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Of nightmares and unfulfilled gridiron glory

It’s important to leave it all on the field, every day

by Phil Luciano |
Graphic with football players and a stop watch

Tick, tick, tick, tick … 

That’s the soundtrack to my recurrent nightmare, now entering its fifth decade. It’s the countdown of a football-field game clock. The game keeps slipping away, and the minutes and seconds keep ticking down. 

Over and over and over again. 

Granted, as far as nightmares go, it’s not as unnerving as the bloody plotline of a Hollywood slasher flick. Indeed, it’s not so much soul-shaking as head-shaking: Why must this dream keep pestering me? 

Worse, it’s been poking my slumber more regularly of late, what with the onset of football season – as well as the approach of my 40th high school reunion.

See, the nightmare game actually happened, way back when, during my senior year. Usually, I’m like most people: I long ago cut loose of most of my youthful disappointments. But this one is on permanent playback in my subconscious.  

I’m not sure why.

It’s not as if I’d ever considered playing football beyond high school. I was, I suppose, good, but certainly not great. I was nobody’s All-American, and I was fine with that. I simply liked to play the sport.

And I couldn’t wait to win the last game of my last season.

My first three years of high school football had produced scant few glory days, probably not enough to fill a week, as each team finished with a losing record. That came as no surprise to the few longtime fans in the stands, as my school never had been a football powerhouse. In fact, going into my senior year, no squad in the school’s history had made the state playoffs.

So, after three years of losing, my teammates and I spent our last high school summer doing little but weightlifting, running and dreaming of an autumn of glory. Yet after all that work and sweat and hope, we went out and promptly blew our first two games. 

After the second loss, I drove home in silence with one of my best friends. He was the middle linebacker, and I was the right offensive tackle, and at that moment we were of exactly the same mind: utter disgust and dissatisfaction. As he dropped me off at home, I said with a heavy sigh, “I just don’t know if I can endure another season like this again.”

As it turned out, our teammates apparently felt likewise. We rumbled inside with a complete non-acceptance of slogging through another sad-sack season. We got mad. And we got good.

At practice, we pushed and hit harder than ever, more so during games. We started winning, week after week. As the crowds got bigger, local newspapers started taking note, especially after we somehow knocked off the sixth-ranked team in Illinois’ biggest class. Most fun of all, we pummeled our archrival 31-3.

Next stop? The elusive playoffs, but only if we won the last game of the regular season. 

It didn’t seem like a tall order. The opponent was mediocre and going nowhere, just like our team the previous three years. Meantime, we were on a roll, full of confidence and swagger. At a pregame pep rally, usually done perfunctorily if at all, the screaming and cheering and bombast seemed likely to blow the roof right off the school.

Everything was perfect. ‘Til that night.

It’s hard to pinpoint what went awry. Maybe we were looking past the game and toward the playoffs. All I know is, from the opening kickoff, we didn’t play with the grit and determination that had turned our fortunes around. 

Early in the second half, we were down by three touchdowns. We had to pass on every down, and the other team knew it. They blitzed everyone – linebackers, defensive backs, even the marching band, it seemed – and we offensive linemen couldn’t handle all that heat, play after play after play.

It was an endless, frantic rampage. And the clock just kept ticking down. 

Finally, almost mercifully, the clock hit 00:00. End of game, end of hope.

I took off my helmet, bitterly realizing I’d never do that again. But after a hard and rueful weekend, I didn’t much think about the big loss.

Several years later, not long after I’d joined the working world, the dream began, same as now. Just as in that final game, the defense keeps coming, hard. And the clock keeps ticking, fast. The emotion is a mix of desperation and helplessness. I always wake up with a start, my breath heavy, my heart a jackhammer.

I recently asked a sleep expert about this nightmare. She said dreams can be tricky to analyze, but she offered me this: “If you’re stuck having the same dream over and over again, it might be that your brain is still trying to figure out how to emotionally sort that out.”

Sounds reasonable. But by “that,” I don’t think my brain is still roiling over failing to make the playoffs. The loss itself didn’t drastically change my life. Rather, “that” might be my subconscious realization as to the real reason for lingering disappointment: We didn’t play as well as we could have. For whatever reason, we didn’t leave it all on the field.

That’s life’s worst regret, not living up to potential, whether you’re playing football or doing anything else.

And in that way, maybe the dream isn’t really a nightmare. Or at least I don’t have to look at it that way. Maybe I can see it as an occasional reminder to not let anything happen like that again, in any facet of life. Give it your all, to the end.

Might as well, right? The clock will always keep moving. So we might as well leave it all on the field, every day.  

Tick, tick, tick, tick … 

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/ columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP.
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