Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Back in the Day

Good or bad, there are days that change your life forever. I want to talk about one of the bad ones. We’ve all got a handful of them that we keep buried deep inside our pockets. Nobody sees them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still feel them there resting against our bodies.

One of mine was an October Tuesday on a football field outside Philadelphia back in 1988.

People look at me and assume I was a good football player, simply because of my size. I wasn’t. I played at 5’11” and 160 pounds. But it wasn’t the lack of size that didn’t make me a good football player. It was the lack of consciousness mostly.

Being smaller than other players means you have to hit harder to make an impact on the field. It comes with a risk, though. While you’re trying to knock someone silly, a lot of times you knock yourself silly. It’s part of the game. Unfortunately, I didn’t like throwing up every other night because I was still seeing stars from that day’s practice. I didn’t like being unable to concentrate. I didn’t like “losing time” out on the field, unable to remember a series of plays. I could never get used to it. So, if I could bring a guy down without knocking myself for a loop, I tried to do it.

People noticed.

Don’t get me wrong, I could unleash a mammoth hit with the best of them. Of course, I could only do it 2–3 times per game before the blackouts started and nausea kicked in later. So, I tried to pick and choose my spots.

During a Saturday game, The Hun School had different ideas.

I was playing strong safety at the time, lined up over the tight end. I still remember their formation. Slot left wide. I remember our right defensive end Dave bit hard on the fake dive by the fullback. I remember that our right linebacker Shaughnessy was blocked way too easily by the tight end and didn’t even fight it. I remember the right cornerback Nate got engaged with the slot receiver. But, mostly I remember seeing their 240-pound halfback taking the option pitch and running untouched towards the outside.

It’s just simple physics, really. 160-pound me running full speed at a 240-pound guy is probably going to lose. You can factor in things like technique and desire, but in the end physics usually wins.

It did.

I tried to pop his hips and knock him off balance. As I neared him, I broke down and launched my right shoulder into his hips, hoping for the best. It never came. He slowed maybe half a step and kept running as if I had never even been there. I remember trying to hold on and feeling my arms slide down a thigh that was almost as big around as my waist.. It wasn’t for another second or two that I heard the whistle and looked up to see the referee spotting the ball after a nearly 20-yard gain.

I don’t remember much more from the game after that. I know that we lost, though. When a team’s starting halfback is bigger and stronger than anyone on your entire team, that tends to happen. I do remember the film session, though the next Monday.

The above play happened in the third quarter. By the time we got to that play in film session, we’d seen their halfback run over just about everyone on the field multiple times. I don’t know why, but Coach Davis stopped the film after that play and called me out in front of my teammates and friends.

“Donkey,” he said. “Why’d you hit him like such a pussy?”

He rewound the film. “Look, you had a clean shot at him. But instead, you wussed out.”

He rewound it again. “You could have at least held him up, couldn’t you?” he asked as everyone watched my feeble attempt at holding onto his leg.

He rewound it again. “Everyone. This is how NOT to tackle a guy. Remember this.”

I did.

We ran a lot that practice. No contact on Mondays after watching film. Instead we did up-downs, hill climbs, over-back/over-backs until we were exhausted. The whole practice I got more and more angry. Why me? Why call me out when the same thing happened to our entire team?

I took that anger with me and held it in my hands the rest of the day. I heard Coach’s voice all night as I studied. I don’t remember a single thing from any of my classes Tuesday, but I remember practice. I remember it.

Coach moved me to cornerback that day. I guess he figured it was because I wasn’t a big enough hitter to play safety. In hindsight, he was right, but I didn’t want to admit it to him that day. So, I played with a reckless abandon. I remember frustrating our regular WR to no end by locking him up on every play so he couldn’t get off the line and run his patterns. I remember going after our running back and chasing him down like he was standing still. I remember the feeling of adrenaline.

