My earliest memory in life exists on film, a wall image projected in the 1960s in the family home, as a family movie, and I was a kind of crazed child actor, both a musician and an athlete, as a tyke dancing around, a spinning dervish, a handful, for sure.
Well, I can't remember the actual so good. It's the concussions, maybe. But when I was very tiny, I used to run around the house with an Easter egg thingy that made music like an organ grinder. I apparently could walk at a very early age. Hyper as hell. Must have driven my parents nuts with this organ grinder Easter egg thingy. So I'd dance like I needed special drugs to stay sad, crash into chairs and tables and walls, turning the egg, shaped like a football.
How did I know about football? Must have been on black-and-white television, most certainly. Apparently, as my mother told me, I was in a shopping basket at the grocery store. A little tyke, still, obviously. I saw this big African-American man. I blurted out, "Look, mommy! Football player." She was pretty embarassed about that.
I'm quite sure I showed no interest in the game while we lived in the desert suburb built north of Phoenix in an area known as Deer Valley from 1960 to about 1968 or '69. I played baseball in little league, but I had no idea what I was doing out there. The whole idea of someone throwing a round rock in my direction scared me, quite frankly. I used my dad's old four-fingered glove, which was flat as a pancake. My dad had used it in the 1940s. It was some relic. The other kids had five-fingered gloves. So my parents weren't too knowledgeable about athletics, either. No, we were a family of readers, marching band geeks, we McDaniels were.
But I must have had some special gifts, being able to walk early and all. I remember putting on catcher stuff in little league practice once. Then, I climbed up this fence at Shady Glen Elementary School, out there on the edges of the desert in this neighborhood in north Phoenix, where there was nothing built north of our home, and got some laughs from the coaches when I climbed the backstop fence and acted like a monkey fool.
Then, during a game, one of my first, I was put out in centerfield and someone hit a ball in the air to me. I caught it with that frayed four-fingered pancake mitt. People started clapping and yelling. I had no idea why. Such things are considered a small miracle at those pre-T-ball ages. Usually outfielders were disinclined kids afraid of ground balls. When the game was over my parents were overjoyed at my heroism, but still I had no clue. They said I'd made an "out." I'm quite sure my first thought was, oh, that doesn't sound good. But they said, no, it was amazing. They were so proud.
As far as I can remember this was the first time I'd achieved anything in my life. It felt like a sunshine smile inside to be recognized like that.
It was a dream and I was late, walking across a barren urban landscape in my football uniform. My helmet was on ... Polo palace ... offensive line as a chain gang, pushing and pulling. A few people watched in lawn chairs. The skill players, had no uniforms, and only seemed to be there as stars on the move ...
Then, we moved to Dallas. It was the late 1960s. We lived in this much bigger house in North Dallas and this neighbor had something called a "Cowboy Antenna" on his roof and those people were the envy of the cul-de-sac. We still knew nobody in the area and when a family member came to visit us we were driving in the car and they asked us if we were going to become Dallas Cowboys fans. We all said together, "No way!." Coming from Phoenix, which had no professional team, we were drowned into incredulity at what became of people who had become sports fanatics. The obsession was strange.
But then we got a free Dallas Cowboy sticker with the star at a free gas station giveaway. My mother gave it to me. Then, we went to the gas station again and they gave us a Dallas Cowboys drinking glass. My mother gave it to me. From that point, it was all over. The glass had the old-school Cowboys image of the 'poke riding a horse on one side, the silver Lone Star. I drank, and it was as if I'd become enchanted. At that point in my life, the only other thing that really moved me was the song "Help!," by the Beatles. We listened to their music at my next door neighbor's house. We'd listen to the Beatles, and then, Led Zeppelin's first album, which, to me at first listen, sounded like a bad car crash. But still music had made much more sense to me.
Now, my parents were obviously quite concerned with me from the day I was born, since I was a breach birth. I couldn't do much as a little tyke but play in the dirt, catch lizards and put them in coffee cans or dance around like a damn fool with a musical Easter egg. Apparently, they were amazed I'd be able to read or speak much so I had some kind of learning disabilities that appeared to be a mystery to everyone. To reverse this frustrating problem to my parents who, on my dad's side, was a brainy computer engineer, and my mom, a wannabe librarian, they bought me books if I showed interest in anything: Dinosaurs, World War II, whatever ... I kept this fascination and stirring I felt at the first notes of "Help!" quite secret. I was quite sure my quite arch-conservative parents from deep south Texas wouldn't be buying me any books about those guys. Once, when we were waiting for my dad to come out of work at the General Electric plant in Phoenix we heard over the radio that one of the band members, John Lennon, had said they were bigger than Jesus or something like that. Nope, I was pretty sure to keep quiet about all of that music stuff. It seemed to get my dad all riled about when we watched the Ed Sullivan Show and saw all of these hippies playing crazy music. Yeah, at I was at least smart enough to stay mum in that category. Didn't want to get slapped for it.
