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.