The Last White Line
A gridiron hero learns a lesson in a story that throws some light on the belief that individual stars do not win football games
The Last White Line
ON ONE side of the field sat ten thousand persons who were silent because their throats had been strained beyond the limit of endurance; on the other side ten thousand persons who were silent because there was nothing about which they might cheer.
The teams lined up in kick-off formation for the last play of the last game of the year. It wasn’t a game of sufficient importance to be heralded far and wide by the national press associations, but to the Red and Black of Woodland and the Gold and Black of Markham it was the one great athletic contest of the year: the game beside which the rise and fall of empires were unimportant. It was the game.
Yale and Harvard, Army and Navy, California and Stanford—those were gridiron classics in which the twenty thousand spectators of the annual Woodland-Markham dash had only a casual interest. This was a struggle between the two colleges, a battle fought each year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving—and this year it had taken on an added importance, for it was to decide the state as well as the city championship.
Throughout the dull gray afternoon the teams had battled with traditional ferocity and courage. The record of seven successive years seemed certain to remain unbroken: A record of three-points-or-less difference between the teams. This was a game where dope meant nothing—as for instance this chill November afternoon when Markham had registered twenty-one first downs to Woodland’s five, had completed eleven forward passes to Woodland’s one; had ripped and torn and hammered and battered the Woodland line! Had caused the Red and Black to fight throughout the game in the shadow of its own goal posts—putting into play a little more than human power to check the Gold and Black assault.
And then the Gold and Black had prepared for a placement kick from the nine yard line. Fourth down and six to go. There was a snap, a surging together of tired, sweating bodies, a filtering through of wild eyed linemen—and a black and gold clad leg swung back, a cleated shoe plunked squarely against the ball and it sailed in a triumphant, majestic arc over the goal posts.
The stands on the north side of the field rose in a chorus of hysteria. They shrieked and screamed and hugged one another; hats were tossed high in the air, never to be recovered; and pretty girls threw yellow chrysanthemums out on the field. … The Boy Scouts at the end of the gridiron posted the score:
Markham players crowded around their halfback and cried on his shoulder and kissed him … the worn, battered, tired Woodland players walked moodily toward the center of the field. They had fought their best—and a little better—and defeat had come to them. Their captain spoke to the referee and then to the timekeepers.
“Fifteen seconds to play.” That meant one more play; one and only one. Woodland’s captain elected to receive. He turned to exhort his players—but his eyes filled with tears and he said nothing.
They were each in position, swaying on their feet, eyes glazed and bodies quivering protest against the sheer agony of the mauling to which they had been subjected. It had been a bitter, losing struggle; a hopeless battle of unquenchable courage against immeasurably superior odds.
Already the spectators were streaming toward the exits. The Red and Black stands rose for a final cheer:
The referee raised his arm. “Ready, Captain Carr?” The big man nodded. The referee lifted the whistle to his lips … but abruptly he paused.
A queer, undramatic thing was happening. Over on the other side of the field the Woodland right halfback swayed a trifle, then quite simply sat down on the frozen turf. For perhaps a second he remained motionless—then as though tucked comfortably in his bed, he pillowed head on hands and passed into unconsciousness.
The referee beckoned to the sidelines. An ancient negro trotted out on the field carrying a water bucket. Behind him came a doctor with a sinister little black bag. Some of the Woodland players gathered around their stricken companion; others merely dropped where they stood, welcoming the moment’s respite. They were not unsympathetic, it was merely that their own sympathies were dulled by the physical battering through which they had gone.
The Woodland coach cast hopeless eyes up and down his bench. A few substitutes were sitting there, huddled in big red blankets. Most of the varsity players who were not on the field lay on the ground before the bench: one of them groaned with a broken ankle, one grimaced with the pain of an injured nose, others just lay helpless and cried. …
BUT there was one young man on the bench who leaned forward eagerly in an effort to attract the attention of the coach. Twice the mentor’s eye passed him by; then he nodded—
“Warm up, Dolly.”
Dolly Parker leaped to his feet, dropping the blanket from his shoulders. He wasn’t large: perhaps five-eight in height and weighing about a hundred and sixty. His figure was boyish but well knit; his uniform immaculate. Not once during the season had he been sent into the varsity line-up. … He pranced up and down in front of the bench, throwing his knees high with each step in the traditional manner of all college football players. And then as they bore the limp form of the unconscious right halfback from the field Dolly Parker sped across the gridiron and reported to the referee. The stands gave two pallid cheers; one for the injured hero—one for the unknown sophomore who was taking his place.
Crowds were blocking the aisles. Word had reached the stands that this was the last play … a mere formality before another season would have passed into history. The new man took his place far on the right of the field, within a yard of the intersection of goal and sidelines.