But when I showed an interest in football, my mom started buying me all of these books about football. Indeed, I was reading about it well before I was actually playing it with the kids out on our front lawn in the cul-de-sac in north Dallas ... Heroic stories about the stars of the game like Gale Sayers, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Jim "Night Train" Lane. So that's how I learned how to read.
But I still wasn't very good in sports. I hated baseball. Hitting was always a terrifying experience and I'm pretty sure I didn't start hitting the ball until well into my teens. Once my parents bought me these black plastic cleats and when I was out there on the field my feet would bake and I couldn't figure out what was going on beneath that hot Texas sun. God, how I hated little league well into, say, the fourth grade. In fact, I pretty much hated any social activity I was drafted into by my parents. I hated wearing my Cub Scouts' uniform to school. I would strike out on purpose. But I did start to show some nack for games, imaginary play and playing the saxaphone, which I lugged to school each day: hated that, too, of course. To this day I believe I was destined to become a musician, but that never really happened. A wasted life, most assuredly, I was being led astray by an athletics mad world! My most prized possession was a small box transister radio where I would listen to FM music late at night, quite secretly, of course.
I came along in my footballl uniform, and continued across wide urban fields, like old wrecked Detroit, to find a small, but coloseum-like structure, where the stairs led into the core of the earth, with multiple layers connected by twirling stairwells. At each level, two things were evident. The first was an incredible number of beautiful women leading crowds to two things, healthy food and strip club venues ... simulations for Ford truck driving commercials ... intravenous beer commercial substitutes ... People constantly telling me I'm late ... A song, anthem really, intended as a tune to cure football madness ... This wasn't a game on. It was some kind of mass therapy session.
However, when I think about it, I had an incredible winning percentage, in football, lifetime. The first teams I played for were fifth- and sixth-grade teams in Dallas: at F.P. Callet Elementary School, on the north side of town. I had learned to play football with the neighborhood kids on the cul-de-sac we lived on, and I had become a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, even keeping a scrap book of photographs for the team's 1970 and '71 Super Bowl seasons, and learning more by playing a dice-oriented strategy football game featuring teams for previous years produced (sponsored) by Sports Illustrated. I would play these games for hours with my brother, my friends, and when they weren't obsessed enough I'd create whole leagues, keeping statistics of my own, by myself. In addition there were cool strategy games featuring card overlays back then, with little devices to create variables once produced by dice, to offer more spontaneity. So by the time I was eleven or twelve years old, I was a regular Tom Landry, mastermind innovator football coach for the Cowboys, in my own mind.
But I had to really work to make my second great achievement in life occur. That is, to get noticed enough to stay off the bench. Since we were new in town, having moved to Dallas from Phoenix in the late 1960s, I didn't have many friends or peer support despite looking great in football pads. Nobody knew who I was, and I had difficulty speaking. Shy. Not showing much interest in classes, and during this age of desegration in Dallas, with schools moving African-American teachers into classes, and my fellow students showing a parental fondness for their parents' extreme right-wing values, being abusive to the teacher of my beloved music classes, who were black, and feeling extreme confusion about the whole deal, embarassed for the whole scene, how ugly it was becoming, how I wished the kids would stop being so mean to my music teachers, who were really knowledgeable about the topic, seemed to me, and me being so polite, as I was being so raised by my parents, I hated my classmates, who were, if I understood anything at all, being raised to become lifetime bigots ... Anyhow, no great achievements in life were going to occur at F.P. Callet by 1970 under these social conditions, and if not for the coming of the Three Dog Night hit, "Joy to the World," coming on my little transistor radio, I might have become someone who had no hope at all, as opposed to someone who would probably need special drugs to say sad ...
Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, great achievements ... We would play football all day on the curved grass lawns of out on the neighborhood cul-de-sac, using the equally arched sidewalks leading to our big brown-bricked houses, for goal line markers. And, consequently, as we landed on them to score, somewhat ambivalent to pain. Which is necessary in life, in general, I've found. Anyhow, I was learning to catch and throw and block and tackle and all, at an age when injuries other than scraped knees from scoring were rare, and by the time I was in the fifth grade I was one of the best players on the block, being damned fast as a runner, a peculiar commodity, that, in terms of pre-teen life male values, on my block. I ran out of fear, of course, getting tackled being inconvenient. And from reading my books about Calvin Hill and Gale Sayers and Jim Brown, figured out if I stepped one way, looking that way, too, then going the other, tacklers would tend to fall flat on their faces, and I would thus be saved ...
