Column: A football upbringing leads to enduring gridiron appreciation

The author is seen in her father’s arms in this family photo taken in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. [Courtesy]

VIRGINIA BEACH — I am in front of the television for hours on Saturdays during the fall.

I’m a college football fanatic. I can watch any team play – usually not rooting for any particular team but hoping for a good game. 

Usually, I pick a side by halftime. Fall is for football. That’s been my experience since I was born.

I grew up in an extended family of cheerleaders, football players and coaches. All three of my sons played football from youth leagues to high school to college. My late father, George Versprille, played for Bobby Bowden early in his coaching career at Howard College in Alabama, now Samford University.

Dad was Bowden’s first All-American, and my father became a longtime coach in Virginia Beach schools. If you don’t know who Bobby Bowden is, maybe you should stop reading right here.

My mother was a cheerleader at Norview High School in Norfolk, and my maternal great aunt was a Norview cheerleader, too.

Growing up the daughter of a 36-year career high school football coach in Virginia Beach, I have watched enough football for several lifetimes.

This includes many a night in bleachers at the original high schools in Virginia Beach.

I remember Friday nights as a youngster, whining to Mom, “do we really have to drive all the way to Kellam High School tonight?”

There was no fast food near Kellam. We’d have to stop in Kempsville for a quick bite on the way. In fact, there wasn’t much to look at on the way to Kellam at the time except fields. But it was football night in Virginia Beach, so my siblings and I went to the countryside.

On Saturday mornings in the fall, my father met other coaches in the area and traded reel-to-reel films so he could watch the next opposing team his school would play. He brought the reel-to-reel player home and took down our large framed picture over the stereo in the living room.

I sat and watched black and white films with him as they flickered on our white wall. I tried to see the pieces of the game the way he saw it. Forward and back. Look at the hole the offensive line would make for their running back. Run it again. X’s and O’s. Defense and offense.

Whoops, they have a good punter, don’t they, Dad? He kicks it long and high, and he has good protection, right?

I’ve explained the concepts of football to other people in the stands.

Once at a game between Maryland and Florida State in College Park, Md., I laid out the whole game to a college friend that had gone to every one of our University of Richmond games as an undergraduate.

“Didn’t you watch the game?” I asked her, as though every family grew up around football like mine.

“Not really,” she said. “There’s always so much stuff going on in the student section of the stands.”

Ugh. I don’t know all the ins and outs of the game as former players and coaches do, but I know the difference between a Wing-T and an I formation. I know how many players are lining up wide to receive. 

You know, the basic stuff.

A fan behind us tapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s the best breakdown of football I’ve ever heard. You should be a play by play announcer.”

Right, I thought at the time. Like they are ever going to let women call a college football game.

On Saturday afternoons, there was one game on TV after another. We supported Notre Dame because we’re Catholic, so it is required. We also backed Florida State, where my Uncle Pat played, and Alabama where my Uncle Eddie had played with Joe Namath.

We were never allowed to say the name of that other Alabama school, the one that rhymes with “raw burn.”

The sound of football coming from the field or the television is comforting. Watching and cheering for all levels of play fills me with excitement.

My father didn’t get to live to watch football on the newer televisions with their high definition. He would have loved seeing the game unfold so clearly, and I would have loved watching again together.

Lisa Versprille Burkett is a Virginia Beach native and University of Richmond graduate. She is a manager at a personal home care agency in Virginia Beach. Burkett has four children, ages 16 to 31. She lives in Sandbridge.

© 2017, 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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2 thoughts on “Column: A football upbringing leads to enduring gridiron appreciation

  1. Coach V was one of my favorite coaches of all time… I could always stop by the school after I graduated and he would great me with a Hello, a smile, and we would laugh about some story of the good old days at Kempsville.

  2. I grew up in Norfolk and lived next door to the Versprille family on 26th Street before they moved to Norview. I stayed in touch with Pat. I located Eddie last year and called him after not seeing him for approximately 70 years and today found this info about your Dad. I am 85 and simply got nostalgic about my past and long lost people. Would love to know about you Dad’s past. I also remember when Jake broke his jaw when he tackled Lynn Chewning of Navy.

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