The Pinecone Kicker
Greer never gave up on his dream, although his body had reservations
Greer Davidson took a light and guarded step, planted his foot onto the football field, shifted his weight, and swung his right leg toward an object perched in the grass in front of him.
Eighty-thousand fans stopped screaming and, for the moment, breathing, while Greer readied to kick a football through the yellow uprights at the back of the end zone at Legion Field, sealing the victory for his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide.
A stoic-faced Coach “Bear” Bryant — his face was always stoic — stood frozen on the sidelines with a look of “Boy, you better not miss this” etched on his face.
Greer had been waiting for this moment all his life. Since he could remember all he wanted to do was play football for the Bear. It had been a long journey, but he was finally here and his friends and family cheered him on in the stands.
The Auburn student section contained at least 100 fans who voluntarily painted themselves orange and blue, head to toe, and they were a sight. Since the game started they screamed, yelled, and questioned Greer’s parentage.
Greer ignored them.
The placeholder was a freshman Yankee from Pennsylvania named Joe Willie. Squatting down seven yards behind the center, the freshman quarterback waited to receive the quick snap.
Greer’s breath floated in front of his helmet in the thirty-eight-degree air. He knew that the cold air wasn’t good for football traveling very far in the air, so he was determined to kick as hard as he could.
For Greer, and most level-headed football fans, life didn’t get any better than Alabama playing Auburn. The winner would have bragging rights for the next year and Greer wanted nothing more than to win.
The game clock showed six seconds left in regulation. Alabama had taken possession of the ball on its own sixteen-yard line. On the previous play, Marshall Higgins, the freshman Auburn quarterback from Jacksonville, Alabama, was forced out of the pocket and threw an interception into the hands of a grateful Alabama middle linebacker named B.C. Dubois, who ran the ball to Auburn’s twenty-one-yard line before he was tackled. For Alabama, hope was still alive.
Alabama fans wound themselves up into a loud and chaotic frenzy.
But after a few plays, the tired Alabama offense couldn’t push any further and managed to lose yardage, which sent the Bear into a rare display of disgust.
The line of scrimmage was the twenty-two-yard line and it was fourth down.
When Alabama was unable to score a touchdown, the Bear decided to give his special teams a shot at winning. There were few things the Bear disliked more than ending a football game in a tie.
“Alright, let’s go for three,” shouted the coach. Greer, along with the rest of the kicking unit, took the field. Greer was nervous. On the sidelines, he had shuffled back and forth waiting for his chance to score three points and practicing kicking into the kicking net. And now he was on the field waiting for the snap.
Near the endzone, a large bald eagle patiently waited and watched the sea of people. Greer looked at the large bird for a moment thinking that the reluctant Auburn symbol would probably have preferred to fly away, but he was shackled and forced to watch football.
‘Come on man, focus,’ Greer told himself. ‘Forget about the bird. Forget about the crowd.’
The referee would start the play clock again the instant the center snapped the ball to the holder.
Because field-goals happen so fast, timing was important.
Joe Willie called the cadence. With one clean motion the center, a large sophomore from Cullman, Alabama that the players called “Tank,” spiraled the ball to the holder.
The defense screamed as their lives depended on Greer missing. To lose meant another year of taunting and embarrassment, and the lame, — “wait till next year” excuses.
Joe Willie now had the ball in his hands from the center and was preparing to balance it on the tee.
5.4 seconds remained on the clock.
The snap was quick and clean.
Positioning the ball on the tee, Joe Willie spun it around so the laces pointed away from Greer.
Five seconds remained.
The Auburn defense crushed its way through the line with arms raised high to block the kick.
But the ball soared inches above their outreached hands.
This moment is frozen in time. The kick will be re-lived and re-watched many times and either appreciated by the winners or cursed by the losers, all depending on the results of the next few seconds.
Greer’s follow-through spun him to his left where he kept his eyes focused on the sidelines and the face of his coach; the one who inspired him to play football when he couldn’t yet pronounce the word football.
Greer watched the coach’s face as he gazed into the end zone. His expression didn’t change. It seldom did. The remaining seconds ticked off the clock as the ball sailed upwards while the thud of the kick echoed through a suddenly silent stadium.
The other half of Legion Field exploded in unbridled joy.
A second thud interrupted the ten-year-old’s glorious moment and sent him tumbling to the ground holding his side in pain. It was a sharp pain and at first, Greer didn’t understand what had happened.
Opening his eyes one at a time, Greer saw only the blackness of a moist nose attached to a fur-covered jaw with a long tongue jutting out one side.
‘Auburn’s defense isn’t what I thought it’d be,’ Greer thought.
It was not a lineman, but Greer’s dog, Dempsey. The pain came from a well-placed claw. Dempsey was a mix between a border collie and a German shepherd. Part of his leg was amputated from an unfortunate accident as a puppy that Greer didn’t like to talk about. Greer named him after his favorite NFL placekicker, Tom Dempsey who kicked for a time for the New Orleans Saints. Tom Dempsey was born with no toes on his right foot and had a shoe specially made for kicking. And Mr. Dempsey did that well, holding the record, for a time, for the longest field goal in the NFL.
“Dempsey, you ruined my kick. Now I’ll never know if we beat Auburn. I’ll never know!”
The small football hero continued for a minute to sulk while seated in the grass, mad at his dog, and annoyed at the missed opportunity to kick the winning field goal.
As he thought about getting up, a pinecone freed itself from a 30 foot tall Southern Yellow Pine and landed close to Greer’s left leg, which lay crooked at his side encased in a heavy white cast.
Greer relaxed as Dempsey continued to lick his face and offer encouragement. A voice from the back door called out, “Greer, time to eat, Superman.”
“Aw, Mom. Don’t call me that,” complained the small placekicker fearing that other neighborhood kids would pick up on his mother’s nickname for him.
Thinking that her first message was not well received, Mrs. Davidson looked out the backdoor to send a second warning. “Greer, I’ve told you about…”
Pamela Davidson realized for the first time that her son had fallen out of the wheelchair. She hurried to his side, picked him up as she’d done many times before, and helped him back into the wheelchair that carried him around.
And it was that wheelchair from which he sometimes escaped and leaned against as he attempted a kick, even with a broken leg, and imagined what it would feel like to win the football game for his favorite coach, his friends, and family.
But, the spina bifida that inhabited Greer’s small body would not allow it.
So the dream remained, playing out in his head each afternoon under the thick southern pines with his loyal dog on defense.
Paul Swann is a dad, husband to a Russian Princess, lawyer, legal instructor, writer, and occasional guitar player. He spends his time in Arkansas with his aforementioned Princess Bride, Two Stunning Daughters, and two ne’er-do-well dogs. You may find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or his Medium Page.