Author: Dave Levinthal
As a teenager, I kicked a football 100,000 times, maybe twice that. I don’t really know. But I’ve long been at peace with the final time I kicked a ball during a real, live guys-in-pads-hitting-each-other football game.
It occurred during 1996 inside Ralph Wilson Jr. Stadium, then Rich Stadium, the home of the Buffalo Bills.
My kickoffs traveled fairly far, and I punted reasonably well. Late in the second quarter, I scored the final point I’d ever score: an extra point through the stadium’s tunnel end goalposts, directly across from the goal-line seats where my parents and I had watched each Buffalo Bills home game since 1989, at the dawn of the most glorious and heartbreaking period in Buffalo sports history, forever marked by four consecutive trips to — and defeats in — the Super Bowl.
Such was the ultimate perk of advancing to the New York high school sectional championship: playing on the same field that Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith did.
The night was cold and calm in contrast with our stomachs, which were boiling and churning. More than 10,000 people watched from the massive stands behind the Bills bench. A few of us would flirt with college ball, and a couple of guys even played. But this was the closest any of us would get to being a Buffalo Bill, so much closer than most, and more or less, we knew it.
Ultimately, our Kenmore West Blue Devils lost 28-14 to a bigger, faster, healthier Orchard Park Quakers team that was, in sum, better than we were.
It was, of course, disappointing to lose.
But the game instantly ranked among the most thrilling events of my life, boldly defying cliché to solidify itself as a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s remained such ever since, as I trust it remains for most who played in it.
* * *
A few months ago, one of my high school teammates, who I hadn’t seen since graduation, emailed me.
An alumni football game between Kenmore West High School and crosstown rival Kenmore East High School was in the works, he wrote.
Flag football or touch football this was not. It’d be a full contact affair — shoulder pads, facemasks, the works.
I had read news articles about a company that criss-crossed the country with an equipment truck and legal waivers, staging these kinds of alumni football exhibitions.
The games sounded equal parts preposterous and suicidal.
A bunch of guys in their late 20s, or 30s, or — gasp! — 40s, smashing into each other, years (or decades) removed from the last time they had done so? A harebrained, glory days reclamation effort featuring quality odds on torn ligaments, broken ankles or worse?
I never possessed the unquenchable football bloodlust certain jocks did. I wasn’t much for the machismo of it all, either — kickers, after all, are at their best when they keep their heads down, both on the field and off. In high school, most of my closest friends cheered at football games. They were soccer players, or Model United Nations delegates, or mathletes. I played tackle football because it was the only thing I found more thrilling than watching tackle football, and kicking footballs — as opposed to beating the hell out of someone — seemed a suitably cerebral endeavor. I knew my participation would be temporary. And when my time playing football games ended, on that night at Ralph Wilson Jr. Stadium, it ended.
So why jeopardize a perfectly wonderful memory of my valedictory football game? Why, really, would anyone cheapen treasured moments for what would likely amount to a clownish, beer-bellied facsimile of experiences best left to photo albums and scrapbooks?
My old teammate’s email ended with a question: “Can you still kick?”
* * *
A confession: I owe a debt of gratitude to Shawn Mangold. Particularly his left elbow.
Shawn, a senior, was our starting quarterback my junior year, and a very good one. He was also as sure-handed a kick holder as they came — never dropped a ball, always placed it up-and-down with a slight tilt backward, just as I liked it. He, along with long snapper Brian Albano, were far too patient with my gridiron neurosis, as I constantly sought to experiment with, tweak, recalibrate and otherwise reinvent the act of placekicking in pursuit of THE. PERFECT. KICK.
I realized after countless kicking practice sessions that if I aligned my left, non-kicking foot squarely with his funny bone, I couldn’t help but swing my right foot into the sweet spot of the football, thereby launching it higher and straighter than I would otherwise.
On a stormy Friday night — June 12, 2015 — the Kenmore West Blue Devils alumni football team had just scored a touchdown to take an early lead over Kenmore East 6-0. As big guys in blue jerseys celebrated, I found myself not in Washington, D.C., interviewing some politician, or at home reading “Little Blue Truck” to my kid with funny character voices.
Instead, I stood a few steps behind a kneeling Shawn, orange soccer cleats on my feet and a helmet on my head, attempting not to regurgitate a peanut butter sandwich.
The whistle blew, and the referee cranked the clock. Shawn looked at me. I stared at his elbow. The long snapper spun the ball backward.
* * *
People sometimes need to prove to themselves, for no easily articulated reason, that they can accomplish something physically challenging, even if trying demands risk of failure, embarrassment or injury.
It’s why the 9-to-5 desk jockey who’s never gone camping trains to climb a mountain. Why the mom of three who hasn’t jogged a mile in her life decides she’ll run a marathon.
Me? I guess I just wanted to again experience the personally thrilling act of kicking a football straight and far. And, yes, confirm to myself that I could throw a No. 85 jersey on my back and still do it.
I got my confirmation enough. And we, as a team, won our game in convincing fashion, even displaying flashes of choreography and teamwork that belied the fact that many of us had never met one another until this year.
But in the end, the currency of rushes and passes and points couldn’t compete in value with Jim Conlin, the stud offensive lineman from the virtually unbeatable Kenmore West teams of the late 1960s — 66 years young now — playing a single down and landing his block while every last person in the stadium rose to their feet and lost their minds.
Or Vladimir and Yuri Bortchevsky, the closest of brothers, who after the Soviet Union crumbled arrived half a world away in Buffalo, playing their first football game together, having never had the opportunity while in high school because of age differences.
Or Jerry Tutwiler, the long-ago-retired high school coach — an overwhelmingly positive force in the lives of thousands of kids during his more than three decades leading Kenmore West’s football team — coaching our alumni team alongside his son, the team ball boy during my high school days.
Or Kevin Kirby, the captain of that team that played in Ralph Wilson Jr. Stadium — a consummate leader and a guy I’ve always looked up to — helping will the game into existence in the first place and leading us again under the Friday night lights.
Maybe we dodged fate’s darker angel, as no one was seriously hurt.
Maybe, mentally, we’re all a couple of pages short of a playbook.
This is certain: From the moment I arrived at the locker room, to the final good-byes late, late into the night, hardly anyone much talked of the good ‘ol days, about high school, about the stuff of memories. Forty guys who only really had their past in common lived, for a little while, so very much in the present — in a manner joyous and rare and right.
What’s better than once in a lifetime? Twice in a lifetime.
Lead image: Kenmore West alumni team photo, June 12