, and he bluntly told me that I was a placeholder out there, but an effective one.

"You see, Chris, Stuart and Brian are always gonna be in the middle of things because of their strength and speed," Art said. "But we need other guys like you who aren't afraid to get hit and try hard every play."

I was horrified by the idea that I'd never measure up with the big boys, but this quickly faded when I realized that I was a full-time starter and that you only earned that in Art's system if you weren't afraid. The bench was full of teammates who might have been better athletes but who couldn't take the psychotic next step of throwing themselves at bigger, stronger, faster dudes play after play in some futile attempt to swipe at the heels of the quarterback.

I knew I had no future as a starter on the high-school team, but I thought it would be fun to try out for the special-teams unit. The thought of flying down the field like a methed-up wasp on kickoffs and punts was appealing.

And then I showed up to the first-day meeting before tryouts. My classmates had grown into thick-necked behemoths in the course of that faithful summer between eighth grade and freshman year. I remained a bony flint hidden in a Metallica shirt. I wasn't afraid to take a little punishment or to give a little, but dying at a young age "… that was a different matter.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or email

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