Street ball plays came with Hail Marys attached
The Sunday Column
Spending so much time with family these past few months left me nostalgic for the days when I grew up on Third Avenue in Altoona with seven houses on the block all containing my family.
Besides my home, there were grandparents, aunts and uncles and plenty of cousins. Mostly, it was me, my brother, Tom, and my cousin, Marc DeLeo. We would play games in my backyard or on the street between 14th and 15th. We played in our yard because Marc’s yard had a garden right in the middle, and not at the end of the yard like ours. He also had a dog named Browney, who was tied to a chain that weighed more than him, which might explain why he was always in a bad mood.
We could occasionally add kids to our roster from the neighborhood. Better for us because if something bad happened, they were tremendous scapegoats.
You see, if the ball went into Marc’s yard, you either had to deal with Uncle Frank and Aunt Jo because of their garden, or Browney, their dog, because of his ability to cover so much ground with such a long chain.
My brother, John, would love to know that we became very accurate passers in football because of that yard. If a ball went into the garden, we had a chance of retrieving it. If it went near Browney, we went into the house to ask for another ball, and some days, my mother would not be in the mood to hear that, so risking an attack by Cujo — I mean Browney — was always on the table.
Of course, there was the other side of our yard, which was my Grandpap and Grandma Franco’s house. Their entire yard, and I mean entire yard, was one giant garden. There was a concrete sidewalk and then a giant garden that had to be at least 25 yards long. If you threw a football into that, or fouled a Whiffle Ball into that, you pretty much had to hope “The A Team” was in the neighborhood to help you get it back.
If you went in to get a ball, you had to look for my pap’s footsteps, and step into those so as to not leave your own tracks. One wrong move, and the clanging of the aluminum pans he used to keep birds out was the sound of doom.
And then there was playing in the street on Third Avenue. Our field went from my Uncle Max and Aunt Jenny’s house down to the house at the end of the block where Mr. and Mrs. Luciano lived. You’re talking a field that was nine houses long. That’s a good size football field for concrete. What made it more interesting? Cars on both sides of the street. Again, accuracy in football was a must.
Uncle Max was just waiting inside his house to see if his Lincoln Continental was going to be bumped into by us. It wasn’t our fault, though. His car was parked in the end zone. You never ran a pass pattern on that side of the street, unless you had to ad-lib on a play. Then, you prayed to God you would make the catch, and not get pushed into the car. There were no alarms back then, either, but none were needed. Uncle Max just knew.
And let me state for the record that we used a Nerf football, but that didn’t seem to matter because evidently, Nerf footballs could cause dents in cars. My grandparents and my Uncle Johnny and Aunt Amelia did not have cars, so those were where a lot of our pass patterns were run.
Another no-no, my cousin Mickey DeLeo’s vintage Baracuda. You dare not run the ball on that side either. Actually, I think we scheduled our games around Mickey not being home.
I think my brother, Tom, became such a good football player at a young age because of our street ball. By the time he became a star at Bishop Guilfoyle in the mid-1980s, he had already spent a portion of his youth dodging some very angry Italians. You couldn’t find that in what was called the Mountain Conference back then.
There was also the playground/parking lot at the top of the hill on 14th Street, which was big enough to hold a baseball game and a football game. There was one year where it was me, Tom and Marc against my brother, John, and my cousin, Mike — he of college age to our elementary-age athletic ability.
What did he do?
He didn’t listen. That’s what he didn’t do!
Mike actually kicked the ball off. It sailed over our heads. It sailed over the fence. It sailed across the alley, and through the window of a house where a kid I knew named Steve lived. Maybe if Steve was playing that day with us, things would have ended better. They did not. Nothing like a quiet weekend afternoon interrupted by the sound of smashing glass falling on to the floor of your living room.
And in case you are wondering … real football. Not a Nerf ball.
But those sounds are gone now. They’ve been replaced by my two 17-year-old boys yelling at each other playing video games. Who knows? Maybe one will pick up a lamp and launch it at the other over Madden 20 or NBA 2K. Ugh!
Mirror Sports Writer Scott Franco writes a monthly column for the Mirror.