A Crackin’ Good Leftfooter

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    The story of a Yorkshire lad, a Utah kid, and a goal-oriented family

    The would-be football player stood five feet one. Seen among the padded knights of the gridiron, the slender freshman looked like the answer to a “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzle. But when Dene Garner’s father Norman had taken his infant son in his arms 15 years earlier in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England, he had blessed the child that he would always “walk tall,” and now Dene stood straight and strong. If there were only 105 pounds (including pads) on his whipcord frame, there was thunder in his left foot, and he knew it. He had often seen it launch soccer balls screaming into the net. Now he was here to prove that it could send a football arching away like an artillery shell.

    The coach only had to watch him kick a few to realize that there were game-winning points stored up in that foot, and he didn’t waste any time starting to mine them. Since that decisive day, Dene Garner, 17, has been the first-string placekicker for the Alta High Hawks in Sandy, Utah.

    The coach may not have known it that day, but he was tapping into a lode that ran deep into the green hills of Yorkshire, into the countryside where Dr. Herriot keeps his surgery and the Brontë sisters grew up amid their moors, and into the mining and textile towns where soccer and rugby are a kind of religion.

    Dene’s great-grandfather Moses Wood (his mother’s father’s father) was “a crackin’ good leftfooter” who put away his miner’s gear every weekend to captain the East Ardsley Village team. Behind his booming left soccer boot, the team won the league championship.

    Moses’s son Lewis stepped into those boots, although he was not a left-footer. He played for the East Ardsley High School team and later played soccer, rugby, and cricket for the West Riding Auto Company. In 1940 he was called into the army. Serving in the Duke of Wellington Regiment, he rose to the rank of master sergeant in the infantry. He fought in France and Germany and along the way played on army soccer teams. He won’t talk much now about the fighting, but he speaks with relish about the soccer. He rose from his company team to the division team and then to the regiment team, the top of the heap. After the war his team toured Germany playing other army teams. They beat the Grenadier Guards in Dusseldorf Stadium in the semifinals of the army-wide championship and finally lost to the Royal Engineers in overtime in the championship match. Most of England’s finest young soccer players were in the military, so Lewis, an amateur, held his own with the elite of professional soccer until being demobbed (discharged) in 1946.

    On Dene’s father’s side, his Great Uncle Bill Garner played rugby union for a Lancashire team (a fact that dismays his loyal Yorkshire family). Dene’s Uncle Peter played rugby league for the Healey Boys under 16 and the Batley Celtic under 18. He went on to play rugby union for the 81st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. Like his Uncle Bill, he was known as Flash Garner for his blazing speed and more than once ran the whole length of the field to score a try.

    Dene’s father was also an outstanding athlete. During his school days he competed in soccer, cricket, track, and swimming. Later he helped organize Church soccer and played on Church teams.

    With that kind of tradition, it was no wonder that Dene had soccer (or football, as the British usually call it) in his blood. The first gift he received from his father was a soccer ball. When he began walking at 11 months, that ball was an old and treasured possession and he began kicking it immediately. By the time he was a year and a half old, he was handling it better than most Americans his age ever would. But at that point he suffered his first setback. One day while he was out kicking his ball, he slipped and broke his leg. He was in a hospital six weeks with his leg in a sling, and he wore a cast for another six weeks. He had to learn to walk all over again, but he began kicking the ball long before his cast came off.

    The ball became a part of him. He spent hours kicking it off walls and garage doors, learning to control it as unconsciously as he controlled any part of his body. He practiced at least three hours every day except Sunday, enjoying the growing mastery. His soccer boots seemed to grow fingers.

