The last weekend of the Football season was usually Thanksgiving, and of course that particular day marked the time for all of my buddies to get together to have a flag football game in celebration of the end of broken digits, bruised chests, and headaches. It was a chance for the big guys (me) to get out and catch the ball, the little guys (Tommy) to show the big guys why we were blocking all season and not running the ball, the lacrosse players (Collin) to come out and make some circus catches and then get tired quickly and need a coke, and the baseball players (Hochberg) to get hurt in some fashion or another. Man, I loved those games.
This year, Heather decided that the school we teach at needed a little more pep. She organized a tournament where teams of students played each other and the teacher team in an attempt to achieve ultimate glory.
That evening, I got home and checked out my notebook. Most of the time I only keep a notebook while on adventures as a way of remembering all of the cool events that I want to share, but I specifically remembered doing a lot of writing at the end of my football career, when the sport was really conflicting me. It was really cool to go back through some of that stuff, and I guess after a few years I can share my a few glimpses into my thoughts on the sport and my experience playing it.
I hung up the pads today. Football has been good to me. It has been that extra factor that has gotten me to where I am. But you can’t rely on it forever. Life isn’t football, and football isn’t life. A lot of people lose perspective on that and end up not knowing what they want to do when the journey suddenly ends. There are a lot of things that I want to do with and in my life, and today I will start pursuing those things. For when I read this in the future: remember that statement. If you haven’t yet, do those things. Hike Hadrian’s Wall with Garrett. Paddle Maine’s islands. Ride across the U.S. Write. Learn. Listen. Continue to challenge yourself; get out of the comfort zone.
Football. What can you say about it? It’s a game best enjoyed from the stands with a cold beer and friends. But truly, football is like a rose. It’s a beautiful game that will teach you about life, and it is totally glorified and fun to look at. But the thorns will also get you, and they will leave you with blood running down your skin. Deal with it.
Whenever I stepped on that field, I always thought of Ivory Christian. I hated the game. I wanted it to leave me alone. Yet, I kept doing it. And, when I strapped up for gameday, the Devil emerged. The mean streak was on; rage in my heart.
Today, I leave with nothing but a bag of memories and lessons to carry with me in life (and a couple of stolen t-shirts). And I couldn’t imagine a grander ending. I walked into the bright sunshine and blooming flowers on this beautiful spring morning and I cried with a smile on my face for the memories and the guys who put their hand down in the dirt next to mine. And then it was gone.
Even now, only an hour or two later, I can’t cry for it anymore. I am running into the next phase of my life, with a beautiful future ahead. May I have strength and endurance in my journeys.
We all know the situation. We practice it every day. Two minutes left on the clock, down by three. Coach’s face is bright red as he yells at our huddle, probably poorly communicating some undeveloped thought about toughness from his one-track mind. I really could care less, I can’t even hear him at this point, though I can feel drops of his spit flying onto my facemask. Just a few days ago, he told us just how he felt about us playing football for him – “I don’t give a fuck about any of you. I don’t care who you are or where you have come from, all I give a fuck about is you getting that win for me.” Inspiring words, Coach. The only thing that matters right now is winning, but Coach has nothing to do with it as far as we are concerned, and it isn’t until Joe steps into the huddle that everything snaps into clarity. We have to score.
“4 down; 4-3” Jack, our center, yells.
“Mike 52, Mike 52” Joe starts to yell, “Blue 9800, down … set… hike! hike hike! hike!”
No one budges. Joe steps back and yells out “Red Mouse 5, down… set… hike!”
The line explodes into action as the ball is snapped. I take a quick drop step to my right and put my facemask right into the defensive tackles neck, and I can feel his body give way from the blow. He begins to go down, so I make sure to keep my facemask where it is as he goes down. As the back of his helmet slams the turf, I again slam my facemask into his, aiming for the neck, hoping he doesn’t get up.
We sprang the quick hitting trap play for a big gain like it seems that we often do, but the clock is still running. I get up and sprint to the line. Unfortunately the defensive tackle does also. Everyone is screaming “Daytona, Daytona!” and as we are arriving at the line Joe is screaming “MIKE 44, RED 6700, RED 6700.” At the same time as several of my offensive lineman are also screaming “4 down, MIKE IS COMING,” “7 SHADE IS SQUEEZED, E-T TWIST,” “FOX IS DOWN, MIDDLE PLUG-X, SORT FOR MI–” The line explodes again as the ball is snapped. The mike linebacker coming on the middle plug-x isn’t my concern, but the twist does come and I redirect and stick my facemask into the end’s. This time, he gets the best of me and the shock of the collision reverberates through my helmet and obscures my vision for a short period, but he doesn’t make it to Joe. I suddenly see someone running with the ball towards us. It’s the other teams defensive back. I ditch my end with a quick rip and gain a full head of steam. An outside backer is lead blocking for the corner that made the pick, so I don’t have much chance to get a good hard tackle on the corner. Plus, the game is over, and it will be more fun to just have a head on collision with this backer and fuck him up. So that’s what I do. It is one of those good collisions – I don’t even feel like I have hit him, yet his limp form is about to complete an entire backflip. I don’t get to see the end of it because I end up on my belly from the collision, and I realize that my right arm is burning and has again lost feeling from the stingers that I repeatedly get upon collisions.
