It was a frigid night in February and I was standing on the front porch…a stream of clear snot dripping down onto my dry, chapped lips. My plan was to sneak past my dozing grandparents without disturbing them, and head for the back of the house, where I could shed my sopping wet clothes and warm up. I was sure every appendage of my 11 year old body had frostbite.
But it didn’t go down that way, “Yesh-ish-Maria, po-Christo-pana!” my grandpaw yelled, first in Czech, then in English, “Look at this idiot…what an idiot!”
My grandmother leapt from her chair and rushed past my grandfather to try and save me from his wrath, but she, too, was clearly shocked to find the abominable snowman melting all over her floor. “Mayo, vaat, ver, you doing?” She pleaded. “I was playing football with my friends, Grandma…and we won, Grandpa!”
I should’ve been nervous — even crying — thinking about the punishment that was coming my way when they told my Mother, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was smiling from ear to ear, as highlights of the greatest tackle football game ever played in Astoria, Queens danced around in my head.
Flashback to earlier that Sunday morning: I was sitting in front of the television watching the weather forecast, praying that the Blizzard of ’78 would live up to all the hype. By noon, over a foot of snow had already accumulated, so there was no way any buses would be leaving from the Port Authority…especially ones carrying little kids off to boarding school. I WAS FREE!!! Free to play tackle football in the snow with my friends and I couldn’t have been happier.
The “Hellgate Bowl” would pit my block — 27th Street — against our rivals from 25th Street. We’d be playing seven-on-seven, full equipment tackle football on the snow-covered concrete of the 26th Street backyard. Kickoff would be at 1:05 p.m. and the weather conditions were what every kid dreams of — continuous, never-ending snow.
During most of the game, I played the center position…snapping the ball back to our quarterback, Donald, and then blocking our opponents pass rushers.
By halftime, over two feet of snow surrounded our plodded field; howling winds and unrelenting snow made passing the football virtually impossible, so I became our teams’ running back. I think I fumbled every time the ball was handed off to me. Fourteen kid’s chasing after that loose football in the snow was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.
Around four o’clock that afternoon, darkness had begun to set in, but before we would have to call the game quits, a funny thing happened: House, porch and garage lights began to turn on, illuminating our field. Truly a sign from the Gods to continue our game into overtime… and you bet your ass we did.
The Hellgate Bowl started off as a competitive game, with both sides keeping score and arguing calls, but the weather conditions turned the game into a fun free-for-all. So by six o’clock, with every player completely drenched in sweat and exhausted, we agreed to call the game a tie and each team get one more possession. Whoever scored first would be declared the winner.
I lined up as a receiver and Donald found me in the back of the end zone. This time I held onto the football for a touchdown. I spiked the ball and my teammates jumped on top of me. Then we rushed nervously home to face the wrath from what would be some very annoyed parents.
Back in the day, kids played football outdoors in the street — not in their homes on a video game. We got wet in the rain and frozen in the snow. And it was worth getting yelled at for having the times of our lives.