Al Hooper

Truth in fiction

(AUTHOR’S NOTE: For decades the Canadian Football League, which has been around as long as the National Football League in the U.S., has provided an outlet for Americans who love to play but who, for lack of size or politics or opportunity, did not catch on in the NFL. Once in Canada the U.S. college-trained athletes fall in love with the Canadian game, and quickly learn it demands the best they can bring to it. This is one such player’s story.)  

The Year
Won the Grey Cup

Martin stared down at his big feet and adjusted the tape around his knees and waited. Down here in the belly of the stadium you could hear the crowd shuffling in like overhead diesels.
The coach sat on the rubbing table and made no effort to break the silence. When you get this far, Martin thought, there is nothing more to say. Nobody needed any motivational rah-rah today – especially not Martin, with Butch and Hank up there, in the stands . . .

“Hi, guys,” Martin had greeted them casually when they arrived from Buffalo that morning. They planned to mark the reunion with some catch-up in the hotel lobby before Martin left for the stadium.

“Hi, Pop,” Hank said. Butch, her face tight and white, said: “You’re looking good, Martin.” He smiled a small smile and started to tell her how good she looked but instead took her arm in his big hand and led her to the lobby  . . .

Butch had been pretty good about it, he thought now. Last spring she had pleaded with him not to play another year – “a middle-aged 37,” she called him. But when he insisted she had said all right, if they were going to be separated again they would make it legal.

And she did, the separation papers arriving shortly after training camp opened.

He knew why, of course. She was afraid. At 37 football injuries are inclined to be more frequent. And more terminal. But as the season rolled by and Saskatchewan kept winning in the West she had agreed to bring Hank to Toronto for the Grey Cup game – the football championship of Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the Superbowl. “It’ll be his last chance to see his old man in action,” Martin told her over the phone. She said little, but she brought him.
And after 16 years in professional football Martin would finally be seen in his working environment by his eight-year-old son – as much as anyone sees a large, earnest, wide-bodied offensive tackle . . .

The coach was giving quiet instructions now, and then they were out there on the field in the pressing noise, and Martin looked around at the stacked rows of humanity to where Butch and Hank would be sitting.

“Where’s Saskatchewan, Pop?” Hank had asked earlier.

“It’s a place would make New York state look like a big divot,” Hank told him. Hank nodded soberly. But Hank knew where Montreal was, and Martin hardly blamed him for doubting the chances of a team from Saskatchewan, wherever that was, against an internationally known metropolis like Montreal.

Which also happened to be the heavy favorite this afternoon  . . .

By halftime Martin knew this would be his last game. His legs were stone pillars with pulsating pain centers and his lungs were shrieking “37, 37, 37!” It was the football equivalent of “73, 73, 73!” And Martin would never forget it again.

In the fourth quarter he came out for one play – one play – after Montreal had surged ahead again. The score was either 21-17 or 24-20 – Martin couldn’t be sure. It didn’t matter. Four points, advantage Montreal. Enough to win. Enough so that a field goal would be futile. 

And then it was Saskatchewan’s last wild chance on Montreal’s 12 and the coach said: “Martin, tell them to call 24.” Martin trotted out there again for the crucial offensive down, an off-tackle play. Over him. They were depending on him to break trail on this one – possibly their last play of the season, with less than a minute left on the clock.
And Martin’s legs went dead. He opened no hole. They were stopped cold.

Martin stayed in, dazed. The defensive tackle had been injured and Martin was the backup. Behind him in the secondary, while Montreal huddled to run out the clock, he heard someone sob, curse, and sob again. Then Montreal came out of the huddle and as Martin barged into the backfield he saw it was an outside play. No chance for him. But he turned instinctively to give chase. And suddenly Marlow and Carpenter hit the ball-carrier together, and the ball squirted high and hung there, and then Martin was grabbing it and heading for the goal-line only 10 yards away – only 10 yards but it could have been a hundred with that Montreal safetyman closing on him.

Martin summoned the final effort from the 37-year-old legs and didn’t even remember hitting the safety. As he stood there in the end zone, free and clear, he clutched the ball to his chest and tried to decide if his legs or the stadium walls were shaking more.

He was starting for the sideline but never made it. His teammates converged and pummeled him to the scarred turf. They tried lifting him but soon abandoned that plan. They settled for beating him up some more.

Anyway, the sideline was at least a couple of miles away, and Martin knew his legs wouldn’t take him that far . . .

* * *

Butch and Hank were waiting at the side exit. That surprised Martin until he remembered he had suggested they meet him there to avoid the crush of population in the more public places.
“Hi, guys,” Martin managed.

He noticed that the strain had left Butch’s face which was now relaxed and beautiful, as far as he could see. Her eyes glistened and she seemed to be holding Hank’s hand very tight.
“Let’s go home,” she told Martin.

“Hey – let’s eat first,” Martin said.



Hank’s eyes were riveted on Martin but his voice wasn’t working so good. “Hi, Pop,” he said finally.

“Enough of this idle conversation,” Martin said gruffly, punching him on the shoulder in the old way. “Take your mother’s other arm and I’ll escort you to a first-class greasy spoon of my acquaintance.”

They formed an odd-looking unit as they moved away from the now-empty stadium. Martin so large, Butch gripping his arm, Hank so straight and proud.

(October 2002)

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