Behind the Lines…The Last Summer

The Fourth of July gets your attention if you’re an athlete, especially if you’re a football player. That mid-summer holiday is the highlight of the season for many people, but for a football player, it means the first day of practice is just a month or so away.

Mixing the nostalgic with the modern as I like to do brings back distant memories of over four decades ago for me and my friends.

Independence day was a warning shot, a reminder that nothing lasts forever.

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When we were little kids, the summer seemed endless, every day was wonderful, lasted almost infinitely, and streamed, seamlessly one into another. Alas, we are children for a very short part of our lives, and those long, carefree days soon eclipsed into the hectic teenage life before descending into the endless rat race of deadlines and commitments that constitutes adulthood. But, at least we had those days to ease us into the perdition that unknowingly awaited us.

When July 4th comes and goes and you’re entering your senior year, it’s a bell toll of finality all its own. They claim that only seven percent of high school athletes move on to college athletics, but the numbers for football are less than two percent. Kids dream of playing on Saturday, and a few even further that fantasy to dream of playing on Sunday, but the stark reality is that your career is over when the final horn sounds to end the fourth quarter on that cool Friday night in October or November. That’s it, all you have left are stories of the past, and the disturbing trend that many profess,  and seem to believe that the older they get the better they were. We weren’t, we were just teenagers playing a game.

Jumping back to the 70s, it was a different time to be a teenager. If you didn’t have a summer job lined up by April there was something wrong.

A friend from Big Piney once told me his dad always told him to get a handle on the future. To Bob that handle meant a shovel handle, a pick handle, a hoe handle, or on a good day, the handles on an old twin-handled swather.  That type of handle gets you focused on your future in a way that the best college prep, or career orientation class never does.

In my case, it was a hammer handle, a wrench handle, or the tight strings of a wire-tied 85-pound hay bale that filled my summer days. The nights, at least Friday and Saturday were something different.

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Without video games, cell phones, digital TV, YouTube, or any of the other modern “necessities” of youth, our entertainment came from Oklahoma City via KOMA, 1520 AM radio once the sun set. KDLY FM from Lander arrived during my freshman year but the programming in those days left something to be desired for a high school kid. With only one sporadic TV channel beaming in from Thermopolis on Channel 10, we weren’t “glued to the tube” either.

Gas was inexpensive and readily available from my dad’s 300-gallon tank out by the barn. I’d fill up my 62 Nova and head for Riverton. Sometimes I’d wait for my friends Pat, Cubby, or Trent to meet me at my parent’s farm, sometimes I’d pick them up, and sometimes we’d just arrange to meet somewhere in town.

There were three places we liked to hang out, one was the Dash Inn on West Main where Smith now stands, the other was Paisan’s Pizza (still the best ever) near the Stockman’s Bar on the other end of Main, and the best in the late afternoon, the A&W on the top of the hill, also on Main Street.

After spending a couple of dollars at one of these places, or futilely trying to make time with the cute carhops at the A&W, and usually picking up a gallon of root beer to take home, the night always ended the same way, either driving endlessly up and down Main Street, “Dragging Main” or going to the West or Knight Drive Inn.

The West had the Dash Inn as the concession stand, a great concept, a fast-food place on one side, and a full-function movie snack bar on the other, the menu was the same on both sides. The steak fingers were legendary. The West was secluded with rows of big cottonwoods on both sides, dark, and a great place to take a date.

The Knight was a good place to get your teeth knocked out, but exciting. We had a few skirmishes with kids from Lander, and the Reservation, but nothing more than a friendly fight once in a while. You rarely took a girl to the Knight.

As the summer rolled on, that final season loomed for us as seniors. The movies and dating soon took second place to football practice, and then that final year of high school.

I watched the same process play out in my first three years coaching at Lusk. Lusk had the Pink Panther Drive-In west of town, the Bar-B-Que fast-food drive-in on US 85, (Lusk’s Main Street) and an eight-lane bowling alley with a 50-seat movie theater next door for the kids to spend their time.

I often ran into my players at these places during the summer. It was now the early 1980s, but the boys lived a lifestyle nearly identical to mine, working on their family ranches, mowing lawns, hiring out for odd jobs, and enjoying their final carefree summers until adulthood approached.

The Shoshoni kids did similar things in the later 80s and through the 90s but the advent of technology, that is, technological entertainment has changed the face of summer for many athletes, so has the relentless demand to lift weights, go to team camps, and attend not-so-voluntary team camps.

The glowing siren call of the cell phone screen is creating a generation with thousands of “friends” who spend their lonely days isolated from reality. The overzealous parents demanding a year-round workout schedule in a single-sport are quickly burning kids out, leaving the parents trying to live vicariously through their kids angry and frustrated, while robbing the youngsters of the benefits of competition. It is a strange, bewildering mix.

In the midst of all these modern distractions, July 4th still looms with the boys playing football. They have a month left and it’s back to two-a-day practices in the summer heat and one final chance for the seniors to play America’s game.

The process is the same, the path to the final goal is different, and the game itself has changed dramatically since my first practice 50 years ago in August of 1972 but the finite nature of time remains with us, no matter the distractions.

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