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.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Yes You Can

Los Angeles, California -- I actually know who said, "You can't go home again" because I looked it up after hearing people knowlingly toss off the phrase dozens of times. However, I never read the book beccause that would have required mental heavy lifting of which I'm not capable nor inclined. But I knew that someday the phrase would come in handy.

I'm in Los Angeles to sit with yes, my famed good ole mom, while she recovers from a mild illness. Not only do I get to come home again, but I get to listen to her biting liberal observations spliced with lamentations of her ideologically lost son. It's a real tightrope -- showering genuine affection on a woman who lambasts your world view at every turn (please see "Good Ole Mom" post).

In addition to criticizing my entire professional career, she has never been comfortable with my upbringing, coincidentally which she oversaw. That's because I grew up in standard fashion: pretty happy-go-lucky, mildly excelling at school and sports, with many friends and no irretrievable mistakes.

Moreover, I actually liked the many hackneyed features of adolescence and reveled in all the mundaneity that it brought. No tortured childhood here, folks. No brooding intellectual, simmering with rage at subtle or perceived insults, no lifelong grudges against The Man and the vacuity of modern society. No ravings of how plastic everything was and how I was "misunderstood" and my sublime thoughts were not appreciated. I loved the beaches of Santa Monica, where I was born, and the pleasant suburb and schools that were my lucky lot. My teachers and coaches, almost to person, were admirable and my friends from 40 years ago are still today.

Indeed, if you're most crushing adolescent blow is having to go to the prom with your childhood friend, then you're simply not fit to be some dark, tormented neo-Goth nor conversely, some shrill, righteous crusader avenging wrongs and all that stuff.

In addition to boring All-American stability, growing up in LA gave you brushes with future fame mesiters that put life in perspective. One of Peter Lawford's daughters was in my high school class; former UCLA and Denver Nugget great Kiki Vanderweghe once blocked one of my numerous ill considered shots in a basketball tournament. On my track team and in my French class was Christopher Knight, aka the world famous Peter Brady of the Brady Bunch. Our rival high school was quarterbacked by John Elway and one of my best pals intercepted him. John Coltrane's family lived a few blocks away; Joan Jett a little farther. The nifty brushes with color and style added a swirl to the plain vanilla childhood I had, all of it against the express wishes of my flinty, sharper, penetrating mother. Despite this letdown, she wasn't despondent throughout and even today is grudgingly aware of having raised a son whom you can introduce to friends.

For example, when her friends visit and ask what I'm doing, I reply robotically, "I'm a loyal shock trooper in the Bush Administration." "That's nice," they say politely and ask about all those "wonderful programs you people want to cut."

But the old ghosts of three decades don't die. Mom and I are lounging on the patio one afternoon, trading casual invective at each other when the phone rings. It's an old pal along with whom I'm meeting that evening with a bunch of guys from the team who still live in the area. "We're all gonna meet at the Sagebrush Cantaina and talk b-ball and girls," I cackle mercilessly to a world-weary mother. She sighs at this preposterous continuance of the juvenile, cornball son I've been and remain. "Jeffrey," she says sadly, "As the man says, you can't go home again."

For one of the few times in my whole life, I am actually prepared for good ole mom. I clear my throat and reply, "Thomas Wolfe was a disillusioned, embittered old Southern cracker" and then I deliver the crushing finale, adding, "Besides, he never played against Kiki Vanderweghe."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fourth and inches

It’s a weekday midafternoon and I’m sitting on on wooden bleachers at a local high school. Its early autumn, breezy with a few wispy leaves. And middle son Braden is playing in the first organized football game of his life – the big Landon-St. Albans clash of the 6th grade titans.

Kids’ sports are a crazed part of the national pysche. I know. I’ve got three sons currently on 8 separate teams. I coach my youngest son in 3rd grade basketball with my winning “Cycle of Fear” motivational tool and have a car full of sweaty athletic gear all year long. And since I sat on the bench in high school and college in three sports, I bring a good-natured resilience to All Things Sports.

First, I naturally have a little pep talk before the big game, full of a homespun Nellie advice: “Son, pretend the running back is a Democrat after Dad’s job. Don’t let him get by you!” Just kidding. Actually, I say, “Take if from your old man, when it's fourth and inches, go long."

Second, I’m past getting nervous or uptight about games. I once figured out that since all three of my three sons started playing organized sports, I’ve watched more than 680 games, matches, and meets, no kidding. I tell myself it's making me a better person -- as far as I know.

Third, I’m also past the point of putting some phony smile on my face and saying to my kids after some atrocious mistake, “Ohhhh, that’s ok! So long as you have fun!” To hell with fun. A lot of the sports scene is a grind and the takeaways for the kids willing to stick it out, even on the bench, are teamwork, perseverance, discipline, selflessness. If it was always “fun,” everyone would score a ton of points, even the geeks.

Fourth, I don't get crazy anymore about playing time, no matter what coaching conspiracy is going on. Braden plays nose guard and doesn’t start. Big deal -- it’s his first season. He'll either learn or become president of the Stamp Club. But he’s a solid athlete. Last weekend during a lacrosse game, Braden was playing defense, scooped up a missed shot near his own goal, got out of traffic cradling the ball, went over midfield, got body checked hard by four different guys, kept on his feet and then shot and scored from 10 feet out. Coast to Coast, baby. Now that’s athleticism. He's just got to learn it on a different field.

Fifth, I admire initiative in a kid. Braden is parked on the sidelines, in full game viewing mode, when the team runs out of water. Suddenly, I see him go go speak with the coach, leave the field headed toward the team bus, and then come back holding a plastic crate of full Gatorade bottles. I laughed out loud at the subtle perfection of it all. Yes, truly his father's son.

Last, I always look for best in a less-than-desirable situation. Braden got on the team bus right after the game and I went back to work in the city. Later that night at home, I told him, “Well, well. Your first football game. Man, I really liked the way you manhandled that Gatorade crate.” He grinned, and familiar with my shtick because it’s rapidly becoming his, replied, “It wasn’t going to get by me.”