Friday Night Lights

The year was 1963 and I was graduating from junior high school.  The childhood years of elementary school were three years in my past and the almost adult years of high school were stretching forward into my future.  Coming into junior high school I sought to establish myself in a hybrid identity, part “Rebel Without A Cause” and part beatnik, but by the time that I completed the ninth grade I had completely jettisoned the juvenile delinquent model and placed the beatnik on hold, opting instead to fancy myself as a potential athlete.  Everybody knew that an athlete was automatically COOL, and a letterman’s jacket was a passport to popularity in general and was particularly attractive to the more gentle sex.  In short, being an athlete was the path to everything I wanted and previously had no clue how to get.

At that time I was especially fond of football.  My friend Walt and I had invented a game which we called ‘lawn football,’ which we would play on my postage stamp-sized front lawn.  Walt lived with his mother in an apartment, so my front lawn was all that we had.  We would play on our knees, and would have four tries to go the width of my lawn, or about twenty feet.

Walt and I put body and soul into our games.  The person on offense would pick up the ball, or bag of rags, or whatever we used on any given day, and plunge right, left, or straight ahead.  The defender did whatever he could to prevent an advance from occurring.  Occasionally one would be backed up against the concrete walkway which led from the sidewalk to the front porch, or would be just in front of a root from a pine tree which protruded several inches above the ground near the middle of the lawn.  In these cases the one with walkway or root at their back would dig in with their toes and spring forward, sometimes resulting in significant collisions which resulted in bruised bodies, bloodied lips and loose teeth.  And we laughed hysterically after each such collision.

At other times we would be involved in flag football games at school or at the neighborhood park.  I was fairly adept at catching the ball and was also very good at hiking the ball from the center position in a nice, tight spiral back to a quarterback in a shotgun formation.  The major problem however was that I was incredibly thin, and quite unable to block anybody unless I allowed myself to get knocked over and then tripped the defender as he went by.  This strategy works well on the playground, but unfortunately draws a penalty once one graduates to organized football.

As graduation from the ninth grade approached and I began to make plans for my high school experience, and as my desire to be popular with the cool kids and attractive to the pretty cheerleading set of girls struggled against my hesitant and self-doubting personality, I decided that my love of football was my path to the promised land.  Walt was of the same mind, although the reasons impelling him in that direction may have been a little bit different than my own, and we made a pact before the last day of school that we would try out for the football team at Hoover High School in September, on the other side of summer.

 

My hurdles were great as I took my first steps on this journey.  To begin with, I was skinny as a rail.  At five feet eight or nine inches I weighed about 110 pounds.  I was a terrible eater, and since I had won the food war which marked my early relationship with my father he no longer interfered with my eating or lack thereof, and I hardly ate enough to keep a bird alive.

I understood that this would have to change and I tried to eat liver and some other things that I would not normally touch, but it was of no use.  I hardly ate more that summer than I did at any other time, and my weight barely climbed at all.  I did try protein powder, hoping for a magic bullet that would change me from being a fence rail into a linebacker without having to eat onions, but like most miracle cures it was a complete bust.

I also recognize the need for improved strength, and Walt and I purchased memberships at a seedy gym in downtown San Diego.  We paid the minimum, of course, because that was what we had, and we got what we paid for.  The owner put most of his attention and energy into an African American body builder who was always doing sit-ups with cellophane wrapped around his abdomen, for some unknown reason, and poking with an oddly delicate finger at some muscle or other as he did curls and other exercises, the names of which now escape me.  Walt and I would do an hour or two of bench presses and curls and pulling up weights on pulleys, or sitting on benches and lifting weights with our legs, but there was no real direction forthcoming from the trainer, and at the end of that hour or two I would board the number 7 bus and return to East San Diego not really any stronger that I was when I had left.

A further complication on my journey to popularity and Friday night stardom was my demon of self doubt.  As I wrote earlier, I was pretty good at catching a football.  A wide receiver, however, is a star, and I was not really able to see myself as a star of anything.  Wide receivers are heroes.  Wide receivers make clutch catches and win games.  I never looked at myself in the mirror and saw a star, and it was for that reason that I decided to try out for the seemingly faceless position of offensive guard.

As I wrote earlier, my capabilities of hiking a perfect spiral were negated by the fact that I was too thin and light to block anybody.  Any rational person would instantly recognize that the same limitation would pertain to the any person who would presume to play the position on the offensive line right next to the center.  Unfortunately, that body of rational thinkers did not include Yours Truly.  I saw the position of guard as one in which I would mostly stand in the way of rushing defenders, become just one body in a crowd, and get tangled up in the feet of the opponent in front of me.  The position of guard was, to me, the easiest road to a letterman’s jacket, omitting the difficult work of actually being a star.  I couldn’t have been more wrong in my assessment!

