|That's me...middle row...all the way on the left.|
I was a baseball nut. I loved it. I ate it. I drank it. I dreamed about it. It all started in 1972 when I discovered the Cincinnati Reds and the Big Red Machine. By the summer of 1973, I could practically name the entire roster, give you their batting averages or ERAs, and tell you how the leaders stacked up against the other leaders in the league. I bet I can almost name all the starters still: Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Dave Concepcion, Denis Menke, Bobby Tolan, and Cesar Geronimo. The best pitchers were Jack Billingham and Don Gullett, and the best reliever was Pedro Bourbon.
(Okay, I cheated a little bit and looked some names up, but I remembered most of them.)
Basketball was definitely not my game. I had the leap of a concrete block, and the speed of a sloth. Dribble and run at the same time? Are you serious? It was way down the list of my favorite sports. I think I preferred playing Poop Monster to playing basketball.
Football was not my favorite either, but I could at least keep up. We used to have neighborhood games in the Cecil and Irene’s back field. When I got to Wilson Middle School, it was time to play for real on the school team. I suppose I was spelling fun: m-i-s-e-r-y
Keep in mind that I didn’t like to get hit hard. I hated to be hurt. I didn’t like the stretches, the running, and the warm ups. Pain and I were not on speaking terms, but I went out for football anyway. My friends were all doing it. It seemed like the thing to do. I had no idea what I was doing.
It didn't help that I was practically blind without my glasses, and you can't wear glasses in tackle football.
The problems started when we picked out our gear. Most of the boys somehow knew all about how to pick out a football uniform. I had no clue. We went past the helmets. The rest of the boys got the nice modern-looking ones, and I ended up with an ancient helmet that was shaped differently from everyone else’s. I did okay on the shoulder pads and the jersey, but I really messed up royally on the pants and the leg pads. No one told me that football pants don’t come all the way down to the ankles…my thigh pads hung over my knees and my knee pads fit nicely over my shins. I looked like a real dork. Sometimes, looks really aren’t all that deceiving.
The worst thing that happened to me during football was Denny. It began at a practice. I don’t even remember what started it, but somehow we ended up being sent to the locker room for the balance of the practice. I guess I did something he didn’t like, and we kind of had a few words too close to the coach, and off we went to sit in the school, just the two of us. In retrospect, that really seems like a stupid thing for a teacher/coach to do. Why would you send two boys that you think are about to fight off by themselves into a locker room where no one can supervise them?
There was no fight. Denny wanted to. He dared me to. He taunted me. I refused. Remember, I was not fond of pain. I didn’t like to get hit. Frankly, I was a bit of a coward.
As you can guess, that wasn’t the end of it. He knew he had the upper hand on me. He knew I wouldn’t stand my own ground. This was probably September or October, and Seventh Grade lasted until the end of May. It was a long year of taunts and insults.
I am ashamed of myself for being such a coward. Eventually, I grew out of it, but not without suffering wounds to my self-esteem that took years to heal. I know we’re not supposed to encourage kids to fight, but if I’d just punched him once, the rest of that year would have been so much smoother…at least I think so.
By Eighth Grade, Denny seemed to have moved on from his abuse of me, and my football career had ended. When high school came, we went to different schools, so I didn’t see him again until we were in our twenties. I was organizing a recreational church softball team, and Denny was playing on another church team. We ended up on the same practice field at Heekin Park one day and our teams scrimmaged against one another. He seemed like a regular guy. It’s odd how differently a boy acts when he’s not in seventh grade anymore.
Age changes things. I got cut from my favorite sport four years in a row and subsequently gave up baseball. I never played football again. In my late twenties, I started playing basketball, and just to show how bad I was as a kid, I was still getting better when I hit forty years old. On top of that, my favorite part of the game became playing defense under the basket in the paint where I would often nail someone hard if they drove the ball inside. I decided I liked dishing out the hits. After all…
A little pain never hurt anyone.