by Frank Kearns
“X’s” and “O’s,” the hieroglyphics of the football play. We scribbled and scribbled, my brother and I, drawing play after play on a little notepad. How many plays could we create for two young boys and one football? The only two things to do were pass or run, but we kept at it, drawing complicated passing routes and deceptive trick plays, looking for an advantage.
Our preparation was serious. Our rivals were twin boys who lived a half a mile from our house. Their names were Steve and Ron, and as unlikely as it was, they had the same last name as we did—they were “Kearn,” without our “s,” but close enough. They were red-headed and freckled, and age-wise were exactly between my brother and I. We formed a circle. I was eleven, and at the top. In either direction was a twin, both a year younger than I, Ronald to the East and Stephen to the West like points on a compass. Then at the bottom, another year younger, was my nine-year-old my brother John, facing me from the South.
We were close neighbors, bound together by our remarkably similar names, bound by boyhood in a sparsely populated rural area. The twins were high-spirited, and from my mother’s point of view they had a penchant for getting into mischief. I’m sure their mother had the same opinion of us, but the truth was that we were just boys, always ready to explore anything we encountered.
My father kept the field on the back side of our house mowed. It wasn’t a large field, and sloped slightly up away from the road, but it was big enough and flat enough for boys our age to use as a baseball diamond or football field. And for several summers it was just the four of us, the sides always the same, John and I against Steven and Ron, almost a complete molecular structure, playing, occasionally fighting and collapsing into a tangled pile, but most of the time in a balanced tension that kept us together.
One summer, football became our passion. It is a credit to our parents that, in spite of our family’s meager finances, we always seemed to have been magically supplied with objects that would feed young boys’ interest. One Christmas my brother and I got football helmets. They were toys really—thin plastic shells with little padding, a single bar for a faceguard, and a tiny single-snap chin strap. My helmet was blue and my brother’s yellow, and along with a kid-sized football, we were catalyzed into action. The living room was not big enough for our antics, and we couldn’t wait for the snow to melt and the field to dry out enough to become our arena again.
Naturally, the Kearn twins were the opposing team. Now two-man football is not very complicated, not very satisfying tactically. One boy hikes the ball to the other, who then can either run by himself or try to pass to his team-mate. The defensive team can either both rush the boy with the ball, or both hang back and see whether the guy with the ball is going to run or throw it, or individually chase the players around “one-on-one”
My brother and I were very active, but we also had a studious streak. On a rainy day, when we couldn’t play outside, we lay on our stomachs in our father’s study with a heavy volume of the encyclopedia open on the floor, studying everything there was to know about football. We were entranced by the diagrams of football plays: O’s indicating offensive players, X’s for defense, and arrows indicating complex blocking movements to open holes for the runner, sweeping sideways waves of blockers for an end run, and the trick hand-off to a player running in the opposite direction in a reverse. We knew what we had to do.
We spent an afternoon diagraming all the combinations we could think of for plays. There were pass plays with complicated paths for the receiver to run. There were run plays where the hiker would somehow manage to block out one of the defenders. There were trick plays where the boy with the ball would attract the defenders with a fake run, the flick the ball to his teammate. Each play had a name, like “Double-trick-Steve,” that we could use in our two-boy huddle. We folded and stapled a quarter-sheet-sized booklet to contain our compendium of knowledge, and scrawled “Beat the Twins” on the outside cover.
Blue helmet, yellow helmet, stick bodies under colorful plastic bowls, trying out our diagrammed maneuvers in the back-field grass. Always the same, run or pass, we spun each other through the summer afternoon as our fancy plans boiled down to a few simple realities. And after we were done, one side or the other had won. It only took a minute or so for our bitter rivalry to evaporate. We became just boys again, walking down to the muddy banks of the creek, no planning required to poke at frogs and scoop tadpoles in our hands, not a moment’s thought to what might happen tomorrow.
About the Author
Frank Kearns is a transplanted New Englander and a longtime California resident. Retired from a career in the aerospace industry, he is the author of two poetry collections, Circling Venice, (Tebot Bach 2013) and Yearlings, (Los Nieto Press, 2015). His poetry and prose has appeared in anthologies such as “Beyond the Lyric Moment,” “Like a Girl: Perspectives on Feminism,” “Cadence Collective: Year One Anthology” and “Now and Then.”
From the Editor
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