The Observatory

The Truth Shall Set You Laughing

Jeremiah Horrigan

Jeremiah Horrigan
Location
New Paltz, New York, USA
Birthday
February 04
Title
Worker
Company
Working Copy
Bio
Former Knight of the Altar, St. Martin's parish in South Buffalo, NY. Old enough to remember ducking-and-covering from the nukes that Sister Jeanne assured us were coming our way, defending Santa Claus until age 10, hating playing sports, wanting to fly, escaping to Westchester County for three years, re-escaping to Buffalo for most of high school, escaping to Fordham U long enough to drop out, escaping school, getting political, getting arrested, getting tried, convicted and released for crimes against the draft. Husband to Patty, father to Grady and Annie. Housepainter, cab driver, idiot, then newspaper reporter in Poughkeepsie, years of freelancing (Sports Illustrated, New York Times, Negligent Mother Magazine) and shameful indulgence, followed finally by 18 more years of reporting, column-writing, some awards, discoveries large and small along the way, including these: Sister Jeanne was full of beans, writing is good for the soul and I'm the luckiest man alive.

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Salon.com
Editor’s Pick
JULY 27, 2011 8:14AM

Getting Bombed: Football's Dream Job was My Nightmare

Rate: 16 Flag

The author, holding his breath, as kicker Booth Lusteg splits the uprights

NFL training camp will begin within days. That means football is back from the bargaining table. This makes me happy. But there was a time when the arrival of training camp was a  pure misery for me.

Many years ago, in  the summer of 1966, I was signed to a two-month no-cut contract with the Buffalo Bills. I was 16 years old, I weighed about as much a a pair of tackling dummies and I couldn't catch a football to save my life.  

I wrote about my brief career with the Bills in Sports Illustrated some 29 years ago. That story is contained below.  And here's the story behind the story: shortly after I sold the story -- it was my first freelance pitch, and first national sale  -- I quit my job at the local daily paper. I was ready for the Big Time. But the Big Time wasn't ready for me. I spent the next two years of my freelance career polishing my skills as a pitch letter-writer, to little avail.
 
So here's the original story, only mildly tinkered with, that didn't launch me in quite the direction I'd anticipated:
 
"The football hovered briefly in the muggy South Buffalo air and then began its end-over-end descent on the scrawny target on the street below. The target—me—regarded the pigskin as if it were a mortar shell heading for a point directly between my terror-filled, 10-year-old eyes. I stood frozen as the projectile fell. I couldn't catch a football to save my life. The ball slammed into the street behind me with a muffled whump. It left a tiny pockmark in the summer-softened asphalt and a gaping hole in the tattered fabric of my self-respect. From that moment on, I knew I'd never have a really satisfying relationship with a football.
 
Yet, in the summer of 1966, when I was 16, I was drafted by the Buffalo Bills.
 
My father was vice-president of public relations for the team. In an act of benevolent nepotism, he obtained for me the equivalent of a two-month, no-cut contract as a water boy at the Bills' summer training camp.
 
I didn't know much about pro ball, but I knew a water boy's duties involved more than water. I'd have to help clean the locker room, lay down miles of yard line and drive brokenhearted rookies to the airport. Another of my chores would be to catch footballs—lots of footballs.
 
I told my father he was making a big mistake. Why give the job to  the only 16-year-old within 100 miles who didn't want it? I wailed. He prevailed. I arrived at a camp in Blasdell, N.Y., encumbered by a sense of despair as heavy and palpable as a tackling dummy.
 
Passing drills were the worst. A quarterback would take one of about half a dozen balls and sling it to a receiver downfield. Within a few moments, a second receiver was off and reaching for a second ball. As a receiver trotted back to the line of scrimmage, he'd throw the ball to me. I was to catch the ball and add it to my small backlog, which I was then supposed to flip, one at a time, to the quarterback as he needed them. For most rookies, this procedure was about as difficult a task as lunch. For me, it was a return to the war zone of my youth.
 
Picture the scene. The quarterback has just thrown three bombs to three streaking receivers. They've made their grabs and are on their way back to the line. En route, two of them simultaneously launch high-flying bombs at me from about 40 yards out. While I'm deciding which one of the incoming missiles to avoid, the third guy ambles within 10 yards of me and looses an underhand bullet at my rib cage. "Yo!" he calls, which I later discovered is receiver talk for "Watch your ass, kid." Off to the left, the quarterback has exhausted his supply of footballs and frowns in my direction. "Hey," he says, which turned out to be quarterback language for "Where the hell are the balls, kid?" Meanwhile, bombs one and two are about to land. I decide to go for the bullet, which shoots painfully through my hands while the two bombs bounce on either side of me. The crowd of several hundred fans on hand sends up a sarcastic cheer. I feel like dying, but I hear some Southern-fried voice shout "Yo" in my direction, and the nightmare starts all over again.
 
