Sunday, July 31, 2016

Football Fumblings

I'm hard-pressed to think of another activity in which I spent so much time having little to no clue about what I was doing than when I played football. Growing up, I played football in third and fourth grade and missed the next two years because I was over the allowable weight limit, and then I returned to the sport for grades 7-10.

I spent all that time on the line, offensive and defensive. When I started playing, I wanted to be a fullback. I wanted to run with the ball, knock people over, and score touchdowns. Instead, as a 95-pound 9-year-old, I played left guard. Toward the end of the season, I was made second-string tight end but used exclusively as a blocker. In the last game of the year, I asked the coach for an arrow pass, the one play I knew where the ball would go to me, and the coach called the play, but our quarterback got sacked.

In fourth grade, I felt I was ready for fullback. Since it was a third and fourth grade team, the starting fullback had moved up to fifth grade, and I believed the spot was mine. The problem was my weight. It was right on the cutoff mark. I trained and dieted, but even though I thought I did enough to stay down with my age group, I was moved up to the fifth and sixth grade team, where I played left guard again.

The next two years, I played soccer in the fall, as I did before I was old enough for football. In seventh grade, there was no weight limit, so I returned to football. Again, I wanted fullback. This time, I was made center, hiking the ball to the quarterback. The next four years, I was exclusively on the line, shuffling from center to tackle to guard, on both sides. On defense, which I played more infrequently, I played defensive tackle and never made a tackle, even the year my parents promised me a Nintendo GameCube if I recorded a sack. 

By the end of JV season, I hated football. I had few friends on the team, I didn't like the coaches, and I was miserable. It wasn't fun, we lost a lot, and frankly, I was bored, going through the motions. On JV, we hardly ever practiced on our own and were usually used as practice squads against the varsity players. We'd dress with them and watch them play on Friday and then have to get up early for own games on Saturday, games we were ill-prepared for. 

I got tossed out of practice once for mouthing off during conditioning. That wasn't the humiliating part. The humiliating part was why I mouthed off. We were doing conditioning. We were running the length of the football field, stopping to the drop our chests to the ground every five or ten yards. I fell behind by about 50-60 yards, so I wasn't even half way across when the rest of the team was done. My teammates started clapping and cheering for me, saying I can do. I felt pathetic. I mumbled under my breath that I didn't want to be cheered for. At least I thought it was under my breath.

An assistant coach screamed to stop. He got in my face, said he was sick of me being a "fucking smart ass," and sent me to the locker room. I admit I cried afterward. 

The night after the last game of the season, I knew I was done playing football. I was sick of it, so I never went back. That very night, it felt like a huge burden was off my back. I don't know how missed I was, if at all. My older brother liked to tease me and say the new head coach was calling for me, which wasn't true, but he knew it got under my skin. My brother was/is an expert at saying all the right things to hurt people.

To this day, I still don't know why I played football as long as I did. Except for the third grade season, I can't remember a single instance of fun or accomplishment.  Looking back, all I can recall is wanting practice to be over, the game to be done, and to be away from everyone. 

I'm not even sure I was especially good at it. I was big, kind of strong, but I always felt lost. When I stood on the offensive line, there would never be anyone directly across from me. If I was center, the other team was 4-3. If I was a guard, the other was team was 3-4. With no one in front of me, I was usually confused about what I was supposed to: double-team the guy in front of the guy next to me or run downfield and hit a linebacker? If it was a pass play, I'd stay put and often not hit anyone. 

What really threw me off was the blocking technique itself. My dad played college football in the late 60s/early 70s. When I started playing, he taught me how to block. He taught to use my forearm, to drive into my opponent's chest, stomach, sternum area and pump by legs. See, when he played, lineman weren't allowed to use their hands at all.

When I got to high school, the coaches taught us to use our hands, to grab the numbers of the jersey. It felt awkward. I never got much in the way leverage, and I don't think I ever drove anyone back. Even in practice, going up against the machine, I felt weak, uncoordinated. My hands just felt ... exposed, ready to be crushed among all the helmets and shoulder pads.

One time, during a game in seventh grade, my funny bone got caught between two sets of facemarks. My arm from the elbow down went numb. Nothing was broken, but I must have blacked out. The next thing I remember was being down in a three-point stance several yards down field, no idea where I was or how I got there. Those intervening minutes were a complete blackout. Worse, I was the center, my had gripping the football, and I didn't know what the cadence was. Of course, I got penalized for a false start by hiking too soon. No one asked me if anything was wrong when I got back to the sidelines.

The weird part is how in the last three years or so, I've gotten more into football. I follow the Browns, even though they've given me little reason to be optimistic, and I talk football with other people. I don't know why.  I can't explain it. Why do I give anymore time and attention to watch something that made me miserable and bitter when I participated in it myself?

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