By the end of summer I had gained four or five pounds and had purchased my boots, my mouthpiece, and had been cleared for football by my neighborhood physician, who should probably have been relieved of his license to practice medicine as a result.  The day arrived when we were to begin practice, and I showed up with Walt and a host of other hopefuls of all sizes and shapes who wished to ride the football express to stardom and popularity exactly as I did.

The formalities were quickly dispensed with.  Offense and defense were separated, and the linemen and “skill positions” further separated.  Pads and uniforms were issued, and as I strapped on my shoulder pads and pulled my jersey over them, and then pulled up my pants and laced my boots up tight, I imagined that my artificially broadened shoulders signified muscles which would presently assert themselves on the practice field and then, soon enough, under the Friday night lights.

Practice began with running and pushups and sit-ups, and in that I was fairly comfortable, but soon we graduated to such basic skills as blocking and tackling, and that is where my dreams of glory ran into the grim wall of reality.  Tackling my friend Walt on my front lawn when we were already on our knees was a far cry from grasping a boy larger than myself (nearly all of them were), lifting him up and driving him into the ground.  Most of my efforts proved to be futile, and I could clearly hear what were at first snickers but which grew to be open laughter.  This fueled an anger that had been growing within me much of my young life, and I began to attack with increased vigor, but with no considerable increase in success. My slight frame and my generally reticent nature overruled my shame and anger and sense of exasperation at my futility, and each day the mountain which I would have to climb to even reach the junior varsity squad seemed to grow higher and higher.

The end of my football hopes came one day about two weeks after the beginning of practice.  We were running what the coach called a “28 power sweep”, in which I was to pull out of my position on the left side of the center and cross over to the right side to block for the running back.  I performed this task with my usual absence of technical perfection and was involved in a tangle of bodies where the offense and defense came together at the center point of the play.

The defensive player whom I was called upon to block was easily twice my weight, and as I did so often on the playground field I slowed him up and then flopped in front of him.  Instead of getting tangled up in my feet however, he instead got jostled from another side and rolled over my body like a steamroller from groin to helmet.  The pressure on my abdomen and chest was bad enough, but when he rolled over my helmet I thought that my head would explode like a teenager popping a zit.  My vision dimmed and my thought processes got scrambled, and I lay there for a short while after the play was over as I tried to get a clear idea of what had just run over me.

I managed to pull myself upright and the coach told me to sit on the bench where I could recover my balance.  What I recovered was what little sense I had before I began this foolishness.  As soon as something approaching clarity returned to my thought processes I walked away from the sideline and straight into the gym.  The equipment manager was surprised to see me so early before the end of practice and I didn’t bother to explain my premature presence to him.  I removed my pads and jersey and handed them back to him, threw my new and expensive boots into the trash, got dressed and left the gym without a shower and without a glance over my shoulder.

Following my shot at football glory I returned to the only successful identity that I had ever managed in my life.  The black turtleneck shirt was retrieved from the closet and jazz and poetry were reintroduced into my lifestyle.  Being a beatnik did little to make me a Big Man On Campus and impress the opposite sex, but it came a lot closer to expressing who I felt myself to be and was a good deal more healthy in the bargain.

Time To Go Bowling

As I sit and write this it is now less than 48 hours until the college football bowl season kicks off, and I am as happy as can be.  My joy does not derive from my college teams being in contention for the National Championship.  Neither of my two favorite teams will play in the Rose Bowl, the Sugar Bowl, the Orange or Fiesta Bowls.  Neither are ranked in the top 25, although San Diego State University was last listed at 36, which is not so bad when you consider there are 128 colleges in that division.  Instead, they will play in the New Mexico Bowl and the Hawai’i Bowl.

I have heard several radio personalities in the sports world putting down those bowls as meaningless and something that nobody will watch.  In my humble opinion, those personalities are a little star-struck with the NFL minor league which is the Power 5 conferences and, not to put too fine a point on it, there is a little bootlicking going on there.  These bowls mean as much to the student athletes from New Mexico as they do to the sort-of student athletes of Alabama, and I would like to explain why that is the case.

The hot shot four and five star recruits coming out of the South or Southern California and elsewhere know that they are going to play in bowl games somewhere.  They are highly recruited, already stars and personalities before they are 18 years old.  There is actually little skill involved in finding these players; the only artistry required is in drawing them to play at USC instead of Oregon or LSU.  The requirement of being able to function in a polysyllabic world will keep them from places like Stanford but I will not cry for that school; they are doing all right.