And so it went for the first several weeks of practice. Kids my age would see me out on the field with heroes like Jack Kemp, Daryl Lamonica, Billy Shaw, Butch Byrd, George Saimes and Booker Edgerson. They must have wondered how such a gawky, bespectacled person had ever qualified to run with these superior beings. They knew they could do better, and they were right.
 
But, gradually, I realized I was getting better. I'd become the squad's best "rebounder." I still couldn't catch airborne footballs, but I'd learned how to snare a bouncing ball on a single hop. It got so that I developed a sixth sense for anticipating how the damn things would bounce, before they landed. This saved me a lot of running around and allowed me to keep the ammo flowing to the quarterbacks.
 
After a while it dawned on me that the rebounder's skills are unacknowledged in football. I had just decided to elevate rebounding footballs into an art form, when I tried to field a pitchout with my solar plexus.
 
Everything suddenly went blue. I don't remember hitting the ground. I opened my eyes to see the face of a very frightened rookie halfback, whose "Yo" I hadn't heard, imploring me to snap out of it. He giggled with relief when I got to my feet. The crowd, amused all summer by my inept cavorting, cheered when I stood up and trotted to the sidelines.
 
So it had finally happened. I'd been nailed in the gut and had lived to talk about it. I felt weirdly triumphant. I'd experienced football satori. I saw the pigskins for the airbags they really were. Dizzy with new insights, I realized it wasn't too late to overcome my fear of football and become an athlete rather than a target. No longer would I dodge footballs. Starting the next day, I'd catch them and gain a measure of honor.
 
It's amazing how a little oxygen deprivation can obliterate a person's sense of reality. The next morning I got murdered on the field. I was still a klutz. Every time I took a breath, my aching gut reminded me that those bags of air had rock-hard points that hurt like hell if improperly fielded. I played dodgeball that afternoon and for the duration of the summer.
 
These days, I like to watch the Bills play, now that they've recovered
from a long decade of decline that began the year I joined the team. But I still avoid the company of footballs. I know we'll never get along."
 
Postscript: The Bills went to the Super Bowl four times straight many years after my water boy days. Since those glory years, they've gone into decline again, battling year after year for third place in their four-team division, and usually losing. 
 
I still watch them, still sweat their every move. And every year at this time, wonder when I'm going to lose interest in them.
 
But I never do. Or maybe I can't.  I remain a Buffalo Boy.  It suits me.  Like the team itself, the city I grew up in can't win for losing. But don't confuse bad luck and trouble with being a loser. I look at other, high-gloss teams and other dazzling cities and I say no thanks. I like it that some of those heroes mentioned above used to drive truck and run hamburger franchises in the off-season out of economic necessity. One of them nearly became vice president of the United States, but he was the exception and, like a true-blue Bill and loyal Buffalonian, Jack Kemp had to learn to live with coming this close but no closer to the top spot.
 
Buffalo is my hometown, the place I can and do return to every year.  I came up with a word to describe the feelings and events and people the place conjures for me and the word is "Buffalonia." I know that sounds like some kind of salad or sausage or maybe the punch line to a bad joke, but that's fine with me. No one can take a joke - or a punch -- with more grace than a Buffalonian, someone deeply acquainted with the pain of losing but who keeps coming back for more anyway.
 
So I'll raise a glass today not to the game as it's played today by millionaire robots but to the memory of its humble beginnings, of which I was the humblest and least willing part. And I'll say a prayer of thanks that I'll never have to catch a football in front of a crowd of people again as long as I live.

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Tamar (whom you met at Mohonk) loved that team!

Few do reminiscence as you do, Jeremiah. Love this. r.
A fun tale. I do admit I found my brain substituting some imagery from the movie Dodgeball (“if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball...”) I'm actually glad you went on to other things, but I don't begrudge you the fond memories.
I love this piece--your honesty and willingness to give it a try and then move on. Great writing!
You often hear people say "sports are like religion." And I think that phrase is very true---but not in the way it's usually interpreted.

Sports connect a person with forces larger than they are. Like Pain, social order, rules, tradition, ambition and on and on. Like religion is a connection with something larger than any one person. Often these larger than the individual forces are unseen Perhaps that's why lots of people don't buy religion and/or sports.

But I buy both. And the real talent of the sportswriter is to make some slice of these unseen forces visible and real.

You do that beautifully here.
Great piece! Did you ever read "Paper Lion" by George Plimpton? Plimpton is allowed to try out for quarterback for the Detroit Lions.
RRR
Jonathan: It's been clear to me for a while -- decades, really -- that I love to write reminiscence. Old men like to look back, but I;ve been doing it for years and years. When I put them all together, I'm going to call the collection "Second Childhood."
Regards to Tamar -- I wouldn't have left as early as I did if I knew she was a Bills fan.

Kent: Dodgeball spoke to me. Way under-rated comedy, so true to life. Rip Torn rules.

