Oasis in the Sky
(Perhaps a bit crude in places.) Two-a-days. The dreaded curse of any young man who ever squeezed a football helmet down over his ears, high school through the pros. It’s hard work, the bone shaking “hamburger” drills, the mind-numbing repetition, the harsh scoldings for a misplaced footstep, and …the heat.
It’s like trying to explain parenthood to someone who never had children. If you haven’t spent two hours in the hot sun in full football garb, you may have trouble relating to this snapshot in time. Try thinking of spending an afternoon in a hot sauna wearing a hooded winter jacket and snow pants. That might get you there.
D-2 kids try just as hard as the NFL bound elites at Alabama or Ohio State. They put their bodies through the same trials, the same hardships, the same sacrifices. They practice under the same sun. The sweat soaks their T-shirts and burns their eyes whether they are sixteen or twenty-one, whether they are in Georgia or Montana, whether they have aspirations to play on Sundays or play only for love of the game. Except for a deranged few who wallow in the glory of demonstrating just how tough they are by welcoming extreme hardship, the sun is the enemy. So it was one sweltering hot day in August in New Hampshire.
The 60’s, Medieval times in terms of coaching philosophies. “Water breaks are for sissies.” “Tape it and walk it off.” “We’ll find out who’s tough”. And so on, from the mouths of those who can’t do, so they teach.
Despite what the southern half of the country thinks, it gets hot in New Hampshire in the summer, even above 90 degrees. Leather shoes, sweat socks, knee pads, briefs, pants, hip pads, a T-shirt, rib pads, shoulder pads, a heavy jersey and that God awful helmet built for protection and to keep the heat in. Add the burning rays of the sun, affectionately referred to as “bennies” by college students seeking a tan, but known as “the photon punishment” for those doing calisthenics in full football gear on a hot summer day.
“Jesus Christ, Roger, it’s hot out here.”
“Yeah, you got that right, Clark.”
“You think the Bullet will shorten practice today?”
“I doubt it. I hear the Coach is one tough son-of-a-bitch.”
“Hey, guys, do you know what they call the coach’s goofy son?”
“What’s that, Bull?”
“Ha, that’s pretty good.”
“And do you know what they call his wife?”
“I’m afraid to ask.”
“The Bullet Hole.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake.”
Freshman football. Show up for school two weeks early. A good way to make friends, especially if you’re a thousand miles from home. Roger and Clark were from the same metropolitan area, but they had never met before that first day of football practice. With some degree of notoriety in their hometowns, and with their names taped to their helmets, they quickly found each other. Bull hailed from the same state, and pushed his way in to make this a group of “homies”. His crude ways presented some discomfort for Clark and Roger as he made American Pie’s Stiffler look like John-Boy Walton. To say Bull was a pig was an insult to pigs.
“Stretch it out!”
So they stretched. Then they ran in place. Then they did jumping jacks. All on cue, following the lead of the selected team leaders. From a distance, they may have looked like the first cuts at a Rockettes tryout, but they were getting “whipped into shape”. The sweat was already pouring down Roger’s face. His head felt like it was in an oven. And practice had just started.
“Gentlemen, take a lap!”
The practice field was huge, more than enough space for two football fields. Roger, a running back, and Clark, a cornerback, set a nice pace for the conditions. Movement brought a welcome hint of breeze, a touch of wind, weaving its way inside their helmets and bringing a cooling touch to their faces. Bull, an offensive lineman, struggled, but he survived.
“Alright, on your backs!”
And down they all went. The ground was hard as a rock. Roger had never felt hot grass before.
“Sit-ups! Twenty-five sit-ups! One…two…three…”
This wouldn’t have been hard for Roger as he had worked out all summer, but the heat was making it a challenge. The hot sun was bearing down on him like a hot iron on a pair of pants. Staring straight up, he could only see blue sky and the glare of the sun. For a moment he thought he could actually see the heat.
And then something caught the corner of his eye. White, puffy, and big. A cloud. A huge, billowing cloud had just appeared on the horizon. A cloud, the one thing besides Persian arrows that could blot out the sun. A cloud, the creator of shade, the promise of relief, if ever so slight, if ever so brief. And it was heading their way.
“Clark! Bull! A cloud!”
A starving man would welcome the tiniest morsel, a man dying of thirst, a drop of water, a football player lying on his back baking in the sun, a cloud. It was an oasis of hope, a respite from the unbearable, oppressive heat.
“Oh my God, Clark, it’s huge. It’s coming this way.”
“Leg lifts! Get those legs up!”
New sweat pouring onto old sweat. The players were drenched in it.
“The damn thing looks like it’s parked itself. It ain’t moving!”
“It’s moving, Bull. It’ll get here.”
“It’s not even close, Roger. That cloud won’t get anywhere near the sun.”
“That cloud is going to save us, Clark. Trust me. Somehow, someway, that cloud will give us a little shade.”
The sun seemed to sense Roger’s optimism, his hope, and it turned up the heat.
“I think my face is on fire.”
“Just think, the soccer guys are running around in short pants and T-shirts.”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
“Sit ups! Twenty-five!”
“That thing looks like a big bowl of ice cream.”
