In Wakefield we played six-man football because we couldn’t find the bodies for a larger team. The six men played offense, defense, running, passing, kicking, receiving, extra points and goal-line stands. The players stayed on the field till they were tired, crippled, or died. At the half they played in the band, then they worked in the refreshment stand until the second half started. Six-man football was not for sissies. As full-service football players, we were told it was best to have a level playing field. I believed that, too, until we played football at Longford.
While the schools in the league were small and had most everything they needed, the standards for their sports facilities varied widely. Milford had a great basketball gymnasium, and played winning basketball. Riley had a fine baseball field and a good team. Wakefield had two football fields, a practice field near the school, and one with lights, a luxury at the time. Then there was Longford. It had a long history in football, but received a lot of complaints about their facilities. Their field was not in a pasture, it was a pasture, and had all the features required of a pasture, – cows, grass, a fence, and a gate. Longford’s pasture bordered the section-line road just east of town.
The north-south oriented field was the basis for some complaints, as the north team had to play facing the winter sun. In the off-season the owner used the field to graze a herd of Aberdeen Angus, then he leased it to the community for football season. Some visiting players resisted rolling on the ground following a herd of angus. They believed this gave the Longford team a substantial home-field advantage, as they rolled in it every day at practice. Some of their players not only adapted to, but seemed to relish the experience with a perverse sense of anticipation. These were mostly the farm kids.
Each summer Longford assembled a committee of volunteers to convert the pasture to a football field. It was a substantial task. They were to clear the area, cut the grass, orient and lay out the field, mark off the lines, and erect the goals before the first game. The high school had portable goalposts which could be set-up quickly and located anywhere in the pasture.
Everyone in town had served on the committee at one time or another. It’s members always included a farmer with a wagon and a shovel, a housewife with a station wagon or pickup truck, and a third person appointed at large from the community. The farmer was to remove the cow-chips, both fresh and dry, from the area. He could redeposit the droppings on a remote part of the pasture, preferably downwind, or take it home for his private use. Then he was to cut the grass.
The housewife was responsible for refreshments on game day and sold her wares from the tailgate of her station wagon or pickup truck. She was given special parking privileges in the pasture near midfield. Her sign said “Refreshments and Restroom Information”. For those interested in the restrooms, she pointed them to a grove of trees near the creek, a quarter of a mile south of the pasture. These facilities worked well in emergencies. At the half a potty posse of ladies would gather to make the trip to and from the grove, like the ladies always do.
One complaint widely circulated was that the field was not square, but rather was laid out on a bias. The coaches in the league even circulated a diagram of the Longford fields in 1945 and 1947, the two years generating the greatest number of complaints. These diagrams are shown below.
During both years, the outside dimensions of the fields were perfect. For the discerning eye, dimension A in 1945 is only 72 yards, while dimension B is 88 yards, a difference of 16 yards. So, in 1945 the shortest distance from goal to goal would always be along the A dimension, or from the right to the left side of the field going north. On kickoffs it was best to aim the ball to the right corner of the field, requiring the opponent to run the longest distance to the goal. These differences were academic nonsense as perceived by the folks in Longford. “Play ball” they said.
When we arrived for the game in 1948, we knew it would be exciting, and eagerly anticipated analyzing the biases in their field. Surprisingly, the field was reasonably square, and was totally free from cow paths and dung droppings. The committee had done its work well. The field’s topography was a startling feature, over which the committee was powerless. A graphic will illustrate this best.
The field was almost level on the extreme northeast corner, then went downhill to the west or south. When heading north or east you were always going uphill. There was a 16 foot drop from one corner of the field to the other, with the steepest drop being on the southwest corner.
As all kids know, when you run downhill you can generate a good head of steam in a hurry. It takes less energy, and you can lose control if you go too fast. Going uphill is totally different. You can never go uphill as fast as you can go downhill, and it takes a lot more energy. Given these fundamental issues, you might envision that running plays would work best going downhill, and pass plays would work better going uphill. For instance, it is pretty tough to run uphill dragging an opponent with you, while dragging him downhill is not nearly as hard. When headed uphill, it may be better to pass the ball.
The dynamics shift once again on defense. With a head of steam, the aggressive player going downhill can maul a player struggling up the same hill. I was able to confirm this early in the game.
With Longford having the home field advantage, you might believe they had studied these fundamentals, practiced uphill and downhill, and would have perfected the appropriate adjustments. As it often turns out, the people coaching the team were the same ones who designed the field.
On starting the game, Longford won the toss, and chose to receive. Since they would have the ball, we chose to defend the high end of the field, which held most of the advantages. This meant they would be running or passing uphill. We kicked off to the right corner of the field, which put them on the lowest part of the field. On the first series of plays, they chose to run the left end, requiring that their players run up the steepest part of the hill. The quarterback handed the ball off to the fullback, then he and the halfback ran interference for him as they trudged up the hill.
As the hill was behind me, I was able to acquire a considerable head of steam. With both speed and momentum on my side, I was able to flatten the first man, then the second, and finally executed a perfect tackle on the ball carrier, who was still struggling against the hill. I had single-handedly wiped out half of Longford’s six-man football team. It was an awesome spectacle, and a memory I will never forget. This feat had nothing to do with size, as I was 5′ 7″ tall, and weighed 140 pounds. It was clearly the byproduct of the peculiar dynamics of Longford’s football field. Fortunately for me, the Longford team thought I was just a mean S.O.B. and they chose to avoid me the rest of the game.
I learned several things from the experience:
1. Football in Longford was never played on the level.
2. In football it is OK to be a mean S.O.B. It is even better if you acquire this reputation early in the game.
3. An un-level football field has some very nice innate qualities, while the virtues of a level playing field have been greatly exaggerated.
We went home with our expected victory, but the highlight for me was that one play in the first series of downs. Like the Grinch’s heart, my head grew three sizes that day.