(Note: Gerry Callahan’s Thanksgiving column first ran in the Boston Herald in 1992.)
The alarm will go off even earlier than usual tomorrow, but somehow it won’t be so tough to get up and out of bed. You couldn’t sleep any later if you tried. You’ll be awake half the night and into the morning, staring at the ceiling and anxiously looking ahead to the big game.
The last football game of your life.
You will go to bed tonight with butterflies in your stomach, and they must have had babies while you slept because they will be doing a number on you in the morning. You look outside and see the rain, but you really don’t mind. It could be the last time you ever play in the mud. It should be fun. You try to eat some breakfast, but then you hear the car horn. Your ride is here. Grab the bag. Time to go.
At home, they wish you luck for the last time. Your older brother yells at you to kick some butt today. You knew that was coming. His team lost a tough one on Thanksgiving Day, and he never will forget it.
When you get to the locker room, there is a different kind of tension in the air. The boom box is a little softer, the small talk a little quieter. You put on the pads a little slower because you might never do it again. There were days when you thought you’d never miss this dirty, smelly, sweaty locker room, but this is definitely not one of those days. You’ll do a lot of things in the next few years, go to college, get married, have kids, start a life, but you’ll never do this again. You’ll never buckle up your chinstrap, look across the huddle at your best friend, and just go out and play hard together. Now you know: You’ll miss it a lot.
You are a senior in high school, and a couple of your teammates hope to play next year in college. They hope this is just a step, the first chapter in a long, glorious football career. There was a time when you had the same goal, the dream, but now, deep down inside, you’re pretty sure it will never happen. This is it, the end of the line. This is your famous final scene on a football field. This is Thanksgiving Day, and for the boys under the pads and helmets, there never will be anything like it.
Tomorrow, it’s just you and your buddies, playing for your families, your school, your girlfriends and your hometown. You have played nine or 10 games this season, but you never saw a crowd like the one you will see tomorrow morning. All the college kids are home. Everyone has the day off. Nothing else is going on. Just this. Your game. Your day. They will be lined up in the end zones and watching from atop the nearby hill and squeezing into the stands on both sides of the field. As you run from the locker room to the field before the game, you will see the line at the ticket booth, a line that stretches back three or four generations.
In that line, you will see the guys who played here in the years ahead of you. Some of them played here before you were born, maybe even before your father was born. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see the kid who wore your number before you did.
Remember how you looked up to him a couple of years ago, how you only wanted to someday play like him? Tomorrow, he will be looking out at you, cheering for you. Tomorrow, finally, you’ll be playing like him. And take a look along the sideline. Maybe a young kid is going to be looking up at you. Maybe he hopes to wear your number next year. And next year you’ll be in the stands, with your buddies and your memories of this day, the last time you wore the pads. You’ll see him out there. You’ll cheer. You’ll know just how he feels.
Everything looks a little different, a little clearer and brighter, like the first time you walked into Fenway Park [map]. The grass is greener, the uniforms cleaner. It’s like you’re watching a movie, and you’re in it. It doesn’t even feel like a football game until the first time you run down on a kickoff and smash heads with a kid from the next town. It feels like you are standing in the center of the universe, with all eyes upon you, as if nothing more vital is happening anywhere in the world.
When he calls you all together for his pregame speech, your coach lets it all hang out. As his speeches go, this is the heavy artillery. He reminds you that everyone is watching. He says this is the one game they will remember forever. He chokes back tears, and at least for now, you won’t wonder if they are real. You eat it up. You feel like you could carry the gym on your back as you explode out of the locker room and onto the field.
The game flies by as if someone has his hand on the fast-forward button. You take a couple of good hits and give a few back, but nothing hurts. Not on this day. The game goes back and forth and down to the wire, like they always do on Thanksgiving Day. Your team pulls it out at the end, but as you walk off the field, you don’t remember much of anything. It’s an exhilarating blur. You hug your teammates, you shake a lot of hands, and you pull off the pads and the uniform for the last time. You head home for Thanksgiving dinner, a little sore, a little tired, a little older.
You make plans with your buddies for later that night, but you know it will never be the same. You’ll never get the feeling back you had out there on the field. Next year, you will sleep a little later. You’ll get in line and buy a ticket and watch the game from the hill.
You’ll look for your old number, and you’ll feel pretty good if the kid can play at all.
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