Huffman column: Still getting a kick out of football

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Another football season is upon us and memories of the 1965 Cum-Park Plaza Mite League team linger.
I was 8 years old and in the third grade that year. Cum-Park Plaza is a shopping center in Burlington, my hometown.
The football team sponsored by Cum-Park practiced on a field at Eastlawn Elementary. I rode my bike the half mile from my house to the school. Pal Buckner was my coach.
How these things come to be, who knows? But at that age, I loved football with an intensity I’ve experienced only a handful of times in my life.
Johnny Unitas was my hero. I lived and died by the fortunes of the Baltimore Colts, a team I was convinced I’d eventually quarterback.
In years to come, the recreation department in Burlington would split the Mite League in two ó one league for third- and fourth-graders and another for fifth- and sixth-graders.
But in 1965, that single league was all we had. So me and a handful of my third-grade classmates ó I remember Ronnie Wall and Dean Conklin both being on the team ó played alongside boys as old as 12.
Which, speaking from a third-grader’s perspective, is to say those guys seemed pretty big. And intimidating.
Billy Fonville was the best player on our team. He was one of those aforementioned sixth-graders. I remember thinking he could run ó as Forrest Gump might have said ó like the wind blows.
A few years later, Billy, by then a star athlete at Cummings High School, dove one summer afternoon into a pool at a nearby apartment complex. He broke his neck in the process, was paralyzed and was forever confined to a wheelchair.
Gary Baldwin was another of those sixth-graders who played for Cum-Park. He eventually played football for The Citadel before returning to Burlington and settling down as a preacher.
As far as I know, no one else from that Cum-Park team played football beyond high school.
I still have the black-and-white photo of our team. I’m No. 14 on the second row. I have a crewcut and I’m smiling.
I can still name just about all of my teammates and even tell you what became of most of them.
They made me kneel on the second row for the photograph because I was the only one on the team who wore gold pants. Everyone else had white ones.
When they were passing out equipment that year, there were only so many pairs of pants to go around and they went to the older boys. By the time they got to me, about all that was left was a worn-out jersey.
My family wasn’t poor, but I’ve got three brothers and my father didn’t have a lot of money to invest in frivolities like football pants.
So he scrounged up an old pair of gold pants and I wore ’em. It didn’t matter, I was just happy to be on the team.
When it came time to shoot the team photo, they put me on the second row so my pants wouldn’t show.
I chuckle now at the memory.
I played football for Pal ó God bless him ó for three more years. By the time I graduated from Mite League I was one of those intimidating sixth-graders I’d feared a few years earlier.
I wasn’t as good as Billy Fonville, but I wasn’t bad.
The Colts never came calling, though, and while I still love football, the intensity doesn’t come close to that I felt in the fall of 1965.
When not bemoaning the fact that professional football has flourished without him, Steve Huffman writes for the Post. Contact him at 704-797-4222 or shuffman @salisbury