Side Trail Story
Michael collapsed at the sideline, along with his team-mates, all gasping for air after a final punishing series of ten wind sprints across the field. Just fifty-three and a third yards across, it should be a piece of cake, he thought. Ten wind sprints at all-out speed after a two hour practice, put everybody on their butt, wheezing for air as the late October heat wave baked the Oklahoma prairie. Michael hopped to his feet, invigorated.
“Hey, Indian,…how do you do it? You hardly breaking a sweat, man,” wheezed Davey, a defensive lineman, soaked with sweat and exhausted from lugging his chunky two hundred forty pounds back and forth.
“Cheyenne! Not Indian, I’m Northern Cheyenne,” said Michael as he grabbed his Helmet and loped off to the locker room and the showers. Overhead, a large bird circled, floating effortlessly on the updrafts over a nearby field.
Only 15 years old and a sophomore, Michael had been moved up to the varsity squad of the Washington High School football Falcons. His six-foot two stature carrying a lean 160 pounds placed him on the light side compared to many of his fellow Falcons who weighed in solidly between one seventy-five and two hundred forty pounds. But, Michael’s speed and agility, borne out by his catching 8 touchdown passes in his first two months of junior varsity play, earned him a promotion to varsity. A walk-on with no prior football experience in the junior leagues, Michael Wilson - the Indian- raised a few eyebrows.
For young men growing up on the ranches and farms of rural western Oklahoma, high school football was a rite of passage, a way to prove oneself, a stepping stone to manhood. There were, of course, rivalries with the nearby schools in neighboring counties. But there was also a high degree of individual competitiveness between the members of the team, with each player competing for first string, competing for the key positions, competing for more game time with the attendant accolades and glory.
Michael was orphaned at age 5, due to a traffic accident on the Interstate that had claimed the lives of his mother and father. Michael had survived the accident, spending months in a hospital. Life on the reservation is all about family. Michael’s grandparents naturally assumed the role providing a home to their grandson, helped by another daughter, Michael’s aunt, Elina. Due to the age and infirmities of the grandparents, Michael stayed with Elina when she moved to Oklahoma to begin a teaching position. This meant moving off the reservation and living in the white world.
Aware that he was different from the other children at the local public school, and that he had darker skin and hair than the other kids, Michael began to ask questions about his parents and his heritage. Michael had a vague recollection of his father and mother, but had no memory of the traffic accident that killed his parents and put him in the hospital. The Native American culture builds around a family environment where tradition and tales of the old days and life lessons are learned from a verbal history of the ancestors. Elina did her best to relay stories she had learned in order to answer the child’s questions about their Cheyenne heritage and life and death. To Michael, she was known as Náhko’e, his maternal aunt.
Elina made sure that Michael maintained a connection with the Cheyenne people and the Cheyenne ways. Their summer vacation each year included a trip to the Lame Deer Pow Wow at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. Michael was introduced to the ceremonies, dress, dances, drums and music of his native people. Visiting with crafters and elders Elina encouraged Michael to select a Cheyenne boy’s dress regalia and moccasins.
At one of the Pow Wows, Michael had met a Cheyenne elder who had taken an interest the young orphan Indian boy with a single parent caregiver. Elina had described to the elder the circumstances of Michael’s adoption following the deadly traffic accident that had killed his mother and father. The elder, Soaring Eagle, had guided Michael in participation in many of the events and activities for Cheyenne youth. Michael had participated in races and learned games called double-ball, and hoop and pole. On the trip home, Michael bubbled with excitement as he shared his experiences of this Native American event.
“Náhko’e,…Soaring Eagle has given me a Cheyenne name. My name is Minninnewah. It means Wild Wind. In the games, I ran fast. I caught others but no one could catch me. Soaring Eagle says I run like the wind!”
The Falcon football season had its ups and downs, with a few victories and some frustrating losses. But, with his speed and agility, Michael was gaining experience and respect as a blocker and a receiver.
“Next week, we play the Supply High Riders. They’ve been tough this year,” said the coach Black as he gathered the team for a pep talk at the end of one practice. “They’ve got a new kid, quarterback, transfer from the east. I hear tell he’s got a strong arm. In fact, his name is Armstrong,…George Armstrong,… heh,…heh.” Coach Black chuckled at his own joke.
