|One day, about a year ago, our lives became even better...|
Boss Hawk's writing is so good, I look forward to seeing his own blog soon. Enjoy his tale about life in the Virgin Islands -- through modified American football.
|The author is Number 41, in the middle row. Champagne Girl gets her beautiful smile from both her parents.|
Saint Thomas Synagogue, built in 1833, is the second-oldest synagogue (building) and longest in continuous use now under the American flag. The synagogue, fourth on its site, was built to house a congregation founded in 1796 by Sephardic Jews who had come to the Caribbean Basin to finance trade between Europe and the New World. The congregation reached its zenith in the mid-19th century, declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the fortunes of the Danish Virgin Islands, and grew again in the late 20th century.
So, on this Friday night, why wasn’t I sitting in one of the mahogany pews, running my toes through the six inches of sand that comprised the floor of the synagogue? As Tevye would say, “That I can answer in one word...” FOOTBALL!
My parents and I lived in St. Thomas from 1967 until 1977. Part of that time, I was in high school, and part away in college. Nevertheless, I was a St. Thomian, and coming home meant stripping down to my cutoff shorts, going out onto the veranda, cracking open a Heineken (“green lightning”), and blowing my conch shell horn to announce my return. Then onto my motorcycle and off to the beach.
High School choices on St. Thomas were interesting. There was a Catholic school, an Anglican school, a public high school, and one private non-sectarian institution, named Antilles School. Given the choice of going to one of the religious schools where chapel was required, going to the “blackboard jungle” public school, or to Antilles, was a no-brainer: Antilles it was to be.
I was in the 10th grade. Every boy from 9th through 12th grade was on the football team. There were a total of twelve guys on the team. Only one of us weighed more than 150 pounds... so that made me the second heaviest guy on the team.
Actually, only the public high school had a sizable football-ready population. So we played six-man tackle. Most of us played both defense and offense. As the smallest school -- with the lightest players -- there was no way we could win by brawn. It had to be brains.
|There's Number 41, with his back shyly to the camera.|
Our coach -- also social studies teacher and graphic artist -- was Eric Winter. Mr. Winter was somewhat over six feet tall, lean and wiry, with a thick close black beard. He was also a gymnast. Every man on the team learned how to roll and flip. I remember him telling us how he was once standing on a porch that collapsed. He said a shoulder roll saved his life. That was enough for me. I perfected the shoulder roll. (It came in real handy once when we were kicking off. I was running down field when I was blocked hard and low. I went into a roll and, to my surprise and delight, I did a complete flip in the air, landed on my feet, and kept on running. My number was 41. After the game, a group of little kids ran up to me calling “Forty-one! Forty-one!")
I had never played organized football before. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City during the era of the Donna Reed Show and My Three Sons, my friends (Jewish, Italian, and Irish) and I played touch football in the street. During my first practice with the Antilles Hurricanes, Mr. Winter tried me out at middle linebacker. I made an interception on the first play. Mr. Winter was impressed. Later I sat on the tailgate of the Jeep to get a drink from the water cooler. The tailgate collapsed, and the water crashed to the ground. Mr. Winter was not so impressed, not to mention the thirsty team members.
|Sigh. The nose is fine. But the nickname is great!|
Each one of us had a nickname. Mine was “The Hawk.” It was a name I gave to myself, in my adolescent self-consciousness about my rather large proboscis. On my locker was printed, in red letters dripping blood: “Beware the wrath of the Hawk.”
Eventually, I was settled into the position of defensive center, based on my massive 150- pound weight. John Hamber was the assistant coach. Mr. Hamber was an ex-Navy Seal who ran a scuba diving, snorkeling, and sailing business on the island. He was massive, in a muscular way. I think his calves were bigger around than my thighs. He taught me one thing that was crucial to my position. I learned from him how to get off the line like a rocket. Keep your eye on the ball. As soon as the offensive center barely moves it, you’re off the line. Don’t waste time standing up. Stay low, and move fast, and target the quarterback. Always keep your forward momentum.
There are moments of clarity in a game that come once in a while, like a gift. It was third down, on the Anglican ten yard line. They had one more chance to get a first down. The quarterback was in shotgun position. At the hike, I was off the line low and fast. Then I saw it. The Anglican left end was coming around for the handoff. I knew it wasn’t a fake. I just knew it. The quarterback had his back to me. Instead of targeting the QB, I tore over to where I knew the left end would be at the moment he received the ball. I was invisible. I was a shadow. I was a blur. I was their worst nightmare. I was The Hawk. Low and fast. The handoff. BOOM!
As he slowly tried to get up and hobble off the field, that left end was incredulous. “Where did he come from ??!!!”
|The brothers, now Judean Rebels|
I got my varsity letter, and I made the All-Island team three years in a row. Antilles even came in second place one year -- behind undefeated High School -- whose players were 23 years old, weighed 250 pounds, had big teeth, and one eye in the middle of their forehead. But the skinny kids were able to give ‘em a run for their money by dazzling them with plays that would make Rube Goldberg jealous.
It was an experience I never want to forget. And the lessons learned are enduring. Teamwork, strength, confidence, fair play, achdut. In these days when sports has become so self-serving and commercial, I’m proud to see Avi out there reaming out his team for an unsportsmanlike play. It warms me to know that there are young men out there learning “the right stuff.”
Eventually of course, I ended up back at the synagogue, running my toes through the sand, listening to Torah, and preparing for the touchdowns that HKBH expected of me on and off the field for the rest of my life.
Epilogue: About ten years ago, my wife and I went to St. Thomas for a short vacation. I heard somehow that Eric Winter - coach, gymnast, artist, teacher - had recently died from ALS (Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease). I decided to go pay my respects to Mr. Winter’s wife, who was working in one of the shops on Main Street in Charlotte Amalie. I had the opportunity to tell her how much her husband had meant to me.
While I was there, a St. Thomian saw my tzitzis, and he asked me if I was an “Israelite.” I had to think about it a second.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
Achdut: togetherness, unity
HKBH: one of the many names for God - HaKadosh Baruch Hu (The Holy One, Blessed is He)