What follows is an excerpt from a longer piece that explores how a red, white and blue diaper baby, raised by conservative Republican parents in a largely conservative Republican and all white suburb in a conservative religious tradition grew up to become first, a social justice activist and eventually a Marxist Humanist revolutionary. The longer piece, called “Well, How Did I Get Here? Reflections” is available on my web site, https://www.david-ranney.com/reflections/. Hard Crackers will post two more excerpts from “Well, How Did I Get Here?” over the next couple of weeks.
The first excerpt is about my futile attempt to become a high school football player. My mother—being raised in all white, Protestant, middle-income neighborhoods and schools in the South–shaped her racial and class attitudes as an adult. Ultimately this led to serious conflict with me. But these attitudes conflicted with another set of values. She had a strong sense of fairness that in her later life caused her childhood-imposed racism, as well as class and religious prejudice, to soften considerably. It was her sense of fairness that stuck with me. This sense of fairness was revealed in many ways. One of these was my encounter with high school athletics and her reaction to that.
Note: The writer is in the middle of the photo above, to the right of the person with glasses.
When I reached ninth grade, I decided I wanted to be a football player. The team colors for both Freshman and Varsity were purple and gold. The freshman team was called “The Purple Pups.” (Better than the Yellow Dogs, I guess). Despite the name I wanted to play. The girls came to watch and I fancied myself in shoulder pads and a helmet. I told my mother I wanted to be a Purple Pup.
“No. You’re too small and you’ll get hurt.”
I pleaded my case to her and my dad over dinner. “Tryouts are tomorrow. Please??”
My parents loved football and had season tickets for the professional Cleveland Browns games. But neither felt I should do it. But as I looked at my mother I saw her eyes soften. She looked at my dad and he nodded. They had been talking this over.
“You can try out on one condition,” she said. “If you are selected for the team, no matter what the circumstance, you can’t quit.” Neither of my parents smiled when my mother made this pronouncement. I felt jubilant but puzzled. Why would I want to quit? Once I made the team and practices started I found out.
I was not only too small but also too slow and really pretty bad at athletics generally and football specifically. As it turned out, my main function was to be a “sandbag” for the bigger, better players. I was a guy in shoulder pads and a helmet who they could hit and try to knock down. If we goofed off at all our coach, Carl Antel, would make us do laps around the field. Carl was the kind of guy who seemed to believe that all of life’s difficulties could be solved by imposing twenty push-ups and a lap or two around the field.
After my first practice I came home aching all over, bruised from head to foot and thoroughly discouraged. Wearing shoulder pads and a helmet was clearly not worth this. I thought of quitting during those early practices many times. I remember looking at Mother with hurt and sorrowful eyes.
She would lightly ask, “How’s practice going?
“Just fine.” I didn’t dare bring up the idea of quitting.
As a member of the Purple Pups and later the junior varsity I spent most of my time getting knocked down by bigger and better players, doing pushups and laps around the field and sitting on the bench in a clean uniform, looking at the cheerleaders longingly during the games.
My junior year I continued this madness. I was now on the varsity. My only moment of glory came at a pep rally before the season. The coach planned a scrimmage to show off the team. The entire school was there. The starters were introduced by name over the PA as they ran on the field. Then the rest of us ran on. Coaches Scully and Antel planned to begin the scrimmage by pitting the starting defense against the sandbags. The team had been written up in the papers as a contender for the Lake Erie League championship. The newspaper story highlighted the defense particularly.
The sandbags, including me, who had been selected by the coach for the scrimmage decided to call ourselves the “Bird Town Buzzards” since many of my fellow sandbags lived in Bird Town, the neighborhood of Lakewood’s working class. (This was another irony given my mother’s class prejudice). I was on the line playing left end. The coaches told us (and our opponents) that we would run a play right into the middle of the line. It was a set up where the entire school and press corps would observe the mighty varsity defensemen demolish us.
We huddled up. The quarterback was supposed to pretend he was calling a real play. Instead he laughed.
“Fuck this. We’ll go long and try to get a touchdown. Ranney and Willie, run straight down the field as fast as you can and I’ll try to get a pass to one of you. When we come out of this huddle make a straight line across the field and I will lead us all in a little snake dance.”
We came out of the huddle laughing and did a little snake dance as we came up to the line. The starters were laughing too. What in the hell are those clowns doing? I glanced at the bench. The coaches were red in the face – definitely not laughing. But they had no idea of what was coming. Neither did the vaunted defense.
As the quarterback started calling out signals, I could see the defensive backs edging toward the middle of the line, greedy to smash the guy with the ball. As the ball was snapped, most of the Buzzards formed a protective wall in front of the quarterback. I ran as fast as I could. We took them by surprise. I ran right by the defenseman who was supposed to be covering me. But he was intent on smashing the ball carrier who he thought would be running through the middle of the line. I could see a long pass coming my way and I grabbed it.
The play had started down at our own 20-yard line. We had been told that they would blow a whistle immediately after we were crushed and start another prearranged play. When I caught the ball I could hear the coach blowing furiously on his whistle. I kept running and went 80 yards for a touchdown, followed by a brief celebratory dance in the end zone! The students in the stands all cheered. The coaches did not. The next day at practice I set an all-time record for the number of push ups and laps done in a single practice session.
I never realized at the time that, as much as I was feeling hurt and humiliated being knocked around in practices and sitting game after game on the bench, Mother was feeling it just as bad if not worse. But her admonition and my promise not to quit kept us both members of the Purple Pups, junior varsity and varsity (until I was cut senior year). I never knew how hurt and angry mother was until many years later, after her death. In looking though her files I came across an essay she had written but never published. It was called “Parents on the Bench.” My brothers and I published it along with a selection of her other writings in a book called Mind Pictures: A Family Tribute to Dorothy M. Ranney.
Her essay revealed that she also sat on a bench, rain or shine for game after game. Her bench was in the stands with the other parents. Her essay was written in the third person—as a short story. It enabled her to say things she had not been able to say at the time. And it also revealed that the outrage she felt about the way I was treated went beyond just me. It revealed a latent sense of social justice. It moved me deeply. I am taking the liberty of changing her words to first person and printing the following excerpts because they reveal a great deal about the person she was and the influence she had on me.
“Going through a series of sports with three sons who were all heart and not much ability, had made (me) the best sport in the school system.
(I) started with cub scout games and then the games through elementary basketball and track to junior high and assorted sports and even football and basketball varsity. (I) prepared PTA meals for the teams, went to dinners honoring coaches, and attended games in rain, snow and mud. (I) even washed uniforms afterward and through it all, became the best darn bench mamma in town.
But whether it was a junior high team, or an elementary school team or varsity itself, school sponsored athletics had only one purpose—to let the natural athletes display their skill.
The greatest fallacy in school athletics is that the coach teaches sports to his boys. The coach does nothing of the kind. He takes the fellows that are the naturals and puts them through their paces. The ones that need teaching are the punching bags, the fall guys, the fellows that get put in for a few seconds before the whistle blows…
What will break the conspiracy of silence on a subject that is as much a deficit in our school systems as lack of science or the teacher shortage? When will school athletics, into which so much money is poured, be geared for all the children? When will parents of the average youngster speak up and reveal the truth—that coaches, homeroom teachers, athletic leaders and the schools in general, do not teach sports at all?”