The skill in recruiting athletes comes once the low hanging fruit has been picked.  A good coach will survey the field and find the players who are not yet at their peak.  He or she must choose the quarterback or offensive tackle or wide receiver who is overlooked by Ohio State but will be hitting his stride in his sophomore or junior year.  These players want very much to play in a bowl too, although it is less of an automatic thing for them, and they will consider which mid-major coherence school to play for based in part on what their track record is in getting to a bowl.

That is where the importance of these bowls comes into play.  San Diego State University is going to it’s sixth bowl appearance in a row.  The coach, Rocky Long, can work with his team during the off season to court the obvious future stars but also focus in the athletes who will be coming into their own two or three years down the road.  “Come play at SDSU, and there is a very high likelihood of a bowl appearance in your future.”  To the kid passed up by Washington or Nebraska or Utah, that is a powerful inducement.

Consider the case of the University of New Mexico.  Five years ago the football coach at that school was a – well – he wasn’t very good.  In three years I believe that he won three games, and in one of those years he won two if I’m not mistaken.  When he was finally fired Bob Davie agreed to take over the football program.  In the last several years Coach Davie has assiduously courted the talent in New Mexico and nearby states and has each year put together a better team.  Now, at last, the record for 2015 is 7 wins and 5 losses, which qualifies them for a bowl appearance against the University of Arizona in less than 48 hours.

What does this “meaningless” bowl mean to the UNM program?  Several things.  One, the talking heads may not be watching it (they actually will be; it’s their job), but the recruiters for NFL teams certainly will be.  They, too, are always on the lookout for somebody who can be drafted in the last three or four rounds who demonstrates the potential to be molded into a first rate player at the pro level.  Two, when Coach Davie goes out this spring and speaks to potential recruits he can point to that bowl game and say “Come to UNM and you will be ahead of the 64 teams that did not make a bowl appearance, or however many there is.  Coach Davie’s job will be a lot easier than will be the coach’s from Wyoming or Kentucky or any other school who will be sitting at home watching TV this bowl season.

So I will tee up the TV on Saturday, December 19, and watch the little bowls with glee.  It is there that the sleeper stars will be who will dazzle the NFL in the future, as well as the journeyman players who will do the dirty work in the trenches grinding out victories for the home team.  And if you hear anybody say that these bowls are meaningless, know for a fact that you are looking at somebody who does not know squat about football.

For Sale

There she walks, pretty as plastic, young/old, Lolita with a limp.

clothes too tight, strut just right, make her boyfriend happy tonight.

at least, perhaps, he won’t beat her.

 

you have seen her from afar, drive slowly past her in your car.

you know the game.  each night’s the same. faces may change.

or not.

 

you’re looking for a toy. a girl, or perhaps a boy.

its just a little fun. no harm is ever done.

a deal between two equals; well, maybe you’re on top.

 

but wait, Man.  there’s more to this picture.  that girl that you buy,

she could be your sister.

or wife.

or daughter.

why do you conspire to deny her her life?

 

do you know how she was drawn into this trap?

do you care?

do you know how she was betrayed, beaten, and forced to be there?

the bruise, covered by rouge.

you might as well have made it.

you call it your hobby, but in fact it’s an addiction

and both of you are chained to it.

 

but you, Man, can just quit.

she can’t, as long as you will buy.

how long will you crush her?

when did your soul die?

 

A Christmas Stroll On The Beach

I was taking a Christmas break from the hustle and bustle of work at the beach with wife and friends this weekend and decided to take a walk outside.  As I was the only one who brought rain gear, I took that walk alone.  It was raining, the wind was blowing, and if I didn’t have something to keep me dry I would have been soaked before I had walked a block, and that would be neither refreshing, exhilarating nor meditative, nor anything else pleasant.  Instead, it would have been miserable.

I came prepared however.  Poncho and high rubber boots protected all but a few inches of the lower part of my jeans, and stepping out into the weather I felt like I was cheating nature.  I walked down the porch steps and into the street, wading through a few puddles to get there.

The street was a river.  Rainwater flowed over the asphalt, gathering speed as it rolled downhill and converged into a gurgling stream as the asphalt ended and the water found channels in the ruts of the dirt path.  My rubber boots are of good quality and I strode through water above my ankles in dry comfort.  I silently celebrated my little victory over nature as I emerged on the other side of the stream and began to climb the backside of the row of dunes, up towards the crest and the roaring surf which lay beyond.