Here he was, in the varsity line-up, playing half against Markham, perhaps qualifying for a letter. All season he had scrubbed: taking the battering of the varsity uncomplainingly, hoping against forlorn hope that the coach might notice him … and all through this long, bleak, miserable afternoon he had sat hunched on the bench staring with flaming eyes at the carnage, the epic struggle of an inferior team. …
The shrill of the referee’s whistle cut across the field. He experienced the awful tremor which comes with the first kick-off. And then he heard the warning shout of his captain and saw that the oval was spiraling directly toward him. He dug his cleats into the turf and waited. His teeth were pressed tightly together; he noticed the three man interference massing ahead of him. Then the ball struck his body and his arms folded about it. He took it in his hands and, holding it out in front of him, sidestepped a catapulting tackler.
His eyes swept the field. Wherever he looked there seemed to be golden, mud-streaked jerseys closing in viciously. The giant Markham center flung himself through the air. His fingers touched the adhesive tape on Parker’s legs. Unconsciously he flexed the muscles of that leg and evaded the tackle.
It was the captain’s voice, and Parker obeyed the summons. But only for an instant. The onrushing linemen of the opposing team had also heard the call and they swerved toward the Woodland captain. Dolly Parker took three steps in that direction and then reversed his field with catlike agility … and now there were only four Markham players between himself and the goal, and the Woodland rooters, gripped by the feeling that something magnificent and miraculous was transpiring, chorused hoarse-voiced acclaim.
Four men between himself and the distant goal posts. His cleats kicked up little clods of dirt with each lashing stride. A big halfback of the opposing team cut in on him, and, at the precisely correct moment, left his feet. Parker threw his weight on one side and the tackler ploughed into the ground.
Three men now: two of them converging toward him: the third, a veteran quarterback, waiting tensely in case this human streak should succeed in eluding the other two. It was impossible, of course, and yet …
They bore down on him from opposite sides of the field. To his ears came the sinister cry: “High!” and its answer from the other man “Low!” He knew what it meant: the first man was going to hit him chest high, the other man to dive for his knees. It was the sort of tackle which has smashed more than one iron physique.
He did not slacken pace, but he was holding something in reserve and he knew it. They timed him to a nicety and leaped at the same instant. Both touched him before they collided in midair—and now the red-jersey streak which was Dolly Parker was flashing across the white lines toward the goal. Only that safety man … the other twenty players were strung out behind, some of them racing in hopeless pursuit, others picking themselves up from the turf and merely watching the drama.
From both sides of the field came wild, frenzied shrieks of encouragement: Woodland howling to this new hero—Markham pleading, begging, praying to their safety man. The last play of the game. …
DOLLY PARKER knew without looking around that he had distanced his field. He was thinking clearly now: somehow this seemed no more than a practice scrimmage. He deliberately slowed down—slackened pace without breaking stride. He was doing what is technically termed “drifting,” a feat possible only to the supergreat.
He prayed that the safety man might be tricked. He swerved to the right and the opposing quarterback out on him. No untutored player here. This man knew his job! five yards—even ten—made no difference to him. It was his task to keep this flaming youngster from crossing the goal line. That and only that. If necessary he’d let him get to one side, and then cut him down or else run him out of bounds—and the game would be over.
Apparently Parker was traveling with all the speed at his command. His face was contorted with effort; he still held the ball out in front of him, ready to tuck it under his arm should the necessity arise for stiff-arming with the left.
They drew closer and closer together. It was certain that they were destined to meet—body crashing against body … and the Markham quarter was a deadly tackler. One finger on a man, and that man was down. More than one flashy broken field runner had learned to dread this man’s vaulting, steel-like body.
The stands were hushed. In this single magnificent moment victory was to be decided: a clean tackle meant victory for Markham—a failure meant a touchdown and glory for Woodland. In all that gathering of twenty thousand there were only two persons who counted: Dolly Parker and the flying quarterback of the Markham team.
And now they were close—closer. … There was a hysterical shriek as the gold-jerseyed figure shot through the air with deadly precision. And at that identical instant, Dolly Parker came to life. He dug his cleats a little deeper, flexed his muscles a trifle more tightly—and fairly leaped ahead. The quarterback barely touched him—then crumpled on the ground sobbing.
And now the Woodland stands waked in earnest. They shrieked and screamed and cried as the lithe, boyish figure flashed down the field for the thirty-five yards intervening between the prostrate figure of the Markham quarter and the goal line. The cheering was a bedlam: incoherent barks and hoarse-throated screams and a great sob from twenty thousand throats as Dolly Parker crossed the goal line.
And that was all. There was no necessity for the attempt at point after touchdown. The game was over. The timekeeper’s whistle had blown. And Woodland had won 6—3.
