Touch Football

It is an unseasonably warm Saturday morning in mid-October. The phone rings. An unfamiliar voice asks, “Is this Charles…?” He hesitates a moment on my last name, as if he’s reading it off a card. A telemarketer, I think. “Yes,” I say, as my mind races to come up with some excuse why I can’t take the call.

“Well,” he says, “this is Charles Glover.”

I have not heard this name in ten years, maybe more, but I recognize it almost immediately. Charles Glover is one of the lost boys, and the image I have of him at that moment is of him running. Darting in and out of human traffic. Like quicksilver, he ran, his feet hardly touching the ground, a football in one outstretched hand, as if he were going to hand it off to anyone who got close. But he never did and we hardly ever did. Instead, once he worked up a head of steam, no one could catch him, and the outstretched ball was just a tease, a cruel taunt. “You think you can catch me, sucker? You think you can take this ball away from me? Well, go ahead and try…”

Ten years or so ago, Charlie Glover ran so far, so fast, that none of us has seen him since. There were all sorts of rumors. He was in jail. He was strung out on drugs. He was living in Texas, training to become a nurse. But now he’s back and I think I know why.

“It’s great to hear from you,” I say, and I mean it, as we exchange pleasantries excitedly, as if we were long, lost best friends. But the truth is, I hardly knew him. Where he grew up. What his real name was. Where he went to school. If he was married. What he did for a living. But then that’s the way it was for most of us. The less we knew, it seemed, the closer we became. What I did know was that for some twenty odd years, rain or shine, no matter what the temperature—I recall playing when the mercury dipped as low as single digits—every Sunday morning, from late August to early June, he and I and two to three dozen strangers would gather in Central Park to play touch football. We were not friends. We were barely acquaintances. No phone calls were exchanged during the week to confirm the game. No socializing before or after the game. In fact, it took years before we even knew each other’s names. Instead, we were known by nicknames, like “Acid,” or “Crazy David,” or “Tex,” or by a random number we might have on our athletic shirt. Occasionally, a famous person, like H. Rap Brown, Jim Bouton and Geraldo Rivera (who became somewhat of a regular) wandered by and got into the game.  But mostly it was just a bunch of guys who led anonymous lives.

But not on Sunday. On Sunday they were feared, or awed, or mocked, depending mostly on that day’s performance.

And tomorrow, Sunday, we are scheduled to hold our tenth annual reunion game in Central Park. That, I think, is why I am speaking with Charlie Glover. He is calling to chat about the upcoming game. But I am wrong.

It began almost thirty years ago on a very similar October Sunday morning. I had just finished a stint at graduate school, had moved back to New York and, slinging my cleats over my shoulder, I headed into Central Park, looking for a touch football game. In a large expanse known as Sheep Meadow, I found more than I was looking for. It was an amazing spectacle. A full-scale, 11 on 11 touch football game with maybe 10 to 15 people on the sidelines waiting to get in. Having never played in anything bigger than an intramural game of eight on a side, I was at first astounded, then hypnotized. I wanted in. But there was no room. The next week I returned, and with my cleats dangling from my shoulder so they knew I meant business, I stood on the sidelines, watching. Finally, when one of the players was injured, I noticed someone motioning toward me. “Hey, you. Wanna play?”

And so it began. Every Sunday for twenty years, I played—I was afraid to miss a day, lest I be forgotten and someone else be called in from the sidelines and usurp my position. The game was democratic that way: if you were among the first twenty-two there, you were chosen in, more than enough incentive to get to bed a little earlier Saturday night so that you could make the cut.

After a while, the players, the camaraderie, meant more to me than the game. I never socialized with these men, yet I did get to know them, sometimes better than I knew my own friends. I heard them talk about their lives, their families, their jobs, their hopes and dreams, and it wasn’t all pleasant. Some spoke about how they cheated on their wives, others made lewd remarks as women passed within sight of the game, others told tall tales of what they had accomplished in life or, even sadder, what they hoped to accomplish. They grew and I grew along with them. I saw some become successful in their chosen fields, like a lawyer whose nose I accidentally broke during a game became a judge and has handled some high-profile cases; while others disappeared into poverty or even worse drugs.

It became apparent that, as odd as it seems, the game really was about life and death. Players had children, bringing them out to the field, first strapped to their backs, then in strollers. One player, an older fellow named Jerome Snyder who was a fairly well-known magazine illustrator, actually died on the field, the victim of a heart attack. Another player, a cab driver, was murdered in his cab, and several of us, who never knew him as anyone but Dom, somberly attended his funeral. Another older player, who had been playing in the game much longer than I, suffered a heart attack on the field. The next week his son appeared with a football for us to sign and word that his father was in the hospital to have a bypass operation. Miraculously, the next year he was back, playing again.

The connection between us was palpable and there was little doubt that if I needed help off the field I could count on any one of these men. I had proof. “Acid,” whose real name was Sean (well, not really his given name, but one he’d chosen for himself,) had trouble holding a job. And no wonder. He was fired from one job for tacking up the Communist manifesto on the office bulletin board. He took a job at a newsstand in Times Square. One night, he got into an argument with a customer, which soon escalated into violence. He was thrown into jail. One of his cellmates happened to be another fellow who played in the game. They put their heads together and called a third player, a lawyer, who came down in the middle of the night and got them out.

Several years back, I was asked by an editor friend to write an article about the game and, reluctantly, I did. Several months later I received a letter forwarded to me by the magazine. It was postmarked Jakarta, Indonesia, and it began this way: “If you’re the person I think you are, this is what you look like…And if you are, you’ve given me the best Christmas present I could have asked for.” He went on to say that he’d always bragged about playing in this strange touch football game in Central Park, but none of his friends believed him. But the other day, a friend of his who was in Cairo called him up and started reading him an article about a touch football game and a player described only as “Ralph, an artist, who played barefoot.” “That’s me,” he wrote.

Another lost boy.

We re-established contact and a few years later, when he heard we were planning a reunion game, he called me up and asked if he could spend the night on my couch. And so he did, he flew in from Indonesia arriving Saturday afternoon, slept on my couch that night, played in the game the next morning, and then flew back to Indonesia that evening.

“Will you be at the game tomorrow?” I asked Charlie. “What game?” he replied. It turned out that his call to me was purely coincidental—he was simply touching base with someone from his past, someone who represented better times for him. He knew nothing about the game or any of the other reunion games we’d had for that matter. I explained it to him. “I don’t have my cleats,” he said, after explaining that he’d been in Florida for the last few years and now he was back to take care of his ailing father. I told him it didn’t matter. I told him to just show up, and if he did decide to play, even without cleats, he’d still give us plenty of trouble.

I hung up the phone fairly certain that Charlie would make it to the game. That night I had trouble sleeping in anticipation, not only of seeing Charlie again, but at the thought of reliving, at least for a couple of hours, the glory of youth, not so much on the field but in the bond that I had established with these men over the years. I knew that seeing these men, playing along side them, our steps slowed at pretty much the same rate, would keep me going for at least another year.

By: Charles Salzberg


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