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  • Ray Bentley

Spring Ball Fever - Short Story by Ray Bentley

The sight of budding trees, blossoming flowers, and greening grass seldom brings football to one’s mind. Unless, of course, you are referring to spring football drills, and unless one’s soul is Maize and Blue. For the live-and-die U of M football fan the annual spring game is just the booster shot needed for survival until summer camp gets started.

I set the cruise control at sixty-seven and settled back into the plush driver’s seat of Thompson’s new Buick to listen to his rap. I always drove on these expeditions; Thomps liked his beers.

“Just point her in the direction of Ann Arbor, ol’ Jer-buddy. She’ll know the way.” He patted the dash with one hand and popped the top off a can of Bud with the other. “Yeah, baby! Ol’ Bo’s gonna have those Maize 'N Blue boys hoppin’ and poppin’ today. Man, life don’t get no better than this, Jer. The sun is shining, the cold beers are flowing and the Wolverines are playing some ball!” He held his can of Bud up in a toast to the football gods before obliging a long pull. I can’t say I have ever seen my boy happier. I was all grins myself.

I smiled at the familiarity, if not predictability, of his song. Thomps had been singing this exact same tune for the past five years on our annual road trip to the Michigan spring football game. He never seemed to tire when it came to his Maize ‘N Blue. He’d talk excitedly – nonstop – the entire three-hour ride, romanticizing the illustrious history of Michigan Football while slipping in and out of his best Bob Ufer voice. I had to admit, he was pretty good. Hell, he should be, considering all the practice he got.

“There’s the mighty General Bo, bless his Maize ‘N Blue soul. Once again, he’s led these stout lads to yet another Big Ten victory. Start cooking dinner, Millie, the mighty Meeechigan Wolverines have done it again!”

When Thomps occasionally paused for a breath or took to guzzling his Bud, Puking Carl would pipe up from the back seat. Puking Carl talked in a high, nasally voice and earned his nickname from his feet-patting, high-pitched, squealing-style of puking; an act he invariably performed during these types of excursions. People had been known to come from miles around to hear Carl do his thing.

“Gimmee another friggin’ beer,” Carl belched into Thomps’ ear. Thomps always kept the cooler up front right between his legs. This way he could hold Carl back, if only a little.

“You better slow down,” I said, “Or your ignorant ass will be tap dancing and squeal-puking by halftime.”

But Puking Carl ignored me. Spirits were too high to let anything bother us on this glorious occasion. And Thomps was right on all counts – the sun was shining when we arrived on that gorgeous spring day. The beer was never colder and it flowed like a mighty river. And the Maize ‘n Blue were playing football in The Big House in front of over 30,000 of their most loyal fans in a game they couldn’t lose. It was heaven on earth.

We could already feel the electricity in the air when we arrived at the Big House a couple hours early. Thomps liked to go sit by the player entrance and maybe catch a couple of stragglers for an autograph or just a good word. We followed his lead as he pushed his way fearlessly through a loosely gathered crowd to the gate where the Wolverines enter the facility. Thomps quickly befriended the security guard who was quite a character himself and they both talked a mile a minute about the current Wolverine Football situation. Thomps was in his glory engrossed in and speaking his native tongue – Meeechigan Football-eese. He never saw the behemoth lineman fast approaching from behind.

Apparently this big guy was cutting it close because he was in a big hurry to get into the locker room. Thomps turned just as the goliath blew past him through the gate to the wave of the security guy. I’m not sure if the guy even touched Thomps but he spun around and flopped to the ground like he had just been tossed out of the saloon. He had a sick smile on his face and yelled from the ground.

“I just got steamrolled by Big John Evans!”

He quickly hopped to his feet and grabbed the chain-link fence yelling after Big John, thanking him and wishing him luck. He turned to me on full beam.

“Nobody, and I mean nobody is gonna believe this story, Jer-buddy! Holy crap! I just took Big John Evan’s best shot – a clothesline hit from behind. Haha! Whooo-hoo! I always told you I could’ve played this game.” The gathering crowd gave Thomps a round of applause and the man was in his glory.

He was so pleased with himself I had to let his delusion reign. The day was too perfect. Besides, I had never seen my boy Thomps so fired up. As soon as the scrimmage began he had our whole section rolling by calling out the play-by-play in his Ufer voice almost at the top of his lungs. Puking Carl, with a glazed-over visage, kept pounding beers as if on a mission from Fielding Yost. He sat next to Thomps providing the “off-color” commentary, screaming falsetto obscenities with utter glee.