It was late November, and the winter weather bore down hard on the Oklahoma prairies. On game day, there had been snow early, then dissipating as the sky remained a slate gray with cold north winds. The new kid for Supply High Riders was confident, even cocky, as he led his blue uniformed team with gold trim and numbers, down the field in one scoring drive, and then another. The plucky Washington team struggled to keep up, but injuries seemed to mount as one player after another limped to the sidelines. By the last quarter, the beleaguered Washington team was down by seven points, with the score at 35 to 42.
Armstrong was advancing his team, like an army, rolling over the defense in each play. The Riders completed a pass, putting them on the twenty-nine yard line. A Falcon defensive cornerback sprained his ankle trying to stop a receiver on the slippery field and had limped to the bench.
“Coach, what we gonna do?” defensive lineman Davey wheezed.
“Coach, I know his moves, I can stop this guy,” volunteered Michael.
Coach Black looked down the sideline at the remaining Washington players; so many injured and benched in this contest, only the young and inexperienced left. Every member of the team looked beat over, their tan uniforms stained by grass, mud, and blood, but each was willing to stand tall for the team.
“ OK, Kid. You go in for Jones. Cornerback. It’s third down, five yards to first and ten. Three minutes left. We need to hold them and take possession. Otherwise, they’ll go for a field goal,…Let’s get ‘em,” Coach Black proclaimed.
The Falcons took the field. The Riders quarterback, Armstrong, called cadence and took the snap. The offensive line braced and bodies crashed as the defensive linemen charged. The receivers took off for the goal-line corners. Michael closely shadowed the receiver as the opponent raced and dodged to get open. Michael glanced over his shoulder and saw the quarterback Armstrong fake a throw to the right and glance left – it was the tell that Michael had seen earlier in the game. The pass was coming his way.
The pass was launched, and the football arched in his direction. Michael followed the receiver closely; as the receiver’s arms rose in anticipation of a catch, Michael spun, raising his hands, catching a glimpse of movement from the spiraling ball, and leapt to intercept and catch the ball. The bodies of the two football players crashed to the ground, with Michael clutching the ball. Overhead, an eagle soared and dipped in the cold breeze over the field.
The majestic bird dipped and dived and flapped its wings twice as it let out a screech, and lifted away. In Michael’s mind, a new clarity emerged, and an image began to focus. He felt himself in another time and place.
Nearby, there were sounds of people screaming, screams of anger mixed with screams of fear. He recognized the cry of his mother and a painful squeal of his little sister. The coldness of the snow hurt his hands, as he hid in the reeds near their Washita river camp, a camp of old men, women and children, because the men – the warriors - were away. Chief Black Kettle had said that this would be a safe camp, safe because he had parleyed with the long knives.
But the long knives, on their horses came anyway, screaming and shooting their guns. Old men, battle-worn and debilitated by age, grabbed weapons and stood to fight, as women and children ran in fear seeking to hide by the river. Former warriors, now weakened by age and infirmity, fought valiantly in defense of the village, but they were cut down by the soldiers in blue. Women and children who tripped and fell quickly became victims of the slaughter.
In his vision, Michael saw one youth, Minninnewah, now thirteen summers and nearly a man, in training as a warrior. Minninnewah had grabbed his bow and quiver of arrows when he heard the cries of his mother and sister. He notched his bow, and stood to fight the charging soldier who was chasing his little sister. Releasing the bowstring, the arrow flew and struck the soldier who had reached out to grab the little girl. The man screamed in pain as the arrow penetrated his chest. Minninnewah grabbed his sister by the hand , and led her to safety. Then, he notched another arrow and sighted on a yellow haired soldier with a broad brimmed hat-clearly the leader of the long knives- yelling to others to throw torches onto the lodges. The young brave’s arrow missed the yellow hair by just two fingers because the soldier chief ducked away. Then, Minninnewah was struck in the arm by a bullet from a fired by a long knife soldier. The youth felt like he was kicked by a horse, and he fell to shore of the river behind a large rock.
Many died that cold November day including Chief Black Kettle; the few who survived had hidden in the willows along the river. The attack and annihilation of women, children, and old men, led by a yellow haired long knife chief, would not be forgotten by the Cheyenne.
