I’ve never decided if I actually miss playing football. I played tight end and outside linebacker for one season, during my freshman year of high school. The previous winter I’d lifted weights often enough for a junior high kid, then I did the long jump in track during the spring and kept in good condition all summer. I was no all-out beast, but for me it was decent dedication.
Our coach, Mr. Noble, was horrible. I respected the hell out of him at the time, and so did everyone else—he was six five with huge arms. He’d contrive a good practice with the assistant coaches for ten minutes every day while we ran the perimeter of the practice field, a workout monotonous as recopying history notes. We were in better shape than any other team in the county, but we couldn’t play football worth a lick.
I started in one or two games toward the end of the season after the first string tight end, Mitch, fractured his wrist, and before the second-string fullback, Eric, learned the position. Like all of the only-half-decent guys, I played special teams every game. Problem was, I sucked at blocking because I had no girth, and I couldn’t catch very well because all we ever practiced was blocking. In games, we almost always ran the ball. Our tailback, Conor, kicked butt. He’d have been even better if our coach didn’t make him run stupid plays all the time. We’d be fourth and eight at our own 35, and Coach Noble—he made us address him as “sir” all the time (“Yes, sir,” “I don’t understand, sir,” “Sir, I have to leave practice early tomorrow, sir”)—would tell Hildebrand, the QB, to call a blast, an off-guard run right up the middle.
Conor would’ve been better, too, if the linemen, such as myself, had skill as well as endurance. There’s a picture in the yearbook from that season that makes me feel like a loser every time I see it—Conor’s charging through the line, and I’m on my feet with my knees bent and no one to block, my guy diving for the tackle. Man, I really handled him.
Maybe things will change after I graduate, but sometimes I feel like I never deserved to keep playing, that I never would have been good enough to have any real confidence in my ability. But then I go to a Friday night varsity game and the stands are on their feet as the team charges onto the field under lights blazing against a solid black sky and I think, that could be me out there jumping around, pulse racing, hollering.
There are many reasons I signed up to play football, some are stupid and some are good, and one of the good ones was to experience the whole team thing—we’re gonna take on our opponents and smash ’em into the ground. There are also many reasons I decided not to play the next year, and one of them was that I never got the feeling of being a team. For me, two and a half hours of practice every day meant struggling to tell my body I could do it, trying to stop being so mechanical about blocking, and busting my butt to catch up with people who’d been playing since fifth grade. It also meant never being as good as the real starters, most of whom had no work ethic but ground us second- and third-stringers into the practice field dust when they got the chance. These players were already getting drunk and laid on the weekends.
I tried really hard to make that sense of team happen, mostly by getting more charged up than just about everyone (except maybe Ardon, the team’s token black guy, who would go bananas) and helping the whole team to get psyched for a game. “Who we gonna beat this week?” became our mantra. One of us would yell it, and the rest of the team would bellow back the name of our upcoming opponent, if we could remember it. Then whoever hollered the question would repeat it, and we’d get louder. Noble would get really pissed when someone popped the question at a Monday practice and (with our games on Thursdays) we answered too tentatively, or with the names of a couple teams. I took an inane pride in adding “”I said…” and “I can’t hear you” to the mix, which caught on fast. Of course, the toughness was drained whenever the voice of whomever was leading the yell cracked in mid-sentence, which happened frequently with all of us age 14 or 15.
The feeling that both me and Coach Noble stunk could be a great reason to quit, or it could be a weak one. In his autobiography, In the Trenches, Reggie White, my favorite football player of all time, writes fondly of his high school football coach, who for over a year bullied and beat up on him, on occasion bringing him to tears. Only after his senior season did he realize “what Coach Pulliam was doing in my life: He was building toughness and confidence inside me. He knew my goal in life was to play pro football, and he knew that if I was to achieve that goal I would need to have the physical, emotional, and spiritual hide of a rhinoceros. He was pounding on me to toughen my hide—and it worked… The toughness and confidence Coach Pulliam built into me went far beyond the realm of sports.” Maybe Coach Noble had something like that in mind when he angrily shattered a wooden cane on a desk while reviewing the past week’s game film. Maybe I just couldn’t handle it. That’s a hard thing to say, though, that I couldn’t handle playing football. I mean, maybe it just wasn’t for me. Golf just isn’t for me; maybe football’s the same way.
My friend Walt loves to golf. I’m not sure how much of it he does anymore, with going to school and working plenty on the side. He claims he had an injury last fall that kept him from some tournaments that he could have cleaned up, but I still don’t know what the injury was. He’s one of my closest friends. That’s the way things seem to go. Clearly I’m the one who should’ve been concerned enough to find out what was wrong, and clearly I dropped the ball. That’s why I still don’t know if the football thing was just me or something else.
