The Catch

Raymond C. Appleman

© Copyright 2003 by Raymond C. Appleman


Photo of a football being passed.

Saturday afternoon had been a perfect relaxation from studying. The football game was played away so lots of students listened to the loss on the radio. Life continued for college students looking for a break from academic pressure and thankful that winter had not yet restricted outdoor activities. On this last outdoor tennis day of the year I returned from a walk to see Paul outside the dorm tossing a football. Rocky was talking with him and as I walked toward the door Paul asked if I wanted to play catch, or as the Easterners said “...have a catch”. I had not done that since high school so I dropped all other plans and did not even want to delay this by changing into warmer clothes or better running shoes.

Paul asked if Rocky and I would accept him as all-day quarterback. Paul Johnson was a polio victim who sometimes needed an external brace on his right leg. This was one good day when he was able to get around without the brace, but even on a good day Paul did not run. I really love a situation where I do not have to embarrass myself with attempts at throwing. Rockland Newcombe III of Philadelphia, known as Rocky, was not picky either so we both made that official verbally; Paul was our quarterback.

Rocky and I started taking turns on offense and defense. Paul was good at plotting ways to get a receiver open. He could specify a collection of moves designed to fool the specific defender. Paul was dialing in the patterns to take advantage of our specific talents; Rocky had flat out straight line speed over me and I was light weight and strong for a guaranteed one second separation after any move. During the first twenty minutes in the little-used street Paul had worked out a set of patterns that I ran against Rocky and a set that Rocky worked against me. I was losing track of time, temperature, sunlight condition, thirst, hunger; the pattern Paul was outlining was where all my concentration was focused. Paul was masterful at getting the most out of each one of us.

The passes were artistic. Paul’s skills at throwing a football made receivers look good. He threw passes that went beyond accuracy to the point that a receiver suddenly realized that the ball was in his arms. The concentration required to track and reach a thrown ball was subconscious so that the receiver was only aware that the ball seemed to nuzzle into his arms like a tired dog’s nose. A quarterback who sometimes could not walk without a brace, Paul had developed throwing skills that overcame a receiver’s technical flaws. Rocky and I were in the rare situation of receiving from a perfect quarterback. I forgot about getting tired, and I did not realize that time was passing by. I did not remember many of the pass routes until later because the only thing that mattered was the current route. I reached a point defensively where I could recognize when Rocky had beaten me and was off to the races and I marveled at how that happened. We forgot pride so that we actually benefitted from learning our weaknesses. It was a strange island of reality where I was not aware of anyone else observing. Rocky, Paul, and I were living apart from external expectations, learning our personal strengths and weaknesses as well as acquainting ourselves with each other’s best and worst.

It was heartbreaking that the human body could not keep running pass patterns after dark. It was unfair that the earth rotates at a constant rate and the afternoon could not last a few days. The three of us suddenly realized that this beautiful afternoon was finite. The food service would open soon so Paul, Rocky, and I interrupted the huddle for a quick agreement that five more patterns each would finish the session. Rocky was on offense for the first five plays. I ran four of my five, putting out of my mind the count and then Paul said with relief in his voice,

“OK, last one, what do you want to run?”

I knew that the hook and go was almost guaranteed against Rocky, so we chose that one. I do not know how long the pass route took or whether it was as good as the previous routes. Rocky bit on the hook and Paul’s pump fake. As I rounded the corner 180 to my left, I heard Rocky yell in frustration that he was not going to follow me this last route even though he was quite capable of catching up with me and blocking the pass if it was late arriving.

I was not willing to give up on this last pattern. An afternoon of enjoying the perfection of Paul’s passing would be ruined if the last memory was of giving in to tiredness, dimming light and hunger, so I expected to look back and find the ball gently floating over my shoulder. I looked back and saw in my peripheral vision the ball floating directly over my left shoulder thirty feet overhead. To catch up with this beautiful floating spiraling ball I was going to need more speed than I had ever possessed. It was still on the possible side of a challenge so I lowered my head and pointed my body toward the guess of where the ball would come down. I started organizing all the speed skills I could remember in order that I could catch up with that pass. Head tilted forward, arms pumping long arcs, hands grabbing to swim through some air, legs striding to the limit of efficiency and three quick full breaths to fuel the faster pace. I wanted every millisecond advantage I could squeeze out of my body. As the expected point drew nearer, I looked up again to see what the verdict was going to be. Had I accomplished my goal? Had the ball already fallen to the side? Was the ball still jetting out ahead of me? Over my left shoulder the ball was still descending and would drop one foot ahead of my reach. I leaned forward and stretched my hands out low just in time to snag the back fourth of the ball and flip it up into the air. I kept the ball in front of me and gripped it in a vice of panic. My feet had not caught up with my body and I suddenly noticed that after the catch was made, I was going to fall onto the asphalt. I rolled once and continued the roll back to my feet.

Now I could feel tired. Now I could recognize that I was thirsty. Now I could look at my left elbow and see how much skin was missing. I still wonder how a quarterback can put into a throw the qualities that Paul did. On that day, something about his passes created a desire to receive. I wanted that last pass so much that my body went beyond its published limits in order to catch the last pass so that I could remember the day ending with a success. When I look back on that afternoon I am impressed with the importance that every throw had. It was a spiritual bond that made a dropped ball into a sin that should be avoided with every trick we could muster. Catch the ball. The pass is too beautiful to mess up with uncoordinated fingers, or crossed hands, or pressure-hardened fingers. Just relax and let the ball find its own way into my arms.

Professional athletes can force their bodies to go beyond limitations on demand. Of course I was still trapped in a short skinny body that was not capable of effective sprinting. Organized team football has never been possible for me, but I love football because of days like the one on which I enjoyed catching perfect passes.

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