The eagle screamed again as it circled over the field where young men lay tangled in a battle of pride. Michael shook his head and opened his eyes, seeing overhead the graceful movement of the large white-headed bird. His memory flashed back momentarily to a battle by the side of a river, recalling the bloodshed and butchery, a senseless slaughter of his people, building a grim determination to strike back in defense. Michael’s body throbbed from the impact of the fall. He felt the ball in his hands, and he jumped up and tossed the ball to the referee, and joined his fellow Falcons in the huddle.
Michael’s efforts had captured the ball, taken in midair from the hands of the Supply High player. There remained two minutes in this contest to move the ball back eighty –nine yards towards the Washington goal, to take this game back from this fellow Armstrong. The few remaining Falcon offensive players came on the field, with most players now doing double duty on offense and defense. Michael joined the huddle. The plan was to get a pass to a receiver along the sidelines and get out of bounds to stop the clock.
Receivers broke downfield for the sidelines, and bodies crashed blocking the rush. Michael did a quick left-right and sprinted to the thirty-five and turning to watch for the pass. The throw went to the other receiver who was tripped up and the ball bounced away as the referee signaled incomplete pass.
The Falcons went no huddle, rushing back to positions on the line, but the effort was interrupted by a whistle, stopping play to permit the Supply High to substitute its defense. The cocky blonde kid, Armstrong, the quarterback was now at the linebacker position. As Michael took his position, Armstrong hopped in a defensive slide towards Michael, gesturing I’ve got you.”
Once again, the receivers broke downfield for the sidelines, and bodies crashed blocking the rush. Michael ran straight towards Armstrong, then did a quick left-right and sprinted long towards the sideline midfield glancing over his shoulder to watch for the pass. Armstrong stuck with Michael like glue, and near the fifty-yard line, Armstrong pushed Michael out of bounds, taking him out of the play, tumbling into the Supply High bench. The throw went to the other receiver who momentarily had the ball in his hands but was hit hard and the ball popped free with the referee signaling an incomplete pass. The referee did not see the push that sent Michael falling over the opposing team’s bench or the kick he received by another player as he tried to get up.
Michael jumped up and clashed shoulder pads with the youth who had kicked him. Suddenly surrounded by players in blue uniforms behind the bench, Michael stood his ground ready to take on any comers. A whistle blew and a referee stepped in between Michael and two blue clad players, pulling Michael out from behind the bench.
As Michael trotted back to the line of scrimmage, he was bumped from behind by Armstrong, who said, in a mean-spirited whisper, “You think you’re fast, kid? I’m gonna get you!”
Michael turned to face Armstrong head on, chest to chest, nose to nose. He was met by a chest bump, and pushed back by Armstrong. Michael stood his ground, legs spread ready for another impact, staring at this obnoxious opponent. For a moment, Michael’s mind flashed back to that image in his memory, an image of a life and death battle, onslaught of women and children, lead by a cocky yellow haired long knife leader. Michael vowed revenge.
“Line up,” yelled Coach Black. “Put that energy into the play!”
It was third and ten, with less than a minute on the clock. A sub came into the huddle with the play from Coach Black. Michael was to take a short sideline route while the other receiver went long. As Michael stepped to the line, Armstrong gestured, “I’m watching you.”
“Ten – ten- thirty-six – hut- hut.”
Opposing lines crashed head-on, and receivers broke for their patterns. Michael darted directly towards Armstrong, faked left and then cut on his slant route to the sideline. Blue clad linemen charged, and the Falcon quarterback got the ball airborne just before getting hit. The ball floated in the direction of Michael, he had to jump high and hang in the air to grab it. As he was pulling the ball tight to his body, he was slammed into by Armstrong who literally threw Michael to the ground and then pounced on him for good measure. It was a nine-yard gain; forth down and one to go.
Michael saw stars, momentarily, and then shook his head when he got up and ran back to the line of scrimmage. The clock was ticking, under thirty seconds left; and in reality, 81 yards to a touchdown. As the falcons hurried back and lined up, the Quarterback gestured, “go long.”
There were grunts and groans as linemen bumped and blocked. Michael raced forward, again directly towards Armstrong, then cutting left towards the center of the field.
