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Despite Joel's dark forebodings, he was at last released from tackling practice. And with that moment he began to take hope for better things. Under the charge of Kent, one of the coaches and an old Harwell half, Joel was instructed in catching punts till his arms ached and his eyes watered, and in kicking until he seemed to be one-sided. Starting with the ball he no longer dreaded, since he had mastered that science and could now delight the coach by leaping from a stand as though shot from the mouth of a cannon.
Signals he had no trouble with. His memory was excellent, and he possessed the faculty of rapid computation; though as yet his brain had been but little taxed, since the practice code was still in use. At the end of the third week both Varsity and scrub teams were at length selected, and Joel, to his delight, found himself playing left-half on the latter. Two match games a week was now the rule for the Varsity, and Joel each Wednesday and Saturday might have been found seated under the fence dividing the gridiron from the grand stand wrapped nearly from sight, if the afternoon was chilly, in a great gray blanket, and watching the play with all the excited ardor of the veriest schoolboy on the stand behind.
One Saturday Prince, the Varsity left-half, twisted his ankle, and Joel was taken on in his place. They were playing Amherst, and Joel has ever since held that college in high esteem, for that it was against its Eleven he made his debut into Harwell football life. And how he played! The captain smiled as he watched him prance down the field after a punt, never content to be there in time, but always striving to get there first, and not seldom succeeding. Once he succeeded too well.
It was in the second half. Blair--it was his first year on the team--was playing full-back. On a first down he punted the ball a long and rather low kick into Amherst's territory. Joel bowled over an Amherst end who was foolish enough to get in the way and started down the field like an Indian warrior on the war path. The Harwell ends were a little in advance but off to the sides, and Joel sprinted hard and easily passed them both. Kingdon, the right half, gave him a good run, but he too was passed, and Joel reached the Amherst full-back just as that gentleman turned for the ball, which had passed unexpectedly over his head. The goal line was but thirty yards distant. Joel saw only the full-back, the ball, and the goal line. He forgot everything else. A small cyclone struck the full, and when he picked himself up it was to see a crimson-legged player depositing the pigskin back of goal and to hear a roar of laughter from the seats!
Then he yelled "Off side!" at the top of his lungs and tore down on Joel, and, much to that young gentleman's surprise, strove to wrest the ball from him. It was quite uncalled for, and Joel naturally resented it to the extent of pushing violently, palms open, against the Amherst man's jacket, with the result that the Amherst gentleman sat down backward forcibly upon the turf at some distance. And again the stands laughed. But Joel gravely lifted the ball and walked back to the thirty-yard line with it. The center took it with a grin, and, as the five yards of penalty for off side was paced, Joel was rewarded for his play with the muttered query from the captain:
"What were you doing, you idiot?"
But too great zeal is far more excusable than too small, and Joel was quickly forgiven, and all the more readily, perhaps, since Amherst was held for downs, and the ball went over on the second next play. But Joel called himself a great many unpleasant names during the rest of the game, and for a long while after could not think of his first touch-down without feeling his cheeks redden. Nevertheless, his manner of getting down the field under kicks undoubtedly impressed the coaches favorably, for when the scrub was further pruned to allow it to go to training table Joel was retained.
One bright October day Joel and Outfield went into town to meet the former's parents at the station; for Mr. and Mrs. March had long before made up their minds to the visit, and the two boys had been looking forward to it for some time. It was worth going a long way to see the pleasure with which the old farmer and his wife greeted the great long-legged youth who towered so far above them there on the station platform. Joel kissed his mother fondly, patted his father patronizingly but affectionately on the back, and asked fifty questions in as many minutes. And all his mother could do was to gaze at him in reverent admiration and sigh, over and over:
"Land sakes, Joel March, how you do grow!"
It must not be thought that West was neglected. Farmer March, in especial, showed the greatest pleasure at meeting him again, and shook hands with him four times before the street was reached and the car that was to carry them to the college town gained. The boys conducted the visitors to their room, and made lunch for them on a gas stove, Outfield drawing generously on his private larder, situated under the foot of his bed. Then the four hunted up a pleasant room in one of the student boarding houses, and afterward showed the old people through the college.
