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 When my group of friends from high school and I were about 14 years old, there was this kid named Lonnie. We all liked the guy; he was in all the advanced classes, always had a smile for you and was surreally funny (after his girlfriend dumped him, he provided us with the immortal quip, “Well, love sucks. That’s why I like ducks.”) But in the back of our minds, we always wondered if there was something wrong with Lonnie. He’d been raised by an alcoholic father and had an absentee mother, and he’d shock you with unanticipated bursts of rage. We discovered this the hard way.

During Christmas break, or after school, or anytime it was in season, we would gather behind Bennett School, by Lytle Park, for a little thing we called Scrawny League Football. The concept was simple. A bunch of small, athletically disadvantaged kids, lacking speed, size or understanding of strategy, would choose sides and play mammoth four-hour epics of tackle football. Nobody big or talented allowed. These were for the shrimps, the dorks, the mutts. The games were anything but complex; “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi” passed for defensive alignment, and every play was mapped out intricately as “OK, you guys run downfield and I’ll throw it to one of you.”

But the games were ours, and they were pure. And competitive. Every game seemed to come down to the last decisive possession, or until my cousin Denny - the smallest of all of us - got hurt, which was often. Afterward, we’d adjourn to Jeff’s hot tub and soak, ready to go again the next day, if our parents would let us.

We were careful about whom we invited to these games, because if anyone showed too much spirit, too much talent, it not only would upset the delicate balance of the contest - which, after all, was founded on all of us being equally useless. Once, the best player in town, a future Green Wave star who would later play running back for a Division I-AA university, asked if he could join us. He was a great guy, and we all would have felt much cooler hanging out with him. But he was not for Scrawny League.

But Lonnie, we figured Lonnie would be fine. He wasn’t much bigger than us, and other than the occasionally maniacal look in his eye, we didn’t imagine he’d cause too much competitive disparity. Everyone shook hands beforehand, made fun of my hair as usual, then picked teams. The unproven Lonnie was opposite me, and we readied for the kickoff. Being a wimp, I never liked to field kickoffs, because then you, by definition, have six or seven people with the lone purpose of bashing you into the ground. But this one was kicked straight to me, and I had no choice but to take off with it.

Two teammates were blocking for me, and I appeared to have some room. I juked left, spun around and headed down the right sideline, following two lead blockers. Plenty of room. Might I take this all the way? Like Deion Sanders? Which dance would I do when I reached the end zone? Were any girls, by chance, maybe watching?

Then, out of nowhere, my two blockers exploded. Poof ... into smithereens, splintered in opposite directions, careening toward the ether. And there was Lonnie, arms flailing, eyes bulging, legs flapping wildly behind him, heading straight for me. I had a sudden urge to throw the ball out of bounds, dig a hole in the dirt and climb in it. But there was no time. With a primal “YARRRR!” and teeth a-gnashing, Lonnie lunged forward, Matrix-like, and deposited himself flat into my chest, knocking the ball loose, inserting me about 15 feet deep into the turf and inspiring me, for about 20 minutes, to forget the process of going about basic daily activities like breathing, talking, saying the name “Will Leitch” as if it were my own.

Unlike me - who was being pried off the ground by a complicated procedure involving a spatula, a ditch digger and a Dustbuster - Lonnie popped right back up, licked his lips and screamed, “FIRST DOWN, LET’S GO, PLAY SOME ’D!’”

We didn’t invite Lonnie anymore. My breastplate, however, did eventually pop back into place.

For whatever reason, even after we were all driving cars and growing more hair in scary places, we always found time to play Scrawny League. As the years went on, and we approached college, we began to worry, as tend

s to happen, whether or not we’d be able to keep the gang together, all stay friends, keep up with one another. Jeff, the ringleader and resident troublemaker of the group, came up with the masterstroke.

“Day after Christmas. Mattoon High School football field. High noon. Let’s play.”

And so we have. Since a particularly rousing game in 1992, our senior year of high school, we have met every year, come rain or snow or sleet or 10-below temperatures, at Grimes Field, just outside Mattoon High School, while a yearly girls’ basketball tournament goes on inside the gymnasium, on the first weekday after Christmas for Scrawny League Football.

