To mark the occasion of Guilford's homecoming weekend and to celebrate Quakers' football, we present an article by Al Patterson '76 reflecting on the occasion of his final game as a college football player.
There is something comforting about a routine. Routines and rituals calm the frenzied minds of obsessive-compulsive personalities. A routine requires little interaction with the conscious part of the brain. It's a way to be physically active, without having to invest much mental energy. I once had a routine.
I began my routine for the final time Nov. 15, 1975. My ritual, born many years earlier and bridging my long, slow journey from child to man, was as simple as putting on a pair of pants. These were no ordinary pants. They were the armor of the athletic warrior, the uniform of the sporting combatant, the protector of the loins with its genesis dating to the Roman legions: a simple pair of crisp, white, clean football pants, fresh from the industrial vat used to sterilize and clean the prior week's stains.
There before me were my game pants, magically transformed in a week's time into practically new, and eagerly awaiting the day's new badges of honor. There were two knee pads and two thigh pads, inserted into the pockets of the bright knit pants, free of any other markings of the Quakers' colors of maroon and grey. I slipped them on as I had done countless times every season from the first days of youth football in the Pop Warner leagues of Winston-Salem, through my high school days in Mount Airy, until today. Each time I was comforted by the thought of endless days, seasons and opportunities to attain the immortality sought by all who play football.
Something about my ritual was different today as I sat in the visitor's locker room at Catawba College, in Salisbury, N.C. I was surrounded by friends and teammates of four years, each man engaged in his own personal pregame ritual with the singular purpose of preparing for the afternoon's contest of Guilford's manhood and testosterone versus Catawba's. As I slipped on my Rawlings game pants, I thought about the finality of this long process, where I was and where I had come from. It was something like contemplating death. I knew it lurked out there somewhere in the distance, but when the last day finally arrives, you suddenly wonder where all the time went.
For 13 years every fall, I engaged in this contest of skill, strength and fluid motion of choreographed violence, playing a game that was every much a part of me as my own DNA. This sporting event, this simple game, had given so much to me. It gave me the chance to attend a college far beyond my parents' ability to pay. It gave me a reason to exist and enjoy life. In some ways, it helped me postpone adulthood and its attendant responsibilities. Football was a simple game that involved a life-and-death struggle with an opponent to see which team had the better men.
On this day, I thought about my transition from ordinary scholar to ordinary collegiate scholar-athlete. This was the last time I would ever take part in my ritual. It felt like death was banging at my door and demanding my very soul. This was my final moment, my last chance at the pretext of immortality. It was the last chance to show myself worthy to lead and worthy of my teammates' respect and trust. Today's game marked the end of a journey; its finality could no longer be ignored.
As I contemplate that day some 35 years ago, I remember little about the actual game itself. Bits and pieces come and go as my memory comes and goes like a loose connection on a car battery. The game was special for a number of reasons. Some of Catawba's players were my friends. My best friend and former high school teammate, Johnny Wagoner, started for Catawba. Our lives were forever linked from that day in the ninth grade when our spinster English teacher, Miss McCann, referred to us (in front of the entire class) as "bosom companions." As two young bucks on the cusp of biological manhood, this description by an adult authority figure was less than flattering. Two more close friends and former high school teammates, Jimmy Dorsett and Keith Goodman, were graduating that year and in the stands watching. I met other Catawba players the previous spring when I spent the end of their semester there with my old high school friends. I worked out in Catawba's gym its quarterback, Pat Witheril, and other team members.
I remember both teams were physically beat up by the long season. Johnny had a knee injury and didn't play much. My left knee was securely taped after stretching ligaments from a cheap block took three weeks earlier at Lenoir-Rhyne. It seemed like all of the Quakers were beat up and we used three of our quarterbacks in the game, including my former freshman year roommate, Butch Foley, along with Johnny Stewart and Joe Osborne.
This was the last game of the season for both teams and demanded all their remaining energy and effort. It featured turnovers and trick plays, fantastic catches and great defensive plays on both sides of the field. It was a great game for the fans, as the lead changed hands in each of the four quarters.
Catawba scored first, and again after a Guilford fumble. The game was just four minutes old and Catawba led, 13-0. After we punted, Catawba drove to Guilford's 28. If the hosts scored again, the game would have certainly been lost. My yellowed copy of the Greensboro Daily News article says on the next play, Kim Smith fumbled and we recovered. All-American running back (and fellow Campbell University law school graduate) Reggie Kenan '77 capped a methodical drive for Guilford's first score.