Dolly Parker was dazed. He stood under the goal posts with chest heaving and legs feeling queerly all gone … and the varsity swooped down upon him and some of them put their arms around him and others cried like babies, and big Reb Rogers fell face down and sobbed and sobbed … and then the students swarmed about them and lifted Dolly Parker on their shoulders and bore him from the field. Tears were streaming from their eyes—and they were very boyish and very foolish and very sentimental. It was a beautiful and wonderful and silly experience—and Dolly Parker was reveling in the moment which would make all life worth while for him.
His letter—of course. And in the dressing-room the hard-faced, soft-hearted coach expressed his opinion quite profanely:
“Oh! Dolly—Dolly—what a louse I’ve been. All season I’ve used you as a scrub plunger. … All season I’ve yelled like hell for a broken field runner. … I’m a rotten bum. I ought to go out and shoot myself. But wait ’til next year. Oh, my gosh! Just wait until next year!”
And that was the motif of the hysteria which pervaded the exquisite little campus that night. “Wait until next year! We’ve had the swellest halfback in the Conference with us all year and we didn’t know it.” But now—
Between the closing of the football season and the Christmas holidays Dolly Parker was the campus hero. He was placed upon a pedestal, not only because of his magnificent achievement, but also because of what he promised for the future.
He made a frat and was elected vice-president of his class. When spring training period came along Bill Boswell, the coach, worked indefatigably with him.
Bill Boswell saw many things. He saw that while Dolly’s historic run in the Markham game might never be repeated, the young man had the makings of a truly great football player—one of the flashy, twisting, squirming, open-field men who make football history. “Yeh—you’ve got the stuff, kid. Gimme the lad who can reel off thirty and forty yards every once in a while—and I’ll make him into a team. Yup—just gimme a guy that can do that, and a quarter to run the team, and a plunging fullback to get two or three yards when they’re needed for first down, and I’ll put Woodland on the football map. You tell ’em—I certainly will.”
BECAUSE of Bill Boswell’s ambitions, spring training was more arduous than usual. Woodland was returning eight varsity men in addition to Dolly Parker. Added to that imposing array was a list of flashy freshmen who were certain of first-string berths. Boswell arranged a tentative line-up and put them through signal drill.
“Speed—everything for speed. That’s what we want next year: speed and trickery. Here comes Woodland—there they go! That’s us next season. C’mon, Rogers—little pep there. Give ’em the 84-31 play: double backward pass an’ a forward to Dolly Parker! Attaboy, Parker! Thassit! Cut in! cut in! You got it! Dig, lad, dig!”
It was baseball season, but the members of the diamond squad came in for scant attention during the spring training of the gridiron crew—which was indicative of the hope which Dolly Parker had aroused. It is one thing for college to fall into a football frenzy when the chill October breezes sweep the campus. It is something quite astounding when that interest can be awakened under the clear blue skies of April when the men are wearing track suits instead of the impressive gridiron armor.
But that miracle was occurring this spring at Woodland. And with the passing of the days it became certain that Woodland was to have a team which would make its bid for fame. The student body was delirious with hope. Here was the chance for which every minor college longs—the opportunity to flash across the firmament where only big universities belong. Particularly they were thinking about the opening game against State. Woodland always opened State’s schedule—a warming-up contest for the great Conference champions. Perhaps, in September … well, it certainly wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.
Dolly was more of a hero than ever. He was quick on his feet and had a lightning get-away. He was an agile and sure side-stepper. He could punt more than ordinarily well and drop kick short distances with uncanny precision. And he seemed to possess football instinct: that was what delighted Bill Boswell … no technique to be hammered into that cranium: it was all supplied by nature.
Then came commencement and the breaking up of school for summer. In mid-August the football squad reported at River Camp where for three weeks it went through a rigid conditioning process. "Big time stuff! That’s us. If we don’t have a team this year, we never will. Eight varsity regulars back, including two three-yard ends. And Dolly Parker, And six as promising freshmen as we’ve had in years. C’mon boys! Dig in—speed! Thassus!”
Bill Boswell located a fairly level stretch of turf in a secluded pine grove. He put track suits on his men—track suits and cleated football shoes and sent them scurrying through the glade.
“Dig in now, lads! Stick them cleats into the turf an’ ruin it! An’ every last one of you go at full speed. Each man makes for a tree, an’ he don’t sidestep until he’s most hit it! Beat it now! Fast—an’ hard. Stiff-arm the trees if you’ve got to, but don’t slow up. Everything we do this year’s gonna be at top speed. We ain’t gonna give a single team one minute to breathe. Maybe they’ll beat us—but they sure gotta travel fast to do it.”
Speed! Speed! It became the shibboleth of the little college. Speed and trickery. Hour after hour Boswell gave the squad skull practice: each man was to have a certain job to do in each play and was to be letter-perfect on doing it. And then he tossed out a half a dozen new footballs and worked them weary.
“If you can’t handle a football, you ain’t worth a darn. Practice! Just keep on practicing. You gotta get so that if a football was to hit you when you was, it’d stick in your fingers.”
