Until the day I left Baton Rouge, I spent many night hours drinking beer and telling stories to the ancient, hearkening fools at Phil Brady's Bar off Government Street. I drank free if my stories singed the drunken torpor of the place with graphic allusions to old friends and teammates playing pro ball, or if I sang the LSU Tiger "Fight Song" while teetering from a handstand on a bar stool.
I remember a sax man in a crummy little jazz band who wore mirrored Polaroids in the dark bar, and a heavy turtleneck sweater even in summer. I bought him peppermint schnapps and packs of Camel cigarettes in exchange for kind words to my audience. He would whisper hoarsely into the mike, without conviction, "He was bad, y'all. He was bad."
It was always good to be bad in Baton Rouge, especially during football season. You could date sorority queens without fear of remonstrance from bellicose boyfriends. You could order prime rib at fancy restaurants and rest assured a wealthy alumnus would pick up the tab if you shook his hand and winked lasciviously at his wife. I used to run the streets at night with a big offensive tackle who would say, picking shreds of supper from his teeth, "I did that ole boy a favor. He can go home now and tell his friends he bought Charles McDuff a slab of raw meat."
My senior season, 20 varsity players shaved their heads for what the press reported to be the "pure helluvit." I know I did it to let everyone know who I was, and what I was. I played football for LSU. They spotted me in shopping malls and stared. I signed autographs and kissed babies. I mulled over running for governor.
Three years later, hungry and unemployed in my hometown, I'm considering shaving down to a Mohawk and seeing how many suckers will buy me beer and shake my hand. I want to be a hero again.
I live under my father's roof and eat at his table. Although I don't work, I coach a peewee league football team and break a sweat daily by punt-snapping footballs to my speedy wide receivers. I send them deep, on post patterns, and hit them on the run. The year, 1979, I captained Coach Charles McClendon's last LSU squad, I could snap a football 60 yards in the air, over 70 with the roll. I'm down to 35 and the spiral's gone. Very gradually, I'm losing it.
But downtown, in sporting goods stores and pizza parlors, glossy photos of me hang in framed deference from cinder block walls. I wear a purple and gold uniform and smile at you among blurred shots of the late Huey Long and primitive portraits of Mama and Chamber of Commerce membership certificates. There was a time when locals said I would put this town on the map. Have you heard of it? Opelousas, La.? Jim Bowie, of Alamo fame, and John Ed Bradley lived here.
"What I wouldn't do for one more night in Tiger Stadium," Big Eddie Stanton told me once. He runs a flea market now with his old man in Houston and is going bald. He combs his hair from directly above the ear and flops what few good strands remain over the crown.
A fine arts graduate, Big Eddie dreams of painting the streets of Paris, the people, the cafes. He married in a huge Southern Baptist church and settled for abstract studies of Jesus walking on water. He calls me occasionally to say he dreamed we played the game again. He gets all choked up and his wife takes the phone, apologizes. I say, "Tell him I dreamed the same thing, Kerry," and everything's okay. I tell her about our former teammate, a linebacker, who joined the sheriff's department so that he could stand on the sidelines during the home games and pretend the crowd roared for him alone. Big Eddie grabs the phone again. "You were the best, beast," I tell him. "I never knew better than Big Eddie Stanton."
I saw him last in Baton Rouge. Grilling cheap steaks, we huddled around a hibachi and warmed our hands over the flaming coals. "I'm losing hair fast," he said. "Remember when I had hair?" He might grow a mustache to compensate for the loss upstairs. It makes me sad. I picture him pounding opposing linemen into the turf, glorious, while the scoreboard registers another six points, our side. He had plenty of hair then, and pride, and we both had the game.
Or the game had us. It possessed us like a cancer gnawing our best tissue. And the tissue of the heart was always most vulnerable. Maybe this cancer slipped under our skin one cool fall morning while playing rough and tumble in the neighborhood schoolyard. It claimed us as victims then, when we were just kids, and later abandoned us for parts and others unknown.
