Friday, October 26, 2007

Taking The Hit

Saturday afternoon and I’m sitting around with a bunch of guys watching college games. We’re Football Nation folks, and the channels are filled with Florida vs. Oklahoma, Akron vs. Toledo, Big Bad State vs. Awful Tech. Who knows whose playing --- it’s one big blur of painted kids dancing in the stands, cheerleaders hopping around, and a ball with white stripes on either end.

I’m always astonished by the ferocity of the college game. Big, strong guys with speed hitting their counterparts. And I’ve always had admiration for these athletes, able to condition themselves to take that kind of punishment. Because I couldn’t and didn’t.

I'd never played organized football before my junior year in college. My mom and dad wouldn’t sign the release forms in high school, explaining to me that I'd get irretrievably hurt. So I did other sports -- basketball, track, surfing and swimming. None of these were exactly like being president of the Astronomy Club in terms of the geek factor. But they weren’t football.

While at UC Berkeley, at that time a weak Division I school, I was a good enough athlete to play on the junior varsity basketball team where we’d scrimmage the varsity all the time. But true to my life before and after, I rode the bench like the pine-master I am. It's when I transferred to a small Division III school that I figured it was time to realize my gridiron dreams. “Time to show you what it's all about, mom and dad,” I said to myself, “You dang dream wreckers.”

When I showed up for the first practice at Williams, one of the assistant coaches who met me in the locker-room said, you want to try quarterback or receiver. I kid you not. The whole athletic scene was just less sophisticated back then. From playing other sports, I knew I had just enough agility and size to play some position other than Left Out. And I wouldn’t have even minded being fourth-string quarterback. But I honestly didn’t think I had the brain power to learn all that went into reading a defense and running an offense. So receiver it was.

To its credit, Williams is a Division III school where kids can participate in virtually anything they wanted if they were willing to show up to practice and tough it out. Plus, I have to say there weren't a lot of geeks at Williams, and there aren't today; nearly 70 percent of the student body, male and female, play some NCAA sport.

The whole football scene was like something out of an artsy, F. Scott Fitzgerald take on coming of age in the melancholy New England autumn. The locker-room was in an old, high-ceilinged brick field house, from which you walked down to massive fields surrounded by trees turning fall colors, with mountains ringing the whole valley. The girl’s field hockey teams practiced nearby and the teams mingled – guys in muddy pads, girls in tartan skirts -- after practice walking to the field house in the gathering dusk. Cut and print, baby.

The first game I ever played in was a scrimmage against Dartmouth and I got pounded on all three series in which I played. But it was against Colby that I really learned the lessons of the parents.

Third quarter, a play action pass. Fake to the half back and there I am in a simple post route turning into the middle about 12 yards out from the line of scrimmage. Our QB saw me, threw and I caught it. Simultaneously I got hit high in the chest and head by the safety and low in the thighs by a linebacker. Two terrific hits -- and I was knocked out.

As the pileup cleared away, I came to, still holding the ball with the ref reaching down to take it and mark the first down. I got up slowly and trotted back to the huddle with my head down, like nothing happened because I was completely and utterly bewildered. There was no pain, but my head was throbbing. I wasn’t sure what had happened but I dimly recall straining to remember the plays as they were called for the next couple series. There were no outward signs that I was different so no players or coaches were clustered around asking me if I was ok. Just a hard hit to be shaken off. Later, I realized it was a concussion.

It got worse. By the end of the game, I was breaking from the huddle knowing only from vague instinct where to line up and what patterns to run. We won the game and afterwards in the locker-room, I was moving slowly, my thoughts were disorganized, and I could hardly remember how to tie my tie. But amid the clamor of a win, nothing seemed unusual to anyone else. I knew something was not right with the already dim Nellie brain center. Some things were clear, like making small talk, other common details I couldn’t remember, i.e. I could barely remember my dorm and how to find it.

I went out to dinner that evening with a girl and her parents, who were from my home state of California and when I found her dorm, I had to concentrate hard to remember her name. Her parents had been at the game and her dad said, “You got socked!” “What a game,” I replied through the small aperture in the cement block that seemed to be my head.

Now I knew where the phrase "game face" came from. I wasn't talking gibberish and could hold a conversation, but I wasn't fast on my feet adn I couldn't remember vast areas of knowledge, like what classes I was taking and the names of professors.

Then there was the obligatory Saturday night call to my parents. I couldn’t recall my home number and had to read it out of my address book. I got them on the line with the usual rap. ‘Yeah, it was a good game…we won…nope, didn’t get hurt…had dinner with Laura and her parents from San Fran…yes, she’s nice girl…please send money…’ “Are you ok?” asked my father. “Oh sure, dad,” I said, sitting there like a zombie. At this point, even the game was a dim memory.

But the body heals, and when I woke up Sunday, things got a little more focused. All that day, the fog started to clear and by evening, I was recalling pretty much what had happened.

Today, I watch these college players – Division I behemoths, not Division II walk on scrubs -- take a beating on every play and I am always puzzled there are not more serious injuries. I took my hit, survived and my season continued and ended happily. The best thing is, mom and dad were never told – and not hearing the smug “I told you so” was worth much more than a day in a fog.

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