The football camp was “informal.” Formal football practice, as permitted under Conference rules, started the day college opened. The team trotted out on the field in the pink of condition which comes usually only after a gruelling month of conditioning. The student body saw and marveled. They particularly marveled at Dolly Parker. He was a bundle of steel springs—in the early scrimmages it was Parker, Parker, Parker: in and out, here and there a human jack-rabbit. They didn’t stop to analyze that these plays had been planned just that way—so that Parker could star. Dolly was doing wonders, but there were ten other men helping.
State’s husky squad arrived rather disdainfully for the opening game. State’s coach wondered what it was all about when he saw ten thousand persons in the stands: usually this game drew around three or four thousand. He didn’t know that rumors had circulated through the city—that those who knew football believed that this was to be real game and not a practice scrimmage.
It was. State kicked off to Woodland. Harrington received and returned twelve yards. The Red and Black was lined up before State knew what it was all about. Dolly Parker barked the signals—the ball came to a halfback. He dug in for right end, the full running beside him and a trifle to the rear. A big State end swooped down on the man carrying the ball and he flipped it to the fullback. The fullback slowed down, measured the field and then flipped a straight and true forward pass across what had been the line of scrimmage.
They caught Dolly Parker after he had run sixty-three yards. It was a daring play; an unthinkable, impertinent play—a play which violated every precedent. But it had worked.
AND that afternoon Woodland justified itself and stepped into the front rank of Conference colleges. When the game ended State staggered from the field; battered, bruised, bewildered. “Good Lord! Seventeen to nothing—and we never had a chance! Say, who in thunder is this fellow Parker?”
And the Sunday papers all over the section asked the same question the following morning. A new Eckersall, a new Millin, a new Thorpe! Dolly Parker of Woodland—already a maker of Conference history.
That was the beginning of Woodland’s greatest football season. The team played as a unit and functioned with machine-like ideas—. It didn’t go stale—Bill Boswell had had queer ideas about training; unorthodox
“Ev’ry Saturday night you boys break training until Monday,” was his order. “An’ I don’t mean maybe. Eat ice cream, get out an’ dance. Stay up late. Enjoy life.”
It worked. Instead of pointing for a single game, the team was pointed for every game. It swept through the first part of its schedule like a hurricane in a ravine. There was no stopping it.
Woodland attracted the attention of nationally known sports writers. Newspaper syndicates and even a magazine sent men down to write of the superb Red and Black team. And they, keened for the dramatic and seeking always the colorful, selected Dolly Parker as the subject for their encomiums.
Dolly Parker’s picture was syndicated a half-dozen times and appeared in newspapers from Portland to Minneapolis and San Antonio. He was the great outstanding figure of his section—nor was his glory dimmed when State, overrun 17-0 by Woodland, journeyed north and held one of the most powerful Eastern eleven at a tie score.
Dolly Parker would have been less than human had all of this adulation not gone to his head. As a matter of fact it affected him less than it would have most young men. But after all, he was twenty years old, of an emotional type, and the football loving populace bowed its collective head and worshiped.
There is no question of the fact that Dolly Parker became arrogant. There is no question of the fact that he believed he wasthese miracles single-handed. Save from the lips of Bill Boswell, he grew intolerant of criticism. The other members of the team resented his attitude.
“Big head—that’s what he’s got.” They were seated in the room of Reb Rogers, the giant tackle. “This is my third varsity year and I know what I’m talking about. I know as much about football as Dolly will ever know—and I realize he isn’t doing it himself. There isn’t a team that works together like we do: every man of us in every play. We’re blocking like a machine and running interference that a cripple could, get through on. Mind you, I ain’t saying that Dolly isn’t a great player, but by gosh! he hasn’t any right to get high hat with us, and I’m not going to stand for it.”
That was the beginning. It was the first time the squad had heard Reb Rogers utter a word against any one, and Reb was perhaps the most popular man student at Woodland. He was big and drawly and good humored; a quiet-voiced, calm young chap who looked on life with a smile. They knew Reb was right. Nothing upstage about Rogers. Fine chap, I doggone it! Why didn’t he come in for some of the glory? The squad took to being sorry for Reb. … It grew resentful of Dolly Parker even while it was proud of him.
The feeling against Parker did not crystallize immediately. It was a process of slow development, but the seeds of dissension had been sown on fertile ground and they sprouted surely—but not quickly enough to mar the season of Woodland’s gridiron achievement.
Markham was slaughtered by a 34-0 score: the only one-sided score in the history of the two institutions. Dolly Parker had flamed across the field magnificently throughout the game, the team working with him in absolute certainty and precision. The game was interesting only as an exhibition of perfect football
And then the following week the varsity banquet was held and the election of a captain for the next year. For some time there had been a deal of campus conjecture. The squad didn’t want to elect Parker. Its choice was Reb Rogers—and Rogers called them aside individually and in groups.