“Nope, it’s cotton candy, big wads of fluffy cotton candy.”
“Wrong. What’s with you guys? Those are two big boobs in the sky, coming right to me, and bigger than Karen Johnson’s.”
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Bull. Is that all you ever think about?”
“Neck exercises! Pair up! One guy on your hands and knees, the other put your hands on his helmet. Push! Left, right, up and down! You need to strengthen those necks.”
“Roger, what’s your cloud doing? I can’t see it from down here.”
“It’s coming. The damn thing is slow, slower that Bull, but it will get here.”
“Hey, I heard that!”
“What are you guys talking about?”
“The cloud, just over the gym, It’s coming our way. Roger here says we’ve got some shade coming.”
“Alright, switch it up!”
The heat, the burning sun. Roger could feel his soaked T-shirt clinging to his body. The sweat was burning his eyes, and he had nothing to wipe his face with. That cloud couldn’t arrive soon enough.
Others picked up on Roger’s discovery. It was big news on the practice field that day as all the players were suffering the same plight. One would have thought Roger had discovered a new planet, or maybe there had been a sighting of a Good Time ice cream truck offering free treats and being driven by one of the Kardashians. Come on cloud, get here.
There had never been such a cloud. It wasn’t just that the cloud was needed. It was a spectacularly large cloud, long, wide, and billowing up to the heavens. And it was the only cloud that had crossed the sky that day, a lone traveler in a sea of blue. It almost took Roger’s mind off of his suffering as he was once again flat on his back with his feet a foot off the ground.
“Roger, your stupid cloud isn’t moving.”
“Oh ye of little faith, it’ll get here, Clark”
“You are a false profit. We’re going to be like roasted marsh mellows before it gets it here.”
“I like marsh mellows.”
“Shut up, Bull.”
All the players were now aware of the huge, snow white mass in the sky. It became Roger’s cloud, so named for its discoverer. For these poor guys trying to exercise in sweat soaked uniforms in the blazing hot sun, it became a glass of ice cold lemonade, a cherry popsicle, a refreshing spray of water off a breaking wave at the ocean’s shore, and well, for one, a girl with really big boobs. Roger suddenly felt the pressure of the moment. The whole team was counting on this cloud, his cloud. He discovered it, he promised it.
“Come on, super seer, where’s your freaking cloud?”
Oh my God, that was the senior star running back. The whole team would be making fun of Roger if that stupid cloud didn’t deliver. Why did he have see it in the first place? Then why did he have to open his big mouth?
“His name is Roger, Roger Martin.
“Shut up, Bull.”
Over the centuries, people have marveled at the beauty and splendor of clouds reaching up to the heavens, or quaked in the ominous approach of darkened storm clouds, but never before in the history of the sometimes shaky science of weather forecasting has anyone prayed for the proper trajectory of one single solitary cloud.
It was getting closer, but it seemed to be veering off to the north. Or was it just the sweat in Roger’s eyes blurring his vision?
“On your feet! Burpees! Machine guns and drop on the whistle!”
Roger’s personal pain became secondary. He was still roasting, miserable, and in need of a few moments of shade. But now he wanted that cloud, needed that cloud, for it’s own sake- Ahab and the great white whale, Roger and the great white cloud.
Visualization. He learned the technique from his high school coach. He closed his eyes and imagined that cloud enveloping the sun. He could feel the power.
“It’s going to get here. I know it. That cloud will wipe out the sun!”
A few muffled cheers, but mostly mockery grounded in hopeless surrender to the elements.
“Running in place, knees up high.”
The players were moving on autopilot, none wishing to be the first to falter.
“Ok, take a break. five minutes.”
The entire team dropped to the ground as one. They were all spent, flat on their backs, taking deep breaths, resting, but still baking in the hot sun. That star running back was the first to notice.
“Hey, Roger’s cloud is getting there!”
An exhausted Roger looked skyward and saw that great big, beautiful cloud zeroing in on the sun. He seemed to control it with his eyes. He first thought it had a chance, not the one in a million kind, but a good chance. For a moment, it seemed locked in place, stuck in a blue glue, but then the great white cloud teased the sun around its edges, sending flickering moments of relief to the suffering below. Roger would later tell his grandchildren that the cloud made a 90 degree turn and obliterated the sun. A dark shadow slowly moved across the practice field eliciting thunderous cheers along its path as, row by row, the players welcomed the arrival of shade, sweet, wondrous shade. The coaches could only wonder what the heck was going on.
College kids thrive on humorous imagination and exaggeration. They also love to affix labels and nicknames to people, places and things. Roger one day would become the team’s star running back, a real Big Man on Campus, but he would best be known for a variety of nicknames that attached that day- “Shady”, “The Weatherman", “Sky Gazer”, and Roger’s personal favorite, “The Shadow”.
The legend of Roger predicting and steering the Great White Cloud grew with the passage of time. There have been other memorable predictions in sports history- The Babe pointing to the center field bleachers at Wrigley before knocking one out of the park, Ali taking out Archie Moore in four. But for this football team, on this small New England campus, nothing rivals Roger beckoning the Great White Cloud.
The bookmarks of one’s life are not always the result of careful planning or intentional acts. Sometimes they just fall out of the sky.