As a high school freshman quarterback I was simply amazed at the concept of the audible. The audible, if properly used, could be the atomic bomb of football. If properly used. And therein lies this story.
When a quarterback is in the huddle, he's the only one that talks. He gives the play, the set count, and the audible color. When everyone lines up for the play, the quarterback has the responsibility to look out at the opposing defense, and if it's all wrong for the called play, the quarterback can change the play to a different one, right then and there. That makes sense. If your halfback is barreling up the right tackle's spot, and the biggest meanest defensive lineman, the one who looks like he's shaved since he was in diapers, happens to line up there, then to keep your halfback happy, you cannot let that play be executed. No, what you should do is have him run to the other side, where, say, an anorexic defensive player who looks like a cross between a stork and a cross country runner is playing, and your back isn't going to get much opposition there.
Now the exact manner in which this is done held some interest for me. In fact, my busy little brain was buzzing with possibilities ever since our backfield coach had me grok the concept. The audibling sequence was always the same. You were supposed to bark out a color, a number, and then the snap count. To whit: "Hut, hut, hut, ..." The color was the thing the linemen were especially attuned to, and then the snap count. If the color was the checkoff color, say blue, then if they heard that sequence, that meant that a new play was being audibled. They were to listen to the next two numbers and adjust their blocking accordingly.
Here's a normal sequence of events. Our team huddles, and I tell everyone, 32 belly, on three. Blue. Break. Then we all trot up to the line, I line up behind the center, and then say
"Set" The linemen, all large, rather bohemian fellows as a rule, get down into their three point blocking stance. I begin looking over the defense.
"Green" I didn't use the check off color (blue), so we're going to go with the original play.
"44" This is a meaningless number, since this does not represent a real play. I could call "googolplex" here, or "a billion, trillion, trillion" but that would draw attention to the fact that I could count over hands and toes, a thing best not done on the football field. You want to blend in with the fauna here.
"Hike, hike, hike." Since the snap count is on three, the mayhem begins as soon as the linemen hear that third word.
Now if the defense looks wrong, the action may go something like this:
"Blue" Now the linemen and the running backs are paying attention. The next number is going to tell where a certain runner is going to run to.
"43" The 4 man (the fullback, a short stout young man with remarkably large thighs), will run through the 3 hole, which is over the left guard slot.
"Hike, hike, hike" And we're off and running.
Now it's true that football does not appeal to the sharpest students in the school. Ideally, I should have had a frontal lobotomy before joining the football team. That, and a whole bunch of anabolic steroids. I was not exactly what one would call meat on the hoof, being all 140 lb of scrawny kid in pads way too big for my shoulders. But the team needed players, and my buddies were joining up, so I did too. If it were a war, and they had signed up for the suicide squad, I probably would have as well. We're all sheep in high school.
So here we were, after a few weeks of training camp. ready to be assigned by our coaches to our skill positions. After the usual mind numbing workouts with weights and running and hitting each other and hitting this infernal contraption called a blocking sled for what seemed like hours, we were split up into positions. This was supposed to be a somewhat scientific process, but our coaches had plainly never heard of Sir Francis Bacon or Galileo, so it was more like a random process. We were assessed for our speed (or lack thereof), strength, passing ability, and general dumbness. The less dumb and fleeter of foot sheep were herded to a small area of the field. We were the backfield. This little blastula of a group was supposed to further differentiate into running backs, blocking backs, and the most twitchy position of all, the quarterbacks. We had another corral for receivers who were good at catching the ball. The knuckledraggers headed over to the blocking sled, where they were assigned the Sisyphean task of moving this blocking sled from one end of the field to the other, in little quanta of hits like molecules of air hitting the wall. They may have been knuckledraggers and mouthbreathers, but one clearly had to respect their mass. Also, they protected their quarterback like the Secret Service, sacrificing their bodies to keep quarterbacks' jerseys clean. In return for this fealty, they demanded respect and care from their quarterbacks. They usually stood a hand or two taller than us backs. In the locker rooms, they could easily pick us up and give us swirlies if they felt the situation called for it, or just for the hell of it. It was clear that although we quarterbacks were nominally in charge, the linemen really ran the show. If they didn't like us, they would just stand aside and personally introduce us to that vicious Hun mob called the defense. Hello Alaric. Yes, I'm Rome. Yes, it's time to pillage and burn.