I tell people all the time that I miss playing. It kind of makes up for the fact that I stopped. You’re supposed to like being an athlete in high school. Adults appreciate sports, especially in central Pennsylvania. Student council, current issues club, and a student newspaper are unsure ground. So I would say, “No, I used to play, but not this year.” I avoid saying I only played one season three years ago whenever possible.
I try to make up for this apparent fault as well as I can. I get serious about working out at least once a year, hitting the weight room three days a week, running distance, erasing any sign of a gut or a filling out face. I keep the routine long enough to regain what I’ve lost—until I plateau on increments of what I can lift, can run five miles or so without stopping, and build enough of a camaraderie with the rest of the guys in the weight room that I don’t feel awkward asking someone for a spot. Then I just sort of stop. Not all of a sudden, but slowly, like losing interest in a girl.
It makes me feel better to know simply that I can do it, that I can control my body if I wish to. When I’m not pursuing any particular girl, it makes me feel better to get a good glimpse of a girl and know that I’m still in shape as far as being attracted to women and liking the idea of female in general. I don’t have to continually prove to myself that I can date a girl and enjoy it and build a meaningful relationship—it’s enough just to know that I could if I wanted to. The same is true as far as being an athlete.
Excusing my decision not to play was easy the year after I quit. I stayed in the weight room all fall, and ran track that spring. All I had to say was, “I’m thinking about playing again next year,” and nod to a remark about yeah, you should. Piece of cake. Now I have to work harder—promise long articles and big pictures in the school newspaper to my friends on the team (I have a terrible record of delivering on those promises), agree to try to allot student activities funds for team equipment, or make a comment proving how closely I’ve followed their season.
In general, I’m pretty content with that relationship. Sure, it’s awkward. It’s certainly not genuine, and I usually toss relationships that aren’t genuine out the window. But it’s true high school politics, and it charges me up. There’s a grave misconception that the politics of high school involve going out with the right person and making it to the good parties and dressing well. It’s actually being able to take a question like “Why aren’t you playing football?” (or, for that matter, “How come you weren’t at the party Friday?” or “Who do you have your eye on?”) and give a horribly inadequate two-sentence answer that still satisfies the other person. That’s where it’s at, in my book.
Sometimes I get an unfair advantage. Most of my former teammates are convinced they remember me starting most of the second half of the season. I might have started one or two games, as I’ve said, when it was a pretty sure win and the first string guy was injured. It would be a lot tougher to smooth it over in thirty words or less if they remembered me as a guy who couldn’t throw blocks, make tackles, or catch passes, which is mostly how I remember myself as a football player. How accurate those memories are I don’t know.
I screw up on my own often enough, however, to even things out. High school politics are a delicate balance between being visible, outgoing, unique—even obnoxious—enough to stay well-known and widely liked, and being mature, relaxed, and conventional enough to keep people from being annoyed. I set myself back in the same arena my teammates help me out—that fundamental skill of believably offering inapt answers. The natural tendency is to gravitate toward one side of the balance—either being too off-the-wall or too stiff—and avoid the precarious fulcrum. My responses become unexciting and placid for a while and I lose sway; people can roll their eyes at my excuses with an air of “whatever” and think nothing of it. The idea is to inject adequate authority into just enough nonsense to keep myself from becoming either undesirable or difficult to approach. From either position, my peers will probably stop asking why I don’t play anymore altogether.
Which bothers me in a weird way, perhaps hinting at one of the reasons I played for that one year: to gain political sway I sought. It is, after all, useful for far more than excusing myself for not playing football. It’s good for getting people to latch onto my dreams and visions, to feel honored by my praise, to seek my advice and feedback. In short, in high school it’s good for validating me as a genuine leader. Certainly that motive is partly selfish, but inherent in a genuine leader is an authentic desire and commitment to serve others. A real leader is one who works for the good of people beside himself. That’s the paradox of it.
That’s the paradox of football, too. When Conor made great runs, the respect and recognition he received grew. But at the same time, the whole team advanced five, ten, twenty yards towards the end zone and a win. On the field, I was no star. I tried to push back defenders and contain the outside run, but my success was limited. In the hallways of the high school, though, I was able to make those important political plays with power and agility, which I realized to a new extent as my seemingly inadequate excuses effortlessly shrugged aside skepticism. And I’ve been charged by the wins ever since. Yet that confidence and fulfillment didn’t come until after I’d decided to stop playing football, and effects can’t be their own causes. Unless, of course, that paradox is true, too.