Over the course of my childhood I had quit enough sports to fill the games of the next Olympiad. There was Karate, hockey, basketball, baseball, golf and a misguided two weeks where I thought my fat could be used as propulsive mass to effectively launch a shot put. But once I realized you had to run if you were on the track team, even if you were only on the track team to throw things and get a sweet tracksuit, I promptly quit.
But I had kept at football, even though I basically hated it. In Junior High, I was one of the star players. I was the best lineman on my team simply because I was impossible to move. The most athletic of opponent could rip and swim and push and pull and I would barely budge. I was the Weekend at Bernie’s of football players. Or the Jabba the Hut of football players. But the first one makes me less sad in my soul.
Once high school came, however, some players outgrew my size, and all of them outgrew my skill. Still I kept at it, because it was the only sport where my size didn’t make me a liability. It was the only sport I was even remotely good at. Plus, it was the only thing letting me cling desperately to the final, rusted rung at the bottom of the cool kid ladder.
So I had made the decision long before high school began that I would see football through to graduation. Once I decided to continue this pigskin career, I had one goal: Don’t end up in a wheelchair. All of my efforts in the sport were focused on not getting hurt. A goal I failed to achieve in spectacular – and repeated – fashion. I managed to build up quite the injury list in my six years on the gridiron. Most of them were the result of me being fat and out of shape.
Shin splints were the injury I got the most. But that’s what happens when you engage in little-to-no physical activity all year and then try to move 200 pounds of cheese popcorn, soda and accumulated meat sweats. When you have shin splints it feels like your bones are trying to burst through your skin like that arm wrestling scene in The Fly. It makes it even harder for a fat kid to run than it normally is. And it’s not the kind of injury you can tell your coaches about to get out of conditioning. See, in coach logic, if your legs hurt because you’re too fat to run, you should run until you’re no longer too fat to run.
But shin splints weren’t the only injury I received during 6 years of playing football. I broke fingers, sprained ankles and once had my facemask smashed into my face so hard that it cut me open in three places. And I owe most of those injuries to one teammate: Jon Jadjewski.
Jon was 200 pounds, too. Except his weight was all muscle. At the age of 14 he was already one of the most legendary athletes our school had ever known. He was strong, fast and took delight in hitting someone so hard they left sweat angels in the grass. And, because we played the same positions on offense and defense, the person lying on the ground across from him trying desperately to breathe was usually me.
Jon was a starter, and I was a ‘second-stringer,’ AKA ‘human-shaped object you should feel free to take out your aggression on.’ During our senior season, we both suffered career-ending injuries. I separated my shoulder during the one game I decided to actually put some effort into playing. I tried to tackle someone and fate decided to rip all the muscles off my shoulder and put me in an immobilizer for three months as punishment. My injury was treated with the kind of attention given to the firehouse Dalmatian when he eats too many beef sticks and pukes everywhere. When Jon tore his ACL in the 4th quarter of the game that would decide whether or not our undefeated season concluded with a shot at the state championship, it was like everyone in the stands had just watched Terms of Endearment. I think players on the other team cried. And as I stood on the sidelines, suddenly feeling very silly in my immobilizer sipping a Gatorade I hadn’t earned, my face flushed as I felt the full weight of the insult that had just been added to my injury. I had spent four years as a glorified tackling dummy for the sum total of two games’ worth of playing time.
That’s the dirty little secret of organized sports in schools. They let just about anyone join the team, but if you’re not good enough to start you spend most of the season working just as hard as the starters at practice, only to ride the pine while the fitter and faster make the plays and earn the praise. The coaches feed you a big line of bullshit about how, “being a part of a team is its own reward” and “helping the starters prepare for the game is just as important as playing” but the only people who buy that are the kids who just got off home-schooling.
Fact is; football practice sucks. I would’ve rather rubbed Icy Hot on my genitals than practice. Football, more than any other sport, manages to suck every last bit of fun out of practice. You start by donning twenty pounds of equipment that, over the course of the season, begins to smell like rotten eggs and mold had a baby together. Next, you do calisthenics while the coaches scream at you to, “get those feet chopping,” or “hustle,” or “get off your knees and do your push-ups like a man.” After that, it’s on to at least an hour of running into people at full speed, all while making sure to keep your head up so you don’t snap your spinal cord and become paralyzed for life.
Seriously, parents are concerned about kids playing violent video games?
After school sanctioned full-contact fighting is over for the day, the coaches make you do a bunch of sprints again so they can berate you about how slow and stupid you look while running. Then, you get to go back to the locker room and shower together. Because the only way to top an afternoon of rubbing your sweaty body up against another guy’s sweaty body is to then silently compare genitals.
Each summer, as July turned to August, I’d get a hollow feeling in my stomach. “Conditioning week” – the first week of practice for the season - was approaching. This was practice where you didn’t have to wear pads, but you did have to run in the afternoon sun until you threw up your Cocoa Puffs.
I always spent the bulk of my summer doing as little physical activity as possible. There’s a vicious circle that happens during the summertime when you’re fat. Because of the extra weight, you get hot and sweaty a lot easier than normal humans, which makes you want to sit, unmoving, next to the air conditioner. Which, of course, makes you fatter. But that wasn’t the only reason for my sedentary summers. I also refused to do much beyond eating cheese popcorn and watching Kevin Spacey films on VHS because I knew conditioning week was coming.
The day before practice started, as I swapped out The Negotiator for The Usual Suspects again, I’d realize that I should’ve been running all summer to prepare myself. And that the 5-10 pounds I’d packed on over the past two months were only going to make things that much harder. There was only one solution: Cram a whole off-season’s worth of conditioning into one afternoon.
I’d pull out my Walkman, rifling through my music collection in the days before the instant-gratification of iPod shuffling, looking for the perfect soundtrack to the epic fitness montage that was about to begin. Because I don’t have a great deal of imagination, I would usually settle on that one song from Rocky. Then, with visions of my feet pounding the pavement in time to the driving beat as the road stretched on for miles behind me, I’d lace up the new running shoes I had never used and head out to begin my run.
Five minutes later, after a block and a half of lung-shredding shuffling, I’d be back on the couch, nursing my blister and watching Keyser Soze shake off that limp. After my breathing returned to normal and my legs stopped twitching like meth addicts, I would stand up, march to the kitchen and dramatically throw any and all snacks I could find into the trash. It was usually right around here that I remembered hearing how you burn more calories chewing celery than celery actually contains. And I would then decide to eat nothing but celery until I lost a bunch of weight. At which point I would taste it and remember that I hate celery. It tastes like sour dirt.
By now the sun would be setting, and I knew that the next time I saw the sun, it would be through a facemask while I struggled to do sit-ups. I never slept much on the night before football practice began. I watched the clock incessantly, counting down the minutes till my summer was over and hell began.
Whenever dad told me stories about boot camp, I’d nod in sympathy. In my mind, the Marine Corps was just conditioning week with bugles.