“Nothing doing, fellows. We’ve got to elect Dolly. He gives me a pain in the tonsil—but that hasn’t anything to do with it: everybody in the country knows him and if we don’t spot him captain, there’ll be an awful howl.”
“But Reb, we were counting on you!”
“I won’t serve, so there isn’t any use. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to. And I’ll be honest and say that I think I’d make a better captain. But for Woodland’s sake we’ve got to elect Dolly Parker.”
And so Dolly Parker was duly and unanimously elected Woodland captain. He accepted the honor quite casually, and expressed the belief that he could lead them through to an even more successful season than it had just aided. He finished his talk by thanking the other members of the team for their work—“Really fellows—you all played good football: every one of you!”
There it was: a simple statement of fact—simply made. But it went deep and rankled. They discussed it after the meeting. … “Good Lord! you’d think we hadn’t done anything—that there wasn’t but one man on the field. Dolly Parker makes me sick.”
Dolly Parker was the outstanding figure of the campus. He had filled out and added poundage. He believed that he alone had made Woodland’s glorious football season—and he was not to be blamed for thinking so. The best writers in the country had united in tribute to this steel-muscled young flash. Of course they admitted that Bill Boswell had coached well and that the team had played adequately; but Dolly Parker was held up as the shining example of the theory that no team can achieve true greatness unless its offensive is built around a flashy individual star.
NATURALLY, Dolly kept a book of clippings, and, equally naturally, he was proud of them. Also there were many who desired to see the clippings—and Dolly quite undeservedly acquired the reputation of an insufferable egoist. He was surrounded daily by a sycophantic group—and those who were not sycophantic went quite to the opposite extreme and learned to despise the lad.
It was an unhealthy situation, and one certain to bear fruit. A hint of it was received in spring training. Exercising his prerogative as certain. Dolly took to ordering the men around. They resent it bitterly—particularly Reb Rogers. He had a keen football sense … and he didn’t like to be told what to do: not by Dolly Parker anyway.
“You’d think he was Knute Rockne, the way he’s trying to run things. I’m getting good and tired of it.”
At pre-season training camp the following August. Parker worked as hard as the others, but it was evident that he considered himself a little better than the other members of the team. The veteran lettermen resented the attitude, and the graduates of the freshmen squad and the more promising subs from the preceding year became inoculated with the spirit of rebellion which was creeping through the camp.
Dolly himself was unaware of any change in himself. There was no conscious desire on his part to lord it over the others, but he sincerely believed that Woodland’s chances rested on his shoulders … and he enthusiastically assisted Bill Boswell in devising plays which would give him greater opportunities for starring.
When the little college opened its doors to the biggest freshman class in history—thanks to the brilliant record of the team the preceding year—the name Parker was heard almost as frequently as the name of Woodland. Members of the squad frequently caught snatches of dialog:
“Going to watch practice this afternoon?”
“You tell ’em, I want to see Dolly Parker in action.”
State had respectfully declined an opening date this year, and a little denominational college was booked. Banners were flung to the local breezes:
WOODLAND (with Dolly Parker)
Dolly Parker … always Dolly Parker … McKenzie was swamped. Only the injection of a flock of substitutes in the second half kept the score under a hundred. Sport writers blurbed about the Woodland cyclone—and they meant Dolly Parker, not the team.
Practice became daily more rigorous; the huge freshman class included some wonderful football material from state prep schools and they furnished the varsity with some stiff scrimmages. Bill Boswell drove and drove and drove—speed, cunning—and then more speed. Exactitude was his byword. Some of the scrimmages against the freshmen took on the ferocity and bitterness of regular games.
The general public knows little of football practice. It does not see the daily grind—the battering and hammering, the merciless criticism, the fierce combat sans color and applause, it is the long days of football practice which test men’s souls, for it is nothing but hard, hard work; bitter and minus the exultation of a big game. And it was during these long grinding afternoons of scrimmage that the sentiment against Dolly Parker crystallized into a deep, sullen, thoroughly understandable dislike.
Nine varsity men on the team—nine fine players—nine men letter perfect in the art of affording Dolly Parker opportunity to add laurel to his wreath. Nine experienced men to take orders from him on the field, to accept his criticism when players went wrong.
To make matters worse, Bill Boswell seemed to have acquired the Dolly Parker complex. He was perhaps the worst of the lot. Occasionally he criticized Dolly, but when he did it was quietly and without vitriol. …
The red flag of danger was unfurled to the breeze in the annual clash with State. The local gambling crowd were betting even money and giving State eight points: that is, Woodland had to win by more than eight points to enable them to collect. The dope was all in favor of Woodland which had returned almost intact the team which whipped State the previous year 17-0, and State had only five letter men in her line-up.