“General Bo has gathered his troops for a sunny Saturday afternoon of fighting drills and fighting skills. Today, the Maize will take on the Blue! We can’t lose! Sit back and enjoy this one. There’s Ricky “The Peach” Leach up under center – the guts and glue of the Maize ‘N Blue. It sounds like there are over 100,000 strong here in the Big House on this glorious spring Meeechigan day!”

“Fuckin’ A!” screamed Puking Carl.

I sat back and took it all in overwhelmed with a feeling of complete contentment. This was what life was all about. I could even make out Bo through the field glasses taking in the action from the press box. When I mentioned it to Thomps he knocked the beer out of Carl’s hand as he frantically grabbed for the binoculars to catch a glimpse of the General for himself.

I couldn’t imagine what could make for a better day until I saw heads turning in wonder in the line for the concession stand. What the hell was that high-pitched retching sound emanating from the Men’s Room at halftime? I ducked my head into the room and could see his feet pounding the pavement as he retched in one of the stalls amid horrified laughter. I felt like a prophet; Puking Carl was in rare form.

To cap off the day we stormed the field after the game hoping for a whiff, glimpse, or even feel of one of our Wolverine heroes. Thomps had brought along his autograph book and it was with undeniable, fierce determination that he set out to garner some signatures. I caught up to him as he bullied his way through a group of young kids who were surrounding Big John Evans, a senior-to-be starting defensive tackle for the mighty Maize ‘N Blue. The very same man who had almost decapitated Thomps on his way into the stadium – to hear Thomps tell it, anyway. Thomps was nearly breathless in awe as he found himself in front of the gigantic Evans who towered over him nonchalantly gnawing on his mouthpiece, silently signing autographs.

“Oh. My. God! I can’t believe it,” said the dreamy-eyed Thomps. “Big John, Big John! I saw you before the game! Remember me? You almost ran me over!”

Big John slowly raised one eye to give Thomps a quick once-over before pursing his lips and shaking his head. Negative. Thomps didn’t seem to notice.

“Tell me, how does it feel? How does it feel to be right down here on this sacred ground, in front of all these fans, to be wearing the Maize ‘N Blue, to be playing at Meeecheegan, the greatest football school in the world for the greatest coach of all time, the General himself, Bo Schembechler? Tell me, Big John, How does it feel?”

Thomps held his breathe and clutched his autograph book to his heart staring up into the eyes of the giant gladiator. I don’t think he even realized he used his Ufer voice.

Evans was bleeding from the elbow and the front of his football pants were matted in dirt and dried blood. His fingers were crooked, bloodied, and covered in dirty tape. His jersey was torn and grass-stained. With his face streaked with eye-black and sweat, he stood evenly, still chewing on his mouthpiece. He took his massive taped and padded right hand and put his thumb over his right nostril and farmer-blew a load of snot onto Thomps’ shoes. He stood tall and then looked down at Thomps square in the eye and drawled, “I’m just glad it’s fucking over, dude.” With that he turned and headed for the locker room.

All the air rushed out of Thomps who deflated in front of my very eyes. It was sad, although hilarious, and I burst out laughing. Poor Thomps, who had never played a snap of organized football in his life, was dumbfounded and crushed. He didn’t really understand what the game was all about with the constant pain, pressure, and potential for injury. To him it was all power, praise, and prestige.

I, who had played more snaps than I could remember, knew the hell of twenty days of head-knocking Spring Football with a mad-dog coach cajoling you into becoming a tough, hard-nosed S.O.B. I understood Big John’s sentiments exactly.

Thomps was somber and sober on the ride home. Puking Carl, after a postgame encore performance, was spent and crashed in the back seat. As for me, I busted out laughing every few miles at the thought of how expertly, if not unknowingly, Big John Evans had burst Thomps’ romantic bubble – and snotted up his shoes. Thomps had been debating the value of the mucous coated shoes and had yet to wipe them off. He had carefully put them in the trunk and was in his stocking feet. When Puking Carl tried to steal a booger as his own private memento a fist fight nearly broke out.

I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect day. Carl was semi-conscious. Thomps was pouting and nursing his bruised Maize ‘N Blue soul. However, he perked up when we turned down my street and made an effort to salvage the day and perhaps recapture some of the magic. He had a little hop in his step as he came around the car to climb into the driver’s seat. He looked up at me with a twisted, hallow smile.

“We sure had us an awesome time didn’t we, Jer?”

I didn’t have the heart to farmer-blow my boy again so I just looked him in the eye and in my best Big John Evans voice let him have it.

“I’m just glad it’s fuckin’ over, dude.”

He was stunned and silent as I laughed my way into the house. Already, I couldn’t wait for the Wolverines’ training camp to open in August.

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