The Farm Chronicles: Pony Bill and the boys of August

It’s the dog days of August. Hay is in the barn. The horse show season is winding down. Northeastern Ohio is hot and humid during the day and cool at night with a bit of dew on the morning grass. Time to relax a bit, right? No. The farm boys are gathering together, greeting each other for the long-awaited day of a different kind of work. It was two adays for football practice. Unlike most people, I loved two adays. The smells of August–Ohio grass, slightly browned from baking in the day’s hot sun; the sweat mixed with helmets stored over winter and spring in a musty room; even the dirt on the ground had a unique aroma as we hit it over and over again in up-down grass drills. We were back. We were football.

There were many life lessons in high school football. Coach was a former marine tough guy long on drills and discipline, but short on teaching about how to play the game. If you were willing to run through a brick wall you were his kind of guy. But if you asked why or how, you were in the dog house. I was a late bloomer. Very fast. On the slight side. One of those guys that with a little more individual coaching and maturity, could be a valuable asset. But I was very frustrating to Coach. I had to take the last week of two adays off because I was committed to my horse 4-H project at the county fair. Coach hated this and would ride me harder than I rode my horse, earning me the sarcastic nickname “Pony Bill.” By my senior year, Coach had had enough of it. He wouldn’t even let me wear my jersey for the senior yearbook picture.

Each practice ended with the team running a quarter mile in full pads. Backs and receivers in 70 seconds, linemen had 90 seconds. If anyone didn’t make time, the entire team ran again, same time limits. One time, one of the boys kept missing the time. We all knew he could run the lap in 70 seconds, he just wouldn’t do it. We had run that track three times and most of us were gassed. Me and a couple other of the fast guys huddled and came up with a plan. We lined up for the fourth run, everybody was sweating and yelling and moaning. The three of us ran that quarter-mile as fast as we could. And that same guy was lagging far behind. We turned around and ran back to him, each grabbing a side of shoulder pads and his belt. We dragged him across the line in under 70 seconds. He’s probably still picking cinders out of his legs.

Coach approved. He called it Leadership. Many of us farm boys called it survival. Some my fault, some not, my love for football was depleted by the end of high school. Having proven speed by running track in college, I was asked by the football coach to “walk on” the football team. I declined. It wasn’t until I was recruited to play semi-pro that my love for football was revived. And later I had a successful coaching run that landed me a position with the NFL. Among the many valuable lessons, I learned what never to do—as both a player and a coach. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A brother is born for adversity.” There’s one thing that’s universal: Out of adversity, brothers are made. The men with whom I played, the young men I’ve coached, and those I mentor even today–We are brothers. All said and done, we are the boys of August.

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Bill Wilson

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