But State was taking the game very seriously this year. Eighteen thousand people jammed into the modest wooden stadium. And eighteen thousand people watched in amazement the bitter, grim battle in Woodland territory: a battle during the course of which Dolly Parker flamed only occasionally—a battle which went to State by 7-2 score: a single lucky safety being all that enabled Woodland to escape a shut-out.
Stale! that was the cry that went up the next morning. Stale! The wonder team had been pointed too early. But Woodland wasn’t stale—it hadn’t even reached the peak of condition. It was simply that Woodland had not played as a unit. Each individual had given his best—to Woodland—but not to Dolly Parker. Somehow State had sifted through time and again to throw him for disastrous losses. Spectators groaned: “Dolly’s flatfooted today. He can’t seem to get started.” Dolly was critical of himself. It never struck him that the line hadn’t been doing its share.
“I don’t know what hit me today,” he told Bill Boswell. “I felt good—but I couldn’t get going. I never saw men get through as quick as they did. And I couldn’t seem to stick with my interference. I guess I’m pretty awful.”
REB ROGERS and his intimates were miserable, and it didn’t occur to them that the fault was theirs. Each man knew that he had given his individual best and no one of them recognized the virus which had been at work, they did not know that the mechanical precision which had made the team wonderful the previous year had been destroyed by the personal feeling of dislike against Dolly Parker.
The following Saturday the team played one of the biggest universities in the East. And there, away from home, the eagerness to win overshadowed the anti-Parker sentiment and Woodland functioned as it should have against State. It won 10-0, and the newspapers proclaimed it as fine a small college team as had invaded the East since the day when Center defeated Harvard.
Another victory followed, but the team play was ragged. And then came a defeat by a college which Woodland should have beaten by three touchdowns. No one could lay a finger on the specific weakness. Experts left the field bewildered. Each member of the team had played magnificently … no man had knowingly shirked. But the feeling against Parker marked that difference of the fractional part of a second which makes for perfection.
The balance of the season was a succession of amazing reversals. Teams which were doped to defeat Woodland were crushed. Other teams, admittedly weak, defeated the Red and Black. It was a miserable disappointing year—a year during which exaltation followed on the heels of depression—and was immediately succeeded by worse depression. One day Dolly Parker was a great hero—the next he was criticised fiercely and openly.
Bill Boswell worried day and night. Dolly wasn’t going good this year. Remember that forward pass last Saturday: Dolly should have been there—and he wasn’t. He was slow, flat-footed, you know.
Even Bill Boswell, wise as he was in football, did not know that Stumpy Williams had thrown that pass a split second before it should have been thrown. All he saw was that it was a perfect play and a perfect pass—and that Dolly had not been there to receive it.
And gradually Dolly Parker began to understand. Comprehension did not come all at once; it penetrated gradually … and when he did understand, he didn’t welch. That wasn’t Dolly’s way. In spite of the very natural air and arrogances which had come to him—he was pretty much of a man and he took his medicine standing up.
Of course he understood—and he hated them for it. Permitting jealousy to ruin the team record! He could have taken his theory to Bill Boswell—but he wasn’t that kind. He accepted the, and met the team in conscious battle. They’d ruin things, would they: well he’d jolly well show ’em who was captain of that team.
He was sharp on the field: quick in rebuke and slow in praise. He watched every play critically. The other men—who had never analyzed—misunderstood again:
“Dolly’s slipping—and he’s trying to blame us for it. I guess he’s pretty quick at that, but I didn’t notice him handing us anything last year when they were proclaiming him a wonder. That’s always the way with these temperamental stars: they hog the praise and dispense the blame. Well, I guess I can’t play any better than I have been and that’s all there is to it.”
The city was on the qui vive over the annual clash with Markham. Markham had a strong team this year: no doubt about that. Of course it was a typical Markham team: heavy, rather slow and unimaginative, finely drilled in football fundamentals—a great defensive organization with a steam-roller offensive. It was precisely the sort of team which Woodland should beat by a huge score.
But Markham was hopeful. Something had gone wrong in the Woodland camp and everyone knew it. One team which Markham had trodden down later defeated Woodland. And while a Woodland victory meant nothing in particular to that school in the way of adding to its glory—a Markham triumph meant everything to the Gold and Black.
Woodland was in a peculiar position: It had to defeat Markham or the season was a colossal failure. But victory was to add no star to its diadem. Defeat would be ruinous—and so it approached the big game in fever-heat, realizing that in this contest dope meant nothing and that Markham would be on the field keyed to the nth power for the victory which would mean everlasting glory.
The Red and Black was nervous and fidgety as it took the field. Dissension had reaped the breaking point. The cheers were all for Dolly Parker and the team—but Dolly was the only individual whose name was barked at the end of the Woodland rahs. The squad knew that the general public considered that it had fallen down—and that Dolly Parker was as great as ever. It resented the fact.