The lineups change somewhat from year to year, but the core group is always there. Jeff. Shad. Andy. Nick. Keith. Donnie. Denny. Rob. And me. Nothing is allowed to get in the way of the games. Two years ago, when I was working at The Sporting News in St. Louis, two hours away, the blasted boss had me working from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. on the day of Scrawny League. At 10 a.m., I left St. Louis, drove to Mattoon, played for two hours and then drove back to work. Missing Scrawny League was not an option.

With many of our crew scattered across the country or in the even more remote location of marriage, this is likely the only time all year we see one another. But we don’t bore each other with inane holiday patter, How’s the family? What have you been doing with your life these days? How are the kids? Did that rash ever go away? We just warm up a bit, toss the ball around, stretch and then go at it. We’ll figure out how everybody’s doing the way we’re supposed to, on the field.

Director Michael Apted has made a fascinating series of documentaries, called the Up films. The conceit: Every seven years, he revisits a group of 10 people he first filmed at the age of seven, in 7 Up. He does not speak with them in between seven-year spans. He just shows up every seven years and says it’s that time again. The films, watched back-to-back, are breathtaking. Anyone needing reassurance that the child is indeed the father of the man need look no futher than those films. The kid you hated at seven is a jerk for much the same reasons at 28.

I think of those films every year we play Scrawny League. Everyone’s pretty much the same as they were when they were 14. Jeff is still the smart, cocky, dominant one, making all the major decisions and egging everyone on. Keith is still the quiet, upstanding, straight-arrow, hard-working guy who always seems to be favoring some sort of injury. Shad is still the laconic one who always seems to be laughing at a joke none of us were let in on. And me? Well, I’m still the guy hoping the kickoff doesn’t come in my direction.

The games themselves have changed, of course. We used to fear being hurt - the most notorious damages: Jeff chipped a tooth once, causing him to wear a mouthpiece for the next two games, and occasional Scrawny player Tim once gave me a black eye when I tried to tackle his legs and ended up with a shoe in my face - but not anymore. None of us can move fast enough to hurt anybody. Our four-hour epics, which were inevitably followed by more games that week, now last about two hours, tops, and we’re all sore for weeks afterwards. Andy once quarterbacked with the ball in one hand and a cigarette in the other. From time to time, someone will have to beg out early to go check on the baby. And instead of the hot tub, we now adjourn to the bar.

Nothing stops these games, but we hit our first speed bump last year. For eight Christmases, we hadn’t once been bothered about playing on the high school field. We doubt anyone had even ever noticed. Heck, we don’t even wear cleats. It’s our tradition. We’ve always played there.

But in 1999, the Green Wave football team, after years of struggle, went 9-0 and made the state playoffs under coach Gerald Temples. The achievement was most appreciated, to be sure, particularly by embarrassed alums, but Mr. Temples and his staff apparently became a bit power-crazed and prone to micromanagement. About an hour into our Scrawny League game last year, a school employee, presumably from the custodial staff, ran out to us, screaming obscenities and even using inappopriate sexual terms that disturbed our young and virginal ears. Something like: “Kind sirs, could you please exit the playing field?” except “Kind sirs” sounded a lot like “You cocksucking motherfucking kids, get off the fucking field!”

Calmly, we met him at the sideline and tried to, in a clear-headed and composed way, explain to him our tradition and desire not to cause any trouble. He responded with more vulgar insults - he just kept saying such horrible, horrible things! - so, in the most moderated and even-tempered tone we could muster, we told him exactly what he could do with himself. At this point he made an obscene gesture with one of his fingers - lord have mercy! - and ran inside, vowing to do away with us meddling kids.

We continued playing, and an hour later, Gerald Temples himself showed up to give us a stern lecture. We explained to him that we wanted no discord, just to observe our tradition. He then, in a much nicer way than the custodian, told us what we could do with ourselves. We then, if just to finish our game, left the field and went somewhere else.

But that won’t stop us this year. (And, hey, the football team didn’t make the playoffs this year. Maybe they won’t bother us this time.) As always, we’ll be there at High Noon, the day after Christmas, Grimes Field. I am returning to New York City, my home, on December 27. I would have made it a day earlier ... but I have a game to play.



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