By Robert R. , Philadelphia, PA
Impressionable. That’s what 12-year olds are — impressionable. Very impressionable. I think about that when I hang up my football ornament.
I think you’re even more impressionable when you are part of a kid’s football team. Now, we were only 120 pounds, playing in a playground league, but we were intense. There was an expectation to win. The program had won the last 4 years in a row without losing a game! That’s right. Undefeated for four straight years.
And it was all because of our coach — Maxie Burroughs. Maniac Maxie. Talk about making an impression. Maxie made an impression in everything he did.
Maxie Burroughs was a private detective — at least that’s what he told people. He was an ex-narcotics officer who had done two stints in Vietnam. He was from the area known as “the Pocket.” Tucked in the northwest corner of South Philly, just below Center City, hemmed in by the Schuylkill River, bordered by crime and drug infested, crumbling neighborhoods on each side. The Pocket produced survivors. Working class, hard drinking, family loyal, neighborhood do or die-ers.
So Maxie’s craziness was legit. So was his brush haircut, black with hints of grey and lathered with brill cream. So was his odor — stale Old Spice. Maxie had been married three times. No one was surprised. No woman could take him for very long. Maxie had five kids but no one knew much about them. We heard that they hadn’t spoken in years. Who knew why Maxie and his kids didn’t speak. We didn’t ask.
At 50 plus years old he looked more like 30 and as he said, he could “bench press your mother with one hand while knocking out your father with the other.” None of us wide-eyed, impressionable 12-year-olds doubted that he could. He whipped the 12-year olds into shape. His shape. A snarling, break your head and lamp you any chance you got group.
Our team was from 2nd street — close to the Delaware River — a pretty tough neighborhood as they go. Maxie lived near the Schuylkill River – about 3 city miles from us. That walk across South Philly from his house to our field took him through some of the meanest streets and neighborhoods anywhere. Maxie had colorful ways of describing his walk.
He boasted that the walk was his way of showing South Philly who was boss. More than once he flat-out stated, “I can walk 10 blocks and never leave the scene of a crime. When I pass through, Rottweilers genuflect.”
It was nothing to see Maxie running laps with the team. He would have us run 3 laps around the football field and give us a 1 lap head start. If he finished his three laps before you, then you had to do another lap. You could head him huffing and puffing –not because he was out of breath — but to intimidate you. He would pass us and say “One lap for Maxie. If I pass you again you will run and run and run more laps. You better pray to Saint Rita because I’m going to make your eyes bleed!” None of us wanted to face those extra laps and whatever else he had planned.
All football. All the time with Maxie. Neighbors would see him in his back yard lovingly spray painting the team’s helmets at the start of the season. He would use that spray paint that absolutely stunk up the place and blew into the air who knows what carcinogens. And you knew he was spray painting because the aerosol cans made a distinctive sound when he shook it up. It was like two balls were clanging around in that little can.
He painted the helmets gold. Just like the helmets of his beloved Notre Dame. All the while he listened to annoying jazz from Roland Kirk at incredible decibels. “If my neighbors don’t like it, they can croak. It’s their fault for living near me,” he would snarl to no one in particular and to everyone in general.
As the season wore on and scratches appeared on our helmets, he would take those scratches and place heavy black lines in magic marker across them so that they looked like stitches. I think he got the idea from Gerry Cheevers, the hockey goalie for the Boston Bruins who did that with his mask. He said it made us look like warriors.
The football team was Maxie’s to have and to hold. If everything else in his life was a mystery, or broken, or in limbo – the team was something he could point to with pride.
Four straight undefeated seasons. And we were working on the fifth. The pressure was there. Maxie made sure we knew the expectations.
We breezed through the regular season and smoked our first round playoff opponent. Then came the title game. Played in a cold November rain, with mist and wind. Miserable. Just miserable.
There are some days that you know things are not quite right – that something is just not hitting the way it should be. That was how this day felt. We were on the field but somehow, something was just not right.
We inexplicably faltered and were down 6-0 at halftime.
Maxie’s neck veins popped the whole half. He was scarlet red. We heard the familiar huffing and puffing. The other team was just as stunned as we were. We wobbled into the clubhouse for half time, Maxie first to the door. Clubhouse — that’s a nice way of saying a small shack on the public playground.
Maxie closed the door not saying a word. We formed a circle around him, as we did every halftime. This time he held a football. He placed it on the ground in the far corner of the clubhouse and spun the football. What happened next will always stick in our minds. Maniac Maxie Burroughs. Private Detective. War Veteran. Outstanding coach. Looking like a sheriff from the Old West. Quick drew a gun from his waistband and shot the spinning football!
The ball stopped spinning and immediately deflated spraying puffs of white powder around the room and onto many of us. The blast from the gun shook the clubhouse and shook the whole team. We were shocked. Impressionably shocked.
Calmly. Very calmly, Maxie put the gun back into his waistband, walked out of the clubhouse and took his place on the sideline. We got his not-so-subtle message.
We scored six unanswered touchdowns and won the game.
After the game Maxie didn’t come back to the clubhouse. He just left. Never coached again. Never saw him again. Who knows where he wound up. I still see some of my teammates from that championship team and we make up stories about Maxie and where he may be.
Is he with the secret service? Maybe he is in North Korea trying to overthrow that government? Maybe he got back with one, two or all three of his wives? Maybe he is a janitor at some community college?
Maxie may have disappeared but the memory of him and that spinning, deflating football and the sound of that gun reverberating remains. I think about it every time I put that football ornament on the tree.
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