THE FOOTBALL HERO
Will I ever forget Thanksgiving, 1967? That was the day Mom went to watch my older brother Steve play in the most important football game of the year - The annual Thanksgiving game at Paulsboro High School. Mom always said she liked her children to be in the limelight. She didn’t care what reason you were in it, just so long as you were. She would tell us “If you’re going to steal, steal the Hope diamond. Don’t go to jail for some petty crime.” Not that she was encouraging any of us into a life of crime, she just wanted us to think big.
The Thanksgiving game at Paulsboro High School was big. The entire town would turn out to cheer on the closest thing to gladiators any of them would ever see. The fans crossed generational lines, as fathers and uncles who had played on the team in years past now sat in the stands cheering on their hardy offspring.
My brother Steve was a football star, and Mom was justly proud of him. She would go to Miller’s store and buy him a steak and prepare it for him on Saturday mornings before the big game (and in Paulsboro, every game was big). The rest of us kids fended for ourselves for breakfast, eating cereal or whatever else we could make. Which was strange, since Mom did virtually every other thing for us, all day, every day.
Her day would start while it was still dark out, and she would first brew herself a pot of coffee so strong it would kill a bear. People used to use her coffee as a cure for constipation. Seriously. To deal with all those kids (12 total, and it seemed when one moved out, she’d have two more), I guess she needed that artificial stimulant. The Pall Mall was next. Non-filtered. Next to rolling up sulfur in paper and smoking that, this cigarette had to be the strongest thing a human being could ingest into their lungs. I remember the first secret puff I ever took on one of her (stolen) Pall Malls. I thought my ears would explode. I think Mom smoked about three packs of these a day. I guess we kind of got on her nerves. Dad and us. Between Mom’s Pall Malls, and Dad with his three pack a day Camel non-filters habit, it truly is a wonder we kids didn’t all die of second hand smoke inhalation by the time we were twelve. But if we had their lives, there’s no telling what we would be smoking.
After her breakfast of Maxwell House and Pall Malls, her day would begin. With the radio on all day as her constant companion, she would begin her chores.
There were few pleasures my parents really got to enjoy, basically living a life of sacrifice that revolved around all their children. So it’s understandable that perhaps they might live a little vicariously through those children.
Mom certainly did when it came to football. Those weekly gridiron contests became the highlight of her life. She would sit in the stands, as proud as a peacock, as everyone around her pointed out that Steve was HER son.
This was HER moment in the spotlight, as well as his.
But on Thanksgiving day, 1967, that spotlight’s glare didn’t feel too comfortable for Mom.
No need for embarrassing details. I don’t know who won or lost the game (though I’m sure if Paulsboro had won, Mom wouldn’t have carried on so long or so loud). In fairness to my brother Steve, his scholastic football record speaks for itself. He was an outstanding player. He was the recipient of many awards and trophies, and received a college scholarship for football. (When he came home in later years to retrieve his boxes of awards and trophies, he discovered Mom had thrown them out. Hey, never mind the glory days, what have you done for me lately? Mom was not sentimental. At least not in that way. Today’s trophies are tomorrow’s trash, in her mind.)
Evidently, at one point in the game, my brother had fumbled the ball. This, combined with the loss, and all of it occurring at the Thanksgiving game, was more than Mom could bear.
We were all seated around the Thanksgiving table, the golden brown bird waiting to be carved by my Dad. Mom had gotten up and put the thing in the oven around four a.m., a turkey that tipped the scales at about twenty pounds or more.
In previous Thanksgivings (ones where the home team didn’t lose, and where her son hadn’t fumbled the ball), Mom would regale us with her story of how when she was a girl, she had a pet chicken, which she raised from a chick. Her family having been dirt poor (an expression I learned from her), one Thanksgiving her father slaughtered the pet chicken and served it as their Thanksgiving dinner. She claimed she couldn’t eat a bite of her beloved friend.
But this Thanksgiving, Mom was not in a good mood. Apparently, she had been sitting in the bleachers surrounded by several people who knew her (it being a small town), and even by some of her high school classmates. So when Steve fumbled the football, she had nowhere to hide. Some of the grumbling fans pointed out (loudly) that it was HER son who made the fumble. My mother must have wanted to die. And then Paulsboro loses. The Thanksgiving game.
I can only imagine what the fans said loudly then.
Mom was strangely quiet as we all gathered for the annual feast. Steve was seated at the corner of the table, feeling miserable. The storm was gathering. Even Dad, usually not at a loss for words, was silent. Everyone was walking on eggshells around my Mom.
She was going around the table, serving everyone. I can still see her with the big metal pot of mashed potatoes. When she got to Steve, she let loose.
“Why?! Why did you fumble that ball!?” she demanded loudly.
Steve, of course, did not answer. Mom took a big hunk of mashed potatoes and slapped it on his plate. “Why!?” she yelled.
“Louise…..leave him alone…..” my Dad started to say, trying to calm her down.
“Everybody was there!” Mom continued, loud enough to make everyone nervous.
She named some of the people she knew who had sat around her. “They all knew you were MY son!”
“Louise!” Dad continued in vain…..”Leave him alone…….It’s just a game……”
Dad was from Minersville, Pennsylvania, and though he lived in Paulsboro for many years, married a local girl, and raised a family there, he was not FROM Paulsboro. Unless you were raised there, and most especially attended the high school (never mind graduating), you were an outsider. Dad couldn’t care less for the town, the high school, or the football team.
But Mom was Paulsboro through and through. Her parents were from Paulsboro. Steve’s coach was her classmate when she was a student at Paulsboro High.
As she finished serving everyone, she continued her loud tirade. “Why!? Why did you fumble the ball?! Why!!?” she practically screamed.
My brother had committed the cardinal sin. It had little to do with football, or fumbling the ball, or the team losing the game. He had embarrassed HER. When he looked bad, SHE looked bad. And he had embarrassed her in front of HER people, in front of HER town.
Mom’s biggest rule was, she didn’t care how we acted at home, as long as we were on our best behavior when we were out. When we were among the outside world, we were a reflection of HER to that outside world. She often told us if we were ever arrested, to not even call home, because we would rot in jail. We all believed she meant it.
The rest of that Thanksgiving dinner is a fuzzy memory. Mom eventually got over it (she was never one to let things bother her for long). No sense crying over spilled milk, she always said. Her life had its share of many spilled gallons, but her optimism always carried her through, and that was a quality she infected us all with. Because while she could be a terrifying critic, and your harshest judge, she also had a way of making each kid feel like they were the most gifted, most talented individual in the world (whether it were true or not). She would instill a confidence that bordered on cockiness.
Her children were her jewels, she always said. She wanted them to shine. My brother Steve went on to two more years of high school gridiron glory, receiving great press, accolades and trophies. Then he got a football scholarship to Temple University. To my knowledge, he never fumbled another football.
At least not at the home games.
Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Kopko
This page was last edited on 03/3/2007