The art of dropping a ball

It was magical, wasn’t it? A fingertip grab. A quarterback buried deep in his own territory. An almost futile lob down the field to the sideline. The game getting late. The score against them. Some kind of tiny miracle required. No, a huge miracle. Something fitting of a Super Bowl.

That’s what Eli Manning and the Giants needed. That’s what they got when he connected with Mario Cunningham on the most incredible, perfect, I-just-wet-my-pants catch.

Even if you don’t care a lick about football, you had to be impressed. If you were like me — there for the commercials about dogs and aliens driving sports cars — you still marveled at it. Dreamed about it. Wondered why in the heck you couldn’t snag a ball like that. Couldn’t come close. Because even in my dreams I would drop that ball. Even … in … my … DREAMS!

It’s the stuff that fills the slumbering heads of all men, and especially little boys. Sadly, though, my skills were never catching those leather bombs. No, instead I had perfected the art … yes, let’s call it like it is … the ART of dropping them.

And I could do it with as much finesse, with as much raw beauty and skill as those who could pull them in. That was always my gift as a kid. Dysfunction on a grand scale. Beauty of the bumbling.

I had the coordination of a 3-minute-old giraffe — all gangly and threatening to topple over endless legs. My eye-hand coordination was about four days off, and five if the humidity was heavy. My mother warned my teachers about it: “He once stabbed himself with a pencil while writing his name. He might need safety goggles.”

It was sad for a child who was athletic in so many ways. Who loved sports. Who was good at many of them. But not when it came to snagging balls out of the air.

I took footballs to the face. Oooof! Whiffed unmoving soccer balls. (Picture Charlie Brown trying to kick a football … flying up into the air in total ruin … and Lucy isn’t even in sight.)

I was an embarrassment at baseball. A game of precision. A little white ball that you had to hit with a little brown stick. I would swing, only to hear, “He hasn’t pitched yet!”

“That’s OK,” I would yell back. “I’ll just take the strike.”

Worse was playing in the field, a sad, dusty glove wilting on my hand. Might as well have been a shrimping net. I wasn’t going to catch anything. It was more likely I would die in the process, my glove just inches away from saving me.

“What happened?” I asked, awakening from unconsciousness to a crowd of people standing over me. I was lying in the field, sprawled out like a goat stampede had trampled me.

“What happened!?!” someone replied. “You tried to catch the ball with your eye. Your EYE!!!”

I played outfield, and by outfield I mean a bus stop away. Far enough that no ball could ever reach me. Because nothing was more awful than an arching blast coming my way and the sad, pathetic Mexican hat dance I performed while racing in circles in a desperate attempt to get under the screaming meteorite. At some point I gave up all hope of actually catching it and: 1) began dreaming up excuses why I didn’t catch it (“A bird crashed into my head!”) and 2) started screaming, “Mama, I don’t want to die!” while protecting my cranium in a standing fetal position.

Plop! The ball would land three feet off to the right.

Football was no better. I was good on defense. There you could swat at a ball like you were battling a mosquito and still get pats on the back. But offense, heaven forbid you got out in the open and a quick, side-armed quarterback whipped it your way. Ever been hit in the face with a perfect spiral? It leaves a welt the color of Kool-Aid that won’t go away for three weeks.

Ah, the stuff of childhood dreams … and nightmares.

So, you’re a brave man for running that route, Mario Cunningham. An astounding athlete for hauling in that pass. And even more impressive that you didn’t scream, “Mama, I’m too young to die!” while diving for cover. We bumblers salute you.

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