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Catching a break instead of a pass

This was the bread-and-butter play in the Ripon High passing game, but I found myself running in on a much larger stage than Stouffer Field.

Three quick, long and driving steps right at the defensive back, hard enough to get him backpedaling and — if run correctly — to turn his shoulders.

Then, a look-in and a hard crossover step that took me to an angle that would avoid a head-on greeting with the weak-side linebacker.

A timing route guaranteed to gain a minimum of 7 yards.

The ball was supposed to be there within a moment of the break, but it wasn't. I kept running, one eye looking for the ball and the other hoping that linebacker wasn't cheating toward the slant.

Suddenly, the pass appeared. Not really a pass but a floating and somewhat end-over-end half-push in my general direction. I jumped and caught the ball just as the linebacker made contact just above my knees, flipping me into further contact with the defensive back I hadn't quite beaten.

I popped up, pleased with my effort in the 4-yard gain, even more pleased to emerge unhurt from the contact, and looked back just in time to see the penalty flag.

Offensive holding. My catch officially never happened.

That was it — my entire contribution to the South team offense in the 1977 Lions Club All-Star Football Game.

It's unfathomable to me that Saturday's Lions contest will mark 30 years since I had the honor of playing in the game.

I grew up dreaming of playing college football at University of the Pacific, but playing at UOP Stadium in what I knew at the time would be my final football game would have to suffice.

Nearly 11,000 tomorrows later haven't dulled my memory of my phantom catch, nor that we lost 16-0 to become the game's first shutout victim.

And the fact of playing my last game 30 years ago comes back to me every morning when I wake up and take roll call on my knees and lower back to see which will be joining me at work that day.

Even memories of my teammates serve to make me feel old. One of our quarterbacks was Tim Garcia, the father of Central Valley High School coach Tim Jr.

We had Donald Storer (Byron's dad) at linebacker and Michael Powell (Suzy's big brother) on the line. Another teammate, Scott Clark, is a retired postal worker.

Retired? Damn.

Enough old-man whining, because I have nothing but fond memories of the Lions Club experience, from the moment I found out I was on the team to the team banquet at the SOS Club — with keynote speaker John Madden.

Then came the game preparation. I scored a great summer job with Simpson Paper Co. in Ripon, making $15 an hour to do whatever job needed to be done. Huge money in 1977, especially for a kid who was going to have to work his way through college and somehow have money left over to fill my gas tank at 52 cents a gallon.

To play in the game, I had to quit the job six weeks early. It cost me probably $3,000, which made things tough financially but, in retrospect, was worth it.

After work, I found the time to get in shape, and I carried 174 pounds into camp. At least, I thought I was in shape.

When we arrived at UOP on game day, after nine days of two-a-day practices in the oppressive heat of a live-in camp at Merced College, I stepped onto the scale in the tiny locker room.

Yes, the South team started a receiver at 6 feet 2 inches, 152 pounds. I'm sure that frightened the North.

There would be no game glory for me, and UOP coach Chester Caddas didn't come waddling up to me at the final gun with a scholarship offer in hand (as if I would have been able to compete with Lionel Manuel for playing time). So much for my $3,000 investment.

But there was a grand payoff.

While in camp, Modesto Bee sports writer Fred Schwartz interviewed me for a story. I still don't know what made me such an interesting topic, but he asked what I was planning to study in college.

"Communications," I answered. "Maybe to go into radio or television, or to become a sports writer."

"Well," he said. "We have a part-time opening in sports. Why don't you come down and apply?"

I got the job — my entry into this profession.

A large number of the young athletes playing in Saturday night's Lions Club game at UOP will go on to play football at four-year schools and local community colleges.

But there will be others who, as I did, will pull on the pads for the final time.

This game, and the others in the area that since have sprung up, is for those players — giving them one last chance to experience the unmatched adrenaline rush of playing football.

You'll miss it when it's over.

We don't have any openings in the sports department, but perhaps a few of the players will get to catch a pass that actually counts.

Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at bvanderbeek@modbee.com or 578-2300.

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