This article is a little different than what I usually write because it’s not about any particular team, player, or year. This article focuses on some of my childhood memories and how I got so interested in sports. Perhaps sports meant so much to me because of my age. I was eight years old in 1970 and seventeen in 1979. Those are very impressionable years.
It seems the memories and recollections of our youth are the most vivid to recall. I grew up watching and playing sports with equal enthusiasm.
My interest in sports started with playing them, not watching them. When we were young, my father gave my brother and me a football and a helmet for Christmas. We would play in the yard and sometimes in the park. Then my father put up a basketball rim & hoop on the top of the garage, and my brother and I would play one-on-one and invite friends to shoot some hoops.
And, of course, there was always Little League Baseball. Back then, you didn’t get a participation trophy, so winning an award was a big deal.
My elementary school’s three most popular sports were basketball, kickball, and dodgeball. And if you wanted to play with the older kids, they didn’t have any mercy on you because you were younger and smaller. The prevailing attitude was, if you can’t take it, don’t play.
My favorite day at school was “field day,” a day dedicated to athletics. I’m sure it must have been a nightmare for kids who didn’t have much athletic ability, but I loved it. Some of the events were the softball throw for distance; the shuttle run, the half-mile run, and my favorite, the broad jump.
I did reasonably well in all the events, usually taking second or third place, but no one could beat me in the broad jump. I don’t know why, but I could sure jump far. The gym teacher started calling me “the frog.” Every time I did a broad jump, the gym teacher would look at me and say, “ribbit.”
Topps & Christmas Gifts
I can recall sports on our black & white TV at home. My father and brother watched the games often, but I was still too young to understand it fully, and like most young boys, I had trouble sitting still long enough to watch a complete game.
My interest in watching sports started with Topps trading cards. I don’t remember where I obtained them, but I got my hands on some 1969 Topps football cards. I loved looking at those cards with bright, vibrant colors. I was captivated by the colorful uniforms, the helmets, and, especially, the team logos.
I would read all the information on the back of the cards. It gave you the players’ height, weight, age, stats, the year he started in the league, and the job he had during the offseason (yes, they had regular jobs in the offseason). It was like a whole biography of each player.
My Christmas wish list consisted mostly of everything sports-related. My mother ordered most of it from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. She surprised us one year with NFL bed sheets, pillowcases, and blankets. Believe it or not, I still have and use the pillowcases.
My parents bought me the Tudor vibrating electric board football game the following Christmas. Setting up the game was more fun than playing it. It was a metal sheet that looked like an actual football field with fans in the stands.
They did an excellent job of making it look as authentic as possible. It came with little plastic figurine football players dressed in the full colorful uniform of NFL teams. The two teams on mine were the Kansas City Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings, who had played in the Super Bowl earlier that year.
The problem was that the players would scatter all over the board as soon as you flipped on the switch. Some would fall over, while others would run out of bounds or turn completely around and run in the wrong direction. Then you would flick the switch to stop it and set the players back up again. The game was mainly for show, but we still had fun.
My sports interest peaked in 1970, thanks partly to my 2nd Grade teacher, Miss Macia. Born and raised in Wisconsin, she was a big sports fan and a Milwaukee Bucks and Green Bay Packers fan.
One day in class (as part of a history lesson), she showed us an 8-millimeter film on the 1967 NFL title game. It was the first time that I had seen the complete game. It was dubbed “The Ice Bowl” because of its minus 16-degree temperatures. I was mesmerized! I dissected every play, understanding it for the first time. I thanked her for showing it, and we talked about sports for the remainder of the school year. She’ll always be my favorite teacher.
Then I started reading sports books and magazines and watching all the games on T.V. I watched all the football shows that were on T.V. at the time. This is the NFL, This Week in Pro Football, the NFL Game of the Week, NFL Films with Ed and Steve Sabol. I was like an encyclopedia on NFL football, and I knew every player, every statistic, every score, and every team’s record and history.
Our parents were good about letting us (me and my brother) stay up late to watch sporting events, especially Monday Night Football. My father would watch it with us most of the time.
He would usually send us up to our bedroom at halftime. We always looked forward to halftime because they would show highlights of the previous day’s games. There wasn’t 24-hour news coverage or ESPN back then, so Monday Night Football might be your only chance to see those highlights.
We would watch the rest of the game on our little black & white TV. There were two rules, though. #1-Keep the volume and noise level down. #2- When the alarm goes off to get up for school, you had better be up. We always did get up because we knew if we didn’t, that would be the end of Monday Night Football.
Playing Sports With My Friends
When we weren’t playing in our Little League games, we played a lot of Wiffle ball, and in the autumn, we’d play football; tackle if we had enough players. The only equipment we had was a helmet, usually a birthday or Christmas present. We’d find an open field and play until whoever owned the property would chase us away. Sometimes they would let us stay. If not, we’d just find another spot to play.
If we didn’t have enough players for tackle, we’d play touch football out on the street. There wasn’t any sense of running the ball in touch football, so every play was a pass. There wasn’t anyone to pass block, so you would have to count five Mississippi before you could rush the quarterback.
