This is not to say that I was always a badly behaved little boy; although, often enough, I was. This is also not to say that my adults were deferential to the babies, because both my mom and my dad really did go out of their way to attend to my upbringing and its financial and temporal needs.
Who brought me to the doctor and the dentist? Surely not the insurance company. Who bought the mail-order books so that I could learn on my own and keep my damn mouth shut for an hour a day? Who put people-food on the table, instead of baby food, for me? Who got me “big boy” clothes, in spite of the real deal that most of the clothing would not be around in five years for hand-me-downs for my siblings? Who else would have thought of those things? Nobody but Mom and Dad, that’s who. Yes, they had their hands full, and because of all of us kids, not their wallets full. Hands and money aside, imagine the expenditure of their time. In my youthful exuberance, there seemed to be always a sleeping or feeding baby or one whose diaper needed changing or one who needed bathing, or dad needed a couple hours to catch up on work at home, or mom needed fifteen damn minutes of peace and quiet to talk to one of her sisters on the telephone.
“Michael, go out and play.”
“Michael, go out and play.”
“Michael, go out and play.”
Honestly, I tried.
Sometimes there were kids in the neighborhood to play with. Sometimes there were enough around for a sandlot baseball game. Sometimes, if there weren’t enough to play pick-up football, you could just take what you had and, with boys and girls alike, play “cream-the-guy-with-the-ball.” With only one or two, you could play “army fort.” You could see who was at home and maybe play a board game indoors or watch some TV. All alone, you could slide down a snowy or muddy hill, climb a tree or up onto a garage roof. You could explore that garage without anyone knowing. You could piss in the bushes.
All alone, you could let your imagination glide like the shadow of a cloud over everything to which you were drawn, over everything with which you were tempted. Like the shadow of a cloud, there was nobody there to stop you.
All alone, I don’t know if I’ve ever known a kid who hasn’t dreamed of winning “The Big One.” And what could that be? The homer that wins the World Series? The winning touchdown? The girl playing house embracing the man of her dreams? A bloodied and beaten knockout in the twelfth round? The twenty-fifth service ace for the match? An Olympic gold medal? The shot that drops the Nazi sniper from his perch? The Easy-Bake cake that makes mom and dad proud?
All alone, one dreams. One wins. That is just that.
I am a lefty, and I am not much of a hitter or a fielder, so I did not pester my folks about getting into Little League baseball. I had killed many Nazis, and I had won several Olympic gold medals for the luge and in Track & Field, when my dad suggested I start playing Pee-Wee football. I was small for my ten years, but I loved the game and team sports. I was fast, and I had been brought down several times, uninjured, by as many as seven guys twice my size, in “cream-the-guy-with-the-ball.”
Hell, all alone, I had run back many a kickoff for the winning NFL touchdown.
Pointing back to my parents’ availability and responsibility toward me, they really did this one right. It was required that I sign up and have a regulation helmet, shoulder pads, and a mouthpiece. Dad took me out to the sporting goods store and spent his hard-earned money to get the equipment; mom helped me boil the mouthpiece, so that I could chomp down on it, and it would fit my teeth. Dad took me to Lincoln Junior High to register. He signed the paperwork. I was to be on the Dolphins. I was thrilled. On the ride back home, dad told me that there was one piece of equipment that hadn’t been previously mentioned, which was required for me to play. It was a jockstrap. My dad being my dad, he left it fairly to my imagination as to just what a jockstrap is and what it does.
He was working hard and late that week, so it was up to my mom and me to go and pick one up. A few nights before the first practice, mom and I went together to the sporting goods store. By this time, of course, I had asked a few friends, exactly what was a jockstrap, and what was it for, so I was loaded with youthful information. My mom and I looked around for one among the various sports equipment and athletic shoes, and we didn’t see any, so we went to the counter, and she asked the kid at the register where we might find one.
“Who is it for?” the kid asked.
“It’s for my son,” she answered, “He’s going to play football.”
She indicated me, and the kid looked me up and down.
“Oh, you playing Pee-Wee? You’ll need a ‘small,’” and he pulled one down from a rack behind him.
She paid him, and he smirked at me. “Do you want to wear it home?”
I didn’t think that was very funny.
Come Saturday morning, dad stayed at home working, and mom drove me to the practice field. She dropped me off, and I was on my own to find, among several groups of boys who were just about all far bigger than me, the Dolphins. I asked around and was pointed towards a group of kids who were the smallest in stature of anyone there. I had on my shoulder pads, carried my helmet, from which hung my mouthpiece, and was clutching my permission slip to play. The jockstrap was squishing my testicles. I approached a man with a stopwatch around his neck. His hair and face were red. He was smoking a cigarette, and he was addressing a gaggle of uniformed boys who were already assembled on a long wooden bench. I stood there until he was finished talking, and he turned to me, irritated, as though I was late, although I knew I wasn’t.
“What team are you on, kid?” he spat.
“Well, that’s us.”
He looked disappointed.
“What’s your name?”
I handed him my permission slip, and he looked at it, seemed satisfied, moved a pack of Old Golds off a clipboard and stuck the piece of paper onto the rest of them. He reached into a cardboard box under the bench and pulled out an arbitrary jersey.
“Okay Chandler, you’re number twenty-four. Siddown over there.”
He turned toward our fledgling team.
“Alright now, boys, listen up...”
