Outside his immediate circle of family and friends, chances are that not too many will recognize the name “Bernard Strong.” But that will soon change because he’s working on a book, a collection of his life stories. Now unlike a growing number of those patiently waiting for his book (with credit cards in hand) a combination of the timing of next week’s midterm elections and his latest story forced my hand.
Here’s that story.
“21” was my jersey number. I chose that number because some said I had a running style like Mike Garrett of the Kansas City Chiefs. Unlike Garrett however, my football career ended shortly after the Lindblom Tech Class of ’71 march across the stage in caps and gowns.
Playing football was a memorable time in my life. I experienced both the ‘thrill of victory and the agony of defeat’. My most agonizing moment on the gridiron occurred on a cold windy fall afternoon at Amos Alonzo Stagg Field. It was Homecoming Day for the Calumet Indians and the home crowd booed loudly as we, the Lindblom Eagles, ran on the field decked out in our maroon and gold. This was a tough smash-mouth football game. At the end of three quarters, we were on our way to spoiling Calumet’s Homecoming as our “bend but don’t break” defense halted Calumet’s last threatening drive forcing them to punt with just a few minutes left in the game.
The Calumet kicker delivered the perfect punt. The football was propelled high in the sky as it wobbled, danced and swayed with the uncertain movement of the swirling Chicago wind. I struggled to camp beneath it and secure the catch. After what seemed like an eternity, the football finally arrived, hit my hands, bounced against my chest and then fell to the ground.
I was shocked. This was the first time I had ever fumbled a punt in a game. My effort to recover the ball ended abruptly when an opposing player hit me like a freight train. When my senses returned, I was lying face down with blood and dirt in my mouth. When I raised my head I was horrified to see a light blue jersey sprinting unchallenged to the goal line with the football tucked firmly in his arm. I lowered my head when I saw the referee raise his arms signaling “touchdown”. Now, Calumet was winning and the homecoming crowd went wild.
Slowly I rose to my feet spitting dirt from my mouth and swallowing blood. With head bent from the weight of dejection, I headed to the sideline. Suddenly, I heard my coach screaming my name. I was totally confused because the words coming from his mouth were not the words I expected to hear. With animated gestures he screamed, “Strong, get back out there!”
My confusion evaporated when I saw the referee pick up his flag and realized that Calumet was called for a holding penalty and had to replay the down. The touchdown was nullified, we were winning again and I looked to the heavens and whispered, “Thank YOU.”
I returned to the field ready to retrieve the punt and, again, the kicker delivered another masterpiece. This time I did not fumble, taste blood or eat dirt. We went on to win the game. In the record book, my fumble never happened but I know I messed up and for a brief moment, I agonized.
Bernard’s departing point is this: To those who believe we messed up in 2016 and are experiencing agony as a result, we have a chance to make amends with the upcoming mid-term elections. So he’s screaming at all of us with the same urgency his coach screamed at him that fall day, “Get back out there and, this time, don’t fumble the damn ball!
My departing point is this: Cast your vote as if your life depended on it since in many respects it does!
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