Woodland received the kick-off. Instantly it tried a split buck which netted four yards. A sweeping run around gained twelve more, thanks to Reb Rogers’s perfect interference. The stands rose and cheered Dolly Parker, who had carried the ball. Reb shook his head and swore under his breath. The team squirmed. Reb knew and the team knew that Rogers’s name should have been on the end of that cheer and not Parker’s. And Dolly Parker should have known it but apparently he didn’t. Or if he did, he gave no word of praise to Reb Rogers.
Four yards—six—first down. Then they were held twice and Parker signaled a punt formation, himself back. The ball was snapped. He streaked to the right and backwards, balancing the ball in his right hand. The Markham captain shrieked the warning “Pass!” to his secondary. Then Dolly cut in. Reb Rogers was between him and a Markham tackle. There was no reason why Reb should have failed to block that man out of the play.
But he didn’t. Parker was thrown for a fourteen-yard loss. As the teams lined up he expressed his opinion:
“What’s gotten into you Reb? Are you asleep—letting that fellow through?”
“Awl! can it! If you’d been awake he’d never have gotten you. I blocked him out and you cut right into him.”
The team was all with Reb Rogers. Dolly again called for punt formation. And then things happened with lightning swiftness: the center and both tackles sifted through on the play, Dolly’s punt was blocked—the stands groaned—it seemed as though Dolly had delayed unnecessarily. The ball struck a Markham player in the chest and rolled back toward the Woodland goal. A fleet-footed little Markham end scooped it up on the dead run and sped for a touchdown. They lined up on the three-yard line and an extra point was added.
Markham—7, Woodland—0. The Gold and Black stands were a surging, screaming mass of delirious humanity. Here was the break of the game: the impossible, the unexpected. Woodland elected to receive again and when the teams clashed it was a different Markham—a team which for the first time believed it had a chance to defeat its bitterest rival—the state’s wonder team.
Woodland made two first downs—one on a beautifully executed forward pass, Snyder to Rogers—the latter having shifted to end on the play so as to be eligible as a receiver. The Red and Black stands rose and cheered—“Rah! Rah! Rah! Tears!”
Then Markham held and Parker punted: a long spiral which went fifty yards over the line of scrimmage. The Gold and Black launched a fierce, driving offensive—employed its weight in nibbling tactics: six yards—one—four—first down. One yard—no gain—eight yards—and then a smashing off-tackle play which yielded another first down.
Hammer, hammer, bang—rip—tear!
WOODLAND was playing brilliant individual football—and that was all. It was not functioning as a team. Eleven Woodland players threw themselves valiantly into every play—seeking perhaps to salve their consciences by bruising their bodies. But the exquisite coherence of their play was gone. The feeling against their captain was responsible for that.
Woodland found itself fighting a losing battle. The Red and Black stands were appalled. Woodland held on its own six yard line and Markham’s try from placement went wrong. Woodland’s ball on its own twenty yard line.
Parker—understanding the situation—was playing an inspired game. But he was getting no help. Interferers weren’t where they were supposed to be. Time after time he was thrown for losses. All through the balance of that quarter and throughout the second period, he was caught before he started. The stands murmured: wise spectators—always eager to deride a fallen idol—murmured “I told you so. Yah! Didn’t I always say this here Dolly Parker was a fluke? Look at him now; yeller! Quitting! Laying down like a dog just because his team ain’t winning!”
The new feeling penetrated to the field. Dolly sensed the current of adverse comment thought which was sweeping the Woodland cheering section. He knew instinctively that they thought he was yellow—a quitter—a front runner to star when things were going well and to lay down when the breaks were against him.
The half ended with the ball in the middle-field. Bill Boswell scarcely knew what to say. He did not discern the total lack of teamwork: he, too, saw only that the team was playing brilliant individual football—and that Dolly Parker was not getting away as he should. He didn’t want to ride Parker. …
The Woodland squad was not ashamed, because the Woodland squad didn’t know what it was doing. Its actions were reflex—born of resentment and nurtured in bitterness. Each man was putting everything he had into each play … only Dolly Parker understood—and there was nothing he could say.
The second half opened with a fierce succession of scrimmages and a fruitless exchange of punts. Then Markham got the ball and ripped and tore down the field. And this time the kick from placement did not go wrong. Straight and true, spinning end over end from the toe of the big lineman who was called back for the try, it sailed over the very middle of the crossbar and the Boy Scouts at the score board altered the total to read:
Woodland received. Dolly barked the signals for one of their pet plays, a sweeping run around right end, with a backward pass and then a long toss across the line of scrimmage to himself. The play failed—came within an inch of being intercepted. Another trick play was tried: a big guard came lumbering through and Dolly was thrown for a loss. He dropped back at the triple threat point of a punt formation—and his punt was blocked. Woodland received by sheerest good luck and it was fourth down with twenty-two yards to go.
Dolly Parker rose from the ground, he was quivering with futile anger. He signaled the referee for time out. And then he called the team about him.
