I had a recent conversation on Twitter with Ira Socol about the Jets at the start of their improbable march through the playoffs. It began after Ira reminisced about seeing THE Jets-Raiders playoff game at Shea on Dec. 29, 1968.
That brief exchange got me to thinking about growing up playing football with my friends in Flushing, former home of the Jets. In elementary school, we tried to get up a game each Sunday morning on a grassy field near the local Y. We each had gotten our families to buy us a football helmet and shoulder pads – no small thing, especially for those of us who were poor. I had a purple and white Vikings helmet – I followed my brother’s lead, and he liked the Vikes – and a sky-blue LA Rams jersey. But no one of us had the same uniform or helmet. We were a small, motley crew, playing on a small patch of grass and mud which, during Jets’ home games, had a view of the tops of Shea’s tall halogen floodlights about a mile away.
Once in a while, we’d get the urge to walk to Shea and “sneak” in after halftime, when the gates would be thrown open, ostensibly to allow ticket-holding fair-weather fans to leave. (Because at that time, the Jets were pretty bad.)
During the week, after school, we’d play two-hand touch in the asphalt-covered parking lot at the Hebrew school, eschewing the heavy equipment of helmets and shoulder pads. All we needed was a ball and a sliver of space. The parking lot was generally empty, but you always had to watch out so as not to collide with the random parked car. David, Charles and Mark would sometimes join us after Hebrew school was over. I’m not sure if we looked completely odd, this racially mixed group of kids playing football in the synagogue parking lot. Or whether Flushing was so used to this kind of integrated tableau that no one gave us a second look.
Later, in high school, I played touch football with my friends on a small strip of concrete in the West Village, in the front courtyard of the NYU graduate family housing complex. No first downs because the length of the “field” was too short. It was vital to stay on your feet because the concrete was unforgiving and staunching bloodflow during the long subway ride home back to Queens was annoying, to say the least. My friends and I from Stuyvesant would play with kids who lived in the buildings. We never had a scheduled time – the games formed organically.
Of course, disputes often arose. Rules were argued – “You said the car was out of bounds.” Roles were vied for. Scores were contested.
But in the end, we worked things out ourselves.
All this – the helmets and jerseys, the nearly daily football games, the walks to Shea – all this happened and not one of my friends was ever killed or kidnapped or maimed. Maybe we were lucky. But maybe being in charge also made us slightly more careful and caring of one another. In fact, I’ve always been mystified as to why adult-supervised sports, like football, are referred to as “organized.” As though what we kids were able to do in the synagogue parking lot and on the concrete at the NYU towers was the opposite, or wasn’t based on organization. That somehow adult supervision equals better, safer, less chaotic – a demeaning of what kids are able to accomplish on their own.
I say let’s stop using the term organized when referring to sports leagues for kids. Unless we distinguish between “adult organized”and “kid organized.” Because kids can be very organized when it comes to the things they care about.