I was a pretty good athlete when I was younger, especially playing baseball, with quick reflexes and a knack for fielding all types of grounders, sharp ones, bouncers, or those that took a bad hop. I also played touch football and basketball with my friends in backyards, school fields, and driveways, on weekends and after school. I stood out as one of the top players but soon learned when I entered ninth grade and went out for organized football that such informal heroics didn’t mean anything.
In our friendly games, I knew I was no quarterback, I couldn’t throw a pass sharp enough or long enough, so I was a receiver, making many extraordinary catches. So, of course, going out for the high school football team that’s what I thought I should play, never occurring to me that the team’s offense was almost entirely devoted to the running game. And, to be truthful, there were a lot of fundamentals one had to master before even making the practice squad.
I didn’t live and breathe football during the fall like many households in which Sunday was a sacred time to watch the New York Giants game on television. And, as far as I know, the only football game my father ever saw was when he took me and some friends to see the Jets play the Kansas City Chiefs on my eleventh or twelfth birthday. I don’t remember much about the game, except that the Chiefs kicked a winning field goal in the final moments, and we all got sick at a Chinese restaurant after the game, with my friend, Turnamian, the only one who didn’t because he was the lone person not to eat an egg roll.
I was nervous when I showed up for the first football practice. There were only three or four of us ninth graders and we were in the presence of most of the previous year’s starting team, including two juniors who were legendary in terms of brawn and fighting prowess, which didn’t have much to do with football, but was still intimidating. I remember how scared other students were, regardless of grade, seeing those two strutting through the school halls in their blue football jackets with bulky, white leather sleeves.
The head coach was my math teacher from seventh grade, a good guy, but intense and serious, and not like most of the other teachers, who, if they did anything outside the classroom, would more than likely involve moderating the debating society or being in charge of the chess club. The school was a private one, a prep school, which, at the the time I was there, was just beginning to admit students who didn’t come from a white, presbyterian, social register background. It may have been my own insecurity, but in the locker room, I did sense an elite entitlement nature among those in the higher grades.
I was anxious, confused, and embarrassed I didn’t have any experience putting on the proper football equipment. Shoulder pads I knew about, but shin guards and ankle wraps, and other miscellaneous parts of the uniform underneath, were brand new. I was self-conscious about not looking like I didn’t know what I was doing, but didn’t see anyone I felt comfortable enough with to ask what was what. I discreetly tried to emulate the other guys in the locker room strapping on their equipment. For some reason, I couldn’t manage to get my thigh guard to stay in place and didn’t have a clue whether it was me or whether it was defective. Panic was beginning to set in as players started heading out of the locker room toward the field and I was only half dressed. I walked up to Coach Peck, a burly man with a perpetual tan topped off with a gray crewcut, wearing a blue tee shirt with a bulldog on the front pocket, a pair of khaki running shorts, and a whistle around his neck.
“Excuse me . . . ” was all I got out.
Coach Peck’s powerful, stubby arm reached out, bunching my shirt in front and around my neck, ‘You’re not Big Blue!” he screamed, lifting me up and slamming my back into a row of lockers. “You’re nothing but pink pussy!”
Lying sprawled on the floor between a bench and the lockers, I felt more embarrassed than anything, but instantly could see I wasn’t going to ever receive any useful information from Coach Peck.
I managed to get the right shin guard to stay on, loose and crooked, and ran out to join the rest of the team, wobbly on my spikes which I wasn’t used to wearing.
Practice was long and hard, mostly calisthenics and exercise routines that first day, with lots of running for those of us who would obviously never be linemen. I understood the purpose, the head coach, who had been my seventh grade math teacher, was not a bad guy, just determined to mold us into a team, which meant instilling discipline, and after that, even more discipline. He believed, and probably correctly, to create a cohesive team, there could be no sense of individuality. Command and order, no questions, just do what you’re told. I was getting off too a bad start and definitely knew I didn’t belong, with my slipping thigh pad a constant reminder.
There were maybe five other guys from my grade at the most going out for the football team, so it wasn’t a situation in which I had any allies with which to commiserate. I tried my best, and followed the coach’s orders and couldn’t wait for practice to end. I desperately wanted to quit after that first exposure but somehow dragged myself back to practice the next afternoon. The starting team was “Big Blue” and the rest of us were interchangeable nonentities, extra bodies to plug into positions on practice plays. No one talked to us, and no one wanted to know our names; in fact, we didn’t need names, and not having a name was preferable to having a derogatory nickname.
A sure sign high school football was not for me was spending the weekend dreading a return to practice on Monday afternoon. I dreaded regular school, especially math and science, enough already without the additional unpleasant, oppressive hours tacked on at the end of the day with Coach Peck hurtling obscenities at me without even knowing, or caring, whom I was. The abuse wasn’t personal. I was aware of that intellectually, but anger and rebellion welled up within. Such tactics didn’t have a desired motivating effect on me but instead made me want to lash out, to respond in kind, though knowing it wasn’t proper, coupled with a realistic does of fear, provided more than enough restraint from saying something I knew I would soon regret.
I was used to going to my parents whenever I faced any emotional conflict, or problem, but this was something I realized I needed to somehow handle myself. My father, a prominent psychiatrist, who knew nothing about sports, and was not ever athletic due to a birth defect where his spine was crooked and one foot was a couple sizes larger than the other, would have offered practical advise. If you’re so miserable, I’m sure he would have said, then why don’t you quit? And he would have been right. Nothing was forcing me to go to practice day after day. The NFL, much less the New York Giants, were not part of any Sunday ritual at our house. While I remember friends from grade school at the public schools I attended needed to tip toe about their respective houses on Sunday afternoons for fear of disturbing their fathers, who dressed casually, usually occupying the living room couch, with can of beer and pretzels, cursing or cheering, depending on the play, during the Giants weekly game. I can’t say for certain if my father even knew who the New York Giants were, and being born and raised in Ontario, the Canadian Football League (CFL) only played three downs, so it was a completely different game in terms of strategy, especially since an unreturned kick was scored as a singleton, or one point, and the field was both longer and wider.
