“I have not lined up since,” he said in that familiar husky voice.
“You’re free now!” the voice announced.
Free from football dreams, perhaps, but not from football memories. The sport has been linked with Cosby, now 73, since he was first noticed in the early ’60s, wearing a cherry-red Temple sweatshirt while working clubs in Philadelphia and New York.
“It made me walk from the dressing room to the stage,” he whispered about football’s place in his life. “There would be no fear — unless I put that fear in myself.”
On Tuesday, Cosby will be awarded the National Football Foundation’s Gold Medal and Tom Brokaw will receive its Distinguished American award at a dinner in New York. In an hourlong telephone interview, Cosby recalled his first football advice from his grandfather Samuel Russell Cosby, the patriarch in the absence of Cosby’s father.
The grandfather would take the trolley to visit his grandson in the projects, passing along portentous advice like: “Do. Not. Play. Football.” The reason? “Your. Bones. Are. Not. Set. Yet.”
The boy weighed 123 pounds but went out for football at Central High. And promptly broke his left shoulder. A few days later, the grandfather came by and spotted the boy lying on a sofa, a cast on his shoulder.
“He came over and kissed me on the forehead,” Cosby said. “I set my ears to listen. He never said, ‘I told you, Junior.’ He always kept his money in his sock. He reached in and gave me a quarter and put it in my right hand and said: ‘Get yourself some ice cream. It’s got calcium in it.’ ”
The boy did not miss the rebuke: always listen to your grandfather.
Football did not keep Cosby in high school. “I had no life ahead of me,” he said darkly. He wound up in the Navy, earning an equivalency diploma, tending to the wounded in a military hospital.
He applied for a track and field scholarship at Temple but had to take the SAT. The questions flitted around him. “All those things, like ghosts of Christmas past,” Cosby said. “I was put in remedial everything.”
He played freshman football. “I’m around 185,” he said. “I think I am a good running back, but I’m really not that fast. There is only one thing I can do, that is throw a cross-body block. Picture perfect. I love it. Not that good at pass blocking.”
He remembered one hit he took, turning into “caterpillar fuzz.” As he lay on the ground, “I started to feel my legs and I said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m paralyzed.’ If I don’t try to move, I’ll never know if I’m paralyzed, so I stay there.
“My trainer says, ‘Ask him his name.’ Dumbest thing I ever heard. I said, ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ and Coach said, ‘He’s all right!’ I got up and the field was tilting. Somebody tapped me and said, ‘You have to go off the field.’ ”
Just about everybody at the dinner Tuesday will identify with that hit.
Temple won five games, lost 11 and tied two in Cosby’s two seasons. He harbors two memories of himself in action.
At Gettysburg, he said, Temple had a fourth-and-1. The call was to dive straight up the middle, but Cosby went for the improv — to the left side, and was stuffed. That was bad enough, but on Monday, the coaches produced a film of a lineman opening a hole up the middle — “like a railroad train,” he said.
Cosby balanced that memory with a play against Toledo. Playing right cornerback, he burst across the line and hit the ball carrier.
“I stayed on my feet,” he said. “I hit the guy. He had the ball. When we met, I put my body on his and, wham, that guy had no leg power. The ref blew the whistle.”
Meantime, Cosby was tending bar and telling jokes, and before long, he was working in Greenwich Village, “The Gaslight Cafe at 116 MacDougal Street; Minetta Tavern; the Fat Black Pussycat,” he recited with reverence. He told his coaches he was giving up football. “Showbiz, man, showbiz.”
He told about playing basketball at the playground on West Fourth Street and having his mostly absent father materialize, urging him to go back and play football.
“My father said, ‘Junior, it takes a man to play football, but any fool can get up on the stage and make an ass of himself.’ ”
In Cosby’s version, he gave his father some money and said the next installment would be for a coffin. The pain behind the story is palpable. As Cosby told it, the decision to stop playing was also about getting a real education. “If I just get a C, I’m not going to know anything,” he said.
It was still the early ’60s. Most professional athletes, particularly black men, were not making money.
“I’m going to be a schoolteacher,” he said. “I’m going to tell ’em what they’re missing.”
In his long and successful career, Cosby has been a star of “I Spy”and the father on “The Cosby Show,” and he has entertained on comedy records and talk shows. He received a degree from Temple, then two advanced degrees in education from the University of Massachusetts: a master’s in 1972 and a doctorate in 1977. In recent years, Cosby has been an advocate of blacks’ aspiring to education, getting the most out of this society.
Through it all, he said, he has only minor aches from his few years of football. “My left shoulder, forget jumping jacks,” Cosby said. “My tailbone took a couple of hits and, as I think about it, the nose was moved a couple of times.” But nothing compared with the artificial joints and brain damage of people who played longer.
Still a fan of resurgent Temple, Cosby said he could barely follow the complexities of the sport, and when Franco Harris took him into the Steelers’ locker room he could not imagine his neck supporting the modern weapon-helmet. He sounded boggled by the financial machinations and allegations involving Heisman-level players.
He was asked one final meaning-of-life question: what did football teach him?
“Obedience and hope,” Cosby said. And education. “Put yourself in the position so that with tuition and books, you can multiply things by pi.”
And still remember the good plays and the bad plays, and maybe the dream plays, too.