“You’re mine,” boasted the blond-haired Armstrong, demonstrating his defensive skills, sticking closely to Michael.
Like the Indian games he learned during his participation at the Pow Wows, high school football offered an opportunity for the testing of one’s agility and ability, and the challenge of individual competition. The skills developed and honed in native American games with his brothers-fellow Cheyennes and Arapahoes, were excellent preparation and training that was readily applied on the football field. While still a boy, Michael had been recognized for his speed and endurance in the races, and had received the name Minninnewah, meaning Wild Wind. Today, he felt like the wild wind.
Michael raised his left hand to provide a target for the quarterback. Nearing midfield and glancing over his shoulder, he saw the ball spiral his way. But the angle looked low; in his mind’s eye, an image flashed of Armstrong intercepting the pass and running back for a touchdown. Michael spun around, side stepped his trailing opponent Armstrong, and stepped into the lowering football, blocking Armstrong’s access to the ball.
Michael grabbed the ball at the end of its arc, and, pulling the ball to his body, he spun back towards the goal line. Feeling the oncoming presence of Armstrong, Michael did a quick sidestep and started for the goal line, some 20 yards away. The side step had caused Michael to avoid the diving tackle by his opponent, but Armstrong had managed to reach out and grab the receiver by the arm. Michael squeezed the ball tightly to his chest, leaned towards the goal and then pushed hard like he was pulling a stuck pickup truck from a mud hole. The tug and drag contest was on, Michael pulling and Armstrong hanging on for dear life, determined to pull the runner down before reaching the goal.
“Yieeaah!” screamed Michael, as an image flashed into his mind. It was the memory of that slaughter on the plains over a century before, a memory of an injured youth, picking up and carrying the crying young girl to safety after she had fallen, horrified screams all around, and gunshots from behind, a terrified flight from death, on that cold and snowy day.
Fifteen yards, ten, five,…
“Yieeaah!” Strength and determination grew from that scream. Michael’s legs dug and churned and pulled, as he leaned towards his goal dragging his determined opponent. Suddenly, Michael twisted and jerked, diving forward, crossing the white chalk line, falling onto Armstrong, and rolling over him into the goal.
“Hooof,…” The sound of air forced from Armstrong’s lungs by the impact of the falling runner on top of him was quickly drowned out by the cheers of the crowd. Everyone from the Washington side of the football field, and others milling about on the track that rounded the turf cheered. Referee whistles blew. Michael stood and held the ball in his two hands high in the air, as a salute to the spirits.
The Washington Falcons ran up to Michael to celebrate the touchdown, bumping chests and helmets and slapping hands. Coach Black was at the sideline, calling for the team to line up for the extra point. The clock showed 10 seconds, and the score at 41 to 42. A two- point conversion was needed to win.
“Eighty-six, forty-four, Hut, hut. “
The ball was snapped, shoulder pads clashed, linemen grunted. Michael lined up on the right, took three steps toward the corner, then cut on a slant for the goal post. The quarterback dodged one tackler, set and threw. A hand from the Supply High defensive tackle popped up and tipped the ball.
Time seemed suspended, the ball floated upward, over the goal line. Players on both sides seemed to freeze in disbelief. Michael saw Armstrong position himself under the ball as it peaked and began its downward drop. Michael turned towards the ball, two steps, and a leap. The ball wobbled as it dropped towards Armstrong’s outstretched hands.
Four hands grabbed for the ball simultaneously, two with blue sleeves and two with tan sleeves. Michael’s flying momentum carried him forward, slapping the ball from the hands of Armstrong. The ball bobbled momentarily, and Michael pulled it tightly to his chest as he tucked and rolled in the goal area. Michael hit the ground hard and stars flashed. Overhead, the eagle soared and banked on a breeze angling away from the field. The hometown crowd screamed in delight.
Michael’s memory flashed back once again, this time to a grassy field on a rolling hill where one arrow and then another thudded into the chest of yellow haired soldier with a thick mustache and broad brimmed hat, causing the man to drop among a small circle of his fallen comrades. Whoops of joy were heard.
The whoops of joy grew louder. Michael opened his eyes to see the scoreboard flash to 00:00 and Falcons 43, Visitors 42.