Football, to me, at least at the time, brought images of myself as a flanker for Notre Dame, diving and leaping, making fantastic, acrobatic catches, not necessarily for touchdowns, but for significant yardage, or first downs at the minimum. My closest connection to Notre Dame was the movie Knute Rockne: All American with Pat O’Brien, and seeing the colorful navy blue jerseys of the players with their gold helmets when a Saturday game was on television. But Coach Peck made it unmistakably clear I was in a different stratosphere than those of Big Blue, but I was still on the team and hadn’t missed a practice yet.
I eventually was allowed to play safety in a scrimmage against Big Blue. I did okay, nothing great, but no major mishaps where I missed a tackle or anyone got by me for a touchdown pass. I learned, however, I was on a different level than the seniors on Big Blue, and the intensity most possessed, if that’s what it could be called, I was certainly lacking. On one play, a sweep by the halfback on the other flank of the line from me, where he was tackled after about two yards, I stopped running toward that side of the field once I heard the whistle. As I started to stand back up straight, through my peripheral vision, I caught a quick glance of William Boyce III, a sandy-haired senior with a fair face, picking up speed just before clobbering me, as he propelled his arms up forward in a block to my chest. A late hit, not necessary, no reason for it, and there I was, dumped on my back, more stunned than hurt. Win at any cost, I wasn’t quite in that head, and suspected I never would be. Other members of Big Blue crowded around Boyce III, congratulating him and slapping him on the back, saying, “Nice hit, and “Way to go,” and other such meaningless phrases of gridiron camaraderie.
Nothing to do, except get back up, ignore the grass stains on my uniform pants and prepare for the next play, now with the knowledge that the whistle didn’t mean anything. Boyce III never got a cheap hit on me again, and I don’t think we ever exchanged words during any of the practices, either on the field or in the locker room, not even a greeting or a nod of acknowledgement.
After about three weeks, the team was comprised of about half the players it had started with, and only one other ninth grader left, my friend Tim, whose father was an FBI agent and forced Tim to go out for football, or else! Tim handled the situation better than me, he was stoned on grass most of the time, and lackadaisically and methodically went through the motions of what he was called on to do without any emotion. Tim and I didn’t talk during practice, he simply smiled dreamily, on another level, in another world, one in which Big Blue didn’t matter and couldn’t touch him. We were both outsiders, certainly ignored, if not actually ostracized. It was clear we didn’t count, though I still played hard, even if I never expected going out for football would consist of mainly blocking and tackling, and I never got near the ball unless I was the closest to an overthrown pass.
A big day finally came, a break from the incessant routine of practice, a scrimmage game against another school. We were dressed in blue and white, and my jersey actually had a number, 57, while the opposing team was wearing gruesome looking yellow jerseys and red pants, with gold helmets. I didn’t get in the game right away, and I didn’t get to play offense at all. When Coach Peck waved me in for a series of downs at safety without even calling my name, I was more filled with dread than excitement, convinced that anything I did could only be thought of as bad, and if by chance, I did something well, then it would simply be considered okay and what I was supposed to do anyway.
I was always anxious whenever I played sports, but once I fielded my first grounder at short and threw the runner out, or made my first jump shot in a basketball game, I was fine, caught up completely in the game. That was not the case with the football scrimmage, and I knew it never would be. I was ashamed to admit it but I didn’t want to be there, didn’t want to be part of the team, or be associated with Coach Peck, or Boyce III, or any of the other juniors and seniors that swaggered about with a fake macho sense of superiority, especially when I knew the football team at the public high school, the Maroon Raiders, on the other end of town would destroy the exclusive Big Blue club that wouldn’t accept me.
The other team’s offense centered around one play, a 6’5″ fullback who reminded me of Lurch from the television show The Addams Family, the one starring John Astin and Carolyn Jones. Repetition was the game plan, the quarterback would take the snap, hand it off to Lurch, who would move his legs as long as he could while basically falling forward until he was down. Three times in a row Lurch hit the line, twice making first downs. “Drive him back! Drive the bastard back!” I heard Coach Peck’s hoarse scream.
I was ready, not that I thought I could do anything spectacular on my own to stop this giant, massive fullback. Hike, snap, ball to Lurch. It seemed our entire front line and linebackers all converged on Lurch, creating a chaotic scrum, where Lurch was toppling forward, still crouched halfway upright, the ball in his right arm. I planted myself, prepared to launch myself forward into the mess of bodies when suddenly, almost in slow motion, the ball fluttered out of Lurch’s arms, hanging in the open right before me. No thought was required, I simply closed my arms and the ball was mine, and the next thing I knew, Lurch and almost everyone else on the field was landing on top of me. I was helpless, at the bottom of the pile, as the referee tapped and pulled players off one by one, until it was just me lying on the ground, the ball still in my possession, while my left knee was twisted in an awkward and painful position.
I was able to stand, toss the ball over to the ref and limp toward the sidelines. I didn’t think I had been injured badly, and as it turned out, I wasn’t, but it was the end of my high school football career before it even really began, and though no one cared, I was able to never return without anyone ever thinking I was a quitter or a loser.