Sandlot Games of Dreams
By BOB VICKREY
Many years ago, and far away from the bright lights of packed football stadiums filled with cheering fans, there was another annual ritual playing out more quietly on sandlots in just about every Texas town across the state.
Thousands of boys like me, who had never played varsity football, gathered for our own version of the game on deserted and dusty schoolyard fields.
Houston’s scorching, humid summer months were hardly a deterrent for the boys of our town to assemble in the late afternoons and engage in competitive games of touch football.
By early August there was already a sense of anticipation in the air about the upcoming fall football season, and many of us gathered as if we were training for the first game—even though few of us were actually members of any organized team.
We lived in Galena Park, a typically football-obsessed Texas town where most of its residents were passionately preoccupied with the fortunes of their high school team. The Yellow Jackets had begun a long run of success during the 1950’s, and eventually emerged as a statewide power a decade later. For many of us, that success led to a lifelong passion for the game.
There was little organization necessary for these sandlot games. As the summer days began to cool down to temperatures just below heatstroke level, young men of all ages and sizes began congregating on the sun-drenched field during the late afternoon and began instinctively tossing footballs in small informal groups.
More and more cars arrived along Keene Street as if there had been a formal game announcement issued. Eventually, someone stepped forward with a challenge for a pickup game. Teams were set, and rules were made to accommodate the size of the assembled group.
The “regulars” included college boys home for the summer, local kids who commuted to the nearby community college, and those who still lived in the neighborhood and worked at the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. Many of the games featured hometown boys who were scholarship players at various Texas colleges and universities.
The games were usually played in spirited fun, but the smiles and the levity shared between players often concealed the genuine intensity of the competition that was prevalent just beneath the laidback veneer. Many of the participants were longtime friends who enjoyed the renewed camaraderie the afternoon games afforded. However, secret rivalries stirred quietly beneath the surface, and players attempted to avoid the appearance of playing at full throttle.
Each afternoon game offered new surprises as to the talent level that might possibly surface on a particular day. I remember one game that featured two prominent college quarterbacks from Southwest Conference teams.
During one summer game, our attention was diverted to the street when a conspicuously new Oldsmobile Toronado pulled up curbside and out stepped a college football star that everyone on the field immediately recognized. He had become our town’s first All-American and had shattered several all-time college receiving records. He subsequently signed a lucrative contract with the newest NFL franchise team, the Miami Dolphins.
The game was suspended for several minutes as he was greeted by well-wishers who gathered around him like the returning conquering local hero he had become. He told us tales of his whirlwind year and about the trips to all-star games around the country while being wined and dined by sports personalities we had only seen on television.
Any success we enjoyed during those sandlot games often made us consider the “what if” factor and left us wondering if we might have had the “right stuff” to make the grade as varsity players. During those summer games, we secretly measured ourselves against the college stars whom we competed against, and often deluded ourselves with visions of grandeur. However, we knew deep within that most of us lacked their drive and passion for the game—not to mention, much of their innate skills and talent.
We played out our fantasy on our own “Field of Dreams” each summer on the hard-scrabble sandlot turf, and with the exception of a scattered group of girlfriends and wives on the sidelines, there were no cheering throngs to witness our exploits. We played solely for the spirited competition and for our sheer love of the game.
And for many of us, that would prove to be more than enough.
Bob Vickrey is a writer whose columns appear in several newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.