An Open Letter to Fans of South Plains Football

by Stephan Clark

Usually I'm not one to dwell on things. Leave it all out on the field, boys - that's what I say. But since Friday night, I understand there's been some talk about me down at The Waffle House, so even if I have always subscribed to the ground game, I see now that sometimes you've just got to air it out.

I hope you haven't forgotten it was a good game there for a while. After more than forty minutes of smash-mouth football, we were up 14-9 and just looking to stop the big play and force them to turn it over on downs. We had the horses to pound it out on the ground and run down that clock, but that quarterback from Northridge had no quit in him. He would not be denied. He went out there and opened up the passing lanes when he had to, and kept control of the ball when we shut ‘em down.

“This a good game,” I told my assistants. “This a game for the ages.” And that it was, at least until what happened happened and it got so I had to write this to you.

I really thought we had it won there late in the fourth quarter when we got that second big sack in a row and they were looking at third down and forever from deep inside their own territory. But then they went all razzle-dazzle on us, with their backs and receivers going from right to left and vice-versa, and the ball getting lost somewhere in between. I just about went off like a rocket when I saw the lineman rumbling up the far sideline all alone. “Get the fat boy!” I screamed. “Get the fat boy!” But even if he wasn't any faster than a thousand pounds of dead beef, he could not be contained. He wanted it too much. He shook off a couple would-be tacklers and bulldogged it for a couple yards more till our own Michael Jameson came flying in like a Mack Truck and blindsided him at the thirteen yard line. 

There weren't but four ticks left on the clock by then, and I knew if we shut them down on that next play, we could still go home happy. But before I could call a safety blitz, a late flag came flying up into the air. “It's coming back,” I said. “That's holding. Ten yards! A late flag's always holding!”

Only the referee from clear down on the other end of the field didn't see it that way. He came running back like a man leaving the devil and said personal foul, unsportsmanlike conduct, for a sucker-punch I still can't find on the film.

I admit it: I lost my head. Came clear out to the middle of the gridiron, throwing my hat and kicking the dirt and screaming god knows what.     

“Additional fifteen yards!” the referee said. “The ball will be spotted on the goal-line!”

I just about swallowed my teeth - we were backed up clear underneath our own goalpost, and so I guess I said something I shouldn't have. “That's a horseshit call, ref!” Well, out came another flag. “Unsportsmanlike conduct! Half the distance to the goal!” And then he was making some kind of half-assed effort to move ball half the distance to the goal-line, even though we were already sitting there at the one inch.

I'm told I threw my shoe. But by then all hell had broken loose. Several of the players were jaw-boning each other at the line - just exchanging pleasantries, you know - and before that quarterback from Northridge could bark his second hut, our right end barreled through and flattened their center like a tortilla. The flags went up like it was the Fourth of July, and don't you know we got the short-end of it again. “Half the distance to the goal, automatic first down. The second ten-yard unsportsmanlike penalty will be assessed on the kick-off.”

What did I care if cooler heads prevailed? They only needed to run it up the gut and nose it into the end zone to win the game and the season too and take away that Little Black Shield. So when I saw the ref try to move the ball back another fraction of an inch toward the goal-line, I cried horseshit once again and even said something about him and his country (he was Greek or Italian, I cursed ‘em both). I wanted another flag by that point, I admit it. There was something crazy in me that said this referee could keep on advancing the ball but he'd never get it into the end zone - I wouldn't let him, I'd just go right on cursing so that next play could never be called.

Well, y'all know what happened. I got thrown out - first time in eighteen years, thrown out of a football game - and like that it was as if my spirit shot clear out of my body. I saw myself down there on the dirt where I'd fallen, surrounded by my coaches and players, with the better among them saying, “Get back! Give the man some air!” I felt completely free. As I floated up there in the ether, it was like I knew you could always keep on going half the distance to the goal and you'd never get there. Even if that whistle blew and that quarterback tried to sneak it in, he'd never score. Before he got to the end zone, he'd have to get halfway there. And before he got halfway there, he'd have to get halfway to there. It'd never stop. There'd always be half of something left.

So is that a game I'd like to have back? Sure, in some ways, yes. But there at the end, no. I've been trying to explain it to Pastor Steve. Because if God is everywhere like the Bible tells us, and you can't ever get anywhere - not to your mother's house or the tire store or even the end-zone - it's like you're already there with Him already. There is no starting out and there is no arriving. Quit your fussing. We're already in Christ's heart. He's out there on the football field, as real as any twelfth man.

And that there's about all I got to say about that.

Your coach,

Larry “Bud” Watkins