Summer 2011 /Birth & Death/

How I Became a Football Hero for One Day

I joined the frosh football team by accident. The day of the first team meeting, a group of jocks stopped by my room to pick up my roommate, a standout on his high school team. I looked up from my book as they came in, then retreated back to the pages. At the door, the group paused.

“Well, aren’t you coming?”

Since I was the only one left in the room, I deduced that this was directed at me. Obviously they didn’t know my history—the perennial klutz, the kid who had failed kickball in elementary school, who was always chosen last if at all—but who was I to enlighten them? This was a ticket to guydom; there was no way I was going to miss out. I got up and went.

The team was filled with tough-looking athletic types, warriors all. Some of the guys looked like they needed to shave twice a day. Working out in the weight room, they would load up the bar with gigantic steel platters, muscles bulging, veins standing out like swollen fire hoses.

In the midst of all this jockery, I was a cross between a pipecleaner man and Gumby. I tried manfully to do my part, but everything had to be scaled down. What they used for wrist curls challenged me for bicep curls. On the field I resembled, as one teammate so elegantly put it, “a giant daddy longlegs spider running around.”

Game day! Second half. Our lads are defending a narrow lead, the other team has the ball and they’re driving hard. I’m on the bench, right where I’ve been the entire season. An incomplete pass has left the opponents with third and long. Our defensive end, making a herculean effort to break up the play, has injured himself. Out he comes, one arm dangling loosely, face contorted with pain. The coach has no choice. He looks at me with a mix of desperation and distaste.

“Get in there, Rearwin. Don’t get fancy, just make sure they don’t run outside.”

He foregoes the usual pat on the back or ass given to the more stalwart backups. Probably doesn’t want to get spider juice on his hand.

I line up at right end, near the sideline. The count, the snap. Sure enough, the opponents recognize a weak spot on the defensive line and the play heads right toward me. The ball carrier, a tough, conditioned mass of bone and sinew, strides confidently and begins to turn the corner.

He’s protected by what seems like an entire regiment of blockers. Snorting like war-horses, heads scanning left and right looking for someone to hit, they gallop in my direction amid the pounding of cleated feet and the leathery clatter of pads.

And suddenly it dawns on me—I’m so hopeless-looking that I’m being ignored! The first blockers sweep by me. I can smell the mix of liniment and aftershave and a hint of forbidden tobacco as they churn past. Between them and the next blocker is a gap, and in the gap is the runner, eyes downfield. In his mind, he’s past me.

Instinct kicks in—a mutation of the instinct that allowed tiny proto-mammals to survive in the age of dinosaurs. I execute a clumsy leap, landing on the ball carrier and wrapping around him like a squid on a sperm whale. It’s a desperation grab: eyes closed, teeth clenched, face squinched up in anticipation of a thrashing. There’s a smack like sides of beef colliding, and my helmet is ripped from my head. In a moment of selective auditory clarity, all other sounds disappear while I listen to it bouncing hollowly across the dried-up turf.

The whistle blows, the play is over. The magic moment passes and my senses return to their normal settings. I get up, retrieve my helmet, go back to my position. Tackled for no gain—they have to punt.

The coach calls me back to the sideline. “I didn’t know you could do that,” he says, stone-faced.

I don’t remember anything else about the season, probably because I didn’t have much to do with it. I practiced, worked out, showered, sat on the bench. And then it was over, leaving me with a new self-confidence. I had held the line. And there was more: I was part of a group. The football guys were members of a universal fraternity of maleness, and I had been allowed to join. Not as a full member, of course, but as a provisional temporary associate member, junior grade. That didn’t matter. I had nowhere to go but up.