    When he was eight years old, he played on his first official team at Cawley Lane School in Heckmondwike. When Dene moved up to Whitely School, he again played for the school team. Before and after and between school, the local boys played soccer in the street, bouncing passes off the walls of the homes that crowded the streets. At Whitely, Dene averaged a quite respectable point a game. His father was very much a part of his soccer growth, playing with him an hour and a half before tea (supper) every night, after which Dene would spend another couple of hours playing against the wall. The hour and a half noon recess at school was also given to soccer. Because of broken windows the school authorities outlawed soccer balls, so the young men played with a tennis ball or even a marble, honing their control to the point where they could send the tiny spheres spinning about wherever they pleased. All in all, Dene spent three to five hours a day with a soccer ball at his feet. Like most English boys, he was always kicking something. If he saw a tin can on the way home from school, he would kick it all the way home, and if he was with friends, a tin can soccer game would erupt on the spot, with a couple of coats or trash cans for goal posts.

    If there was one thing Dene loved as much as soccer, it was to sit with his Grandfather Garner or his Grandfather Wood and listen to them tell about the old days, about their own youth and their experiences. He could always listen longer than they could talk. His love of his heritage grew far beyond sports to encompass all the people and places and times he could learn about.

    Dene’s father also instructed his son in the fine British tradition of sportsmanship. There was to be no pouting or whining or complaining when things went wrong.

    When Dene was 12, the family moved from Yorkshire to Sandy, Utah. At Alta View Elementary School he played soccer with the other boys at recess. His ability seemed almost magical to his young friends whose whole repertoire consisted of booting the ball down the field as far as they could and kicking each other in the shins. Dene enjoyed it because he could dribble through the whole team and score almost at will. He soon began playing youth soccer and felt right at home.

    While at Eastmont Junior High, Dene was approached by Coach Massey. He knew Dene played soccer and asked him to try kicking a football. Coach Massey was impressed with what he saw. When he moved up to be freshman coach at Alta High School, he asked Dene, who was to be a freshman at Alta in the fall, to come and try out for the freshman team. Dene was kicking so well that Coach Massey sent him to see Coach Berry, who needed a place kicker for the varsity team. And so the 105-pound freshman soccer star found himself competing with two big, strong seniors for the varsity job. When Dene stepped up and booted a 45-yarder, the seniors both started making other plans for the football season.

    The coach’s decision paid off late that fall against the tough Bingham Miners. With a minute and a half to go in the scoreless game, Dene punched over a 37-yard field goal to win the game and catapult the Hawks into the state championship tournament. That year he scored 22 points with three field goals and 13 PATs (points after touchdown).

    Much of the credit for Dene’s success belongs to his dad, who is Dene’s number-one kicking coach. Coach Berry gladly turned that duty over to him, since the “sidewinder,” or soccer style of kicking, is something of a mystery to most football coaches. Brother Garner attends every game, home and away, and goes right down on the sidelines with the team. He warms Dene up, corrects any flaws he sees developing, and perhaps just as important, calms him down if the pressure-packed place kicking job starts getting to him.

    Brother Garner coaches the Alta High soccer team, but a leg injury sidelined Dene for his entire freshman soccer season. As soon as the leg was healed, the two of them were back practicing field goals, kicking late into the night until the goal posts were nothing but silhouettes against the lingering brightness of the summer sky, or even ghostly white prongs in the darkness. All summer long they worked, kicking and kicking and kicking the five old balls the coach had loaned to them.

    Dene improved steadily, and during his sophomore year he kicked a 46-yarder. He kicked eight field goals and 15 PATs to become the season high scorer with 39 points.

    Dene refuses to take all the credit for this success himself. The blockers that protect him get a big share, and his center Tony Johnson and holder Chuck Cutler each get a whopping portion. In fact, Dene insisted that the New Era mention them by name. “I work with a good holder and a good center,” he says. “I tell them exactly how I want the ball, and that’s the way they give it to me. They’re both team players.”

    The season was no sooner over than he got out his soccer boots and began getting ready for the Alta soccer season. Dene knew that he would get no special treatment because his father was the coach. He would be the first to be called into line if the team was playing badly. “He knows that if he’s not performing, he’ll come off the field,” Brother Garner says. The season ended in disappointment, with the team missing a berth in the post-season playoffs, but Dene still reveled in the plain joy of playing soccer, his first love, working his left-footed wizardry like an echo of Moses Wood himself. In 12 games that season he scored 8 goals and racked up 13 assists.

