Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tales of a Former Football Player

Now that another college football season has concluded, I'd like to finally share my own story. It is by turns commonplace and unique, indebted as much to tradition as it is to the next big thing. Every year, this account becomes someone else's to try on like shoulder pads in the equipment room. Each player adds to the living legacy of those who have come before while seeking to make an indelible mark of his own regarding individual accomplishment.

I'd wanted to play football as soon as possible, which in the suburban community where I grew up meant third grade. Ever since my birth, I'd been a dyed-in-the-wool Alabama Crimson Tide fan. I attended my first game as an infant, taken along by my father. This took place on a regular basis as I grew older, able to talk and walk upright on my own. Mostly I attended the games played at venerable Legion Field, the old grey lady of Graymont Avenue, in my hometown of Birmingham.

It didn't take long before I became a voracious and learned fan, critiquing the on-field decisions with a kind of fascinated precision. I learned the strategy and correctly predicted each penalty before the referees methodically marked them off. I was especially entranced by the back and forth drama of the game, the way that wave after wave of momentum changed the dynamic and outcome of the action on the field.

Despite my zeal, my worried mother insisted I wait another year before signing up. By then, I was ten years old. As a means of keeping the game competitive, players could not take part if they exceeded a certain weight threshold, much as is the case with wrestlers and boxers. 90 pounds was the absolute maximum one can weight and still be eligible to play. Because I was one of the biggest kids, I almost always came within a pound or two of not being able to suit up and play. This was due more to a matter of genetics and biology than being overweight.

Fat bodies! I could hear the coach all the way across the field, especially the way his voice reverberated and carried well across the playing surface. Should I exceed the threshold upon weigh in, this was now my cue to start vigorously jogging around the perimeter of the gridiron. Thirty minutes later, having shed some excess water weight, I stepped on the scales again. This time, I passed muster.

The loose informality of Pop Warner football is nothing like the seriousness assigned to the game once middle school and high school arrive. I lived a block away from the practice field, within walking distance to where we practiced, the ground littered with the sickly sweet aroma of paw paw trees and their decaying fruit. With one hand, I learned to hold the face mask of my helmet. It stuck out through the center of my shoulder pads, where my head was meant to go. I took the same shortcut through the woods for every practice, emerging and then putting on the remaining pads and protection.

A few years later, I'd make the same reluctant journey with my fellow players, not in solitude as I once had before. To me it felt like descending into the bowels below. The practice field had once been a ravine, meaning that one had to walk down several steep flights of stairs to arrive. It seemed to me as though I was making my way downward to hell itself. I wonder if my teammates shared my feelings. I bet more than a few did. Anyone who tells you he enjoyed practice is lying. The same is true for basic training.

Returning to my youngest playing days, where I was little more than a boy, the head coach took an immediate shine to me. I don't remember why I was pegged to be an offensive lineman, having never taken a snap, nor played anything other than backyard full contact tackle football with the neighborhood boys. Even at a very young age, I suppose I had the natural physique needed. Though I couldn’t, the coaches could predict how I would look when I reached full physical maturation, only a few short years away, really.

Though painfully shy away from football, I was aggressive on the field and had almost perfect form. This came from observation and athletic ability. It could not be taught. Form and technique cannot easily be coached. Those with a natural athletic ability were already one up on the competition. After practice one day, the head coach ambled off the field, which for us was a converted baseball diamond. He sought out my father, who could always reliably be counted on to be present by the time practice had concluded for the day. They began to chat about me and my potential as a player.

You know he's the right color. My father nodded up and down in agreement.

I didn't think much of that remark then, but I knew what was meant by it. Until the early 1970's, the football teams of every major Southern school were all white. Steadily and with time, black players moved from the minority to the majority. This became the case within ten to fifteen years. At the beginning of integration, black players were usually running backs and wide receivers. About the same time they became defensive stalwarts, often at linebacker and free safety. Now, most defenses in elite schools in the South are comprised entirely of black players.

A few positions have, often by design, been designated for white players. One of them is quarterback. Another is place kicker. A third is punter. And the fourth is the entire offensive line: two guards, two tackles, a center, and a tight end. A black player might take on one of these positions from time to time, but these slots are the last bastion of Caucasian pride. At first, I was a offensive tackle, but I later became a guard. This was because I was deceptively fast for someone as large as myself, skilled at pulling across the line of scrimmage to attack linebackers or defensive ends.

The head coach had a horrible temper, one that used to scare the hell out of me, but he doted over me like a prized pupil. I made him look good and helped his teams win games. Though I didn't know it at the time, he was a long-time yellow dog Democrat, and had done political consulting for the party for a while. He told stories about Bill Clinton when the latter was still Arkansas governor and unknown to a national audience. As is the case with many states in the South, politics and football intersect. With me as his trump card, the coach could call in some old favors.

During practice one day a yellow jacket painfully stung me on my right hand. Using an old folk remedy, the head coach unrolled a cigarette, applied spit to it, and then firmly affixed it to the site of the sting. It didn’t really help, but I wasn’t about to let on otherwise. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Even with the intensity, there was a kind of laid back attitude attached to the brand of football played by earnest and often somewhat clumsy elementary school kids. The coaches gave their time voluntarily. We only practiced a couple of times a week before the games. No one else had the time for more than that. This was soon to change, though I didn't know it yet.

