HOT WAS NOT the word for it. Downtown they were moaning about a record day in a record string of days. On the rising ground of far Northeast, a couple of hundred feet closer to the sun, the asphalt on the Kelly-Miller playground basketball court was sticky as flypaper; a player would go to plant his pivot foot and thooog , there he stayed, listening to his sneakers bubble while the ball and the action moved downcourt.
"Them dudes be crazy ," said a very large man, no longer young, who was watching the game while strapping on a thigh pad. "They gonna catch a stroke , playing in this heat," he went on, his words muffling as he pulled a heavy sweatshirt over his head. He took a long finishing pull on a quart of beer, which poured down his throat and out his pores as though he were a sieve, and tossed the empty bottle into the front seat of his car.
The very large man began to jog in place.never taking his eyes off the game, and in a minute or so sweat had soaked through the shirt and was sprinkling in the dust at his feet. He sat down on a bleacher seat and switched from sneakers to football cleats, still watching the game.
Then he got up and began to trot away down the football field, picking his way through the ruts and broken glass, laboring but gradually picking up speed until he was running, detouring from time to time to sprint up the steep bank that borders one edge of the field. Once the dry heaves doubled him up, but he got up and ran some more, cradling his belly in his hands until it settled down. And practice hadn't even started yet.
Basketball in 103 degrees by crazy, yes, but this is football . This is the D.C. Bears , of whom coach John Vaughn says matter-of-factly. "We are absolutely the best truly amateur, adult, tackle football team in the East." He makes no further claim because the Bears have not yet played west of the Mississipi.
But from Scranton to Clarksburg, from Columbus to Philadelphia, from Harrisburg to New Haven, from Hagerstown to Long Island and from Lorton Reformatory to downtown Washington, the Bears are 82-24-3 over the last 11 years and nine times champions of the District of Columbia Amateur Football League.
They have done it - and plan to do it again this summer - in spite of having no home field, no sponsor, no gate receipts, no training room or equipment and, according to Vaughn, very little cooperation from the D.C. Department of Recreation.
Otheleague itself has faltered, but the Bears play on. "Hey, these guys play football ," the coach said. "We can't quit. The men need it and the young boys need to see the men doing something good in the neighborhood."
Vaughn and his five assistants, yes five, tend to rattle off cliches about the fraternity of sport and setting good examples, but the phrases didn't sound so shopworn on a killer-muggy evening at 49th and Brooks Streets NE, a classic inner-city neighborhood of slums and seedy public housing salted with lovingly tended individual homes.
There were perhaps 100 young men and boys hanging around, attention centered on the pickup, nonstop basketball action. Hour after hour went by without a fight or even an argument, nobody was stumbling around drunk or strung out, and the cars were parked along the street with windows open and valuable objects in plain sight. The rules of the game were in force, strangers not excepted.
The rules of The Coach were in force on the football field. A grayhaired man who looks like a preacher and talks like a sergeant, Vaughn led the players through warmup drills and scrimmage with an efficiency that surprised an obverver until he reflected that some of the men have been playing football for 20 or 30 years.
For the truth is that many of the Bears are men of a certain age. Running back Jim (Boo-Yea) Davis is 43, or 39, or 46, or something, depending on whom you ask. He has the dwindly calves and potbelly of advanced middle age, topped by the arms and shoulders of a dockwalloper.
"There's that old man again," Vaughn said, pointing to Davis, who was giving pointers to a young man who would like to beat him out of his position. "He's too old for this game. I wish he'd retire. I got guys getting old, waiting behind him for years."
They apparently will keep waiting for at least another season, because Davis is sucking it up to campaign once more.
"The trouble is I can't cut him because he's the best in the league," Vaughn said. "He's like Jimmy Brown he'll show you a leg and then give you the arm and he's gone . There's plenty can run faster, but nobody can think quick enough to catch him."
Davis was not practicing, and many of the Bears' returning stars were not among the 20 who showed up for the first mid-week session. "Some of them have to get football stirring in their blood when the Skins go into camp," offensive coach Butch Johnson said. "Some of them just don't want to sweat yet."
Only a few of the men present would make the 40-man roster and five-man taxi squad, Vaughn said. "All our positions are open, nobody gets carried even if he's been with us for years, there's no buddy system, but our veterans are good . I had to make a rule that we add at least five rookies a year to keep the team from becoming an old men's club."
"We want the young men to get a show while they can still go somewhere," Johnson said. "We've gotten boys scholarships to Bowie State, Kentucky, various schools, and we've sent some to the pro camps, Redskins, San Diego, Philadelphia. It's a slim chance, but for a lot of people around here it's the only one."
For some the chance comes after the time has passed when they could take it. First-string quarterback Carey Flemming has a rifle (and sometimes shotgun) arm and plenty enough smarts to play in collech enough to get him a scholarship offer. But Flemming has four sons.
The Bears hope to expand their youth movement to teams for young boys, drawing them into organized sport, and therefore organized society, before they go wandering off down mean streets.
"We've been playing for ourselves too much," Johnson said. "We need to reach out more, change our image."
Toward that end the Bears have scheduled a Sept. 16 benefit game with the Washington Ambassadors for the children's division of D.C. General Hospital, whose letter of authorization speaks of a host of things needed for sick and hurt children "with varied social and developmental problems, many compounded by battering circumstances and sheer neglect." Details of the contest are not yet set.
Before that bone-cracking do-gooder they will digging down for their own bus fare to Lorton (July 16), Harrisonburg (July 31), Clarksburg (Aug. 13), Binghampton (Aug. 20), Montgomery Junior College (Sept. 3) and wind up at New Haven Oct. 22 against the U.S. Coast Guard.
They will also be trying to crack the D.C. Stonewalls, perennial league challengers who this year are coached by Bob (Vince Lombardi) Johnson, founder and builder of the Bears. League games, and in some cases league teams, are still being worked out.
"We'll get it together,he kids. O.J. Simpson is a good influence up there on the TV, but the kids around here need someone they can touch."