Quarterbacks have this reputation for being vainglorious prima donnas. Nothing could be further from the truth. As newbie freshman footballers, quarterbacks were just trying to stay alive. Everyone on the defensive team made it their personal mission to kill quarterbacks. The presence of a quarterback was an affront to every living, breathing defenseman. If he could breathe and crawl, he was going to hunt down the QB and bite his ankles until he submitted. Such was the nature ingrained into a defenseman. The defensive coach made them hate us. Consequently, quarterbacks were a jumpy sort, always looking over their shoulders, expecting hits from unlikely directions. Hell, we did this while walking down the hallways between classes. It became second nature. We felt like we had a big red bull's eye on our chests. At any time the overly aggressive middle linebackers, who had far more testosterone coursing through their bodies than was humanly possible, would crunch us with their big shoulders. We were the baby gazelles. They were the lions. In my own version of hell, one of the inner circles is reserved for middle linebackers. They would just as soon kill you as look at you. I just want to put you into the mind of this quarterback. We weren't looking to get a nice letter sweater. We were going to be lucky to survive the year without major mayhem.
There was absolutely no pride in being selected a quarterback. The coaches, given to spitting a lot, would have conversations like this. They'd stand together, both looking at the field, arms crossed at the waist with a clipboard in one hand, waist out, back arched, like a perfect parenthesis. They wouldn't look at each other, because that wasn't strictly necessary in the guy-speak world of coaches. No, they talked side-by-side, both looking out at the field, far, far out, past and through the players. One would lean over and spit, and say, "Well, I guess we could put Face in there." The other coach would pause, like he was thinking, and then say, "Yeah, I guess we could." I think they were both reckoning the odds of Face getting mangled before the day was out. Then the senior coach would arrive at the conclusion, according to a bizarre chain of logic known but to football coaches, that I was going to play QB. But it was strictly a provisional thing. Until a leg, back, shoulder, or neck was ruined. Then they'd reconvene into their parenthetical mode of speaking, and choose the next QB.
Our uniforms were comically big. One helmet I was assigned was so ineffective I could move my head quickly and the helmet wouldn't even move. I'd be looking out the earhole. The chinstrap was the only thing that kept it on. When I ran the helmet was out of phase with my head. I'd be on the upstroke, while the helmet was coming down. Then, when I was on the downstroke, the chin strap practically strangled me, and the helmet was about six inches higher in the air, where my head used to be, but a few milliseconds before. So much for protection. The helmet was clearly meant for a large hydro-encephalitic meat eater. The shoulder pads were way too big. The thigh pads were way too big. Back then there were also hip pads and a tailbone pad. We looked like walking lumps of plastic, sheathed in spandex. And this quarterback looked so ludicrous the defense didn't know whether to hunt or laugh. But I digress. Back to the main story. The audible.
So we're in this little clot of players, the elite backfield. And within this elite there's even a more specialized elite, the hunted prey, the quarterbacks. We're so special, we get the smartest coach. Big step up. His brain capacity is only 2 million years behind the times, as opposed to three. The QB coach explains to us the playcalling procedure in the huddle. He's moving his mouth, but nothing intelligent is coming out. Blahblahblahblahhittemwhereithurtsblahblahblah. Uh huh. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. yawn Yeah. Wait, back up on that - I missed something. What did you say? The quarterback calls the checkoff color, and it can be any color? Like....., ANY color? I could hardly believe my good fortune! He said yes. I asked again, looking him right in the eyes, clearly and quite specifically, "ANY color?" He looked at me as if I were slow. Clearly the man's personal color palette was limited, but mine was all 16 bazillion Pantone colors. And I could call any of them. A feeling of God-hood filled me. I could do this. I could stick out football, because I COULD SELECT THE CHECKOFF COLOR. Me. Little 140-lb gazelle-like, middle-linebacker meat. Because now I wasn't just prey, I had a weapon, I was the Chooser of the Color. Fuckin-A. I was a bad-ass.