But when I joined the fifth-grade team, the coaches were in no way planning on giving this nerdy, shy, quiet kid the ball. Since I was bigger than other kids my age, and I had been given football pads bought at Sears that had a neck pad to prevent backlashes, was being raised as a young offensive lineman and defensive tackle. This was fine with me, since I loved Bob Lilly, the future Hall of Famer, No. 74, for the Cowboys. However, I wasn't named to the first team at first, even though I was first chair as a saxophonist, and the dichotomy of these two worlds seemed pretty as above, not so below to me. Finally, I went home and wept about it to my mother and she responded with a strange story about my dad. She said it was okay for men to cry. In fact, she had been surprised to find my dad crying when she came into the room while he was watching the funeral ceremony after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Thinking about it now, I could see why that was a marked moment for my mother. My dad, coming from deep south Texas, was arch-conservative and used to take me around our north Dallas and Phoenix neighborhoods as tykes to do door-to-door campaigning for Barry Goldwater (who we called "Goldwahwee," apparently, as kids, my brother and I). Next, being consoled about this strange political fable, my mother bought me yet another football book. It was written by Bud Wilkinson, the big winning football coach for Oklahoma, and featured detailed instructions, with diagrams, for every football action imaginable, including how to kill a guy by tackling low.
Suitably informed, I can remember the practice ... a bright sunny day in Dallas. We were doing tackling drills and I correctly, Bud Wilkinson style, picked up a kid much larger than I, throwing him to the ground, flattened and weeping. I can remember laying there. On my back. Quite satisfied. And I was looking up at the heavenly sun, the coach looked down on me, a silhouette with a whistle. He was smiling, obviously amazed. "Who are you?", he said. I said my name. He pulled me up. From that point, for the rest of my organized life of playing football, I was a starter.
That F.P. Callet team, during the two seaons I played there, only lost one game, an across-town match in west Dallas in the rain. They had a big tall and fast kid who couldn't be caught. So I faced loss only once in Texas: a career 20-and-one record as a Texan. Then, as a freshman at Chaparral High School, our team went 8-1-1. We went 6-4 as I moved on as a sophomore/junior squad ... (for now I will skip until later my junior and senior years for the big juicy part to come later) ... (The, you know, "dazed and confused" as an KISS and Aerosmith fan part of the late 1970s) ... in college, as a member of a flag football team for an ad hoc group of students built from an apartment-dorm complex of athletes, a team called the Dark Shadow Bears we only lost the championship game to an ROTC team who, we were all convinced, had glued his flags on and ran up and down the field, impervious to us. The cheaters! It was like some bad out-take from "Animal House," that game.
At the bottom of the staircase, the game is on. And I'm terribly late for my date, all dressed up in my uniform, and the two-minute warning is on ... and it still looks like there are all kinds of barriers to the underground field.
I think, in fact, I'm pretty sure, special drugs were needed for me to become a loser in sports ... But for all that in college stuff, I need to add this. Far as I can recall, I got two "A" grades as a student at the University of Arizona. One was for my first poetry writing course. The second, for a late flag football class that I took as a senior because I forgot all about that P.E. requirement before graduating. I broke my left arm in that damned class, which never did heal right. Just before that, on that day in Tucson, across the common ground from Wildcat stadium, I had demonstrated a special skill: The ability to, as a blitzing defensive back, to rush the quarterback and intercept the ball just as he was releasing the pass. I had been practicing that one in the back yard for many, many years successfully, but never in "official" play. But on that day, I did it and scored! About fifteen minutes later, I went high in the air again, feeling the juice, and crashed down on my arms, feeling stunned, queasy and sick from the shock. Broke my arm. I never went back to that class, too busy as a young man with two stories to write every day for the Arizona Daily Wildcat, combined with a period where I was an intern at the Tucson Citizen paper, to go back, with the class load of a senior, to tell the P.E. teacher what had happened. But when I found out I wasn't going to be able to graduate without being able to reconcile that issue, I went back to the flag football coach, reminded him of my great interception play ... Great Accomplishment in Sports Life No. 3 ... and he said, remembering: "Obviously, you get an 'A'."
So ended my organized football career. Enter, the age of the pencil and pen.
(To be continued) ... (Someday soon, as an upcoming e-book at various Mythville OnDemand locations)