There was a good deal to see and many questions to answer, since Joel's father was not a man to leave an object of interest until he had learned all there was to be told about it. The elms in the yard were fast losing their yellow leaves, but the grass yet retained much of its verdancy, and as for the sky, it was as sweetly blue as on the fairest day in spring. Up one side of the yard and down the other went the sightseers, poking into dark hallways, reading tablets and inscriptions, the latter translated by West into the most startling English, pausing before the bulletins to have the numerous announcements of society and club meetings explained, drinking from the old pump in the corner, and so completing the circuit and storming the gymnasium, where at last Joel's powers of reply were exhausted and Outfield promptly sprang into the breech, explaining gravely that the mattresses on the floor were used by Doctor Major, the director of the gymnasium, who invariably took a cat-nap during the afternoon, that the suspended rings were used to elevate sophomores while corporeal punishment was administered by freshmen, and that the queer little weights in the boxes around the walls were reserve paper weights.
Then the line of march was taken up toward Sailors' Field, where they arrived just in time to see the beginning of the practice game between the Varsity and the scrub. Joel had been excused from attendance that day, and so he took his seat beside the others on the grand stand and strove to elucidate the philosophy of football.
"You see the scrubs have the ball. They must get it past the Varsity down to the end of the field, where they can either put it down over the line or kick it over that cross-piece there. That's center, that fellow that's arranging the ball. He kicks off. There it goes, and a good kick, too. Sometimes the center-rush isn't a good kicker; then some one else kicks off. Blair has the ball. Look, see him dodge with it. He gained ten yards that time."
"Oh!" It was Joel's mother who exclaimed. "Why, Joel, that other man threw him down."
"That's part of the game, mother. He did that to keep Blair from getting the ball any nearer the scrub's goal. He isn't hurt, you see."
"And do you mean that they do that all the time?"
"And do you get thrown around that way, Joel?"
"Sometimes, mother; when I'm lucky enough to get the ball."
"Well, I never."
"Football's not a bad game, Mr. March," West was saying. "But it doesn't come up to golf, you know. It's too rough."
"It does look a little rough," answered Mr. March. "Do they often get hurt? Seems as though when a boy had another fellow on his head, and another on his stomach, and another on his feet, and the whole lot of them banging away at once, seems like that boy would be a little uncomfortable."
"Sometimes a fellow has his ankle sprained or a knee twisted, or a shoulder-bone bust, or something like that. But it isn't often anything worse occurs."
"Well, I suppose it's all right then. Only when I was a boy we never went round trying to get our ankles sprained or our collar-bones broke; you young fellows are tougher than we were, I guess."
"I shouldn't wonder, sir. I believe Joel has been feeling pretty bad for a long time because he's got nothing worse than a broken finger."
"What? Broke his finger, did he? Eh? He didn't write anything about it; what's he mean, getting broken to pieces and not telling his parents about it?" West glanced apprehensively at Joel, but the latter had missed the conversation, being busy following the progress of Barton, of the scrub, who was doing a long run along the side line.
"Well, it wasn't much of a break, sir. It's all right now, and I think he thought you'd be worried, you know. I'm sure if it had been anything important he would have written at once."
"Humph," grunted Joel's father. "If he's going to break himself in pieces he'd better stop football. I won't have him taking risks. I'll tell him so!"
The fifteen-minute half had come to an end, and the players were either resting on the ground or going through some pass or start under the tuition of a coach. Suddenly Joel looked down to see Briscom, the scrub captain, climbing the seats. He ducked his bare head to the others and sank into the seat at Joel's side.
"Look here, March, can you help us out the next half? They've taken Webster on the Varsity, and"--he lowered his voice to a confidential roar--"we want to make a good showing to-day."
"Of course," answered Joel, "I'll come at once. Can I get some togs from some fellow?"
"Yes. I'll ask Whitman to find some. I'm sorry to take you away from your folks, but it's only fifteen minutes, you know."
So when the whistle blew Joel was at left half-back on the scrub, attired in borrowed plumage that came far from fitting him. And Mrs. March was in a tremor of dismay lest some one should throw Joel down as she had seen Blair thrown. Mr. March had not quite recovered from his resentment over his son's failure to apprise him of the broken finger, which, after all, was only broken in West's imagination, and viewed his advent on the field with disfavor.