I was going to have to give these colors a great deal of thought. The coach was worried about my far off stare. Earth to Face, Earth to Face. When you go home tonight, you're all going to have to memorize the playbook, and you should get started because there's a lot of plays in here. Of course I dismissed this suggestion out of hand. Only a freakin' tard studies the playbook. It is not rocket science. But the colors! God hell! The Colors! This demanded the utmost of thought. Clearly, it was something that was going to gnaw at me until I chose the colors just right. You don't make an atomic bomb overnight. No. You have to plan this out. You have to retreat to that personal Los Alamos in your mind, and do computer simulations and get it just right. It was going to be a very smart bomb. Totally nuke the place, but kill only the defensive players, like a good clean little neutron bomb.
By the next practice I was ready, baby. Ready to take my rightful place in the world. And that place was behind the center, my hands in his crotch, looking regally over the defense, while all pairs of ears were attuned to my Color. Because, of course, it all hinged on the color. Yes of course! This was the whole point of football, wasn't it? Oh, anyone could score. That was pedestrian. But to march down the field, leading your offense to glory, under the colors, as it were, this was the whole unspoken subtext of football! Ye gods! There was a priesthood, and I was in it. Hot damn.
All practice, as we drilled with the offense, I used the colors on the coach's palette. It was mostly green, blue and red. Perhaps I called a white. But it was pure Midwestern simplicity at its finest. Run left. Run right. Practice handoffs. A few passes. We got our timing down. I was slow, patient, holding back. Ready to unleash the Colors Of Death.
At last, we were going to scrimmage the defense. It was going to be offense versus defense and we were practicing for bragging rights. I was the QB that play. Forget the exact play, but let's call it one of our massively stupid wishbone-like plays without a backfield that was capable of running the wishbone. So Massively Stupid Play was being called, okay. But, and here was our supreme weapon, we had the Color of Death. I reasoned, quite logically, that if we used a sort of non-standard color, our guys, my guys, the offense, we would be in on it. But the defense, when it heard this color, they'd be colossally confused and get all addlebrained, rendered harmless, as it were, ready to be bowled over by our superior and prepared-ahead-of-time offensive line. We had the element of surprise. They would not, could not be prepared for the Color of Death. They were patsies. Even better, they were going to be our patsies. We could probably just walk into the end zone after that. The coaches would be so awestruck by this tactic of surprise they'd have to give me the starting QB slot. After that, certain victory on the field. Conference championship. States. A wall full of trophies. Plus one of the babes who wildly cheered our games, who had not a friggin clue what we were doing. The coaches' cro-magnum minds would, for a brief moment, be able to realize that it was possible to win a football game by using superior intelligence, in addition to the usual cromagnal methods we used. This was going to be just another arrow in their quiver, but it was going to be a big-assed, nuclear-tipped arrow.
In the huddle I call it: 40-belly, on two. Lilac. Break.
