The ghost of Tom Landry

In 1970, Pat Toomay was scared he'd get drafted by Vince Lombardi. Something worse happened -- he ended up playing for the Dallas Cowboys. Years later, he'd realize what damage that wrought.

Then I realized that John's utterance meant that he appreciated the game at its purest level. That he knew its joy, as my brother and I had known its joy on that vacant lot so long ago. And it was gratifying to realize that he could still find the essence of a game that had transmogrified into a commercial circus. That he had not been hamstrung, as I had been hamstrung during my own career, by a debilitating, Landry-like self-consciousness. For my older son, though, the game proved to be harrowing.

Seth is three years older than John, and as he grew up, he discovered soccer, a game he truly loved. "Soccer: the intelligent man's football" was a sticker on the bumper of his coach's car, and he often pointed it out as we left the field after a practice. But I got too involved with his participation in the sport. I was around too much. I was much too interested. When he was 9 or 10, I noticed in him my own tendency at that age to devalue his ability, to dismiss it as unworthy of pursuit. There was a scene after one game in which I excoriated him for failing to play up to his potential, for failing to focus, to concentrate -- to do, in other words, what I had never consistently done myself. I angrily implored him to "be a player."

Immediately, I realized my mistake and backed off. I decided to let him own his own experience of the sport without my co-opting it. The strategy paid off, for very quickly Seth blossomed into a more than accomplished halfback. But had I gone too far? Was it already too late? Had I already implanted in him what had been implanted in me -- an image of "Dad" he could only hope to resist?

Pat Toomay, the fresh-faced young draftee out of Vanderbilt, had no idea what he was in for when he signed on to play for the Dallas Cowboys in 1970.
Dallas Cowboys
Pat Toomay, the fresh-faced young draftee out of Vanderbilt, had no idea what he was in for when he signed on to play for the Dallas Cowboys in 1970.
Toomay played defensive end for the Cowboys from 1970 to '74. Here, he's bringing down the Washington Redskins' future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgenson.
John Mazziotta
Toomay played defensive end for the Cowboys from 1970 to '74. Here, he's bringing down the Washington Redskins' future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgenson.

When, in middle school, Seth decided to go out for football, I was supportive. But because of my own experience, I was also deeply ambivalent about his decision. I kept my concerns to myself, however, until a Thursday afternoon late in September 1989, when the Hillcrest High School freshmen took the field to play the freshmen of neighboring A. Maceo Smith. Smith was a new high school then, with no varsity team, so older players were playing down -- juniors on the JV, sophomores with the frosh. But one player in particular appeared to be even more of a ringer than the Dallas Independent School District permitted.

"Boy, look at the size of that fullback," I remarked to my wife as we sat watching warm-ups. "If he hasn't voted in a presidential election, I'll kiss somebody's butt."

The player in question was huge, over 6 feet tall, weighing in excess of 225 pounds -- a man among boys, as a survey of our team quickly confirmed. Watching him, I got worried. "Somebody's going to get hurt."

In my nightmare of Lombardi I was pancaked in a Nutcracker Drill and refused to get up. Ironically, the Nutcracker Drill, though a powerful symbol, was next to worthless as training for a game because of the unnatural constraints of the dummies and the lack of passing to keep players honest. Rarely, in a game, did such an isolated instance occur, but in this game, toward the end of the first quarter, one did. It was a re-enactment of my deepest football fear -- but my son lived my nightmare.

A. Maceo Smith had the ball on the Hillcrest 20-yard line. An off-tackle play had been called, and once again the gargantuan fullback accepted the handoff. But this time he was headed straight for 170-pound Seth, playing left defensive tackle. Seth had shed his block beautifully and was now crouched in the hole, poised for the hit, as the fullback bore down on him.

Physically, Seth was more than outmatched. He was an insect in the path of a bus. Part of me wanted him to turn away, to bail out, to fall down -- anything to avoid the moment that was coming. But the other part of me demanded that he stand fast.

He didn't move. He stood his ground. "My God," I yelped, bolting to my feet as the concussive bang of their collision rang through the empty stadium. Helmets went flying. "What a hit!" I bellowed, grabbing my wife. For an instant, I was as proud of Seth as a football parent could be.

Then my wife said, "He's not moving."

I peered at the field. The fullback had gotten groggily to his feet. But Seth was still down, unmoving. He was surrounded by players gesturing frantically for their coach. I ran onto the field.

Seth was numb all over. Taking no chances, the medical staff summoned an ambulance, positioned him on a board, and loaded him up. Off we went, Seth a motionless lump, the paramedics checking vitals as we raced to the hospital.

Outside, it was a stunning autumn evening. The sky was big and blue. The first stars glimmered. I felt like I was going to throw up. Well, here you are, I thought. You're in an ambulance, racing to the hospital, your son numb on a board, groaning. Injured in a fucking football game. And he may never get up.

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