The play calling was limited. ‘Joe, you run a down and out, and I’ll hit you in front of Mr. Johnson’s Chevy. Bill, you run a curl route, and I’ll hit you in front of the manhole cover.’
Topps Trading Cards
Another exciting time for my friends and me was buying and trading sports cards. We’d scrounge whatever loose change we could get our hands on and hop on our bikes to race over to the local mom & pop store.
Sports cards were not available 365 days a year like they are now. Baseball cards usually came out in March, and football cards came out in August. You never knew what day they were coming out. We would drive around on our bikes, going from one store to the next until we finally found some.
We couldn’t wait to open them. We’d sit on the curb and tear into the packs, the sweet smell of the bubble gum stick wafting through the air. We’d compete to see who could blow the biggest bubble. The gum was delicious until it completely lost its taste about a minute later.
Then the trading would begin. You would immediately offer it as trade bait if you got a double of the same card. Sometimes the trading could get pretty intense, but some kids would use their doubles to put in the spokes of their bicycle wheels with their mother’s clothespins to make a cool motor-like noise. This practice was usually met with a tongue lashing from the mother, not because she cared about your silly cards but because her clothespins were missing when she needed to use the clothesline.
Rizzuto/Berra Bowling Lanes
My interest in watching baseball, and in particular, watching the New York Yankees peaked as the result of not only baseball cards but bowling. Former Yankees players Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto owned a bowling alley that was only a mile and a half from my house. My friends and I would hop on our bikes or sometimes walk there.
We didn’t have much money for bowling, but we could usually scrounge enough change to bowl at least one game. At the entrance, there were two large glass cases, one on each side, filled with equipment from their playing days. Bats, balls, mitts, trophies, and spikes. We never got tired of looking at that stuff. Every time we went there, it was like we had never seen it before.
Football In The Mud
Our Junior High School football field was right next to a pond. The pond would spill over onto the football field whenever we had heavy rain. It was quite a sight since we used that field for our home games and practices. Before the season was half over, there wasn’t a blade of grass left on the field, and all that was left was thick black mud.
Our coaches affectionately called us ‘the mud rats.’ We prided ourselves on playing well despite the adverse conditions. We sensed our opponents were intimidated as soon as they stepped off the bus and looked at our field . Talk about home-field advantage.
Our mothers hated that football field because we would have to bring our mud-caked uniforms home every day after practice to wash them. My mother wouldn’t even let me bring my uniform into the house until I had thoroughly hosed it off first.
When I was growing up, my favorite players were on defense, and when playing, I always wanted to be on the defensive side of the ball. We didn’t get flagged back then unless it was a blatant ‘cheap shot.’
From my own experiences– playing youth and high school football in the 1970s–I can tell you that no one ever worried about the possible long-term effects of concussions or injuries. I understand there’s a big difference between high school football and the NFL. Still, anyone who played football on any level during the 1970s or before knows what I’m talking about.
Most of us who played football in the 70s suffered our share of minor concussions, but no one knew at the time that head trauma was a serious matter. We’d laugh it off and say, he just got his bell rung; he’ll be fine. Thankfully we know a lot more about the seriousness of concussions today.
You kept playing unless you had a severe concussion (you couldn’t tell how many fingers the team trainer was holding up). That buzzing noise between your ears and the ache in your head would subside. And you never thought more about it, and no one knew any better.
Another thing that coaches didn’t know back then was how important it is to stay hydrated. They would tell us not to drink too much water because we would get stomach cramps if we did. That was the belief at the time, and it sounded logical to us. We didn’t know any better.
Interestingly, so many parents complain about their boys spending too much time playing video games. Yet, the parents are usually the ones responsible for that kind of behavior. They don’t want them playing football, hockey, dodgeball, or anything else that might have some risk of injury. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take the necessary safety precautions, but you must let boys be boys.
That’s what my mother did. I injured my knee playing football when I was 13 years old. I spent over a week in the hospital in traction. Once it was time for me to leave the hospital, the doctor put me in a full leg cast and sent me home. He believed I was young and healthy enough to recover fully without the need for surgery. Thankfully he was right. I recovered.
I wanted to try out for my junior high football team a year later. I knew my mother was afraid I might reinjure my knee, and I thought she might try to talk me out of it or just flat-out refuse to sign the parental consent form. But she knew how much football meant to me and how much I loved playing the game. She knew it would break my heart to take away such a big part of my life. So, with tears in her eyes, she signed the consent form.
I had a successful season and won a trophy for the best defensive player the following year.
Some of my happiest memories in life are of playing football. Signing that consent form was difficult for my mother, but it was the best thing she could have done for me.
Mark Morthier is the host of Yesterday’s Sports, a podcast dedicated to reliving memorable sports moments from his childhood days and beyond. He grew up in New Jersey just across from New York City, so many of his episodes revolve around the great sport’s teams of the 70s for the New York area.