My Little Brother Bobby’s Moment of Glory

“History is not what happened; history is what we remember.” (after Sellar & Yeatman)

We were playing tackle football. I was around 9 years old. That would have made Bobby 7, and our best friend Scotty 8. There were about five other children near Scotty’s and my age, and we were beginning the ritual of choosing up teams. Our official football field was the east side yard of the Clearys’ house, right across the street from our own house, and next door to Scotty’s house. The Clearys were a nice family because they let us play in their yard even when their own children weren’t around. Actually, most of their children never played in the yard, because they were grown up — or at least old enough to drive cars. There were eleven Cleary children, counting two sets of fraternal twins, but not counting a rumored twelfth child in a mental institution. With all these children, the Clearys needed the biggest house on the block, with a large yard on each side.

Steve was one of the fraternal twins, and the youngest Cleary son. He would have been 12 years old. Steve was my idol. I admired Steve for his competence and for the fact that he was nice to everyone, even me. On this day, Steve came out of his house with a friend, and we begged him to play football with us. He hesitated.

“Well, my friend Jim is here.”

Jim was also about 12, and, like Steve, an excellent athlete. Both were later to become high school track stars.

“He can play too,” we said in chorus, delighted to have roped him in.

But then Steve said, “I want Jim to be on my team. That way, we can throw passes to each other.”

We younger kids fell quiet for a moment. This negotiation wasn’t going so well. The way we children played football was according to what I’ll call “Kids’ Rules”. One of the main rules was “Teams have to be fair.”

“That wouldn’t be fair,” we insisted. Steve and Jim were far bigger, faster, and more skilled than any of the rest of us. It was obvious to us that with both of them on the same team, the other team would have no chance.

“You and Jim have to be on different teams,” we reasoned out loud.

“It won’t be fun for us.”

We could tell we were losing them. Scotty, our most gifted ring-leader, said, “You can both be Team Captains.” The rest of the children quickly agreed.

This was a gratuitous offer, since, according to Kids’ Rules, the two biggest, most competent players are always the team captains anyway.

Our desperation must have touched Steve, because, after getting Jim’s consent, he reluctantly agreed to be team captain, along with Jim.

So we split up into two teams according to Kids’ Rules, which state that the captains get to pick members alternately. That’s fair. We children had learned by experience that a person’s age, height, and football skill were all proportional to each other. I was a head shorter than Steve and Jim, but I was also half a head taller than any of the other children, so I got picked first. Bobby, a head shorter than me, and the shortest of the children, got picked last.

Satisfied that the teams were fair, we began playing football. As it turned out, the teams were indeed fair, and after playing for a while, the score was pretty even. The game also confirmed in everyone’s eyes the judgment that Bobby was indeed the weakest player. He could barely catch a pass, even if it was thrown as gently as possible, in which case any of the other kids could easily intercept it. Bobby was too little to tackle any of the other players on his own, but he had fun helping others tackle the bigger kids. And any of the other players could easily tackle him.

But Steve was frustrated. “Let’s choose up new teams. I want Jim and me to be on the same team.”

“No, no, no!” we all started to shout, reiterating our previous objections. But Steve was marvelously resourceful.

“How about we play me and Jim and Bobby on one team — against everybody else?”

We were stunned. “Everybody else” meant me, Scotty, and about 4 other kids our size. Although all of us were considerably smaller than Steve or Jim, we reasoned that there’d be three of us to cover each of them. We could forget about Bobby. He couldn’t do anything. So we satisfied ourselves that the teams were “fair” — probably even advantageous to us — and we started playing.

At first, things worked out as expected. Bobby, since he couldn’t do anything else, was given the job of “hiker”, as we called it. He’d hike the ball to Steve on command, while Jim ran down the field surrounded by 3 or 4 of us. Since Jim was taller and more competent, he could generally catch the pass Steve would throw, but he’d immediately be brought down where he stood by our team. On the next play, Steve and Jim would trade places, giving each a turn at passing and receiving.

When we had the ball, there were just too many of us for Steve and Jim to cover, so we did pretty well.

But then, something unexpected happened which changed the game entirely. Steve came up with a new offensive play. The first time they tried it, we noticed right away that something strange was going on. At the lineup, Bobby was no longer the hiker. Steve was. Jim stood next to Steve at the line of scrimmage, and — to our amazement — the quarterback was Bobby! We could hardly contain our amusement at the futility of this new plan.

Bobby & Billy
Bobby and the author in 1954

At the hike, Steve started running down the field, blocking the boys who were covering him, and pushing them out to his left as he went. Because we didn’t know what else to do, we tried to surround Steve, as if preparing to defend against a forward pass. Of course, this didn’t make sense, because we knew Bobby couldn’t throw the football that far. Steve was clever, and positioned himself about mid-field. Before we knew what was happening, Jim starting running down the field after Steve, blocking and pushing to the left any boys who were still standing. For a moment, this play seemed pointless to us. But just then, Bobby started to run with the ball. Although any of us could easily have tackled Bobby under ordinary circumstances, we were all either on the ground, or too far away. So Bobby, with a clear field, ran all the way for a touchdown. Our team was in disbelief.

The next time Steve’s team had a first down, we could see that they were lining up to do the same play. This time, we were ready. Well, we weren’t ready, actually. We simply knew what their play would be, so the element of surprise was missing. It turned out that it didn’t matter. Even though we knew exactly what they were going to do, we were powerless to stop this play. Steve ran down the field blocking or knocking down anyone in his path. Any boy who somehow got past him would be blocked by Jim. It was another touchdown for Bobby.

Children have a remarkably refined and creative sense of fairness. After four or five of these now-predicable plays, our team protested that it wasn’t fair to run a play that was, as a practical matter, impossible to stop. Steve and Jim saw our point. So we all agreed that Steve’s team would simply not be allowed to use that play any more. The game went on from there with the normal give-and-take marking a fair match.