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Fumble Drill

September 12, 2015

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Its becoming fall, people complain less about heat, more about politics, and watch football, mostly on TV. Mostly NFL. Hundreds of millions watch the tiniest portion of an activity imaginable.

Thousands of high schools, hundreds of colleges, and 32 NFL teams play. But like every symphony, every PHD, every person the moments of encounter are the minuscule tips of massive icebergs – below those tips is a sea of effort, focus, triumph and regret. Its literally judging a book by its cover, a person by their clothes, or buying a car based on color.

In other words its the way almost all of us make almost all of our casual choices: impression, prejudice, following a pattern of belief that is self-reinforcing in its consistency.

In 1970 I was a caricature that was easily, and often correctly, judged: a 15 year old with a blobby body, silly clothing, undefined hair. I had come to think there were 2 ways I could control the messaging to myself (and then the rest) that I had worth.

First was what I had already used for 10 years: grades. That got off to a bumpy start in high school with a C in my first German grade freshman year, but in first semester sophomore year it was evening out.

Second was more problematic. I truly wanted to play football. I honestly did not fantasize about being good, I just wanted to play. When you are not-so-good at anything you do not perform as much as get better in practice. That was me: a sophomore blocking dummy in practice for the kids that could play.

But it was worse than that. Every team has a kid who is hopelessly incompetent, but tries hard – and thus fails spectacularly before the tiny assembled audience of his fellow attempters. I was, without doubt the worst player on the 1969 Park Pioneers Football Team.

The rest of the team was so good that in one of the team’s many blow-out victories that year, I got to play. That meant, as the symbol of extreme ineptitude, the team cheered wildly for me, by name, when I was in there.

It was a Special Olympics Moment.

My brother, as nonathletic as I was, thought I was a hero, had “a great game” (perhaps 8 plays) and this made it infinitely worse. My world was supposed to be the unseen mass of the iceberg, in practice, where crushing incapacity was hidden within the affinity group. But I was there, before a few hundred people. I did no horrible error, no one sacked the back-up QB off a missed block, but the exaggerated cheering meant not screwing up was triumphant. I was that bad.

The winter after that season saw imposed wrestling by the football team’s offensive coordinator. Of course I lost every match. But that coach taught me how to lift weights. The spring meant that same coach imposed shot and discus. That meant a lot of running with the track team. With the help of the testosterone spigot being turned on I had turned perhaps 45 pounds of fat into perhaps 15 pounds of muscle.

I looked to the summer and saw a way to get better: running and lifting weights. There was the Buffalo Downtown Y with a weight room in the sub basement next to the boiler room, a track cantilevered over the basketball court, off duty cops and the men the Village People sang about.

I came back to August 1970 football practice on the Niagara Frontier Transit bus leaner, sort-of in shape and realizing I still totally sucked.

The pity taken on the worst player on the team was no longer given to me: instead I was a jackass who might try to make a play in practice against a starter. After 40 years my right upper front tooth is still shy of its mate after an elbow found its mark. Beyond expressing their disdain for attempts at competence, the starters inflicted the classic “Lord of the Flies” dominance games between drills and practices as well.

But not from everyone. The boys who lived closer to this tiny day school were the classic suburban high school athletes who found solace in playing up the ladder of competence in athletic Darwinism. But the local boys were not why we won games.

Several scholarships were given to deserving black Buffalo inner city kids. Who happened to be athletes. They lived as far away as I did, we took the same NFT bus – they just walked east off Main Street and I walked west. I did not drink, or wear much tweed, lived downtown and was never invited to any parties. My fellow NFT bus riders were not either.

Well, since they could play, and I sucked, they tolerated me and eschewed the nastiness now called “hazing” that was called “giving the Plebes shit”. I lived a world apart from them a couple of blocks away.

One such kid was Bob Colvin, who wore a leather jacket, smoked, and was about as nice a person as you could meet. Until he was on the practice field. Then he, understandably, wanted to win. Starting as a junior, both ways, he had the size, speed and power to be a two way starter at tight end and linebacker.

One classic October afternoon, with no apparent sun, under a sky full of dirty cotton the team had finished Cal’s, (calisthenics – now called warm-ups and stretching) and went to “Individuals” where players of specific positions did drills together.

We were such a small team that all linemen and tightends went to one side of the field and the “skill” positions were sent to the other. The drills were dull, repetitive, almost ritualistic in manner and predictability – not just of routine, but outcome.

I, and other miserables, would get our asses kicked as we tried to block, tackle and execute the proper technique against starters. It was a honing time for the starters and a learning time for the Plebes.

For reasons that are still unclear to me (even after I went on to coach football for 7 years) we lineman were tasked with doing a “Fumble Drill”. Two lines of players in either side of a disinterested coach (who was a French teacher an hour or so before practice) who tossed a ball between the first 2 in the line. Upon tossing, both players ran to get the ball, by any means necessary, often with extreme prejudice.

This day my misfortune was to be lined up beside Bob Colvin, who smiled at me through his facemask, knowing that the outcome would be as it had been for 2 seasons, either he cleanly outran me (I was still the slowest kid on the team, despite running at the Y) or if I got close knocking me off my feet to scoop up the ball.

This 10 second drill was repeated thousands of times over a season of practices – and each was one of the hundreds of tiny points of victory and loss that each of us on every team at every level of every sport goes through.

The gametime results of these trivial redundancies are then seen by hundreds, thousands and millions of non-performing people in the stands or watching TV who can can safely declare with certitude the character, flaws and virtues of those they are watching. Knowing nothing.

On this dull evening the ball was casually flipped out by the coach as it had been 20 times before and would be 20 times more during that practice. It bounced straight down the field, for 5 then 10 yards. Bob and I launched from our crouch positions and the ball popped a little towards Bob, but I had been on it and launched into him. Knocking him off the ball, hard, I grasped it to my belly, as taught. For the first time, ever, I won a tiny battle against someone I deeply respected.

That moment pivoted my life.

I was not “king of the world”. I would not play much if at all the rest of that season. But I saw that the hundreds of hours, alone in the Buffalo Downtown YMCA had done something. Something could be made more. I could control some small aspect of my life other than grades.

Bob popped up from his being laid out laughed and said “Whadya know?” And we jogged back to the ends of the lines.

Wrestling weightlifting had more purpose, though I never won a match. Shot & Discus meant running – without placing in any meet. But the summer of 1971 meant I donned 5lb ankle weights and never took them off except at practice and when teachers forbid them for the next 2 years. I was not the slowest guy on the team any more. I then transformed the remaining 25 pounds of fat into muscle.

The 1971 summer practices saw me do damage. Walking back with the black scholarship kids to the bus that took us downtown from practice in the heat and dehydration I wondered out loud, “Will I start?” Bob looked at me, smiled broadly and said, “If you ain’t, nobody is!”

A second unseen pivot. I could do this.

I had done something with very little. It was not much, but it was something. As you might expect, I wrote about the fumble drill at the time, in a long lost and forgotten essay for my English Class. That got the A.

But I remember the gist: I got the ball.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Nancy Hanna permalink
    September 12, 2015 10:04 am

    Stunning! See you on Sept. 26…. Love Nancy +

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