“Moses Comes to Sinai, No Word on Stone Tablets,” read the headline when they hired him. But Coach Bill Moses did have stone tablets. For him, the rules of the split-back veer were as inflexible as the Decalogue. Back when he was at Brownfield (one of those small West Texas towns, like Whiteface or Notrees, named with such startling accuracy that their literal poetry transcends metaphor), he painted the Rules on some huge gray cardboard cutouts before a pep rally:
I. Establish the dive. II. Look for the cutback. III. When in doubt, eat it. IV. Remember rules I-III.
He kept the tablets in his office in the Sinai High School fieldhouse. We knew the Rules by heart, mumbled them in our sleep, and had them broken over our heads by a Coach Moses in wrath.
Cheerleaders taped little paper tablets inscribed with the Rules over our lockers, like mezuzot.
The Rules encoded a life ethic as well as a set of offensive tactics. They epitomized the virtues of triple-option football. Rule Number One, “Establish the dive,” meant: Get ready to grind it out—for sixty minutes on the field, for threescore and ten years off it. The dive isn’t a sexy play, though every once in a while a fullback will pop and slash through an unsuspecting defense. You have to be willing to take one or two yards, over and over, early in the game. You lull the defense to sleep to set up the big gainer.
Rule Number Two, “Look for the cutback,” meant: Be flexible. Exhibit infinite patience; make your opponent pay for undiscipline and over-eagerness. When the time is right, be unpredictable and cut hard against the grain. If you were a back, you sought that moment when the defense broke like a wave and you slipped through into open field. If you were a blocker, you kept your head on a swivel and looked for a defender to level with a crackback. Fluidity is what made the option so damned dangerous. You could hit almost any hole a defense offered.
Rule Number Three, “When in doubt, eat it,” meant: Cut your losses. Know when to fold ‘em, like Kenny Rogers’ Gambler. Take the blows you’re dealt; don’t worry about heroics; protect what’s most important. When the shit hits the fan, it’s no shame to stand up and be splattered. Just don’t drop the football.
Rule Number Four was a kind of meta-rule: Don’t over-think it. There are only three rules. The Good is infinitely simple.
The Rules show you what kind of coach Bill Moses was. A lot of guys are in love with the theory of football, with schemes and series and stunts. They sketch out Xs and Os on paper like they’re proving some kind of geometric theorem. But Coach Moses and his staff were pretty light on theory. We ran the veer on offense and a five-two cover two defense. You could memorize the playbook in an hour. Coach didn’t cram knowledge into our heads; he pounded fundamentals into our bodies. Every week we were hooking-and-driving, protecting the football, honing our pursuit angles, and form-tackling. Sure, Coach would sometimes improvise on Friday nights, draw up some trickery to exploit an opponent’s particular weakness. But that was the exception that proved the Rules: our dogged regularity, the endless body-blows of veer after veer, made the trick play the knockout punch.
Coach Moses taught us to love to do a thing well and repeatedly. When we pulled it off, he called it “buckin’ up.” A receiver peeled back on an unsuspecting safety, springing the quarterback free on his cutback, and Coach hollered, “Attaway to buck up, son!” When we failed, he called it “twistin’ off.” A linebacker whiffed, leaping at the ballcarrier, and Coach yanked him off the field, yelling, “You’re just gottdog twistin’ off!” We knew the goods inherent in the well-executed practices of blocking and tackling, throwing and catching.
We felt a crisp, warm, and professional satisfaction when we bucked up—and a damp, nauseating, but reassuring shame when we twisted off. Our performance was measured against objective criteria, its quality immediately apparent to our teammates, our coaches, and our fans, many of whose cleats had worked this turf before us.
When we graduated and left the gridiron for good (except for the stray superstar who managed a few seasons at some mediocre college), we carried the habit of love Coach Moses had ingrained in us—love for the well-executed, repeated, and significant action.
Some of us carried that love into the oilfields, and when we cleanly sealed the annulus between casing rods with concrete slurry, our souls hummed in resonance with Coach’s old approbation. When we twisted off out there, sometimes our implements exploded and men were maimed or killed. Others of us carried that habit into universities and firms, screen-filled, fluorescent-lit spaces where people read documents and typed memos and placed calls. These were realms where “buckin’ up” and “twistin’ off” got no traction, where the malnourished love for the well-done thing howled in our guts like a hungry tapeworm.
But even here Coach Moses did not wholly desert us. In the complexity and ambiguity of modern life, he helped us to retain an inner simplicity. We contented ourselves with minimal gains. We exercised infinite patience, waiting for our chance to cutback. And we lowered our shoulders into our disappointments, arms wrapped tight around that which you cannot lose and still be in the game—your possession. Just don’t drop the football, the football, the football…
About the Author: Jonathan McGregor is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He's originally from West Texas. Follow him on Twitter @j_d_mcgregor.
Story Song: "To West Texas" by Explosions in the Sky
Photo Credit: Elisabeth Clem/Poppy and Pinecone