Looking at me today, one could never picture me as a frail, skinny pimpled-face kid in sixth grade. But I was just that.
In the fall at the beginning of my sixth grade year, handouts were given to those who wanted to play football. I watched football every Sunday with my father, and I always wanted to play. Like other boys my age, I fantasized about it. We played football with paper cups on the playground, but that simply wasn’t the same thing. I wanted to be a part of the team.
I took the handout home and asked my parents to sign it, but my father didn’t want me to play. He never came out and said it directly, but his actions indicated such.
“If you can do 25 pushups, I’ll let you try out for football,” he said.
Now he said that because he knew I couldn’t do that many. Just a few weeks before, he asked how many pushups I could do. Then he told me to show him. I couldn’t do one! Like I mentioned, I was a scrawny little kid. Twig arms and legs. He knew I couldn’t do one pushup, and he was asking me to do 25. The goal simply was unattainable in my mind. I had less than two weeks to turn in the permission slip, and sure enough, by the time it was due, I was unable to do more than three pushups. I had given it my all, but I needed to build strength.
“There’s always next year,” he said with amusement.
I knew if I wasn’t able to do that many by spring, I didn’t have a shot at playing then, either. So I started practicing. Of course, my father enjoyed my agony, so he wanted to watch my progression and had me do pushups every night. It took a few weeks, but I finally was able to do ten in a row. My strength began to build, and soon I was doing thirteen in a row regularly.
Spring was arriving and I had managed to hit twenty in a row several times. I was getting so close. The odd thing about my posture for doing pushups was that I was actually using my left arm to balance and doing the pushups with only my right arm. He mentioned that, but didn’t insist I use both arms. But he never praised me for my progress, either, and he acted quite nervous because of how close I was getting. If I were a betting man, I’d say he truly hoped I never hit the goal.
One Saturday I reached twenty-four reps. I strained hard for the twenty-fifth rep. I was halfway up. While pushing with everything I had left, I got tickled by the comedy album he was playing. I lost my composure and dropped to the floor. Sooo close!
Then for the next few days, I was only getting 21-22 reps each evening. I thought I’d never hit 25. About a week later, I hit 25 and his jaw dropped. I expected him to make some other excuse to keep me from playing, but he didn’t. When the spring permission slips were handed out, my mother signed it. Excited, I turned in the paper to my homeroom teacher. Other students who had already played football for the team noticed and one-by-one, each told me that whatever position you try out for, I’m going to beat you out of it.
And they tried. But I ended up as the offensive first-string left tackle. No one took that position from me. I earned it.
I ran into only one real problem. None of the helmets fit me. Although I was excessively skinny, I was the tallest student in our grade and my head was too big for the helmets. We had to go to Rainsville Sporting Goods to buy a helmet.
Since this was the spring, we only had one game before school let out. It was at night. We played Valley Head, and the best play I had was when I recovered a fumble. But my father missed the play because he was off somewhere talking. My mother saw it though.
When fall tryouts came, I made the team. I wanted to play defense instead of offense. To me that seemed to hold more excitement because as a lineman you could block passes or sack the quarterback. There was an assistant coach who worked with us. He was one of Plainview’s former athletes and had a cocky attitude. During our scrimmages, he placed me on the defensively line, and he was the quarterback as he called the plays. I wanted to play so badly, and I thought I needed to impress him so I gave it my everything.
The problem came that since I was taller than he was, and I was playing defensive tackle, I kept blocking his passes and intercepting them. If he handed off the ball, I tackled the running back before he crossed the line. I kept my eye on that ball and fought hard to try to take it. It never crossed my mind until today that by doing so, I must have been pissing him off. Here was this former ‘star’ player unable to get a play past a seventh grader. All I was trying to do was impress him, but I had no idea I was doing quite the opposite.
After a few weeks of practicing, we were scheduled to hold a scrimmage game on a Saturday. My father actually came to the game, along with my mother and sister. I was proud at how hard I had worked during practices and had made first string, despite my father’s obstacle. I couldn’t wait to get onto the field and try to impress my father.
The first and second quarter passed, and the coach never put me into the game. Not for one second. Third quarter came. I patiently waited to be put in the game without asking or saying a word, and the coach walked past me, tapped my stomach hard, and said, “Be patient. We’ll get you in.”
Four quarter came. I stood on the sideline beside the coach and with five minutes left, my father came off the bleachers and to the fence near where I stood. He called out my name and when I turned, he motioned me to him.
“Why aren’t they letting you play?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
He unstrapped my helmet. “Is the helmet yours?”
The assistant coach noticed what my father was doing and said, “He’s going to get to play.”
At this point, less than three minutes were left in the game. My father took off my shoulder pads and hurled them at the coach. The coach frowned and started toward the fence, but my father formed fists and stood ready to fight. Since my father was a lot bigger, the coach stopped approaching.
“He’s going to get to play,” he repeated.
My father fumed. “He’s been standing out there all game while everyone else has played!” He looked at me and said, “Come on, son.”
I had mixed feelings about the entire situation. I was proud that my father had stood up for me, but at the time, I couldn’t understand why I stood on the sideline the entire time without getting to play.
Only a few years ago did my father tell me that the head coach had called my father at work and apologized that I hadn’t gotten to play. He told my father to bring me back because I was a good player and that wouldn’t happen again. I would get to play.
I wish my father had never told me that, because it only proved to me that he never had wanted me to play in the first place. I had proven myself by achieving the pushup goal, but by not getting to prove myself on the field because a coach wouldn’t play me, my father had found his out. He pulled me from the team, using the situation to his advantage, and a few weeks later, he and my mother separated.
I’ve never tried to step in the way of my children’s dreams. I’ve never insisted either of them pursue a career or an interest that wasn’t their own. I’ve encouraged them to work hard for their dreams, and that’s why I don’t think I’ll ever understand my father’s actions while he was in my life and even after he and my mother divorced. All I know is that he had a narcissistic personality where he needed to be the one in the spotlight. Even after my books got published, he tried to crash two of my book signing appointments, and had even emailed me through my former publisher as ‘The Boss.’
‘Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,’ is a quote that comes to mind. Regardless of whether a dream in my life is fulfilled or has been dashed, I learn from it. I’ve probably had far more bad things happen over the years than good, and a lot of those end up in my writing. Nothing’s wasted that way.