Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pal Buckner, my first football coach, died the other day.
When I was in the third grade, I rode my bike the half-mile or so to Eastlawn Elementary for practices.
Our games were played at Fairchild Park, another half-mile up the road.
The team was sponsored by the merchants of Cum-Park Plaza, a nearby shopping center. We played in the Burlington Recreation Department’s Mite League.
I used to love football. I mean, when I was young, I absolutely adored the game.
I’ve always figured that Pal was one of the main reasons I felt so strongly about the sport. He taught us offense and defense as well as how to control the line of scrimmage and whatnot.
But he never pushed us unmercifully or withheld water the way coaches I played for later did.
With Pal, calisthenics consisted of a few jumping jacks and a jog to the end of the field and back.
We sweated a bit, but never to the point where we felt like quitting.
And in the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure there’s ever a need to push youngsters playing youth sports a lot harder than that.
I thought of all this when I heard that Pal had died.
I got in maybe two plays the first year I played for Cum-Park. The Mite League went through sixth grade and there wasn’t much demand for third-graders.
But I hung with it and grew, playing a little more the next year and even more the following season.
By the time I got to the sixth grade ó and I don’t usually brag on myself but I’ll make an exception here ó I was about as good a player as there was in the league, which is to say I was a fairly tough-nosed 100-pounder.
When I was in the sixth grade, just before our season started, I got two phone calls. One was from Pal.
The Cum-Park jerseys we’d worn for years had deteriorated to the point of being no longer usable. Pal told me that with no jerseys and little else in the way of equipment, he was combining his team with the local SABC squad.
A day or so later, I got a call from the coach of the league’s new entry, the Downtowners. Almost all my friends were playing for him, he said, and we’d have new equipment including spiffy new jerseys.
I never played professional sports, but I can only imagine that telling a sixth-grader he’s getting a new jersey is the equivalent of telling a 20-year-old he’s getting a million-dollar signing bonus.Still, I liked Pal and felt an allegiance to him. After agonizing over the matter for a day or so, I wound up playing for SABC.
I’ve always been glad I did.
We lost only one game that year (the Downtowners beat us 6-0, a loss that prompted me to bawl at game’s end). But what I remember even more about the season is that it marked the last year where football was unadulterated “fun.”
I ran into Pal a year or so later and he told me that going into that season with SABC, he’d had his doubts that we’d win a game.
“And we wouldn’t have,” he said, “if you hadn’t played for us.”
It’s a wonderful thing for someone to say about you.
Which more than makes up, I suppose, for that new jersey I never got to wear.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman