Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Few Words Before College Football Begins

I really enjoy this time of year and wanted to share a story about my own football career. It's rather modest, but I think there's a few worthwhile bits you might like.

When I was in fourth grade, I decided, for the first time, to emulate the football heroes who played for my beloved Alabama Crimson Tide. Alabama is home four and a half million people, and I’d say at least a million of them are young, starstruck kids, who are awaiting their turn. We listened while playing outside to the radio or sat glued to the television screen. The importance placed on this game for so many cannot be overstated. It is what led me to the ballpark to play the game I watched every Saturday in the fall.

I arrived home directly from school, a mile’s walk, then entered my parents’ house. Inside were a variety of pads, guards, and other accouterments. My pants were the most cumbersome. I had to thread in two hip pads, remember to stuff two thigh pants the right side up, and tuck the knee pads last. The pad that protected my tailbone usually came last. I usually walked to practice with my helmet poking through my shoulder pads, holding onto the face mask. Shoulder pads were only put on at the direction of the head coach.

Finally, donning helmets meant the the real challenge was on its way. You could be sure that full-contact drills were scheduled that day, or that we were going to scrimmage. A scrimmage is a more controlled simulation of a full game. I preferred scrimmages, because in all the interminable drills, I could never see the complete picture. It gave me the opportunity to see what moves I could try against a defensive lineman or linebacker by the time the season started. Some of them worked and some didn't.

I walked through the woods to get to practice. No parents were around to take me. They hadn't seen my development over time. Within a few months, my coach took a great fondness to me. He told me that I was the best blocker he'd ever seen, high praise for a shy, introverted kid.

Due to his tutelage, I blocked the old fashioned way, with my knuckles pressed tightly together, my elbows jutting outward. Sometimes I wore thick pads on my forearms, which were cumbersome. I cast them aside, even though at the end of each day my arms were severely bruised due to frequent contact with face masks.

I had perfect form in a three point stance, and if anyone ever asked me later how I came about it, I had no answer to provide. My social anxiety was intense enough that, the only thing I could focus on was my job on the field. As far as I was concerned, I was the only person there. I did my assignment in isolation, even if I was asked to double team an opposing player. I had natural athletic ability, and because I didn't focus on the drama and momentum swings going on before me, I excelled. I rarely talked to fellow players but took the same sort of tongue-lashing everyone else did.

My Pop Warner coach was a Yellow Dog Democrat and well-connected with the Democratic Party. He was currently employed as a lobbyist. When I made a decision to quit playing, for medical reasons, he promptly took my father to a recruiting trip to the University of Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington. A former female governor of the Commonwealth was present, Martha Lane Collins. The intent was extremely transparent. The consensus gathered around the table wanted me to return to football and to play for Kentucky.

I had athletic ability, but I didn't have the size or the raw talent to play for Alabama or any a Grade A school. It was difficult news to choke down, but on one hand, I wasn't entirely surprised. Anyone on my high school team who wanted desperately to go to Alabama walked-on. I had too much pride to be a blocking dummy, and maybe end up with a scholarship my senior year, but still ride the bench. When Auburn came calling, I flatly turned them down. I simply couldn't sign up to play for the cross-state rival, the team I had grown up hating with a fiery passion for my entire boyhood. To this day, I still smile in contentment when Auburn loses. I can’t ever cheer for Auburn, even if by rare occasion it somehow benefits Alabama.

The more affluent, white, middle-class parts of Birmingham are known as Over the Mountain, because one has to drive over Red Mountain to arrive there. Over the Mountain kids rarely produce elite players. They produce solid, intelligent players who are dependable, but their play is unlikely to turn heads or show up during film study. They're also a little on the small size. I was fast for a lineman, and a bit on the small size. Some schools wanted lineman built that way, but playing at an elite school meant going against players substantially larger than me, who made it difficult to move them out of the way.

Many players I've known are aware that their first choice and only chance to start is to head to perennial losers like Vanderbilt or Kentucky or perhaps a Division II school. Another reason I didn't want to play for Kentucky because their combined record was abysmal and it would embarrass me getting destroyed by LSU, Tennessee, or Georgia every year. The only option for me was to focus on myself as an integral part of a team and see if I made enough of a splash that I might qualify for the NFL.

At that time, I was 190 pounds dripping wet, which might have worked in a Division II school and maybe a lesser Division I school. To be considered satisfactory, I needed to put on lots of weight immediately. I because I wasn't placed on steroids or performing enhancing drugs, instead I had to find a natural way. And honestly, I didn't quite get there. I got to 235, but no matter how many weights I lifted I wasn't gaining.

In situations like these, coaches routinely propose a swap between positions. Instead of working out with the offensive lineman, a coach told me that I would be working with the linebackers from now on. I had a raw, aggressive attitude, and another textbook perfect stance but I couldn't completely grasp the required drills or what player had to cover the responsibility of another. It was for this reason that I quit football. It’s very difficult to unlearn what you've learned for years and then have to scramble to pick up six years in a matter of weeks.

My life would have been very different had I gone to Lexington. I would have struggled to stay above water, while watching the elite SEC schools make mincemeat out of us. When I played in middle school and high school, we never lost. Now I'd be a tackling dummy for men in other teams who had 50-75 pounds on me, I'd watch the other side's unreal running back sprint down the field, twice as good as us and three times larger than we were.

I won’t lie that it wasn't demoralizing. I justified it by saying that I’d at least get a college education, and I this was certainly true. I was a conscientious student who fully took advantage of tutoring, but I really was trying to get out with a diploma in hand. The losses would have piled up, one on top of the other, as I began to wonder once again why I was busting my butt for a loser. Some people play for the love of the game, but I play to win. Superstars have it easy, but the rank and file do not.

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