The challenge of excelling at what doesn’t come naturally.
I have always gone against my own grain. In high school, I aced math and rarely exceeded a B in English. With an aptitude for numbers, I could have slid into a good life as an accountant (a profession later experience taught me to respect). Instead, I majored in English education and journalism in college and struggled to become a writer. This contrarian inclination has made my life hard but also interesting.
I first learned just how interesting it could be in 1971, my eighth grade year in junior high. To my father’s great disappointment, I seemed to have inherited my mother’s lack of athletic ability. I couldn’t catch, I couldn’t throw and I ran funny. So of course I played football. Not for my school, which didn’t have a team, but for the Throgs Neck Steelers, a freshman division team in the Bronx Umpires Association. An unaffiliated league, the BUA ran divisions up to semi-pro, their freshman division teams ranging in age from thirteen to fifteen but with no weight limit.
Having turned thirteen a month before the season started, I just qualified. And I found the perfect position for a non-athlete: center of the offensive line, the hiker, the guy with the undignified job of passing the ball back between his legs to the quarterback. At 115 pounds, I came in a little light for a center — usually burly fellows — but no one else wanted the position.
Our first game of the season took place at our “home” field, Pelham Bay Park’s Rice Stadium in the northeast Bronx. We were up against the Angels, undefeated BUA freshmen division champs the year before. The old concrete bleachers stood empty that Sunday morning except for the huge classical style statue of a semi-naked athlete called “American Boy.” There in his sanctuary high atop the bleachers’ last row since 1932, he had watched generations of American boys and girls take the field to compete, often against themselves. The pedestal plaque beneath his bare feet said he was dedicated to “the proper spirit of play” and “a healthy clean mind in a strong clean body.”
Sitting on the wet grass while Coach taped up my ankles, I watched our opponents assemble across the field to warm up: six rows across and six men deep. And they were huge! Their voices sounded low and gruff like grown men as they barked out their jumping jack counts in unison. These guys were freshmen? My stomach fluttered, but I dared not say a word.
Our team won the coin toss — the only thing we would win that Sunday — and so our offensive unit got to take the field first. As center, my nemesis on the defensive unit was the middle guard; my first duty was to hike the ball to the quarterback — a move called the snap. After that, I had to block the middle guard from getting to the quarterback. Stepping up to the scrimmage line on our first play, I found myself facing Goliath. This “kid” stood half a head taller than me, weighed at least 200 pounds to my 115, and he had a beard! Oh boy.
I took my stance and grasped the ball. With Goliath looming over me, my hands felt too small for the bulbous leather ovoid. Fearing I’d bobble the snap, I tightened my grip until my fingers went numb. Our quarterback called the signals. Somehow, I got the ball back and stood up to block. WHAM! Goliath slammed into me full force, all 200 pounds of him.
I suppose he went on to clobber our quarterback. I never knew. All I saw was a flash of white light, then found myself lying flat on my back. Cloudless blue sky above, “American Boy” watching in the distance, I caught my breath and blinked away tears. I had never felt pain like that in my life, and I didn’t want to feel it again. I wanted to leave. Just get up and go home.
But shame overrode fear. So instead, I got up and joined the huddle, making sure to avoid my teammates’ eyes lest they see the terror and moisture in mine. Our quarterback called another pass play, and we dutifully trudged back to the scrimmage line. As I clutched the ball, Goliath and I nose to nose again, what Coach kept trying to tell me finally sunk in: when they go high, you go low. Each time he gave this instruction, his hand would make a slicing motion across his ankle.
Signals called. Ball snapped. I back-pedaled a few steps and, as expected, Goliath charged. At precisely the right moment, I dropped to the ground. My padded shoulders caught his ankles and took his legs out from under him, his one cleat clanging against my helmet as he lifted off. The force tumbled me over. On my back again, I watched a 200 pound giant sail over me, as if in slow motion, the sky above clear and blue. How wonderfully surprising that something so big could fly. Then he landed hard. Very hard.
The Steelers lost the game — we lost all but one game that season — but Goliath never charged again that morning, or the next two times the Angels beat us. By the season’s end, I had learned playing football was a mind game, not so much unlike math. I went on to play first string center on a new team, the Pelham Spartans, which won BUA championships three years in a row. I never did learn to throw or catch. And to this day, I still run funny.