Sunday, May 29, 2011

Memorial Day 2011: These Five Sports Things Aren't Coming Back

It’s Memorial Day weekend—a time to reflect on those who’ve served our country and to honor their memories of lives lost on the field of battle.

And to grill sausage, of course.

Really, I don’t take this holiday lightly, especially these days, with our boys all over the globe, it seems, trying to restore peace and spread democracy and freedom—and risking their lives on a daily basis in the process.

Nor am I one of those who compare sports to war, which I’ve always felt cheapens what our soldiers have done and continue to do. Nothing that happens on a gridiron or on the ice or on a court even remotely compares to war in the literal sense.

But this can also be a time to be reflective about sports.

There are so many random memories I have about things and people and just plain stuff about sports—all that will never return to our great games.

So without further ado, in honor of Memorial Day, here are five things about sports that I miss, and why.

Helmet-less hockey players. When I first started following hockey, the sport was full of bare heads. Those wearing helmets were the ones who stood out like teeth in a player’s mouth. Then the NHL, in 1979, suddenly recognized that skating recklessly on the ice on a surface that was surrounded by hard wooden boards, without a helmet, was at the very least foolish and at worst insane.

So the league instituted a rule that said that any player who entered the league from 1979 on would have to don a helmet. Those who signed contracts prior to ’79 would be grandfathered in and thus would have the option of wearing buckets or not.

So as the years went on, the helmet-less players dwindled, like an endangered species. Gradually, it was the bare head that was the exception.

The last Red Wing to play sans helmet was Brad Marsh, in the early-1990s. The last player, overall, to do so was Craig MacTavish.

I forget how much I pine for the bare head until someone in today’s game inadvertently loses their helmet during a shift. Suddenly there’s a head of hair on the ice!

It doesn’t last long—maybe 15, 20 seconds, tops, but my eyes become glued to the helmet-less player. I could care less about what’s happening on the ice. For those precious seconds it’s 1973 again, when the helmet was for wimps—or Europeans.

Exterior chest protectors for umpires. This one kind of slipped past me, until I woke up one day and realized that the likes of Nestor Chylak weren’t umpiring anymore.

The American League umps continued to use the exterior chest protectors behind home plate after their National League colleagues went to the sleeker version that fit inside their shirt or jacket, like bulletproof vests.

The exterior chest protector, to me, screams umpire.

They hung around the umpire’s shoulders—those big black padded shields. They’d dangle there, until it was time for the pitcher to make his delivery, at which point the ump crouched and shoved the chest protector into position, as it cupped his chin and covered him from head to waist.

Not sure why I miss that, but I do.

Twenty-four second clocks on the floor. Whenever I happen upon old NBA footage, say circa 1972 and earlier, the first thing I do is to look for the 24-second clocks.

Back then, they weren’t located on top of the backboard—which makes perfect sense, by the way.

No, in those days, the shot clocks were placed on the floor, angled, usually in one of the corners—which made imperfect sense.

I don’t know what it is, but to me there’s a certain cozy simplicity to those old NBA and ABA films that feature shot clocks on the floor.

Again, having the clocks perched up top makes all the sense in the world. But shot clocks on the floor make me think of Afros and shorts with belts and smoke-filled arenas and players with names like Erwin Mueller and Hawthorne Wingo.

Good stuff.

Quarterbacks with one face bar on their helmets. I believe Joe Theismann might be the last of this ilk.

I like the idea of a singular face bar on a football helmet, anyway—and they were mainly worn by place kickers and punters, naturally.

But every so often you’d see a wide receiver wear such a skimpily-equipped helmet, or better yet, a quarterback.

Joe Kapp, anyone?

Billy Kilmer did the one bar thing, too, along with several others. You gotta love a quarterback who’s willing to pull that off, because the one bar helmet may as well have been the no bar helmet, for all the protection that single bar—which was usually somewhere near the chin—provided.

Today the QBs wear facemasks that used to be reserved for linemen—cage-like apparatuses that were worn by players named Otis Sistrunk and Vern den Herder.

Here’s to Theismann, the last of his breed, who wore the Horst Muhlmann-style, one-bar headgear.

Straight on kickers. Back in the days of the 40-man pro football roster, teams didn’t necessarily opt for the luxury of carrying a player whose only purpose was to lay his foot into the pigskin, be it a place kicker or a punter.

Did you know that Lem Barney, the Lions’ Hall of Fame cornerback, also moonlighted as the team’s punter in his first three years in the league?

Barney was no exception. Kickers and punters were also everything from tight ends to quarterbacks to linebackers to linemen.

And the kickers used their toes to thwack the football, not the sides of their insteps. After all, Hall of Fame kicker Lou Groza's nickname was "The Toe," not "The Instep."

Ahh, the straight on kicker!

Mark Moseley was the last one, and his final year in the NFL was in 1986.

The straight on kicker wasn’t conspicuous by his puny size, like today’s sidewinders, or “soccer style” kickers. The straight on kicker was big and beefy and his jersey was dirty, too—because he was a real football player, not strictly a specialist.

He wore numbers like 76 and 55 and few things, to me, say old school football like a straight on kicker with his squared off shoe, readying himself, arms gently swinging by his side, as he glances at the goalposts—which were on the goal line, by the way and shaped like an H.

Then the moment—when he steps into the kick and swings his leg gloriously like an American football kicking leg should be swung, like a pendulum, not a tennis racket.

Yeah, I miss that.

And many other things, too, but this is a column, not a book.

I hope these memories are ones you share, too. If you’re over 45, the chances are good.

Happy grilling.

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