Freddie and I picked the most comfortable place on the concrete Panther bench. Exactly on the 50, it also happened to be the section with the highest back support, thus protecting us from fan scrutiny, which, in our minds, might correctly classify us as benchers rather than players. On this occasion, Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1959, the scene of the biggest high school football rivalry in the area, we would have gladly accepted the scrutiny rather than taken the field. As sophomores, we reasoned, we were entitled to our timidity. At 120 pounds and five foot nine (an Ichabod Crane lookalike) I was down right scared. "The Little Big Game" as it was called, was about to take place between the Burlingame Panthers and the San Mateo Bearcats. Six thousand fans surrounded the field; many kept off of it by a thin, cotton rope that separated the end zones from the curved running track. By any measure, this was an event.
Whatever the weather on the northern San Francisco peninsula during the month of November, it was sure to clear up and give way to sunshine on the fourth Thursday. Such was the case on that day. The midday kick-off would ensure the nicest possible temperature for the game and still leave enough time to enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving feast with one's family. Understandably, one teams' enjoyment would be significantly better than the others'. As a player (whether playing or not) the procession to the gym was a bit ceremonial. I lived on Lexington Way, two and a half blocks from the high school. I would not have missed the fourth Thursday stroll. Neighbors, watering their lawns, would call out "good luck" and "let's get 'em today." For some, communication was just a smile, others, a thumbs up or a wink. Most would be there for the kick-off. I felt proud, stood taller, and walked straighter on that day.
My father taught at Burlingame for fourteen years, from 1942 to 1956. From the time I could walk I was intimately involved with the school. Unlike my father, the academic, all I ever wanted was to be the quarterback of the Burlingame Panthers. School classes were but chronological punctuations between sixth period PE (football practice), and early dismissal on game day. Like the kid must have felt who was last standing in a spelling bee, sitting in class with shaved ankles or leaving the locker room with black grease under one's eyes was as good as it got. If only I could have worn my jersey to class every day.
To say the pre-game tension in the locker room could be cut
with a knife was both hackneyed and accurate. We were overwhelming
favorites but were not about to take San Mateo lightly. This was
Coach Elmer Schaake's last career game, and all of us wanted to
make it a memorable one. Boy, was it. As third string quarterback,
knowing my chances of seeing action were between slim and none,
I paid superficial attention to the X's and O's on the board.
Freddie and I might have even felt guilty wasting the tape that
supported our socks. We caught each other's eyes often during
that pre-game session and fought to control our smiles, much like
kids waiting for the signal from our parents that Santa had arrived.
If the coach had called on either of us we would have wet our
pants in front of the entire team.
The stars of the team, quarterback Larry Schilbe and end Mike Carboni, were larger than life. Mike was a great athlete, and always made a young QB look good in practice. He would use his ten-flat speed and soft hands to harvest any ball that was thrown in his direction. The week prior to the "Little Big Game" had been very strategic. The scrub offense, which included me, would run plays against the starting defense, and the starting offense would work on timing and a few trick plays. Very uncharacteristically, towards the end of the week, Coach Schaake ran a trick play with me as fullback, throwing an option pass to Carboni. Imagine Ichabod masquerading as Bronko Nagurski; that was a real fooler. Nevertheless, we all took it as a little levity finishing off a tough week of practice. Larry was stoic, poised, confident, and maybe even a little cocky. He had run a broken play for a long touchdown in the prior year's "Little Big Game." His critics used to mimic him in practice. They would feign taking the ball from center and going back to pass, but with their left hand over their eyes. Predictably, not seeing anyone open, they would be forced to run. This was a real practice pleaser, but nobody ever did it in front of Larry. He wasn't the toughest guy on the team, but he commanded respect.
Early in the game, Schilbe scrambled to his left to avoid an oncoming Bearcat rush. He quickly got free and ambled around left end picking up a nice chunk of yardage. Towards the end of the play, though, he leaped over several prone tacklers. One got enough of Larry's shoe to upset his bound. Like a diver out of rhythm, Schilbe hit the ground, his head taking the brunt of the impact, while his hands protected the ball. The bench, the coaches and the stands all seemed to "oooh" in synchronization. Larry was hurt, and down on the field for what seemed like an hour. Ultimately, he was helped to his feet and wobbled to the bench. The coaches briefly conferred. Coach Schaake looked down the bench and said the word I will never forget and was too naïve to even fear, "Walsh". I looked at Freddie as if somehow he were going to interpret the Coach's French. Then again, this time more demandingly, "Walsh, get over here, now." I trotted over the sidelines to the Coach, working to put one foot in front of the other while buckling my helmet at the same time. I wanted to look back at Freddie, to my pal and my comfortable 50 yard line seat, but I didn't. "You're in at QB," Coach Schaake barked, "remember the play changes we made in the locker room." Oh, you mean the chalkboard stuff, I thought. I didn't have a clue. "Run a 32 dive," Coach directed.