    But the day he hung up his boots, it was back to field goal practice again. Dene isn’t satisfied to merely be on the team. He has set a high goal for himself—to kick a 65-yarder, which would merely be the longest field goal ever kicked in a football game. To reach that goal he knows he must work long, hard hours. In addition to weight training and calisthenics, he must kick field goals five or six nights a week.

    In a typical practice session Dene first stretches well to avoid injury. Then he starts out with from five to thirty PATs. He moves back five yards at a time, kicking from the middle of the field and both hash marks. He always pauses for a few kicks at the 37-yard hash marks in honor of the Bingham victory. He usually winds up the practice with some 50-yarders, having put up some 50 to 75 kicks.

    Brother Garner is a hawk-eyed analyst of his son’s field goal kicking technique. “If he’s kicking the ball everywhere but where it should be, I’ll say, ‘You’re losing your style,’” Brother Garner explains. “I’ll say, ‘You’re trying to put too much into the kick and losing your style because of it,’ or ‘You’re dropping your shoulder or leaning too far over the ball.’ He accepts my advice. We’ve never had any bother.

    “At first he had the bad habit of taking his eye off the ball. He wanted to see it go over the posts. That’s not your privilege when you’re a kicker. Your job is to keep your eye on the ball, clear the ball, and follow through. If you start lifting your head, you’re going to miskick the ball.

    “When you’re attempting a goal, you haven’t time to think of the applause you’re going to get afterwards but must concentrate on the job at hand. If you’re thinking about the praise you’re going to get afterward, you’ll miss the kick and get nothing.” Dene has taken this advice to heart. When kicking, he is a study in concentration, even though he knows that several thousand pounds of armored muscle and bone are coming his way with very hostile intent.

    It’s nice having one whole coach to yourself, especially if he’s your dad. It provides services you couldn’t expect from ordinary coaches. For example, Dene was really shaken when he had a kick blocked in one game. Brother Garner took him back out on the field after the game, while the stands were still emptying, and had him kick ball after ball from the same spot. He hit 48 before he missed one. Brother Garner then explained that it wasn’t his fault if a kick was blocked occasionally, and Dene went away with his confidence restored.

    But Brother Garner didn’t leave it at that. He did something positive to help overcome the problem. He built a ten-foot-high barrier for Dene to kick over. As a result, Dene has learned to chip PATs or short field goals so high that Goliath would have a hard time blocking them.

    Spending so many hours together in practice and games has strengthened the bonds between Dene and his father. “There are many things in life you can talk about on the football field a lot easier than in a father’s interview,” Brother Garner says. Of course, he has the father’s interview with all his children as well. “Besides becoming good at a game, Dene is learning gospel principles as we talk,” Brother Garner continues. “We communicate better and we’re overcoming barriers.”

    Dene has two sets of proud grandparents in England who keep scrapbooks of his achievements and are always eager for news of his progress. His Grandfather and Grandmother Wood recently came to the states for a long vacation. They were able to see Dene play both football and soccer, and Dene was able to hear some stories of the old days again.

    His granddad is both a cheerleader and a critic. “I’ve always believed in telling the truth,” he says. “When he deserves it, I praise him, and when he deserves it, I kick him in the pants.” It is a spring afternoon and Dene, his mother and father and grandmother and grandfather are sitting out on the front lawn. His grandfather smiles. “Wasn’t that a marvelous goal last night?” he asks. “Sometimes I tell him that he’s rubbish, but when he scores a goal like that, what more can you say? I’m proud of him, of course. He likes sports, and to me you can’t go wrong that way. A bit of sport and you’re on the right road. My daughter always writes to us in England and gives us an account of what he’s doing, and I share it with everybody. It gives me a tremendous amount of pleasure to see him excel.” He looks Dene over appraisingly and then adds, “He’s a fine looking lad, isn’t he?”

    Dene goes into the house and proudly comes out with a treasured championship medal from his grandfather’s soccer days. As first grandson, he has received it as a birthright.

