It was a Friday night in August, and I had the same Friday night feeling I’d had many times before.
40 times, to be exact.
The first time, I stood as a 100 pound boy that for the first time felt like a man. It was that moment—when the drum line marched into the stadium, boldly greeting the crowd still arriving for the first football game of the fall—that I felt I had become a man.
I’d never been to a high school football game, but now standing inches from the locker room door that separated me from my first game, I knew one thing. It felt good.
Contributing to the varsity squad’s effort is a young man’s rite of passage to manhood. And while some say religion comes first in the “Bible Belt,” the preachers find themselves envying the Friday night crowd on most Sunday mornings.
Football is important in my family, too. Well, really just to dad. The manliest man I know, my dad told me of his football career so often growing up I could recite the stories as if it was the first verse of Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” Equally as often, he told me of the growth spurt I was due for and how good I could be when I was as big as the others.
But in that moment, wearing the same No. 33 that marked his jersey, I stood among those others—much taller, bigger and stronger—just happy to be there. One day I’d contribute, but that day I was only a freshman at my first game. It was not “me” time. Not yet.
That year, I watched nine more games from the sidelines. Still awaiting that growth spurt, I watched 38 games from the sidelines over the those 4 years. I came home to 38 games-worth of “you shoulda’s” and “I woulda’s,” from my dad. Not to mention all the junior varsity games I played minor roles in over 3 years. Most people only endure 2 years of JV football, but lacking the abilities required for varsity—size, strength, speed—made me a perfect candidate for a third year of JV. Still awaiting the growth spurt, I lined up for the first play of Game 39.
I had paid my dues and finally, in my last ever home game, was on the field for a meaningful play. But to me, it wasn’t real. Even the play call felt like the coaches were saying, “One play and then we get this charity case off the field because right now we’re playing with 10 men.” It was still not “me” time.
The story my dad told most about his time playing football was how it ended. Just days before the first game of his senior year, he had his arm broken during a practice and was carried off the field on a stretcher. Poised for the best season of his life, friendly fire robbed him of the opportunity. His football days were over in the blink of an eye.
It hit hard every time I took off a piece of equipment, knowing I’d never wear any of it again. It kept hitting even after the pads were off.
Six years later, and the growth spurt never came. But finally, at 23, I was now what would’ve been an average-sized high schooler and the feeling was still there. Mostly in dreams, where my baby-face allowed me to sneak back into high school as a 23 year-old, in order to redeem myself on the gridiron. I’d wake up to those dreams, recurring more and more often, to find that they were really nightmares, reminding me of times I’d rather forget.
I now realize why my dad talks so much about his football days, because when the opportunity to do what you dreamed of is taken from you, it consumes you.
But this time, I stood as a 150-pound man, in the one place that still made me feel like a boy. Walking on the same field that contained much of this heartbreak, but now as a member of the local newspaper staff, for the first time since graduation was a bit of redemption in itself. In mere minutes, I was set to take the field again as a competitor, as our staff took on members of the current football team in a Pass, Punt, and Kick Challenge during their intrasquad scrimmage.
I was assigned the punt portion of the competition and had practiced for weeks. While practicing for an event we were supposed to lose seemed silly; I’d finally been given the opportunity I spent all 4 years of high school waiting for.
As we walked out onto the field I finally knew what it was to truly be nervous before a game, even if we were scripted to lose. Caught somewhere between mind-blown that I even have the opportunity and “Wow, I hope I don’t blow it,” I took the field subtly donning my dad’s No. 33 one last time, in the form of a Larry Bird shirt. Knowing how important I had made this meaningless event, the pressure was on.
I took the ball around the opposite 45 yard line. Confident, in large part to the upwards of 300 footballs I’d punted in the two-and-a-half weeks prior to the event, I took a few steps back and awaited the announcer to finish hyping me up with tales of my unexceptional football past. When he finished, I boomed the punt, which took a healthy roll through the endzone.
No embarrassment. No shanked punt. I simply went on the field and delivered, which felt shocking. I heard a genuine “Wow” from the announcer, which triggered my sigh of relief. This was real. It was like when Steve Young asked someone to take the monkey off of his back after winning the Super Bowl.
I didn’t win a Super Bowl, but I did erase two generations of football-misfortune in one kick and was carried off the field, not injured, but victorious.