Then the freshmen and sophomores came in to run the scout team. I lined up opposite a freshman WR named Brandon. He was about 5’9” and 140 pounds at the time. He had no speed, no quickness, no hands, no talent, and no clue about what I was about to do.

The hitch pass to him was a little high and a little slow. Not high enough that he had to jump, but high enough that he was completely prone. Not slow enough to pick off, but slow enough for me to get a full head of steam going. There are few things that a cornerback likes to see more than a completely exposed WR. So, I did what I was supposed to do.

I destroyed him.

I was a high-speed cruise missile. I was a wrecking crew. I was the Angel of Death disguised as a defensive back. I swear as God as my witness, I never unleashed this kind of fury in my life before.

Time slowed. It always does with stuff like this. The hit was loud. Gunshot loud. I felt his breath knocked completely out of him. I could see his body go completely limp before he hit the ground. The ball rolled harmlessly towards the sidelines where it tottered and came to a rest pointed at me.

For those of you who played football, you know what the perfect hit feels like. You get this instant feeling of giddiness that won’t subside. It’s orgasmic. Your body shakes incessantly and try as you might, you can’t get the grin off of your face.

Until you look down and see that he’s not moving. Heck, you’re not even sure if he’s breathing. Before you know it, the entire coaching and training staff is assembled around him. There’s a part of you that feels sick. There’s a part of you that wants to cry. But you can’t get that damned grin off your face.

Look, I know I wasn’t wrong for anything I did. Football is a contact sport. Going into it thinking you won’t get hit is ludicrous. It’s just that for once I had done everything right and I still felt like the worst person in the world. I saw what I was capable of doing and it scared the shit out of me.

Coach Thomas came and put his arm around me. “That was a hell of a hit, Donkey.”

“Yeah.” I muttered and walked away.

That was it. I paced by myself. Suddenly, Brandon’s eyes opened. He looked around and wiggled all his extremities. Nothing broken. Nothing torn. Just knocked unconscious. Eventually, he rolled over and threw up. Practice was over. No wind sprints. No hill climbs. Just shower and call it a day.

I didn’t feel right after that. I had a dull ache in my stomach that didn’t go away for months.

Then it got worse.

Thursday morning, the ambulances came to school. A student had fallen to the ground outside the student lounge and gone into a seizure. No one had to tell me who it was. I already knew.

I started to clean out my locker that day, thinking about what I was going to tell Coach besides, “I quit.” I mean, how do you keep playing after you do something like that to a kid? I’d hit opponents in games before and taken them out. Heck, I’d been knocked out of games before. This was different. This was a teammate. He wasn’t a friend or even an acquaintance, but he was still a teammate. You don’t do that to a teammate. You don't hit someone so hard that he eventually goes into seizures.

The guys came into the locker room before practice and saw me there. It was epilepsy, they said. Ran in his family. The hit had nothing to do with it.

So I didn’t quit. I played the rest of the year, but I didn’t like it that much. I didn’t like myself too much for a while, either. I couldn’t bring myself to really unload on anyone in a game again.

When I was a kid, I skipped a grade. I was always the smallest guy in class until puberty kicked in. I got picked on, bullied, and teased from first grade through junior year in high school. I always wished I was tougher, so people would leave me alone. All my life, I wanted to be tough. That year, senior year, was my year to be tough. Only, the strange thing is, it didn’t suit me. I wasn’t the hard-ass football guy. I was just a regular kid who wanted to have fun on the football field. That hit showed me everything I needed to know about myself.

My senior year in college, I went back for homecoming and ended up at a party where Brandon was. I walked in the door and before I could say anything, he looked at me and said, “You hit me so hard.” It had been four years and he was still thinking about it. It’s been 19 years and I’m still thinking about it. I’m sure if I were to run into him again on the streets, it would be the first thing he said to me.

So, why am I writing about this? I don’t know. It’s a Tuesday. It’s October. And there’s still a little part of me that feels sick about all this.

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