    “I’ve always been proud of him,” his Grandmother Wood says. “He was our first grandson, and with me having three girls, it was really something that was delightful to have someone to carry on grandpa’s participation in sports. When Dene turned out to enjoy playing football, well of course it was just the thing. I knew grandpa would be delighted, which of course he was. I think sports give young men a good backing for life, a wider scope of give and take. If you’re a sportsman, you can both give it and take it, can’t you? And a team sport teaches you to play as a team and not be selfish. I’m proud of all my grandchildren.”

    The talk turns to soccer strategy. Brother Garner and Grandfather Wood are both masters in the art. Both can “read” a soccer game like a book, and their advice to young soccer players is so much alike that it seems to be one person speaking. “If you want to play soccer, you’ve got to keep your eye on the ball and control it. If you bring it down in good control, you can spray your passes wherever you like. There should be none of this long kicking. You’ve got to control the ball. The moment you take your eye off the ball is the moment you lose it. You can watch the ball and still see your own foot and your opponent as well. And remember, it doesn’t matter who scores as long as the ball is in the net. A pass is entirely better than somebody blazing over the top of the net because he doesn’t have an angle to shoot at. If you pass to a man who scores a goal, that’s just as good as scoring yourself. When a team scores a goal, equal praise is due to every player—to the goalkeeper who pushed it out at just the right time, to the fullback who moved it down to the halfback, to the halfback who pushed it to the wing, to the wing who crossed it to the forward, and to the forward who just had to stick his foot out and pop it in. Young players must learn to hit the open man and then move to an open space for a return pass. A good player won’t follow the ball. He’ll see the players setting up and then go to where the ball is going to be, not where it is.”

    Then there was talk of the family in England, where sport is also a family affair. Both the Garner and Wood sides of the family are prospering it seems. Both have sent young men to the continent to represent Yorkshire in rugby.

    Finally, Dene’s mother Anne, as mothers will, offers some insight into another side of his character. “He’s good with other kids,” she says. “He gets along with everybody. He’s so generous and kind natured. At Christmas he spent all the money he had earned at his job, after tithing, for presents for the family—things he knew we needed. Giving seems to give him more pleasure than anything else. When he was just a little boy, if somebody gave him a sweet, he always asked for another one for his sister Lesa. He likes to listen and doesn’t say very much. He doesn’t show his emotions, but he feels things very deeply. I’m very proud of him. The first time he blessed the sacrament, it was such a special time. I wanted to run down and hug him and kiss him just like he was still my baby, but I realize that he’s grown into a young man.”

    Indeed he has, and his two little brothers aren’t far behind him. Craig, 10, plays a fine center half in recreational league soccer and can already kick short field goals with deadly accuracy on the football field. Matthew, 7, is not far behind. Meanwhile, Dene’s sister Lesa, 15, plays on the ward softball team and on the volleyball team that won the stake championship, as well as being a high school cheerleader. Mom isn’t left out either. With her husband she coaches the recreational league team that Craig plays on and has a fine grasp of soccer strategy.

    Of course, the family realizes that goals on the sports field are not the only goals that count. Dene serves as priests quorum secretary and is a few merit badges away from his Eagle Scout award. He is a member of a very Mormon family.

    “I’m glad I’ve got the Church,” Dene says simply, “and I’m very proud of my ancestors. All my life I’ve listened to stories about their accomplishments, and I want to make them proud of me too. I don’t ever want to disappoint them.” It has been 17 years since a proud young father in Yorkshire blessed his little son to walk tall, but the promise is bearing fruit because of a proud heritage and because that father gave more than a blessing. He gave an example.

    Illustrated by Mike Rogan

    Photos by Eldon Linschoten

    Norman Garner can be found on the sidelines with his son at every Alta High football game

    Dene’s talented left foot made him the top scorer on the team last year; Dene’s father coaches him on kicking technique and helps him warm up before each kick

    Dene’s Grandfather Lewis Wood was a championship soccer and rugby player in his youth

    Dene, who started playing soccer the day he learned to walk, now contributes goals and assists to the Alta High team