The game said good-bye to my understudy, center Jimmy Holsombake, in the spring of his junior year. The shattering of his knee sounded like a shotgun blast. Recovery was impossible. Later, after the surgery, he would run his fingers along the seam of rubbery flesh scarring his knee and tell me about his summers running miles of sandy beach, lifting weights under the Florida sun and a lost hope for glory. "Since I can't play anymore," he said, "I guess I oughta get married." He moved out of the athletic dormitory, married his high school sweetheart, and I haven't seen him since.
I never knew a man who died playing football, though a brain tumor killed Butch Duhe while still suited up in his practice uniform. He died in the '60s, way before my prime. A trainer friend once showed me the gurney in the training ward where Duhe was when his heart stopped beating. They used the table for wrapping ankles and administering analgesic balm and ice treatments. "Right there," the trainer said, patting the table. "Right there is where he died. And they say he would have been LSU's greatest quarterback ever."
Not everyone I played football with at LSU lost the game at retiring age or by injury. Many walked away from the game. I recall watching a freshman defensive tackle, thick and knobby with muscle, put on his high school letter jacket and walk to the street fronting the athletic dorm to hail a cab. It was late at night and you could see him shuffling from foot to foot under a high, arching street light. He probably bought a fifth of bourbon and found a cheap hotel room for the night, drinking the varnish and swimming in a fabricated memory of the hero he never was. "I gotta quit before it kills me," was all he said before leaving.
A good drunk could help him forget what mattered most: that he had quit, that he had let himself, his family and his hometown down.
Many of my former teammates are now professionals. If you could happen by any minor hamlet or whistle stop in which a superstar was conceived, bred or schooled, show no surprise when gazing at billboards welcoming you to the home of their all-America, their favorite son.
Hometowns have a way of lionizing native blood. City councils would rather dump thousands into immortalizing human flesh than into repairing the potholes marring Main Street. Moments of marble are more enduring than asphalt puddles bound to quake and fail with summer's first hot spell anyway.
I remember first sighting David Woodley's photograph in a Miami Dolphins uniform, frozen on the cover of a national sports magazine, and how difficult it was for me to accept who he now was, no longer the frazzled boy who lived two doors down from me. He would often drop by to borrow paper clips or to offer cans of hot beer and cigarettes.
"Talk to me," he would say. "Tell me something." He was no longer the David Woodley who worked for a labor union during the summer offseason. His and Charles McDuff's job consisted mainly of dropping off Igloos of ice water to various construction sites and promising their boss victory in the season opener.
There are difficult nights when I awaken to nostalgia and fancy myself elsewhere: in a jock dorm, asleep, or wrestling with defeat in a Birmingham hotel bed, a loser again, flashes of the Bear's great red Tide beating like a neon in my mind, or embracing the end of my last season, there under the lights of the 1979 Tangerine Bowl, with an overwhelming sense of sadness that will easily turn to anger for losing what I was never quite ready to give up, the game. The game, the game.
Even now, three years since I last played, I have forgotten many of the faces, and misplace many of the names. What position did Bobby Moreau play? And Ralph McIngvale, wasted on tequila, ate how many Big Macs in just one sitting? Was it 34 or 43? And that same night, in a fit of juvenile rage for not starting against Rice (was it Rice?), how many record albums did he send skipping through his open, upstairs window, and did they crash and splinter into a million pieces, or was I there, with others, arms raised high to save them?
You remember the wrong things and forget what counts. I recall running into a young girl in the A&P parking lot near campus. It was a Saturday morning before a night game, and the fans were already out in droves, eating chicken salad on triangles of white bread, celery sticks laced with pimento cheese, and sucking the dregs from brown bottles of Scotch. They sat on truck and station wagon tailgates and called your name when you walked by. I remember how the girl smelled of fruit and butter, the autumnal scent of mellowed apples, and how, over the applause and cheers from the loitering crowd, I could hear her saying, "Y'all goan win, savage. Y'all goan win."
I hear her voice now, but I can't tell you if we won or lost, or who we played. She wore a red sweater, imitation cashmere, and pinned in neat rows across her belly and chest were photographs of my teammates clipped from a souvenir program. The straight pin entered the left eye and exited the right. "That's you," she shouted, pointing to a black-and-white square over her heart, "That's you . . . John Ed Bradley. Ain't it you?"