Practice imperfect: Two anecdotes

March 9, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
March 9, 2014

Despite my becoming a passionate football fan in college, and my having a few stints, strictly part-time, as a sports reporter, I’ve attended football practices only on rare occasions.

My knowledge of the sport is strictly that of the layman — someone who has never played the game or studied it seriously. Practice drills likely wouldn’t provide me with much insight into the quality of a football team, its members or its plays.

I distinctly remember attending two Stanford football practices, however, in that long-ago time when I was a student and would-be sports reporter.

What I believe was the second such occasion was on a cloudy, damp autumn or fall afternoon, presumably definitely in 1992, when I somehow had reason to interview record-setting Cardinal kicker Eric Abrams for a student radio or newspaper story that is now long forgotten. (Update: It was definitely 1992, when Abrams was a freshman.)

There’s no question why this episode sticks in my mind: Because I made a gaffe and embarrassed myself.

As I recall, the Stanford football team essentially had two adjacent practice areas. One was surrounded by a fence, which was covered by green (I think) canvas so bystanders wouldn’t be able to see what the team was doing. Only team members, coaches and support staff were allowed inside this area.

When I went to practice, I had to wait on the sidelines in the public area. Actually, I think I and other observers, including professional reporters, were waiting in a sort of midlines area — a strip of grass between side-by-side practice fields. I felt very self-conscious standing there, as I often did (and still do) while waiting. The ominous appearance of the skies certainly did nothing to enhance my patience.

So when the practice session in the concealed area ended and members of the football team started trotting back out into the public area, I was relieved. I watched the stream of athletes, looking for a smaller individual — Abrams was 5-foot-8, I believe — wearing, well, whatever number the kicker was assigned. (Stanford rosters from prior to 1996 are hard to find.)

I spotted him and introduced myself. More accurately, I tried to introduce myself. Abrams slowed his jog momentarily and let me know that he couldn’t talk at the time, but he’d be happy to chat — after practice.

I agreed, no doubt with a red face. Practice was still going on? I hadn’t realized…

The first time I went to watch a Stanford practice was memorable for rather a different reason. Before I relate the story, I need to provide some background.

At the time — the spring or summer of 1992 — perhaps the most popular team in the San Francisco Bay Area was undergoing a transition. This was the year that Joe Montana, quarterback for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and almost certainly the Bay Area’s most beloved athlete, turned 36.

In 1990, Montana had started 15 games, winning 14. But he’d missed all of the 1991 season due to an injury to his throwing arm — the same problem that ultimately forced him to miss all but one game of the Niners’ 1992 campaign. Even though he had led San Francisco to its first four Super Bowl titles, in 1981, ’84, ’88 and ’89, Montana’s future with the team was clouded.

The injury wasn’t the only reason for that. The Niners had a more than capable backup quarterback, Steve Young, who would follow Montana both as a starter for San Francisco and as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Given Young’s promise, there was speculation that Montana, the Bay Area’s revered sportsman, might be cut or traded.

There was another Bay Area football transition in the works that year, too. Bill Walsh, after coaching the Niners to three Super Bowl titles, had come out of retirement to helm Stanford’s football team.

So it shouldn’t have been a big surprise to see the 49ers’ Montana come to the Farm, as Stanford’s campus is known, to watch his former coach run a practice. Still, when I spotted him, I was startled.

There’s something inherently unsettling, I suppose, about recognizing a person one hasn’t met, who is known only through images on television and in magazines and newspapers. Yes, I was surprised to see Montana — the star athlete, the Super Bowl champion — in the flesh at a football practice.

Montana was famously nicknamed Joe Cool. No one’s ever seriously considered calling me cool, however. So when I spotted Montana, I got nervous. My heart started beating faster, and I wasn’t sure what to say.

I did end up saying something. I reverted to a default script, a sort of culturally programmed narrative for what should happen when a member of the public meets a celebrity.

“Can I have an autograph?” I asked the famous quarterback.

“Sure,” Montana replied.

“Sorry, I don’t have anything 49ers on me,” I muttered shamefacedly.

“That’s OK,” Montana said. “I don’t either.”

I pulled out a card listing Stanford’s 1992 football schedule. Someone furnished a writing implement. (Me, I’d presume; for many years, I’ve carried at least one pen on me at nearly all times.) Montana scrawled something illegible on the card and handed it back to me. I thanked him and withdrew so as not to embarrass either one of us.

And that’s that: The sum total of my experiences around football practices from a half a lifetime of loving football.

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