As I reached the crest the beach became visible.  The waves were chaotic, crashing into each other and struggling against the old, spent waves which sought to return to the sea, where they could be recharged with energy in order to fling themselves at the shore once again.  The water was shades of gray with only the barest hint of green, and was laced with white foam.  These are waves which have only one mission: attack!  No surfer can ride them, and no swimmer would dare venture into their midst.  They pound the beach, fling logs high along the shoreline, and seek to sweep anything or anyone that they can catch off guard into the deep, where that unwary soul could join in the company of the myriad souls who have preceded them.

I began to descend from the crest of the dune and found that the sand which had been flung by the storm high up over the beach grasses had no firm foundation, and I sunk deeply into it.  This was disconcerting.  One thing that we all believe that we can count on is that the earth we stand upon is firm.  Yes, some sand is soft, and some debris on a mountainside will slide downward as you struggle up, but you just are never ready for the land beneath your feet to give way and allow you to sink downward.  Where would I stop?  How deep would I go?  Would it swallow me whole?  Would they find my bones when the next storm strips the sand away again?  The feeling was unnerving, and I picked out the most direct path down the seaward face of the dune toward where the sand lay packed more densely, at the margin of the surging sea.

Having gained more firm footing, I turned south and began to walk along the beach.  The rain was falling from that direction and a slight wind blew the cold water into the unprotected lower part of my facer.  It was not a heavy rain however, and I was able to ignore it for the most part.  I walked along, tracing the footprints of two people who had passed there before me, along with their dog.  There was one large set of prints and one much smaller.  The number of possible combinations which those prints could represent is actually quite large.  I settled on a man and a woman.  The dog was most likely – well – just a dog.  They were nowhere to be seen and I imagined that they were at home, sipping coffee or hot cocoa, the dog dozing before a fire.

I kept my eyes on the waves which surged to a point not too far away from the path that I was taking along the beach.  The storm was powerful, and rogue waves are widely reported to rise up out of the sea and flatten people with logs and other debris, or snatch the unwary fisherman or sightseer and send them to that watery eternal rest.  I have never seen any such wave but only a fool says “It can’t happen to me.”  My soul was at rest in the solitude of my walk and reverie, but my legs were coiled in preparation for the need to spring up the dune should the need arise.

At length I decided that I had gone a sufficient distance so that I could cut inland and reach the tiny downtown of the community where we were staying.  Spying a path over the dunes and away from the beach I turned my back to the growling, restless sea and began to plod up and over the crest, and then across a broad, low valley of sand and beach grass.  Again I climbed a rise and found myself, instead of on the path to downtown, in somebody’s back yard.  My options were to retrace my steps fifty yards or so to a path which would carry me a few houses north, or trust the charity of the homeowners and skirt the rear edge of their yards.  I chose to trust, or at least test, their charity, and pressed northward until I gained the gravel path which led to town, and from there back to our house.

Lunch, a nap, and a few chapters of a book later I sit in a window watching the wind pushing the rain first one way and then another, and then sideways.  Trees whip and sway, power lines swing in the wind, and I wonder if electricity will last until after dinner is cooked.  Yet I love it.  I don’t really care if we lose power or not.  We have quilts, candles, snacks and wine.  All of the basic needs are met, and I am at peace.

House and Quilt

The night was long and cold.  Wind and rain battered the house, trying to find a crack or a hole or some other weak point so that it could get at me.  I was safe however, wrapped in a thick, warm quilt and protected by a structure which had withstood many such storms.  “I know how to handle this” the old house whispered between gusts that shook the building and rattled the windows.  “Rest in my protection.”

That is how it is with God.  Storms come and batter me, trying to vent their wrath on my vulnerable self.  But God, like a strong house and a warm, comfortable quilt, guarantees me rest if I will only accept it.

Rest

Life.

Is life a struggle?

A striving?

A madly dancing Dervish?
Is life a thrust, a challenge thrown down to the rest of existence; I’m going to get mine!
Is life a chasing after the heart attack that you’re about to have while recovering from the one you just had?
Could be.
Opposed to struggle is rest.

But rest brings poverty.

How can you get ahead if you are not in the race?
But rest has already won the race.

Rest allows one time to count your friends.

Assess your blessings.

Quantify your needs and measure them against your wants.

Weigh value against amount.
Struggle may triumph over rest, if you wish.

Rest is willing, however, to marry, temper and guide struggle.

Soften the jagged edges.

Make less into more.
Struggle.
Rest.
Chose.