The Last Man in the WorldbyMungoParkIII©
It was never something Jim had thought of in the past and as he worked his way through the two a day football practices in the sweltering Mississippi heat he was in too much misery to think about anything. He had just moved, with his family, from northern Maryland to a sweaty armpit of a town in the middle a state that simply had to be hotter than hell itself. It was the summer of 1971 and the Stephen D. Lee High School football team was simmering to begin the defense of its undefeated championship season the year before.
Moving from "up nath" was, understandably, quite a change for Jim, but the football team, as well as the entire high school was in the midst of a big change too. While Jim had to adjust to the heat, the two a day practices and an entirely new system, he was surprised to learn of the change many of his teammates were experiencing. Quite accustomed to working together with white and black players on the team, Jim was surprised to discover that, up until the previous season, this high school team had included only white players. In 1969 the blacks had their own team and their own high school.
Adding to the turmoil was the fact that the town suddenly had three high school football teams to support. After the 1970 school year, a new public high school was added to ease the overcrowding and a new private, all white, high school opened and suddenly the monolithic community was split on racial and then on geographic lines. Of course things like this were happening in just about every town in the state of Mississippi amid a great deal of political and social turmoil.
On the practice field all that chaos and confusion of new high schools, integration and racial strife became only secondary distractions to the players. Their minds were focused on one thing and one thing only and that was that tall, ice cold bottle of Coca Cola (tm) the coaches provided at the end of every practice. Maybe it was the heat addling their minds, or that they were just too hot and tired, or maybe it was the Coke (tm) commercials and that song, "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony..." but amid the stress of football practice and the pervading racial tension throughout the state, the teammates became one sipping on their Coca Colas (tm).
The summer passed quickly, although the heat lingered well into fall, and the two a day football practices were reduced to a single practice after school. Jim fell into his role as starting punter and second string everything else. Practice devolved into basically getting beat up by the first string offense and defense for about two hours and then, the bright shining fifteen minutes at the end of practice where the team practiced punting. Jim's job now was to catch the ball from the center and then kick it as far and as high as he could.
Of course, during the time Jim was catching the ball, kicking it and watching it sail downfield there was a lot going on. First of all his ten other teammates were trying their best to block the other team as they tried their best to knock down the football that Jim kicked before it went far and high downfield. After that they then rushed down toward the ball in an attempt to tackle the player who tried to catch the ball Jim kicked. For those familiar with the game it's all pretty basic, however, what was intriguing for Jim was to watch how his teammates went downfield to "cover" the kick. To make sure no part of the football field was left open for the opponent to run through, the players rushed down field in a defined pattern that eventually converged on the player with the ball.
Once finished kicking the ball, Jim became what the coach referred to as "the last man in the world," which from the look of things made him the guy who loafs behind everyone else as they rush to make a tackle. He never really knew what weight "the last man in the world" bore on his shoulders, how lonely that title could become.
Amid the rumors and then later news reports of racial unrest in a number of high schools through the state, Stephen D. Lee High School calmly attended school, held a pep rally and watched its football team easily win its first game of the season, extending its undefeated streak to 11 games. Jim actually got to play as running back and linebacker as the second stringers came in the last quarter of the game.
Football is relatively easy for a winning team, and the following week's practices went smoothly, with little or no changes, the fifteen minutes of punt practice and then the refreshing Coca Colas (tm) before going home. The pep rally that week was loud and upbeat, cheering on a team that seemed ready to roll into another championship. The next day the team loaded onto its busses and headed out to Greenville, Mississippi, wherever that was.
In the warm up before the game Jim shanked his first practice punt up into the grandstands where the ball crashed into the band. He had done the same thing in warm up the week before so everything seemed normal. What wasn't normal was that almost immediately after the game started, the team failed to make a first down in its first possession. Jim entered the game for his first punt of the season.
Remembering the punt coverage the team worked on at the end of each practice, just confidently aligned himself on the field. He was a bit nervous about the punt, but he knew that if he could get off a reasonably good kick, the team would rush down the field and make the tackle as "the last man in the world" loafed down and observed the action.
Jim checked his team and confirmed everyone was in place, looked over the other team and confirmed that each opponent would be blocked, and then he shouted, "Down, set." He paused, making sure everyone was set and then he flinched his hands signaling to the center to hike the ball. Just like in practice the ball zipped back into his hands and he stepped off a perfect punt that sailed both far and high. Jim watched the play develop and trotted over toward the right sideline, as the play seemed headed that way.
In seconds that seemed a lifetime, Jim began to observe some weakness in what seemed an impenetrable defense on the punt as the initial defenders were easily blocked by the opponents. He watched, what appeared to be a wall of blockers, pick off his teammates one by one and with the ball carrier still twenty yards away Jim realized that he was the only person left who could stop the runner from scoring. He felt an intense loneliness, as if he were indeed the last man in the world, the only player standing between possible victory and Armageddon. In a moment that could make or break the career aspirations of any football player, Jim prepared himself to make the tackle, to save the day, to successfully reinforce his title as...
With a fake step to the left and an immediate cut right, the ball carrier ran past Jim's feeble diving attempt at a tackle and sped downfield. Watching the final steps into the end zone and the ensuing celebration Jim felt the burden of giving up the first touchdown that season heavy on his shoulders. Little did he know that Armageddon had arrived as he stood up and trotted to the sideline.
Jim couldn't have known that that touchdown was one of five his team gave up in a thirty-five to nothing loss, which turned out to be the first of nine straight losses. Jim also couldn't have known that the player that zoomed past him would go on to college football and then spend seven seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, going to the pro bowl in three successive seasons.
Jim did learn something about his team when practice the next week, though tough, featuring a lot of changes and a more intense punt practice, they all enjoyed the ice cold Coca Cola (tm) as they always had. He learned something about the school when at the next pep rally he was awarded a trophy for being the most valuable player in that thirty-five to nothing loss and he learned something about the community when Stephen D. Lee High School was honored at the end of the year as the school with the best record of racial relations in the state. As he kneeled on the field, watching the runner romp for the touchdown, Jim would have been the last man in the world to expect any these things.