Christina: You may be overestimating my willingness. If my dad had given me the slightesy chance to wiggle out of that job, I'd have taken it in a flash. Turned my back on the $50-a-week salary. He thought what seemed to me to be a form of slavery and public humiliation would somehow make me a better person. And maybe he was right. It certainly gave me something to write about, at least.
Great story.
"Dizzy with new insights" - great line.
Roger: You've been reading my mail -- or maybe another post, in which I posited exactly what you said about (baseball) being the national religion. Mine was a rather clumsy analogy that allowed me to quote a bunch of ballplayers. But your comment rings philosophically and poetically true for me. I'm an old altar boy, after all -- a Knight of the Altar if you will -- and that was exactly the role I played on the practice field. That, along with being the Court Jester. Thanks for adding to my understanding of myself.

Willie: I haven't seen you round these parts for spell. I remember "Paper Lion" very well; Plimpton was a sharp and witty writer who also was fun to watch in small movies roles. He deserves credit for being one of the first writers I can remember to practice what is now rather scornfully referred to as "stunt writing," i.e., first-person books like "The Year of Living Biblically." I think of him as a very (upper) classy guy.
Marlene: And look where they got me. . .Cheers
Wow: You weren't even taken down by a wide receiver but by the ball itself. That has to be a new kind of epic.

Rated for delivering on your tag l ine: "the truth shall set you laughing."
I'd love to read your "Second Childhood" collection. This is so open and real, funny and wise. r.
You got to work for the Buffalo Bills and write about it for Sports Illustrated? Double cool. Good luck in Buffalonia this season from a Jets fan.
Nikki: When I fell on it (the tag line, not the ball) I thought it was another wise-guyism, of which I have a few. But then I remembered photos of people like the Dalai Lama, old stories about Rumi and a teacher of mine and I realized there's truth to that tag line. These guys appear to know that when it comes to fundamentals, something's up, and it makes them smile (if not laugh). And I like that.

Ann: My son reminded me the other day of how I'm essentially writing chapters of that book with my posts to OS. My head stuck firmly in the past, trying to get my heart involved too.

Richard: The Jets? The Jets? Oh, you must mean Harry Wismer's old Titans, the team that practiced wind sprints to the bank on payday, less their check bounced. You can see how stuck I am on the past, especially looking at this year's schedule. (Though I'm willing to bet we'll split the two games & that Fitzpatrick will have better numbers than Sanchez).
A great story! You got two shots from this experience and even though both were ultimately disappointing -- it's the material that counts, I always say. (It would be interesting to do a series on water boys. Their perspective of the sport must be entirely different from the power players.)
A great piece from one reformed klutz to another.....
Bell: If only young people could know it's the material that counts. Even the olden among us. It's a blessing to be able to write about it and mine those dreadful seeming experiences for what they're worth.

As for that water boy book, yes -- talk about being in the trenches. Guess who got to do the laundry for upwards of 80 sweat-soaked guys after every practice?

Gary: Try as I might, I can't quite think of myself as being reformed, though the team's very kindly trainer dubbed me "most improved" in my second and last season. He may have been right -- the Bills went 1 - 13 that season. In the good-news / bad-news department, that resulted in their drafting and signing one O. J. Simpson. . .
Fantastic! Excuse my lateness to commenting but I did read this when it first came out but got distracted as I was reading it at a coffee house on a break from work. This is great writing and captures such fun thoughts and emotions. I really enjoyed this Jeremiah. One of my favorite guys, Tim Russert was a big Bills fan and I remember those four teams very, very well.
So very well-told, I was right there on the field with you! And very funny in a sardonic sort of way.
Doc: Not to worry about being "late." That's a regular feature of my comments -- you'll usually find me at the bottom of the pile.

Buffalo's the the biggest small-town in the world. I went to high school with Tim Russert. Even did a week of cultural exploration in NYC with him and two friends in the summer of '68. I'll send you the eulogy I wrote after his death.

Kelly: I'm glad you enjoyed reading the story. And I wish you HAD been there back then. I could have used some relief.
Ha! I was always the one that got the "assistant" position when I tried out for sprots, except once when they put me on the b-ball team just to confuse the other side on the rare occassions the coach put me in the game.
Great story Jeremiah. I love the way you describe your youthful memories of Buffalo.....

Do you remember the billboards in the sixties plastered on the side of buildings or houses/storefronts that read, "Boost Buffalo, Its Good For You"? I remember walking home from St. Martins everyday and passing that sign and wondering what the hell the words meant. Now I know.

You are certainly a wonderful Buffalo Booster.

Go Bills!
Barbara: Not only do I remember those billboards, I still remember the tune (if not all the lyrics) that KB played so incessently. I'm not sure if it does any good, but I keep doing it. Which strikes me as a very "Buffalo" approach to things, y'know?