I was always self conscious about my legs. My calves could be circumnavigated by a pretty good sized human hand. If I could have puffed them up with pads, I would have. There might have even been a slight titter from the crowd as I trotted out on the field. By all rights, Dority should have been Larry's replacement. He was second string, but he was a ball control kind of guy; and we needed to make something happen. I entered the huddle and took a knee. "32 on two," I said, trying to command. We came up to the line. I was petrified. "Charlie, ready, set, let's go, one, two." I took the snap from George Layton, the center, and mercifully executed a clean exchange, but as I moved to the right for the hand off to Dean Akey, I could see him diving off tackle two feet further down the line. As I fell and almost fumbled trying an impossible stretch, I vaguely remembered the Coach in the pre-game chalk talk drawing a wide dive diagram. I wondered what else I had missed during my mental grab-ass with Freddie. Next, I heard the whistle. "Second down," the umpire was saying, one yard loss. Not exactly Y.A. Tittle out there so far, I thought. Coach Schaake was shuttling in plays with various backs, obviously trying to take as much pressure off me as possible. Third down came quickly, and a pass called so much for depressurization. I had a bad habit of looking down rather that out as I took my five-step pass drop. This had two effects, both negative. One was that I was not able to see pass patterns developing; the other was that it was always a shock to come up for air five steps back and see these monsters rushing in on me. Pete Napote was big when he was two years my senior at St. Catherine elementary school in Burlingame; he was huge now. If I had had a wide angle lens, he would have filled it. Three, four, five, turn, I cocked my arm and saw him just as he slammed into me. I hated Pete Napote. The ball came loose, fumbled. It was San Mateo's ball on our twenty yard line. Nice series, Walsh.
Schilbe was functioning again and back in, no gripe from me. My spot was waiting for me on the bench, but now there was a generous amount of room on either side you'd have thought I had chicken pox. Freddie was chuckling, "You asshole," he offered. I left my helmet on, not for readiness, I was hiding. It seemed that four hours had gone by when the gun went off signaling the end of the first half. The score was six to nothing in favor of San Mateo. "Oh, my God," I anguished, "what's happening?"
Larry was not himself. It was clear that his head injury had taken the spunk out of him. The second half started slowly and became a defensive struggle. Well into the third quarter we were still behind six to zip, but driving. The sun was getting low in the sky obscuring the scoreboard; it was certainly ok that it might be hard to read. I played some and threw a pass from my fullback position back to Larry who went from QB to a swinging receiver in the same play. Despite his injury, he turned it into a fifteen-yard gain. He was a real competitor. Then the offense stalled. It was fourth and three with 2:56 remaining in the third quarter when Coach Schaake called the Bronko Billy play. Once again I lined up at fullback. I felt a little silly. Not one person in attendance thought there was the slightest chance that I was running the 32 Dive. Larry took the snap and dutifully pitched me the ball as I rolled to the right side. Almost like my five-step drop, I was completely fixed on one thing, this time the ball. When I had it in my hands, I looked for Carboni in the end zone. You can imagine what filled the screen Pete Napote. I hated Pete Napote! All of a sudden I was frantic, running out of both real estate and time. Somehow it was like someone else's arm in motion, throwing a pass, out of desperation. The pass was pathetic. The second it left my hand, I wanted it back. It was in the general direction of the end zone, no more. Then I saw him, Carboni, alone in the rear of the end zone, wide open. The throw was short, to the right, and directly into the hands of San Mateo's Fred Wakida. Now I hated him, too. From three yards deep in the end zone, Wakida rambled 103 yards for what became the winning score for the Bearcats. I tried to catch him but he was too fast. I think I was cut by one of their linemen at mid field. I was devastated. The stadium's student announcer, Robert Zygan, tried to recount what had just happened. Over the din of the crowd he said, "Walsh's pass was intercepted by Fred Wakida and run back 103 yards for a San Mateo touchdown." I was thankful for the crowd, but as they began to silence, Zygan somehow felt compelled to repeat the insult. I knew Zygan from Mrs. Kohler's second year German class. He held the school record for the mile run in 4:38.6, but I didn't like him much either.
With Larry now out for good, I led a final drive, culminating in a 27 yard strike to Carboni for a touchdown. Not a person in town remembers that. Eventually, we lost 12 to 7, and had to endure the San Mateo fans pouring onto the field to celebrate their victory. The locker room was quiet, the walk home long, and the Thanksgiving turkey a little dry. The experience was certainly a character, if not career, builder.
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Bill Walsh has been President of Cornish & Carey Commercial Real Estate Services since 1991. He sits on the Board of Directors for C&C, and is also Chairman of the Board for ONCOR International, a consortium of over 50 independent commercial real estate brokerage companies around the World. Prior to 1991 Bill was Chief Operating Officer for C&C after serving two years as Vice President and Manager of C&C's Office Leasing Division. As a broker Bill was the recipient of the "Regional Distinguished Achievement" award, as well as being named "Office Broker of the Year" by the San Jose Chamber of Commerce and the Association of South Bay Brokers. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics from the University of Oregon. (Photo and resume from Cornish & Carey corporate web site)