Pure and Simple
It's how you play the game
By Jeff Zurcher

ast Saturday night in Commonwealth Stadium, the Murray State combination of Matt Vinson, Mario Pannunzio, and Jacob Menage moved the ball at will-up and down, down and back, back and forth-along and across the turf at C.M. Newton Field.

They had barely broken a sweat. Yet every play they ran worked. Nothing Kentucky could do about it. Defense couldn't stop them. Couldn't touch them, in fact.

Because Matt, Mario, and Jacob never set foot in boundsbecause they are 12, 11, and 8.

Wedged in between the Murray cheerleaders and the blue fiberglass boxes storing the extra Racers helmets and pads, they had one football, three imaginations, and about 30 yards of turf to work with in the northwest corner of the stadium.

And that's all the boys needed to play the biggest game of their young lives. A game that counted not on the scoreboards in the arena, but on the scoreboards in their heads.

And therefore it counted infinitely more. And will count more for much longer.

They chucked the ball all over. Playing keep away at times (mainly from Jacob, the youngest). Playing passing games at times. But mostly, just playing around. For the right reason: fun. For the big-eyed thrill of being in front of-though not always (or ever) noticed by-63,306 persons in attendance.

"I've been in a lot of neat stadiums, but this one's the neatest. I like how the whole thing goes around," says Jacob, referring to the bowl-like structure of Commonwealth's enclosed end zones-something he doesn't see at many of the other schools that MSU, a D-IAA program, plays.

Jacob wears, on this early September evening, a blue #22 jersey. But unlike the majority of other fans donning #22 jerseys this night, Jacob's is not of the Jared Lorenzen variety. Rather, Jacob's 22 is yellow, with MURRAY STATE across the top of it. And the navy jersey is several shades deeper than Jacob's UK-blue eyes, which, when asked about MSU's performance, get as serious as an 8-year-old's can.

"I think we're [Murray State] doing pretty good," Jacob deduces midway through the game's fourth quarter, with UK leading 30-6. When asked what the Racers could do to improve upon the score, Jacob answers with words as an honest and refreshing as his freckles, "I don't know." And then with an equally honest, "But my dad knows."

Jacob's dad, Jeff, probably does know. At least, he ought to know. After all, he's the MSU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Mario's dad Joe is a coach too-head coach. And Matt's dad Mike is Murray's strength coach.

Matt, you'll recall, is 12. Thus, he possesses a pinch more football familiarity than Jacob. And he's not afraid to say that he certainly does know why UK is hammering Murray.

"Because our offensive line is getting blown up!" Matt blatantly announces, as if everyone should know.

No offense to Jacob's dad, of course.

Yet despite the Cats carving up the Racers in the trenches, Matt thinks Murray's taking on UK is "pretty sweet."


"Because we get a bunch of money for playing them." (A "bunch," in this case, equals precisely $150K. Guaranteed.)

Okay then, so maybe Matt has more familiarity about how football works-the collegiate kind, anyway-than previously anticipated. More, maybe, than he should. Nonetheless, he doesn't let such familiarity foil his still-12-year-old optimism.

"Murray will win the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) and only lose one more game this year," he boasts. "To Eastern (Kentucky)," he concedes under his breath, as he turns, head clad in a gold-on-blue "M" cap, to get Mario's opinion.

Mario's straightforward, summer-tanned face seems ambivalent on the matter.

But Mario, who stands with his back to the field on the other side of the Murray kickers' practice net, does make clear this: He likes to ride his bike, likes to skateboard, likes "anything sports." Just like most other young men of 11 in Kentucky.

Yet he definitely differs from many other Bluegrass boys in that he claims he's no Wildcats fan. (Which, by the way, is quite okayeven if it's not quite normal around the state of Kentucky.)

But you can tell by watching him move, laugh that greater than his love of or disgust for any team is his relationship with the game. And perhaps now, at 11-years-old, that relationship is at the peak of its purity-the perfect balance of understanding and innocence.

Balance illustrated: Immediately after UK quarterback Shane Boyd scampers through many Murray defenders for the game's last touchdown, making the final score 37-6, Matt leans over to Mario and utters, "They scored again."

Mario simply looks up at the scoreboard and shrugs. Then the three boys return to their game-it's keep away from Jacob again.

And somehow that shrug makes me remember. Makes me realize that, really, it doesn't matter to Mario and his mates-or to any other band of boys-if they are playing football here, on the floor of Commonwealth Stadium, or in some parking lot in Murray, Kentucky.

As long as they're playing.

l Infatuation: Football
.It's how you play the game
By Jeff Zurcher

The unmitigated magic of a Sears' catalog.

Within its pages, a boy found the meaning of life. Transformers, Tonka trucks, Micro Machines, Star Wars action figures (best of which was C-3PO with removable limbs, from The Empire Strikes Back), Nintendo games, G.I. Joe.

And, most miraculous of all, football gear. You kidding me? You could actually order real NFL football gear! Oh, yes. A complete set, in fact. Praise be.

I remember the astonishment. I remember the merriment. I remember thinking I was going to look, when it was all said and done, precisely like Marcus Allen.