But it doesn’t matter now. All that’s left to do now is get chewed out by Coach because we didn’t try hard enough, and we didn’t listen to him. Because we would have won if we had listened.
When a lot of guys end their playing careers, its a very emotional moment. There can be lots of crying and thinking about how they will never feel that rush again, that knotted stomach before a game as they go over plays in their head, that moment when the stomach unknots and all that fear turns to anger that swells, making them want to injure anyone in a different colored jersey by any means possible, as long as they don't get caught. And finally, that temporary high after a game, before the swelling and the headaches set in, that moment after a win when they just feel so alive.
I took a different path. When I hung up the pads and walked away from the fresh cut grass and dried dirt soaked in my own sweat, blood, and vomit, I had a smile on my face. It was time to be done, and I had and still have things to do before I (get old? Lose function in my knees?). Lots of them. First on the list was get out of the comfort zone and go to new places in the world to learn from new people about different sides of life. I bought a bike to do it.
I took a job working in a new place over the summer, Woods Hole, Cape Cod, and I got a lot of traveling by bike in. All over Massachussetts. I fell in love with my steel frame Surly touring bike. The next summer I cut the frame in half and put steel couplers in it so that I could fit it in a suitcase and travel with it without any detriment to the function of the frame, and I took it to Alaska with me and rode across the state. But that’s not what I am here to tell you about. I am here to tell you about athletics. And during the school year I can’t travel with my bike. So I decided to race it.
My bike is a steel frame touring bike - probably the last choice of bike for any cyclist to complete a criterium with. For that matter, probably the last choice for a time trial, too, and a hilly road race! The frame is too heavy, the wheelbase is too long, the bottom bracket too low, the tan finish and leather seat are certainly too ugly.
When I clipped in for my first race on a slick New York city street in the middle of monsoon-like conditions that foreboded the disasters ahead for an offensive lineman trying to race bikes, my pedals rang like a church bell on Sunday morning. The stiff frame responded to my lightest motion and the unsightly tan frame shone gold.
With the shot of a gun we were off… cautiously. Drops of water sprayed in everyone’s eyes, and I tried to settle into a good position about three riders back. At that point in time, I didn’t know about picking and catching breaks, prime laps, or even what a peloton was; I just knew I wanted to ride my bike fast, but that if I stayed behind a few folks I would conserve energy by letting them break the wind for me. For a half hour we went around the track. Near the end of the race the bell rang – I thought it was the last lap. So, after rounding the last soaked sharp corner, I took off. Behind me I heard a Darthmouth rider tell one of his teammates “don’t go for him – it’s not worth it,” which of course seemed strange to me with the race on the line, but I sprinted on and crossed the finish line first. Well, that was my introduction to the prime lap – a lap in which the winner gets prizes or points that, in comparison to winning the race, add up to a fairly insignificant amount.
Well, needless to say, the race wasn’t over. As I began slowing down after the finish line, other racers zoomed past me. Surprised, I worked to catch back onto the lead group. Coming around the last corner of the true last lap, I was exhausted! I took fifth.
Over the years, I kept racing, getting more and more interested in the techniques and challenge of the sport. I moved up categories; learned about the Peloton, breaks, and more than I wanted to know about external bottom brackets and the physics of radially-spoked wheels; split my face open in a crit crash and had it sowed back together; tried an fell in love with cyclocross racing; had my good races; my bad races; and – eventually – my wins.
I made great friends with my cycling teammates, and we went to races any way we could, and stayed on just about any floor that would let us crash for the night. When we went to race in Philly we stayed with my brother at UPenn. We had driven a great old blue van with window shades, and as Garrett walked past trying to locate us to let us into his place, we stuck our heads out one of the windows and said “hey kid, you want some candy?”
And through it all, the most refreshing part was that I cycled for fun. I often say that the most fun I had racing was at cyclocross race in which I crashed six times and came in second-to-last. It was a blast! Quite the opposite end of the spectrum from football: people don’t know you are on the cycling team – people don’t know there is a cycling team! For me, there is nothing more refreshing.
I guess the old adage is true: you get another hand soon after you fold. Make the best of it, and enjoy it.