I vividly recall a play on Catawba's next drive. Pat Witheril, Catawba's All-District 26 quarterback, threw a quick pass to the tight end. While scouting Catawba game film earlier in the week, I noticed Pat made somewhat of an unnatural move prior to throwing the quick pass to the tight end, so when he ran this play, I reacted out of instinct, stepped back and got a hand between Pat and the tight end. The pass hit my hand, bounced straight up and back into Catawba's backfield where David Webster, Guilford's defensive end, stood flatfooted while staring up and waiting for the ball to drop into his hands, without having to move one step. I recall the comical look on his face, how his mouth was wide open in shocked disbelief, as he caught the ball just before being swarmed under.
Momentum changed again on a brilliant trick play. Deep in the Indians territory, Witheril called a halfback pass that looked like their dreaded pitchout run, but halfback Wayne Foster instead threw an 83-yard touchdown to Allen Simmons. Guilford scored before the half to take a 22-21 halftime lead. Both teams scored in the third quarter and Catawba tied the game with a two-point conversion. With nine minutes left in my career, my freshman roommate, Butch Foley, led us on a methodical, 80-yard scoring drive that gave us a 36-29 triumph.
Throughout the game, I wanted the clock to speed up when we were ahead and slow down when we were behind. Eventually, however, the end always comes.
Having survived the afternoon's contest with a victory, we returned to the locker room for another ritual, the postgame celebration. In my first two years, we only had one such celebration, a win over Emory & Henry that ended a 32-game losing streak. Today's celebration should have been savored more, but it was tempered by the end of my football career.
The final ritual soon began. We stripped off our gear and listened to the congratulations of NAIA District 26 Coach of the Year Dennis Haglan. The seniors and I drifted out of the locker room to the gym entrance, still wearing our football pants and shoes. I sat with my weary brothers, who suffered through the long years when Guilford football was a laughing stock. It was strangely quiet. There were a dozen of us, some sitting, some standing, taking in the moment and sharing this feeling for the last time.
Our journey reached the end and we would soon graduate and go our separate ways. We knew this special moment, with was our last together. We all knew the last vestige of our childhood, playing the game we loved so much, was finally over. (This was also a sobering moment because if we could not play football, we were required by social contract to behave as responsible adults!)
I was tired and my left knee hurt. However, there is no better feeling than to be tired and sore as a winner. We won this day and shared an unspoken respect and love for one another. We rose from the depths of an 0-9 freshman season and a one-win sophomore year. We had a winning record as juniors and played in a bowl game. Our final season ended with a school-record eight wins and two losses, by a total of four points.
I measured my friends, looked them in the eye, and hoped they felt what I could not speak. I felt no greater love and respect for any person I had known in my 21 years. This moment capped many years of physical suffering and sacrifice. Many of my friends had just played their last game far beyond their physical limitations, their talent and God-given skills. We performed at our best, not for Guilford, or God, or country - but for each other.
I had a similar feeling four years earlier in the visitor's locker room at Starmount High School at the end of my high school career. This day in Salisbury was different as I realized a chapter in my life was ending and I was powerless to change my fate. I had chased a gridiron dream birthed as a third-grader playing for a Pop Warner team in 1962. I dreamed of earning a college football scholarship. I dreamed the dream common to all football players, to play in front of thousands of screaming fans. I dreamed I would play football forever.
All dreams eventually die. I sat with my brothers trying to absorb as many feelings and emotions as possible so I could replay over and over again later in life. This moment was to be cherished, and more importantly, a moment to be remembered. As we sat silently, warmed by the late afternoon sun one last time, we knew shared something unique, an experience that would teach us many important life lessons. We learned about manhood and humanity by enduring what seemed like endless suffering to reach a goal. We learned the value of common goals and determination in the face of adversity. We learned the size of your heart is more important than the color of your skin. We learned to depend on others to do their best despite fatigue, pain, exhaustion or defeat. We learned failure is sometimes required to properly enjoy success.
After sharing the moment one last time, we returned to the locker room knowing our lives were changed for ever. Life wasn't better or worse, just different. In the midst of my victorious elation, I felt a loss words cannot explain.