The day the big brown box arrived was better than my birthday. Outside, the box smelled exactly like a large mass of cardboard should. Inside was aromatic ecstasy to my 2nd-grader soul. Plastic, foam molding, and nylon. Delicious.

My muted-silver Raiders helmet looked just like the one the pros wore. The shoulder pads, when pounded with my fist, emitted the same slapping clackity-clack sound as heard on TV. And the gray pants had inside pockets the for knee and thigh boards: amazing.

That same fall, all the neighbor boys had managed to collect similar equipment. And, after arriving home from school, we convened-almost daily-in an empty, crabgrass-encrusted yard on Forest Park Drive for four-on-four sandlot wars.

Additionally, one girl came over every time we played. But, buddy, she didn't come to cheerlead. Nope, Kim was tough, speedy and a couple years older than us; plus, she had good hands. Kim, furthermore, owned the best headgear: red with a big white "I" for Indiana University-unique in that it was the only one from a college team; intimidating in that it was the only one had a arched crossbar connecting the two-barred facemask with the brow of the helmet.

And one more thing about those helmetseach had a sticker on the back that read "NOT FOR CONTACT USE. COULD CAUSE INJURY, PARALYSIS, OR DEATH." Huh? That bothered us. For a minute. But then we rationalized (though we didn't yet know that particular word at the time) that those stickers must be a scare tactic; must be intended for people who didn't know how to tackle properly. (Not us.) Besides, if the helmets weren't made for contact, why on earth did they contain 2-inch-thick hard gray padding and rigid plastic facemasks?

Fortunately, no one ever got hurt. Physically hurt, anyway. But there was heaps of hurt pride. Every loss equaled emotional pain. The game, even then-especially then-meant that much to us.

Teams were almost always the same: Kim, Max, and his older brother Greg, and Steven, a lad from England, on one side-Carey, Seth, and his older brother Chris, and me on the other. In our huddle, Seth, who sported a 49ers helmet ala Joe Montana, handled the QB duties; Chris and I played running back; and Carey split out as receiver.

Back then, our contests seemed epic. We had four downs but no first downs. End zones but no goal lines. Touchdowns but no point-after attempts. Kickoffs but no punts. And nicknames but no team names.

(For some strange reason, the only three nicknames I can still recall relate to animals: Chris went by "Bull" because of his (relative) strength and dead-ahead running style; they called me "Eel" due to my being quick and shifty (again, relative); and Steven was "Beaver," which, truly, was not at all associated with football, but rather with Steve's uncannily resembling a young Jerry Mathers.)

We played those sandlot games for hours. Years. Right through YFL (Youth Football League) and on up to junior high. Then we started playing other boys, other schools. But that didn't make the game more real to us.

In fact, the game was likely less real by junior high. Less real, ironically, because by then less was left to our imaginations than in our glamorous, pigskin-inundated second-grade days. Days of collecting/trading football cards and those little plastic NFL helmets you got for a quarter from a vending machine at the grocery store (what a steal). Days of sleeping under a brown-and-white bedspread coated with every single pro team's logo. Days of practicing your autograph, knowing-just knowing-that you were going to be big football hero someday

Like Marcus Allen.

Honestly, I'd give anything to go back. To do it all again. Not to do it better, but simply just to do it. Just for the joy.

However, time's real, cruel-and not because it's irreversible. No, time's cruel because time's a teaser. Time permits you tiny glances into the past that serve only as appetizers to your filet-mignon-craving mind.

Such glances occur for me every so often in the aroma of autumn, when those sandlot days are dangled in front of my memory like pleasure on a string.

Something about the slide in temperature, starting in September, that captures the cool scent of fresh cut grass laden with evening dew. Something about orange October leaves burning somewhere in the distance. Something about the faint odor of gray snow clouds hanging low in a November sky.

Something somewhat mystical that affects me such that I, after a 27-year association with the game, still can't decide if fall smells like football or if football smells like fall.

And I'm very glad for that.

University of Kentucky
8/23-8/26-KY Welcome for new undergraduate students
8/27-First day of classes
9/1-Labor Day Academic Holiday
10/ 3-Fall Break Academic Holiday
10/20-Midterm of 2003 Fall Semester
11/27-11/29-Thanksgiving Academic Holiday
12/12-Last day of classes
12/15-12/19-Final Examinations

Transylvania University
8/30-New students arrive on campus
8/30-9/1-New Student Orientation
9/2-First day of classes
10/11-10/14-Fall Break Academic Holiday
11/27-11/30-Thanksgiving Academic Holiday
12/5-Last day of classes
12/9-12/12-Final Examinations

Georgetown College
8/21-8/24-New Student Orientation
8/25-First day of classes
9/27-Family Day
10/13-10/14-Fall Break Academic Holiday
11/27-11/28-Thanksgiving Academic Holiday
12/9-Last day of classes
12/11-12/16-Final Examinations

Centre College
9/3-New students arrive on campus
9/8-First day of classes
10/11-Family Weekend
10/18-Homecoming Weekend
10/23-10/26-Fall Break Academic Holiday
11/26-11/30-Thanksgiving Academic Holiday
12/12-Last day of classes
12/14-12/10-Final Examinations