My boyhood pal Ricky was either an accident waiting to happen or a pretty fair country football player, depending on whether he was injuring himself or someone else. He was what the coaches liked to call a “headhunter” but he was also something of a fall guy.
Like a lot of us of a certain age, Ricky and I grew up watching the Dallas Cowboys long before they were America’s Team. With competition from the Dallas Texans of the old American Football League, there was some doubt as to whether the Cowboys were even Dallas’ team.
We watched anxiously each Sunday to see if quarterback Don Meredith would be knocked unconscious before he could loft a deep ball to Bullet Bob Hayes, or if Cowboy linebacker Leroy Jordan would knock the snot out of an opposing running back, put him out of the game and thus give Dallas a chance for one of its few victories that season.
Leroy Jordan was Ricky’s hero from the start. “I want to hit people,” he said. “I want them to wake up the next morning in pain, and remember me.”
That wasn’t hard to believe. The first words Ricky said to me when we moved into a northeast Lubbock neighborhood was, “You wanna fight?”
And so we fought. Instead of declaring a winner, both of us declared the other one to be our best friend. Neighbors advised my parents to keep me away from Ricky. He was a bully, they said, and something of a troublemaker.
When the time came to “suit up” for football, Ricky appeared to be a natural. He had enjoyed a bit of a growth spurt and he was nothing if not aggressive. The qualities that made him such a liability in the neighborhood and the classroom endeared him to the coaches.
But Ricky’s road to gridiron glory was to be full of detours. A week before workouts began he took it upon himself to climb a tree at the local skating rink to impress an older girl of 16. He happened to be wearing roller skates at the time, which doctors and parents attributed to his fall from the tree and the breaking of his two favorite arms.
Scratch one football season.
The next summer Ricky was working in his father’s woodshop when a girl walking down the street in a miniskirt caught his eye. His attention wavered and the next thing anybody knew, he had sawed off two of his favorite fingers.
A few weeks later, we were in his garage where Ricky used two of his remaining fingers to grab some doughnuts that he found on top of the washing machine. I took one too but threw it away when I found a dead ant curled up in the icing.
“Hmmm,” Ricky said, helping himself to a third one. “That’s weird.”
A few minutes later his mother came home from the store and broke the bad news; she had laced those doughnuts with ant poison.
“You’ve killed me!” Ricky wailed, but yet another trip to the emergency room, this time to have doctors pump his stomach, put him back in the ball game. So to speak.
The coaches were glad to have Ricky back, swaggering around the practice field without a splint, cast or sling of any kind, but Ricky had fought his battle with the world at an early age and didn’t care as much as he once had for knocking his peers into next week. Frustrated coaches yelled at him, which inspired Ricky not at all.
When he fell of a skateboard and broke two fingers, keeping him out of contact drills for an entire week, Ricky came up with a plan. He unveiled it to me following a particularly grueling practice.
“Here’s the deal. I’m accident prone, right?”
“’Maybe a little,” I allowed.
“All I have to do is get hurt. The guys who get hurt don’t have to work out. They just sit on the sidelines or go see the trainer and that’s it. How hard can it be to get hurt playing football?”
While most of us aspired to be a first-string player, Ricky’s fondest desire was to go on the disabled list.
He set out to do just that. The results were truly startling. He threw himself into workouts with such reckless abandon that he finally came to resemble the headhunting linebacker he had fancied himself when we were younger.
Results were mixed. While trying to hurt himself he hurt a lot of other people, mostly his teammates. He became a starting linebacker and struck terror into the hearts of opposing teams. Even the high number of unnecessary roughness and personal foul calls were not enough to offset the damage he did to the psyche and bodies of our opponents. People took notice of him for the first time.
The same neighbors and friends who warned us about Ricky now sang his praises. “That boy’s a natural,” they would said. “A real headhunter, that one.”
Ricky’s call to gridiron glory came to an abrupt end halfway through the season. One of his favorite knees got twisted during a pile-up, and the doctors said it would be best if he took the rest of the season off.
While convalescing, Ricky discovered the electric guitar. He also discovered that girls liked “geetar” players as much or more than they liked football players – not that it was easy to play the instrument with two missing fingers.
“The thing is, I don’t have to get my brains beat out every day just to meet chicks,” he told me. “I just have to strum a few chords.”
And that was pretty much the story of Ricky’s football career.
As a postscript it should be noted that Ricky, the man who worked hard to be a football casualty and who was the most accident-prone person in the history of Lubbock County, grew up to be a construction worker.
On nuclear power plants.