My friend Ava called today. She’s scared her son will get hurt playing J.V. football in high school this year. So I told her the story of my brief J.V. tryout. Now she’s panicking.
I was in tenth grade and I “just knew” I’d make the team and star on it, at any position. After all, I’d excelled at football my entire life. As a child, I regularly strapped on my shoulder pads and regulation Minnesota Vikings’ helmet and headed out to the backyard for ferocious one-on-none gridiron battles. I played the offense, lining up against one fearsome defense after another (all of them entirely imaginary). Each play began with me hiking the ball to the quarterback (me), and then either handing off to our star running back (me) or passing to our all pro wide receiver (me again). Modesty aside, I was always the best player on the field.
Yet even before exiting the school locker room, I saw signs that real football might prove more challenging than my backyard games. Every other kid at the tryout towered over me and outweighed me by at least thirty pounds. The coach dispensing equipment did a double-take at the sight of my scrawny frame, inquiring skeptically: “You do know this is the boy’s football tryout?” Compounding the insult, the smallest gear on the rack didn’t fit. The pants kept dropping to my ankles until the coach wound them with duct tape. And even with its chin strap cinched as tightly as possible, the helmet slid over my eyes.
Still, I figured it’s not the gear that counts but the man beneath. So I held my head high as I trotted onto the field with the other hopefuls … one hand hiking up my pants and the other keeping the helmet from blinding me.
By the time I puked my guts out – courtesy of wind sprints and a mile-long “cool down” run – I knew I’d erred badly, if not fatally, in failing to anticipate the less glorious aspects of real football. I would’ve happily crawled back to the locker room, but I suddenly heard my name called among a group directed to scrimmage. With the coach’s eyes on me, I saw no option except to buckle on my chin strap, shove the helmet above my eyes and shuffle onto the field.
The coach told me to go in at left cornerback. Though I’d never played the position in my solo games, I thought to myself: how hard can it be? I just need to tackle guys and intercept passes.
On the first play, future superstar running back, George Williams, took a handoff, bowled over a defensive end and linebacker and charged into the secondary, straight at me. I tackled him, more or less. As I tried to wrap my arms around his midsection, his pumping knee rammed my chin like a sledgehammer, knocking me out cold. But in the midst of trampling me, his cleat got caught in my facemask and he tripped. Consequently, I received credit for tackling a gridiron legend … which I learned after the smelling salts took effect.
I wisely decided to hang up my cleats that day. As I lay on my back, head pounding and stomach churning, I didn’t bother arguing when the coach stood over me, shaking his head, and said: “Son, I’m sure God blessed you with many talents … but football ain’t one of them.”