Nothing scared me more than playing tackle football in high school. My freshman year in the first week of practice, they put me on the junior varsity playing tight end. There were blocking rules I was supposed to follow: gap, down, backer. "What"? I wondered. The sophomores on the team were intimidating the freshman, especially ones like me who might take one of their positions. I was big for my age and pretty athletic.
Coming to the line of scrimmage, defenders were screaming signals. The head coach was yelling at all of us. I had no idea what I was supposed to do on the play: Gap, down, backer? "What"? Is this is a game we were playing? Whatever we were doing, it wasn't fun and my God was it boiling hot, over 95 degrees in the Washington, D.C., sauna. None of what we were doing came close to being fun or even moderately interesting. Just fear, intimidation, dirt, confusion, head games, and blocking schemes that made no sense.
The coaches yelled. This felt like boot camp, like nothing I had encountered in my life to that point and ever since. Seeing who was tough the first week, who was soft, who was a true football player versus a pretender--this was the gig. Pinpointing who couldn't take the abuse and mental torture was the game. For five straight awful days this went on. All the sophomores had played the year before and knew each other, so they were friends, a Band of Brothers. None of the freshman knew each other, and we were the chumps, the punks, the ones to be abused and talked down to. We would have to earn their respect.
Play after play, I would run to the line of scrimmage not knowing what was going on. In my whole life I had never blocked in football. Until then I had played wide receiver or quarterback. I was a skill position player. Now I wasn't touching the ball.
Gap down backer. To this day those words haunt me. Oh and by the way, these nightmares went on twice a day, two a days. It wasn't enough to be tormented just once a day in the morning. You came back in the afternoon for more. After a few days I dreaded coming back. Everything about it blew. Dirty, sweaty drinking water out of one Gatorade barrell. Nasty.
After the first week I decided I was not going to play anymore. If this is what football was going to be in high school, I would not do it. I couldn't get my head around the long view, that in a few weeks summer practices would be over and some reasonable approach to football practices would maybe start, because at least we would have school to eat up some of the days' hours. But my short term agonizing view crushed my spirit. I quit. I knew I was going to play basketball and baseball in high school so my athletic career still had promise.
When school started, I caught some snide remarks from some of the guys who had stuck it out. It made me feel like a wimp. I had been a wimp. But it just wasn't fun at all. Quitting was a selfish and embarrassing decision at the time and remains something I don't often like to reveal.
The next August my world cracked into a thousand pieces. Childhood was officially gone forever. My friend and baseball teammate died in a car accident on August 18, 1978. He was drunk. This shook me to my core. My friend, dead, forever. The thought even now seems untrue. I thought about how he would never get to play football again. So I decided while at his funeral--in hindsight irrationally--to go out for the football team again. I thought I was doing it for him, maybe for fear that I might die without trying to play football again. I don't really know for sure why I decided to try to play again. It still seems crazy. In hindsight, it was.
Summer practices had already been going on a week. So I was late. They put me on the varsity. They gave me a shot as the starting tight end in a scrimmage against another team. Again those haunting three words ripped my mind apart: gap, down, backer. I didn't know what they meant and still don't. I also didn't like to hit people. It scared me, the contact. I didn't want to get hurt or hurt anyone else. I never learned how to like hitting people in football. I had never been in a fight, never punched anyone or even had a wrestling fight.
So on the first two offensive possessions I didn't know who to block or how and just ran a few steps ahead, touched some guys lightly. The coach who had encouraged me to try out, having seen my size and heard I was athletic, gave up on me right then, that day. He didn't say so, but it later became obvious when he put in another guy at tight end. I caught a touchdown pass but it didn't matter if I couldn't understand gap, down backer and didn't like to fire off the ball and hit people. That's what he needed and I couldn't deliver for him.
One junior linebacker on the team scared me. Having lifted weights all summer long while I hadn't, and having a bias against light-hitting basketball players, he made it a point to tell me he knew I was a basketball player and implied he knew I was afraid to play football. He didn't like me even though I had never done anything to him. In a drill one day in which he and I popped each other in the right shoulder pads, I have never been more scared. He rammed his thunderous shoulder into me with such force. I believed he wanted to hurt me, and he probably did. I didn't want to hurt him. I just wanted the drill to be over.
During another drill, the linemen, including me, crouched into their stances about two yards from the goal-posts. The scary, diabolical offensive coach, who kept yelling all the time, strung a piece of rope around each goal post poll. The string hung about two feet off the ground. "You better get underneath that rope or you will get caught in the rope and it will burn your necks," he said. In football, leverage is huge; the player who gets the lowest upon contact tends to win.
Just imagine: It's 95 degrees in August in Washington, D.C. You're out in a grassy field. No one is around the school campus; they're all at the beach or whatever but surely not outside in that furnace. Some middle aged coach is intimidating you trying to psyche you out, demanding you get super low or rip a rope across your neck. "Fire off the ball," he kept yelling. I hated that guy. I wish he hadn't flattered me earlier in the summer, while I was at basketball camp, by saying I could be a tight end of the team if I would just try out. He was learning I was a wimp, not a football player. This disappointed him.
I remained on the team the rest of the season watching eleven games on the sideline. I had never been a benchwarmer until then in any sport. While standing there doing nothing all suited up in pads, I thought: "You mean I'm really not good enough to be on the field? These coaches really didn't think I would help them win as much as the guys they had playing ahead of me? Yes, indeed, that was the case. I was a scrub. Nobody cared. And I hated football.
All these fond memories came back to me as I read an article "Football Is Dead, Long Live Football," by J.R. Moehringer in ESPN the Magazine (August 28, 2012).
You will not read anywhere, and you have not read in the past, and you will not read for a long time in the future, a more thought-provoking article about football than this one. All that is good about football, all that is wrong about it, all that is hypocritical about it, all that is compelling about it, all of everything that is important about football now, in the past, and in the future, is covered remarkably well in this article.
As I noted, I didn't like playing tackle football. But I like to watch other people play it. I like the hitting, the essence of the game. The author explores why Americans love the hitting and always have and always will.
Football is wrong in so many ways when you think about it. It hurts people, shortens their lives, shakes their brains. It's crazy. Yet how many of you are fired up to watch the NFL games that begin next week? I am.
I love sports but there is only one team I really care about, one that I have troubling mood swings about, one that cuts to the core of where I'm from and what I'm all about. It's a football team, the Washington Redskins. Although I love basketball, baseball, swimming and many other sports, nothing gets me more emotional than when my Redskins win or lose, and nothing has broken more personal relationships than New York Giant fans I used to be friends with. This isn't mature behavior nor rational. Yet it's so deep in my psyche I can't control it.
In his article, Moehringer admits he loves football as do so many Americans from all walks of life. Women can't get enough of it. Kids, grandparents, just about everyone. On Sundays, we stop and bow to the religion of football. When the rest of the world watched the Super Bowl last year, I went to my office and worked for five hours until the nightmare ended. I couldn't watch the Giants play, let alone win. My eyes burn just seeing them on TV. Watching them win a Super Bowl would have been way too much for me. So I avoided the entire scene. I don't act this intensely about anything else in life.
What is it about football?
It's the hitting, two human beings smacking into each other. We love to watch that. But it's not a great thing. It's a bad thing.