They came reluctantly enough; all except Reb Rogers. The giant tackle stood where he was indifferent to the summons of his captain. Dolly’s voice rang out sharply:
“Rogers! Come here!”
Rogers came, his face red with fury. And then with a voice which trembled with outrage and with bitterness, Dolly Parker spoke to his men. His eyes were blazing and his teeth clicked together—clipping his words sharply.
“Just a word! And no interruptions. I want to tell you just what I think of you. You’re a bunch of yellow dogs! You’re quitting! Laying down! And you’re doing it because you’re sore at all the notice and attention I received last year and this!
“Bill Boswell don’t know what’s the matter. The studes don’t know. But you know—and I know.
“I’ve known for some time! You’re laying down on me—quitting like a bunch of curs!
“Yeh—get sore if you like. You ought to. Now listen to me: and this means specially you, Reb Rogers! Listen—”
He thrust his head forward viciously.
“You know what you’re doing? No? Well, I do. You’re playing traitor to Woodland, that’s what. You’re throwing down your college to get even with me! I guess you’re having a fine time knowing that the spectators think I’m laying down under fire, eh? That’s what you want, is it? Well, by God! you’re going to get what you want.
“Me—I’m going to lay down. I’m going to quit. But I’m not doing it to betray Woodland. We’ve got a three touchdown better team than Markham. And I’m going to quit because I want to see Woodland win.”
They were staring at him wide-eyed and speechless. There was something inspiring about him as he stood there, feet spread, eyes flashing, slim and straight and regal.
“The college is bigger than I am,” he said in a quieter voice. “You fellows have been gunning for me—you’ve been throwing the school down. Well, I want to see Woodland win. Reb Rogers—from this minute on, you’re captain of the team! I’m taking myself out!”
He turned and walked proudly across the field toward the Woodland bench. For a few seconds the team did not move—then three of them headed by Reb Rogers darted in pursuit.
“Dolly! For God’s sake don’t do anything like that—”
“Get away from me. I’m out. Now see what you can do, Rogers.”
He reported himself out of the game. Bill Boswell sent in a substitute. He dropped on his knees beside the lad.
“I knew you were hurt, Dolly: I knew it all the time.”
“Yeh,” Parker’s voice was scarcely audible. “I am. But there ain’t anything wrong with me physically.”
A newspaper man rushed up for an explanation. Dolly gave it. “I took myself out,” he aid crisply. “I wasn’t any good.”
The reporters returned to the press stand. Word filtered through the crowd. Meanwhile, on the field the referee’s whistle shrilled and play was resumed. Woodland punted—and then the game really started.
Under Reb Rogers, the Red and Black played as a unit—and it played inspired football. Markham failed to gain and was forced to punt. The kick was hurried.
Woodland unleashed a flashing, brilliant attack. Every play went off perfectly. Down the field they drove with a hint of the football which had made theirseason glorious. It was a brilliant, epic sight—and hoarse-voiced humorists in the stands made themselves heard whenever the cheering abated for a moment.
THROUGH it all Dolly Parker sat motionless on the bench, staring at the field. Closer and closer to the goal line—ripping, tearing, flashing trick plays when least expected … a touchdown near the end of the third quarter; another at the beginning of the fourth period and a third one just before the closing whistle for a final score of 19-10, and of the third Woodland victory in three years.
The crowd swarmed down on the field as the team filed toward the exit gates. Spectators congratulated the team members, howled approval to Reb Rogers. And everywhere could be heard caustic comment against Dolly Parker. Oh yes indeed! the public understood everything now—quite everything! It understood clearly that Parker never had been any good—that he had received credit for what others had done. That was very clear.
The team reached the shower room. Dolly was seated alone in the comer. The other men eyed him guiltily. No one spoke. Reb Rogers came in—and there gleamed in the eyes of the big tackle a suggestion of that light which had flamed from Parker’s face on the field when he took himself out of the game. …
Reb Rogers walked across the room to Dolly Parker. The slighter man rose—waiting.
Rogers dropped both hands on Dolly Parker’s shoulders. He spoke in a voice which was not at all steady.
“Dolly,” he said, “I’ve been talking to the newspapermen. I—I’ve been sort of explaining to them that Dolly Parker licked Markham single handed today. I’ve been telling them—telling them—”
And then a strange thing happened—a thing which was beautifully sentimental and silly.
They faced each other there in the shower room, in the center of a ring of battered, grimy football players, in an atmosphere which reeked of dirt and liniment. And quite suddenly and simply—without shame or embarrassment—these two blooded, streaked, sweat grimed men put their arms about each other and cried like babies.
And old Bill Boswell—Bill Boswell the hard-boiled—was the only spectator who commented.
“God!” he whispered reverently, “Ain’t that beautiful? Ain’t that just simply perfectly beautiful?”