First Down and the Field!

by Stephen O. Benson

From the Editor: Steve Benson led a varied and active childhood. In the following story he recollects the fun he had playing football with both neighborhood friends and fellow students. In the first group he was the only blind kid; in the second the whole group of players were blind. The teams worked out reasonable and fair rules, and everyone had a good time. Today Steve does public relations and public education for the National Library Service program in Illinois. He is also President of the NFB of Illinois and a member of the National Federation of the Blind Board of Directors. This is what he says:

Football was a game I learned to play upon my arrival at the blind school, Alexander Graham Bell School in Chicago. All the kids who played were blind or legally blind, with one notable exception. Our version of the game applied National Football League rules to touch football. Blocking was allowed in this version, which, I learned later, was neither accepted nor acceptable practice in the touch football game played in my neighborhood primarily with sighted kids. At Bell School, when the ball was put into play, the ball carrier had to call--make some audible noise. Failure to call resulted in a penalty. In the neighborhood game that rule was inserted only after I began to play regularly.

The playing field at school was a concrete sidewalk laid out in six foot squares. At one end of the playing area was a short flight of stairs leading into the school. The other end of the field was marked by the end of the school auditorium, which stood on one side of the field.
The playing field at home varied. Sometimes it was an alley with telephone poles as goal line markers. Sometimes the playing surface was the street with a sewer cover or parked car or lamp post designated as the goal line marker. Occasionally we actually played on a park field or in a DePaul University parking lot--the latter, of course, when university classes were not in session.

Whatever field we played on, we seldom had line markers, so mostly there were no first downs. The offensive team had to cover the length of the field in four downs. Occasionally a team would punt on fourth down, but more often than not fourth down was a straight play or a fake punt. The neighborhood games tended to be more wide open. We usually played with three to five men on a side.
Since the field of play at Bell School was smaller, punts and kick-offs were thrown, and we played with a large, round inflated rubber ball. The shape of the ball allowed better control, and the bounce was more true. We used a standard football in the neighborhood game because the fields were larger and kicking was allowed. I never mastered the drop kick. I held the ball by one end, pointed down low in front of me, and kicked away. I guess I was about as good and about as consistent as most of my peers, which wasn't very good or consistent.

Whether at school or in the neighborhood, I played every position but receiver. I couldn't see the ball to catch it, not even the big rubber ball we used at school. More often than not I played quarterback in the neighborhood. Receivers ran down field and called a code word when they were open to receive a pass. I should point out that we used stop-and-go patterns, slant plays, down-and-out patterns, and a variety of other plays. Each pattern had its own code words: colors, animals, street names, and so on.

The field at school was small, and we were all very familiar with all of its quirks and characteristics. The neighborhood fields presented other challenges. If I had the opportunity, I would walk the field before starting play. If there were any unusual obstacles on the playing area, my friends would tell me about them: holes, puddles, mounds, trenches, cars or other vehicles, etc. Being familiar with the topography of the field was useful when I was required to execute a running play or when I played defense and had to chase an opponent.

Recently I had dinner with two of my childhood friends, Nick and Tom. Nick remembered one particular play as we reminisced about our childhood games. As quarterback I dropped back to pass. Nick was open and called for the ball, straight down the field. I threw; he looked over his right shoulder; the ball went over his left shoulder, bounced into the street, and was run over by a truck; end of game. It may have been the longest pass I ever threw, and it was punctuated by a loud pop.

Now for the notable exception to the practice of all blind kids playing football at Bell School. Teachers decided at some point that it would be a good idea to have an eighth-grade boy participate in our recess and lunchtime games. So an eighth grade boy, Jim, joined our games. Now our football games were physical, and the kids often became pretty aggressive. After the first week of football season Jim bailed out; he said we were too rough. After he withdrew from the activity, no other sighted student was assigned. I guess the faculty and administration concluded that we didn't need a baby sitter, or nobody was willing to take on the challenge of participating in our fun.

The modifications to football were our own. The techniques that did not work were abandoned, and we tried new ones. If some technique seemed to give unfair advantage to one team or another or to kids with a little vision, it too was rejected. Nobody sustained serious injury, but bumps and bruises were commonplace. Making our own rules for the competition was as important to us blind kids as doing so is to sighted kids. We understood the value of it all, and we had a lot of fun playing, even into our twenties and early thirties in some cases. Recalling the plays and the funny circumstances surrounding their execution is probably as much fun now as playing was thirty or more years ago.