|LIFE AS A LOSER #133: "FROZEN TUNDRA."|
|By Will Leitch|
I got the bright idea to try out for my high school football team sometime in July 1990. Save for occasional backyard tussles with fellow kitten-armed pre-pubescents after grade school, I had never played football before. Iíd never worn shoulder pads or a helmet, and to me, a mouthpiece was something you wore to apply the polish to your teeth after a cleaning.
The main reason to play football, to my 14-year-old mind, was to get in shape for baseball tryouts, which would be in the spring. Baseball was the only sport Iíd ever played, and it had been a dream of mine to star for the high school team as the scrappy, spunky catcher. (Ultimately I would be known as the scrawny, lumpy third-string catcher/scorekeeper, but I was entering my freshman year and was still allowed to dream big.) But I felt like I might need to add some muscle. I was right. I bet I weighed about 105 pounds.
Something about being a football player appealed to me. Just the uniform was compelling. It was like wearing catcherís gear, all the time. And real men played football. I imagined it was like football on television, caked in mud or snow, and blood, and sweat, and pain. It was a brotherhood of men, and this was a time of life where I was eager to be considered a man. After all, Iíd be driving in two years.
My mother was not pleased. She made me promise I would not "get yourself paralyzed." Also, she had just started her career as a nurse and was none-too-eager to start carting my bruised carcass back and forth to two-a-day practices. I made her a deal. We lived about 15 miles from the high school, so Dad would pack my bicycle in the back seat of his work truck and drive me in for the 8 a.m. practice. Iíd head to my godfatherís house, just by the high school, at 11 a.m., have lunch, douse myself in ice, then head back at 2 p.m., practice for two more hours, then ride my bike the 15 miles home afterwards. This seemed like a perfectly logical plan at the time.
I showed up for my first practice to the shock of my former junior high classmates. I was not the type of guy who played football. I was in all the smart classes, played scholastic bowl, and recited baseball statistics. I had never played youth-league football, like everyone else, nor had I attended any of the football camps. I showed up with a backpack, a water bottle, and a bunch of baseball cards, wearing an Ozzie Smith T-shirt and a pair of shorts with a zipper. I introduced myself to Coach Lockhart, who was moonlighting to keep himself interested before basketball season started. (He was the varsity head coach.) He asked me what position I wanted to play. I had no idea. I hadnít thought about that.
"I donít know. Wide receiver, maybe?"
He looked at my tiny bones and non-existent deltoids. "Can you kick?"
I could not. But we were off. Before we started learning plays, it was time to run. Sprints. Many, many sprints. My first lesson of my first football practice: Football practice makes you, and all those around you, vomit. I think half the team left half their innards on the sidelines that day. We ran until our hair fell out; we ran until our pores bled. We ran for three straight hours, then Lockhart blew his whistle and said, "OK, thatís it. Iíll see you all in three hours. 2 p.m. Donít be late." I then crawled to my bike and found I could not lift it.
Somehow, I survived, and even made it to the third day of two-a-days. We were assigned pads. One of the key pieces of football equipment is the pants pads Ė I am sure there is a real name for them, but I cannot remember it; I was tackled a lot and have many fewer brain cells as a result. I looked at them like it was a chicken with four beaks. I couldnít even imagine how to put them on. I discovered one pad that was in the shape of a protective cup. I took this as my cue as to how to put them on. It was uncomfortable, but since when is wearing football equipment comfortable? I waddled onto the field. Coach Lockhart noticed me immediately.
"Jesus, Leitch. What in the hell are you doing?"
"Playing football, sir!"
"Your goddamn pads are on backwards. Christ. Look at you. Youíve got your ass pad over your wiener. What happens when you get knocked on your ass? Youíre gonna break in half, kid."
He then made me change right there on the practice field. I suppose I deserved that.
I somehow survived the brutal three weeks of practice and excruciating bike rides home. I even found a position: fourth-string strong safety. This was notable not only because I was the weakest strong safety since the inception of the pigskin, but also because we only had enough players for two strings. School started, and our team won its first four games. I played in none of them.
Meanwhile, I was acing all my classes. I liked high school. All you really had to do was turn your assignments in on time and not openly mock the teachers, and youíd get Aís. There was one important exception: biology. Mrs. Gaseour was in her mid-30s and had just started at MHS. We had to do a bug collection. I have never been able to stand bugs, and when they assigned us to capture a wasp, which is as unfair a class assignment as I can imagine Ė it was as if Mrs. Gaseour did not know they had stingers Ė I became a conscientious objector. I would not be going after a wasp. I was in enough pain from football as it was.
We had a game scheduled against Effingham, about 20 miles away. We jumped out to a huge lead, and when the fourth quarter came around, all the scrubs were playing. Finally, when even the scrubs were tired, Lockhart turned to me. "Leitch, get in there. And do try to stay out of the real playersí way."
I was assigned to the tight end. The Effingham quarterback must have noticed immediately how scrawny I was, because he threw it to the tight end immediately. There he was. He was coming toward me. What now? I hadnít tackled anyone who wasnít a blood relative before. What to do? On instinct, I ran toward him and POP! I just drilled him. He went down in a flash. The trainer came on the field. I had knocked the wind out of him. I jumped up, stunned. I didnít even know how to celebrate.
Lockhart called me off the field, "Christ, son, one HELL of a hit! You taking steroids or something?"
The next Mondayís practice, I was fired up and ready to go. I hit the blocking sleds extra hard, and Lockhart took special notice of me. He even promoted me to second string. I was breaking through. Screw baseball. Who needed baseball? I was Dick Butkus.
I rode my bike home after practice. My mother was waiting for me, with that look that parents give when theyíre silently reminding themselves that murdering their children is illegal and would likely cause them some trouble down the road.
"I got a letter from the school today. Youíre getting a D in biology." The bugs. The wasp. Fuck Mrs. Gaseour. "Itís that football. Youíre spending too much time playing football. Youíre off the team until your grades get up."
I didnít dare argue. After all, Iíd just rode my bike 15 miles and could barely breathe.
I turned in my pads to Lockhart the next day. He shook his head and sighed. "You were getting better, Leitch. I thought you were smart. How are you getting a D in anything?" I had not the nerve to tell him about the wasp. Iím not sure he would have understood.
I ended up acing biology once we no longer had to capture hostile insects, and when baseball came around, I, out of shape already, was cut from the team. I never played football again. I do like to wear the butt pad from time to time, however.