Well, the team didn't exactly explode out of the huddle and run, eager, to the line. No, it was more like this: First Ernie, then Chip, then Ken, then a bunch of other guys look up at me and ask WTF? with their eyes. They break out of the huddle, a haunted look on their faces. They are shaking their helmeted heads as they approach the line. The defense, collectively, their busy little velociraptor minds always looking for the chink in the armor, sense demoralization and confusion. They see our big kahunas straggling up to the line, no dog left in their fight, and the defensive linemen begin chatting them up, sensing a possibility to break through the armor, to Kill the Quarterback and sully his uniform. Our coaches sense something too. They are, after all, big dogs looking at the play of the small dogs, and they're going to cuff the small dogs that weren't hunting properly. So they're concerned. The little line coach is hopping around, concerned, his clipboard working the air at a frantic rate, his whistle tightly clenched in his teeth. His pea brain, inbred through years of coach cross fertilization, was unable to shake the cloud of his mind, was unable to come up with that one regulation that he could legitimately see broken. He wanted to call some sort of stop to the action, but there was no rule of football that had been violated, technically, yet.
I was convinced of the rightness of my position. Superior planning. Superior actualization. Superior mental conditioning. This is what we had. I took my position. The defense was completely out of position. They had the wrong defense for us. We were going to run our play as it was planned. We were going to walk through them like Sherman's march to the sea. I didn't have to use the check off color.
Now all I had to choose was any other color but the checkoff color. Easy. A snap. A trifle.
Uh-oh. Things were starting to unravel. Chip was starting to laugh. You could see his big brawny back shaking. Ernie, next to him, was catching it too. He was starting to laugh, but only a little. I think he was thinking of giving me a swirly about that time. Our center, our center --goddammitalltohell, he was supposed to pay attention! he had the ball!-- was starting to squirm. But the defense was beginning to crack up too. They were outright laughing! In this, their moment of weakness, we now had the advantage. We were going to run through them like the girly men they were. Quick! Rush through the rest!
Slow motion: The ball is snapped to the quarterback, who grabs it and promptly turns around to put it into the belly of our big fullback. Who was running but laughing at the same time. Great. Thunder-Thighs chooses this precise moment to break concentration. Dammit! Where was his vaunted killer instinct?
And behind him, the halfback is on his back, rolling with laughter, like a horse that's itching his back in the clover.
I saw I was going to have to carry on as best I could. Put ball in fullback's belly, fake withdrawing the ball and fake giving it to the halfback, who at that moment was.... hopelessly out of position, who couldn't fool a defense if his life depended on it. Look up. See middle linebacker above me, filling the blue afternoon sky, suspended in the air like some ninja, eclipsing the sun, laughing his ass off, gazing down at me like a lamb chop. Dude, what big teeth you have. Shit. I was going to become his best lunchtime story.
Crunch. Helmet flies off. My head comes up instinctively, to see if the fullback still has the ball, or if he's fumbled it. At least that was the plan. The middle linebacker, being a middle linebacker, chooses to get up verrrry sloooowly, using my head as a good resting place for one of his dirty hands, pushing off. Mmmm, does that Ohio field taste good. Good soil there.
After that, it was all pretty much frantic whistles, redfaced coaches, yelling, windmilling arms, more yelling, rabid coach spittle flying everywhere, wind sprints, blocking sleds, hamburger drills... They were very excited but for all of the wrong reasons. They failed to see the inner beauty of my plan. They failed to appreciated its deviousness. Their cro-magnal minds noted only that no quarterback had EVER done SUCH a BONEHEADED move in the LONG and ILLUSTRIOUS HISTORY of THIS FOOTBALL TEAM, stop your squirming and look me in the eyes when I am talking to you boy and it shall be FURTHER NOTED that for as long as I DRAW BREATH I HOPE NEVER TO SEE THIS HAPPEN AGAIN ARE WE CLEAR? Take off your uniform, you're a disgrace to the team. Now go take a shower.
Hmmm. A minor setback. What have we learned here? What have we learned?
Maybe it was a mistake to have chosen "chartreuse" as the fake color.
Maybe I should have gone with "fuchsia" instead.
I think that the linemen didn't give me a swirly that night, probably because they were too tired from the extra-long session of wind sprints. I do remember Chip, our exceptionally large tackle walk over toward me and look down and tell me in no uncertain terms I was to use the RGB palette from now on. And I was never, ever, ever, to fuck with the minds of my linemen again.