Never Poke the Bear...

In 1969, I was living in Massachusetts and playing in my last season of Pop Warner football for Jack Cosgrove and the Sharon Red Devils. The weight limit back then was 115 and a few of us had to cut weight in order to play. At the beginning of August when we started practicing, I was tipping the scales at 125, 10 pounds over. I ate carefully, increased my running, and even with all that, a week before the weigh-in I was still over by a couple of pounds. Hey at 13, I was a growing boy.

Two days before the weigh-in three of us went to the Blue Hill Baths (Canton) for a steam with one of the players' fathers, Mr. Salemme, more specifically, "Cadillac Frank" Salemme. Between the steam, eating next to nothing, running extra wind sprints, and taking salt tablets to make me piss, I weighed in at 109, a pound under the weight that required a second weigh-in mid-season. I played the entire season at 131 and other teams could've challenged pre-game, weighed me, and prevented me from taking the field, but then our coach would've challenged some of their players and no one wanted to get into that back 'n forth...

The '69 Sharon Red Devils…

In '68 we won the South Shore Pop Warner Championship and in '69, we repeated and had an undefeated season. After we won the South Shore Championship against Walpole, we had one more game against the Hawks of Farmingdale, a village on Long Island, NY. They wore green and white uniforms like the Jets, who, under the leadership of Joe Namath, were on a path to a Super Bowl win against the Baltimore Colts that year. Our game was a friendly, annual game and we alternated between playing in Sharon and Farmingdale. This final game, my last as a member of the Sharon Red Devils, was in Farmingdale.

Coach Johnny Googin addresses the defense at a practice prior to the final game in NY

At the time I was living with my grandparents in Sharon and my parents were living in New London, CT. After the game, I was leaving Farmingdale with them to live in CT. While in Long Island, all the Red Devils' players stayed at the houses of the players on the Hawks. Everyone went to an ABA basketball game the first night and after the football game the following day, we all went to an AHL hockey game. 

While at the basketball game, one of the Hawk's players, their middle linebacker and biggest kid, walked up to me, and in front of both teams, announced that he was gonna kick my ass on the field. I couldn't believe he had the balls to threaten me like that. After all, I was the captain of the defense on an undefeated team, played middle linebacker, and led the team in tackles. I was a big hitter and by the time I arrived in Farmingdale just after Thanksgiving, I was 135 lbs. and extremely aggressive on a football field. 

We were taught to lead with our helmets, and I was definitely a "head-hunter" and I never shied away from contact. In fact, my reputation was that I liked it and that I enjoyed hurting people. I'm not gonna lie, I did. Football was the perfect fit for my violent nature, even at a young age. So, why was this kid from Farmingdale poking the bear?

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Honestly, I was a little intimidated by his threat. When I got to the field on game day my adrenaline was soaring. When someone threatens me I get crazy and I could hardly wait for the game to start…

They won the coin toss and we kicked to them. I spotted the kid on the field and lined up directly across from him. He looked at me and I stared back at him… We both knew there was gonna be a violent collision…

As soon as the ball was kicked I ran as fast and hard as I could with only one thing in mind, hit this fucking kid with everything I had and make him regret ever threatening me… I remember the initial contact, but little else. I ran over him, knocked him on his ass, and I was surprised with all the shit-talking he did, how easy he went down. I continued downfield and actually got in on the tail end of the tackle.

As I walked back to huddle up my defense, I saw him lying on the ground, motionless. I had knocked him unconscious and as the saying goes, into next week

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The game was delayed while an older Cadillac ambulance pulled onto the field and two paramedics carefully put him on a stretcher, loaded him into the ambulance, and then left in a hurry for the local hospital. He never returned, not even to watch. It was an easy win for us…

I was brutal, not one bit of remorse. He threatened me and I justified the violent hit because, in my opinion, he had it coming. It's not that I never had my bell rung, I did many times. The difference was I got up off the ground, cleared my head, and on the next play, I went looking for the guy who hit me. Revenge is a very powerful motivator…

That night, at the hockey game, the kid came right over to me and I was ready for a fistfight, but in a surprise move, he extended his hand and we shook, and then he admitted he had never been hit that hard before.

I told him if he hadn't said anything I would've never hit him that hard. But the truth is, I always looked forward to opening kickoffs and the high-speed, full-out collisions that almost always took place…

I would never deny that football is a violent sport, it most definitely is. If it wasn't, football players wouldn't be wearing helmets and shoulder pads. Football players are modern-day gladiators and there's violence at every level beginning with Pop Warner, at least back in my day…

I still have my game jersey from 1969…

Fifty-two years later, I can still see that Cadillac ambulance pulling onto that field in Farmingdale. So, what do I miss most about playing football? Definitely the violent contact