Outfield began to wonder if his pleasant fiction regarding Joel's finger was to lead to unpleasant results, when Mr. March relieved his mind somewhat by suddenly taking interest in the career of his son, who was trying to make an end run inside Dutton with half the scrub hauling, pushing, pulling, shoving him along.
"Er--isn't that likely to be bad for that finger of his?"
"Oh, no, sir," answered West. "He looks out for his finger all right enough. There, he made the distance. Bully work. Good old Joel."
"Did he do well then, Mr. West?" asked Joel's mother. "Of course he did, mother," answered Mr. March disdainfully. "Didn't you see him lugging all those fellows along with him? How much does that count, West?"
"Well, that doesn't score anything, but it helps. The scrub has to pass that line down there before it can score. What they're trying to do now is to get down there, and Joel's helping. You watch him now. I think they're going to give him the ball again for another try around end." West was right in his surmise. Kicks were barred to-day save as a last resort, and the game was favoring the scrub as a consequence. The ball was passed to the right half-back; Joel darted forward like an arrow, took the ball from right, made a quick swerve as he neared the end of the line, and ran outside of the Varsity right end, Captain Dutton, who had been playing pretty well in, in the expectation of another try through tackle-end hole. As Joel got safely by it is more than likely that he found added satisfaction in the feat as he recalled that remark of Dutton's the week before: "What were you doing, you idiot?"
Joel got safely by Dutton, and fooled the sprightly Prince, but very nearly ran into the arms of Kingdon, who missed his tackle by a bare six inches. Then the race began. Joel's path lay straight down by the side line. The field followed him at a distance, and the most he could hope for was a touch-down near the corner of the field, which would require a punt-out.
"Ain't that Joel?" cried Mr. March, forgetting his grammar and his dignity at one and the same moment, and jumping excitedly to his feet. "Ain't that Joel there running? Hey? They can't catch him. I'll lay Joel to outrun the whole blame pack of 'em. Every day, sir. Hey? What?"
"I think he's all right, sir, for a touch-down," answered West gayly. "Hello, there's Blair leaving the bunch. Tally-Ho!"
"I don't care if it's a steam-engine," shouted Mr. March, "he can't--I don't know but as he's gaining a little, that fellow. Eh?"
"Looks like it," answered West, while Mrs. March, with her hand on her husband's arm, begged him to sit down and "stop acting so silly."
"Geewhillikins!" cried Mr. March, "Joel's caught! No, he's not--yet--Eh?--Too bad, too bad. Run, Joel, he's got ye!" Suddenly Mr. March, who had almost subsided on his seat, jumped again to his feet.
"Here! Stop that, you fellow! Hi!" He turned angrily to Outfield, his eyes blazing. "What'd he knock him down for? Eh? What's he sitting on my boy for? Is that fair? Eh?"
West and Mrs. March calmed him down and explained that tackling was quite within the law, and that he only sat on him to prevent him from going on again; for Blair had cut short Joel's triumph fifteen yards from the goal line, and the spectators of the soul-stirring dash down the field were slowly settling again in their seats. Mr. March was presently relieved to see Joel arise, shake himself like a dog coming out of water, and trot back to his position.
Another five minutes, during which the scrub tried desperately to force the ball over the Varsity's goal line, but without success, and the match was over, and Briscom was happy; for the Varsity had scored but once, and that on a fumble by the scrub quarter-back. Joel trotted off with the teams for a shower and a rub-down, and West conducted his parents back to the gate, where they awaited him. On the way Mr. March confided to West that "football wasn't what he'd call a parlor game, but on the whole it appeared to be rather interesting."
In the evening the quartet went into town to the theater and Joel's mother cried happily over the homely pathos of The Old Homestead, and Outfield laughed uproariously upon the slightest provocation, and every one was extremely happy. And afterward they "electriced" back to college, as West put it, and the two boys stayed awake very, very late, laughing and giggling over the humors of the play and Joel's broken finger.
Mr. and Mrs. March left the next day at noon, and Joel accompanied them to the depot, West having a golf engagement which he could not break. And when good-by had been said, and the long train had disappeared from sight, Joel returned to college on foot, over the long bridge spanning the river, busy with craft, past the factories noisy with the buzz of wheels and the clang of iron, and on along the far-stretching avenue until the tower of the dining hall loomed above the tops of the autumn branches, entering the yard just as the two o'clock bell was ringing.
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