The practice went okay. I wasn’t as fast as some of the other boys in sprints, but I got to knock around some kids who were bigger than me, even though the coach didn’t seem to notice. I was kind of shy, and I didn’t talk much to anyone, and I remember thinking that that was kind of tough, just like a real football player.
The following week, I found out that our coach’s name was Mr. Keith.
Mr. Keith set us up doing drills of running, throwing, catching, kicking the ball, tackling, et al., but he didn’t really explain any of the rules of football. Mind you, I had gotten my chops on “cream the guy with the football.” At the end of practice, Mr. Keith doled out our positions. I was to play defensive tackle. I was proud of that assignment. My dad had been friends with Nick Buoniconti of the real NFL Dolphins, and that was a legacy I wanted to follow... in both ways. I think it was, at the time, just as important for me to be friends with my dad as it would have been for me to become the next Nick Buoniconti. But I loved tackling. I followed the ball all over my side of the field, and after the final two practices, I learned that I would not start in our first game. As is the process in most sports teams, Mr. Keith gave instructions and encouragement to the team’s stars and to his favorites, usually better athletes than pee-wee me, or the sons of his friends. For all my enthusiasm in practice and attentiveness in team meetings, I was out of the loop and benched.
The Dolphins were not terrible; we were, for the most part, smaller and less experienced than the other teams we faced. We finally won our fifth game out of the nine to be played, as I mostly watched from the sidelines. Our team’s numbers dwindled as some of the boys didn’t like getting knocked around in the mud during what was obviously a losing season as we headed into game seven. I also think Mr. Keith’s commandeering attitude and his chain-smoking of Old Golds swayed some parents to grant their sons’ wishes to retire pee-wee football before their contracts were up.
“Chandler, you’re starting today,” Mr. Keith barked at the start of game number eight. He really had no choice.
I lined up across from a fat kid about my size, but who mightily outweighed me. As we went into the set position, he snarled at me and stared me dead in the eye. He growled and snorted. The ball was snapped.
On defense, I was allowed to use my hands, but I didn’t. I put my helmet into his right shoulder pad and knocked him back on his fat ass. On the second play, I put my forearm into his sternum. And now he had muddy pants and was getting frustrated. On third down, I just ran around him toward the quarterback and the ball. Seeing me coming unattended, the kid threw into nowhere, and they had to punt. As I ran back to the bench, Mr. Keith gave me a swack on the back of my helmet and coughed to the team, “That’s the way you do it, boys!”
On every subsequent running play by the opposition, I put Pudge onto his keister, and he began whining to the referee that I wasn’t playing fair. Oh yes, I was. On pass plays, I simply ignored his grass-stained uniform and followed the ball. I had one sack and two interceptions. We were up by four points late in the game, and they put on a running play to my side. I easily circumvented fatty-weepy and fearlessly ran for an open-field tackle toward their running back. It was me and him. He was at least a foot taller than me, a couple years older, more muscular, and definitely faster. I angled in toward him, saw my spot and, coming fast, dove for his knees.
If you have ever been the victim of a stiff-arm block, you know that it is an ultimate stopper. Mr. Keith had never taught us that one, yet it is a classic football move. As I flew through the air, the running back merely jammed his free hand into the top of my helmet, dropped me, and, with my facemask full of mud and grass, I watched him run for what became, for them, the winning touchdown.
As I trotted back to the bench, Mr. Keith did not acknowledge me. As the game clock ran out, he clapped his hands and called, “Alright, boys, next week!”
He lit up an Old Gold.
I, number twenty-four, started the Dolphins' final game in my spot at right defensive tackle.
I faced a kid smaller than me and, at scrimmage, put him on his back a few times until it looked like he was going to cry, and I pulled back on much force toward him after the second series of downs, and, I suppose, in gratitude, he let me run the field at will. Watching for the stiff-arm, I got a few open-field tackles. I blocked a couple would-be receptions on pass plays, and I dropped one potential interception. And the Dolphins were winning. We were up by three points.
The other team had one last set of downs at the end of the game to beat us. I knew the quarterback and his family. He was, again, older and way bigger than pee-wee me. On first down, he was running up the middle. I ignored the tow-headed kid in front of me, broke left, split the line, and I smacked that quarterback in the ribcage with my helmet and my arms. We both got up slowly. On second down, he threw a pass that his receiver couldn’t handle. On third down, I rushed him and he had to throw to Nether Land. To win, they had to make a play on fourth down, and I was becoming an undefended pest. They ran the ball, and there I was. I knocked that big guy into his stomach, and he fell, as did I. On the ground, he kicked me hard in the balls. We had won.
The quarterback got up and strode to his losing bench. I struggled to sit up. I struggled to breathe. I struggled to see what was in front of me. I heard cheering from our bench. After a few minutes, Mr. Keith walked over to midfield, where I was still struggling to my feet.
“Hey, we won. What’s the matter, kid?”
He was smoking an Old Gold.
I gasped a term of his, “I got my bell rung.”
“You wearing your jockstrap?”
“What. Did you forget your cup?” he asked.
“What’s a cup?”
“’What’s a cup?’ You tell your mom and dad to get you one next year.”
Another elemental football aspect that I had not been taught.
Mr. Keith turned, trailing cigarette smoke, and walked past the bench toward his car, far away in the parking lot.
There was no next year for me and Pee Wee football.