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21 Tackles

July 7, 2020

It was 1972, in the Greater Buffalo Area.

At a private day school, the world changed. Scholarships that gave their tiny football team enough talent to win, ended. The little league that the school dominated, ended. Not much was left. Except I was the Co-Captain of that team that year.

If you fully engage in anything, you pretty much know how good you are. I knew this senior year was it for me in football – what I loved would end. I could function as the typical high school lineman, and that is about it.

I never made it to 5ft 11in. and I weighed under 190 pounds. My best 40 yard time was 5.5 seconds, but at least I was not the slowest person on the team in 1972.

But I loved (and love) the game in all it’s noble viciousness – enough to coach it in later years. But in this time, football had a central place. In the regular absence of my mother or my father’s full time absence – fully bathed in alcohol – the sacrifice on the field meant everything to me.

So when that world became threatened, the coach and my co-captain and I soldiered on, with a couple of pick up games and playing the now combined squad of two teams we regularly defeated. It wasn’t much, but it was something. It was probably more than the Pandemic Season has for most students doing any organized effort.

We practiced (which I loved) and my father realized that he had never seen what I had devoted my non-graded life to for the last 4 years. So he made the first non-holiday visit to see one of our few games that year – a 350 mile drive.

That senior year I was regularly used as a defensive lineman and a center on offense. The Thursday before the Saturday game, the coach pulled me aside. “We need you to play middle linebacker”. I shrugged, in 1972, there was not much to know.

‘”They are just going to run, and if you are in the line, that helps us in one place, if you are behind the line, you can help us in more places.” Part of me laughed. We were so bad that my slow speed still meant that my devotion enabled me to be better than the others who practiced. And they would not pass.

We hit the field, my father in a trench coat and a hat, with perhaps 100 other spectators. And we got the kickoff. We had several good players and one was our running back, who went on to play for 4 seasons at Union College. First snap, I drop-step cross-blocked with the guard (also good) and popped the back, who broke a tackle and went 60 yards for a touchdown,.

We were “offsides”. The play was called back. That was the only thing resembling a touchdown we had that shortened year.

So the game went on. Four twelve minute quarters. And we punted, often. The other team had a great back too (they still had scholarships), and he carried the ball over thirty times.

The triumph was that we held them to 3 touchdowns, and only lost 21-0.

The weirdness was that my positioning helped. Over thirty times I either tackled that back or helped others do it, Never for a loss. Usual ending up on my back. I never left the field, as we had so few players, so my father was able to see me play, for one day.

The following Monday I went to the Head Coach’s office for the weekly meeting with my co-captain, and the Team Manager was putting up the Game Stats on the bulletin board. Bleak. Except one line,

“Tackles: Dickinson 11 Solo, 20 Assists.”

“You set the record, if we had one” the Manager said. “The Assists count as 1/2 tackles, so you got 21 tackles. I think the previous high was 17.”

As anyone who knows football knows, this means the team was pretty bad. Other people should have been there before I could have been there, but weren’t.  We were bad. I was just less bad that day.

“You were good,” My father said after the game. “We sucked.” was my reply. And we did. But we played. It was a gift. It was the only time my father saw me do anything in high school and college, except for my graduation next spring. His presence had to have meant something, but I only remember how bad we were.

The coach retired that year. The new coach revived the team for a decade, they were better so no more “21 Tackle” games by anyone. Then the school ended football. They built a gym in our field, where they now have (private school) all state championship basketball teams. And a player in the NBA.

So I am pretty sure that I hold the team record for the number of tackles in a game for The Park School of Buffalo. If there is a record.

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