Once coaches began to be paid for their labors, the pressure was ratcheted up. Regardless of whatever history, driver's ed, health ed, or physical education class they taught to justify their existence to the school system, football was their primary occupation. And we knew it as much as they did.

I now began to despise practices, which were scheduled every day during the week, minus game day. For punishment following losses, we had to practice on Saturday mornings, as well. Training camp began during the sweltering early August heat and humidity. My freshman year of high school was one such example. The most intense heat wave in years descended and quickly overstayed its welcome. We started two-a-days in 105 degree heat with a 130 degree heat index.

I'm amazed we all survived. I mean this literally. Players have been known to succumb to heat stroke and I think it was the resilience of my youthful body that I did not keel over and collapse. I arose early in the morning to prepare myself for the first intense and punishing practice. At its conclusion, I slowly dragged myself off the field, was driven home in exhausted silence, drank two liters of Gatorade, took a two hour nap, then awoke to do the same thing all over again.

The process of recruiting starts earlier and earlier these days, especially as money continues to flood the college game. Recently, an eighth-grader was offered a scholarship before he'd even played a single snap in high school. But even twenty years ago, good players were wooed and courted with much fanfare, flagged as superlative by grown men twice their age, their progress tracked.

College football has its own pecking order and hierarchy. I may have been a ravenous Alabama fan, but I was simply too small to play for my favorite team. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. Though I was a fast offensive lineman and a tough one, I weighed a paltry 200 pounds. Offensive lineman in elite teams need to be upwards of 300 pounds. How could I gain that much weight in a short period of time, without resorting to performance-enhancing drugs or living in the weight room?

The second-tier SEC schools were a better fit and likely to ask me for a formal visit. Though it hurt my pride a little, I recognized that schools like Kentucky and Vanderbilt were my only real options. That these were perennial losers was certainly not lost on me. My little league coach became my most enthusiastic booster, believing the rate of return he'd eventually receive from my services on the field would be worth his effort.

My father was taken to Lexington, Kentucky, site of the state University. The trip was ostensibly for fun, but it came with a strong ulterior motive that became evident immediately. Several big wheels with the university were present, including the first female governor of the state, Martha Layne Collins. My booster was well connected with the state Democratic Party, and I suppose this big show was meant to impress and awe. If I were to commit to play for the Wildcats, I'd surely be considered for a job as a starter.

Alas, my heart was not in the game. But what really did me in was the onset of the first of many depressive episodes, which then became full-fledged bipolar disorder when I reached my early twenties. After I quit, midway through high school, some of my teammates decided to hang it up as well. This lack of talent led to three subpar seasons by the remaining players. During that sorry span, the team had losing records and missed the playoffs. Following the year of my graduation, an ineffective head coach was replaced by a dynamic, though arrogant firebrand.

This upstart, Rush Propst, would eventually become the most successful high school coach in the state of Alabama. The potential for greatness at my high school had always been there, but finally someone put the pieces together in the proper order. And yet, I have to say I never regretted not playing for him or anyone, really. I left the sport without any illusions. Some of my teammates questioned my decision to quit, assuming I'd desperately return after a year of guilt and longing, begging for a second chance. I never did.

Had I decided to keep playing, I saw myself in a three point stance, lined up at my familiar left guard. Across the neutral zone from me were players from the other team. They wore a striking shade of crimson, the very uniforms that are as striking today as they were in my childhood. As each player ran onto the field to start another game, I'd hear the same fight song that even now gets stuck in my head with every contest I watch today as a casual observer. If we played on the road, it would be even worse. I knew I'd have mixed feelings, but perhaps I could channel my envy and sharpen the chip on my shoulder.

Would I have been happy toiling away in the hot sun for a team that lost more games than it won? I know I would have had mixed emotions when trying to play my best against a larger, more talented defensive front. We might steal a game here and there. We might even pull an upset when a better team had a bad day. But even though the coaches might call us champions, or better yet, implore us to play like champions on the field, we'd still be losers.

I console myself sometimes by saying that at least I would have gotten a good education. Though I would like this to be the case, I am skeptical. I have a feeling that I wouldn't have had enough time to be the academic superstar I valued far more than any success in sports. In college, as a non-athlete, I genuinely enjoyed most of my classes. The athletes with whom I had classes in college had to travel regularly, leaving no choice but to painstakingly carve out time to complete classwork. I'm sure graduate assistants would have been glad to assist me, but I wonder if I'd really have the time to absorb everything. College is difficult, even for smart, motivated people.

Saturdays in the fall will always hold a fond place in my heart. With new technology, I can, from the comfort of my sofa, view twenty games at once when before one had to make do with only two or three. The experience of playing football was not a total loss. I learned what it is like to push one's body to the absolute breaking point and somehow manage to survive. I hope keeping myself in tip top shape will add a few years to my life.

People always talk about how the game builds teamwork, and that may be true for some, but never was the case for me. I never had to be reminded to do my job, hold my block, remember my assignment, and work in tandem with others. That's how I've chosen to live my life and how I was taught by my parents.

Nowadays, I can wax nostalgically if I wish and maybe tell a good story or two. But in fairness, that's about the extent of my enthusiasm for old times. Even though I think the concept of a scholar-athlete is a joke, regardless of sport, I do have a sympathy for the players on the field. It's hard work. Being the entertainment and self-esteem agent for a particular school, state, conference, and region is a real pressure-cooker. I probably should be more understanding when young men usually between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two fall short and make bad decisions, though they know what they are in for the moment they sign to a team.

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