by Jerry Whittle
From the Editor: Jerry Whittle has recently retired after a long and distinguished career as the Braille instructor at the Louisiana Center for the Blind in Ruston. He is well known for the many plays he has written that have been performed by Center students for the benefit of those who attend the national convention. Here is what Jerry has to say about the blind as they do something many would consider beyond them—enjoying the rough and tumble of flag football:
It is time for another NFB football game at the Louisiana Center for the Blind. The summer sun has finally given way to a cool, crisp October morning that finds the big Louisiana Center for the Blind bus rolling up to the Ruston recreational park. Students and staff begin pouring onto the field, some carrying big rolls of plastic mats and some hefting shoulder pads and helmets. It is boisterous and exhilarating as several players begin engaging in a little trash talking. Robert Wilkerson, a student from Panama City, Florida, starts the badinage by stating, “This is a man’s game, man. Nobody should be playing unless you realize that.”
Someone else retorts, “Hey, man, we are out here to have some fun, not hurt somebody.”
The Center’s computer instructor, Josh Boudreaux, and other helpers unroll the seventy-five-foot mats and spread them down the sidelines. The mats are fifty yards long and are placed fifteen yards apart. What is being constructed is a playing surface half the length of a regulation football field; A forty-five-foot rope is used to identify the width of the field. Next they place a mat across the field at the goal line and set a large radio at the back of the end zone. The Zack Brown Band is bellowing out a song about relaxing someplace or other.
Students and staff members begin putting on their uniforms. All of them are wearing royal blue jerseys with black numerals on the back and a picture of a football across the chest. We affectionately call it our NFB football. The tricky part while suiting up is keeping the sleepshades on while the blue helmet is pulled on from the back of the skull. Chin straps are snapped, and the nervous anxiety and excitement are palpable. For some of the students this will be the first time to play football or wear a helmet and pads. One of the instructors walks up with the beeping football and a long chain, worn like a necklace, with a cow bell attached. “Here are the football and cowbell that the quarterback on each team wears, and here are the towel and bells that he wears in the center of his pants in the back. Listen for the sound and find the quarterback,” he says.
NFB football was designed for two five-person teams, but unfortunately only eight or nine people have wanted to play. Usually we play with two three-man teams. Each team has ten plays to score a touchdown from forty yards away. Each gets three chances to score a touchdown. Only the quarterback can run with the ball, and he or she moves toward the sound of the radio. The mats warn the player that he or she is about to go out of bounds.
Before the snap the offense state their positions and cannot move, so they might say, “Blocker, blocker, quarterback.” The referee announces, “Offense set.” Then the defense set up, but they do not reveal where they are located. The referee asks, “Defense set?” The captain announces, “Defense set.” Then no talking as the quarterback says simply, “Go.” Bodies begin to move around, and the crackling sound of pads smashing together and much grunting and laughing ensue as the defensemen converge on the cowbell. Bodies fly, and a large pile of players fall on top of a student named Tarik Suber, the hapless quarterback.
Tarik next tries an end sweep, but he is so excited that he fails to notice that his feet hit the mat, and he goes out of bounds with three defensemen in hot pursuit. Spectators yell, “Out of bounds,” but his momentum carries him into a chain-link fence, and he comes to a stop. He decides to sit out a few plays, and someone else takes his place. The offense scores despite the efforts of Ernic Eyma, a six-foot-seven, two-hundred-sixty-pound defenseman, who almost yanks the towel out before Josh Bishop, a student from Alabama, scampers across the mat for a touchdown. The team opts for a two-point conversion from ten yards out, rather than the easier one point try from five yards away; they run right up the middle and score.
The teams rest at the mid-point or half time, drinking much water and Gatorade to replenish and rejuvenate. Robert keeps up the banter. “Man, I haven’t played football since high school in Florida; this is fun. I’ve got my number 25 again. I played safety and cornerback in high school, but I like quarterback; that draws all the lightning. Wish we had some more people to play.”
Lakeisha from Georgia overhears Robert from her spot on the sidelines, and she says, “I’ll play next time; I just wanted to see what it was like.”
Robert retorts, “This is a man’s game, Keish. You don’t want to run into old Josh Boudreaux; he is like Troy Palamano out here. Man, he’s all over the place. I thought I was gone for the TD one time, and somehow he found me and wrestled me to the ground.”
DuWayne, a student from Louisville, Kentucky, agrees, “Yeah, and old Bishop ain’t bad either, but I haven’t played quarterback yet. Different outcome when I run the ball.
The students resume the struggle in the lush grass of the outfield at the baseball diamond. After three tries at a touchdown, the game depends on one series of downs. If Robert’s team does not score, the game is over. They fail to score when the opposing team pushes them out of bounds on their tenth and last attempt at about the ten yard line, scattering sideline observers in several directions.
As some of the students and staff members begin rolling up the mats and carrying the extra equipment to the waiting bus, Kelvin Smith, a student from Georgia, asks, “When are we gonna play again?”
Robert excitedly responds, “How about next Saturday? I graduate in two weeks, and I want to play again. Listen, I just got an idea. We could play that morning and then come back to the activity center and have a cookout. We can’t drive no cars, but we can still tailgate back at the apartments.”
“We have the chapter carwash next weekend,” Josh Boudreaux reminds him.
“Well shoot, I could come back from Florida. You just call me when you play again, and I will be back,” Robert says emphatically. “We want some revenge now that we know how to play the game.”
After the game the students and staff members head for Griff’s for some juicy double giant hamburgers and fries. Some even opt for the triple, affectionately known as the triple by-pass burger, and they wash it down with chocolate shakes. Still boisterous and excited about playing under the pads and surviving with only minor contusions and abrasions and plenty of memories, the students vow to have a rematch.
We first tried playing NFB football without helmets and shoulder pads, but it quickly became apparent that we needed protection. Thanks to many fundraising efforts and the generosity of Dr. Maurer and the National Federation of the Blind, we were able to buy thirteen helmets and pads and many NFB jerseys. We would like to offer a challenge to any group of five players to come down and play us while the weather is cool. We will furnish everything to the team except your mouthpiece and the courage and temerity to take us on. No trash talking, but second place won’t be too bad for your first try!