Too little [but never] too late…

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I have always been a late bloomer, for my stature dubbed with nicknames that included ‘micro’ in them by classmates and stood only 5′-3″ on my first driver’s license.  In my class of over one hundred I was simultaneously second oldest and also, of the guys, the second smallest.  I was too light weight to even donate blood until my junior or senior years of high school.

Beyond that, I was also a little behind in motor skills and sorely lacking in coordination; it was as likely in my early teens that a football would hit me in the face rather than be caught by my hands.  It probably didn’t help anything that I didn’t grow up tossing a ball at home, my dad was equally undeveloped athletically, he did not follow professional sports and we just weren’t a sports oriented family.  It all added up to me often being close to last picked in gym class, which wasn’t much of boost of confidence to say the least and perhaps explains the antipathy I had towards athletic pursuits.  For the time I had concluded athletic competition was for big dumb brutes, not me.

Then, somewhat inexplicably, I became interested in the high school football team.  I do not recall what started it.  There may have been a combination of factors, I do not know for sure.  But, my junior year, I started to attend games (even hitched a ride with the team to an away game) and around the same time began to lift weights and imagine myself on the field.  Football, I discovered, was about more than one guy being able to run over another; football was also a chess match of strategy involving slight of hand trickery and all trying to gain an advantage or out smart an opponent with misdirection, formations and plays.  So, at 5′-8″ tall and 112lbs, I decided I would go out for the team despite my late start and my shortcomings of natural raw abilities understood.  I wanted to try.

Over the summer I practiced with the team, but the real commitment began with the ‘two-a-day’ practices and with the start of my senior year.  It was hard work physically.  I can remember a time in practice a collision that I had thought for a second had collapsed my entire spine like an accordion.  I also recall the sheer terror of having to occasionally face padded behemoths who were close enough to double my weight.  I have not forgot being ran over by a fellow senior in a tackle drill an act I imagine included a big grin on his face.  Had I known some of the bruises and pain beforehand I might have second thoughts about my decision to play, but once started I was determined to endure to the end whatever it took.  From the onset I knew I was not likely to play much due to inexperience and size, yet I was a competitor all the same and wanting to make the team better if only with a winning ‘no quit’ attitude.

There was plenty of reward.  After weeks of practice there was the proud moment of wearing your game jersey on Fridays at school before game night.  Football made me part of something when I saw teammates in the halls or got ‘good luck’ wished upon me by random students.  I was a warrior, a representative of my school and had earned the team colors that I wore on my back.  I was #13 (I figured an unlucky number fit an unlikely player and couldn’t hurt) and now called ‘Stoltz’ or ‘Stoltzy.’  Those nicknames were the chant of teammates on the sidelines when I stepped onto the field for those few last plays that iced a blowout win.  I belonged.

But the biggest reward was the handshakes and hugs of coaches at the end of the season.  It was after a disappointing loss that ended our season in the first round of playoffs.  We lost to a team we had beaten prior in the regular season.  It was a very emotional moment to be at the end of my first and last season as a player.  Nevertheless it was satisfying to have finished, having survived from the blistering heat and throbbing shin splints of preseason camp to outlasting the bone chilling *shivering* cold of late season practices.  I received a varsity letter for my efforts and with it memories to last a life time.

If I would have any regrets it would be declining my chance to play in the waning minutes of that decisive last game.  An assistant coach had tapped my shoulder telling me to go in the game.  But, because I knew my entering the game was a tacit admission of defeat and keeping the starters in would increase the unlikely chances of victory, I refused saying, “I don’t want to play, I want [us] to win!”  I regret my choice, but only because the sophomore who went in my place caught my favorite route (a deep post) and seemingly could’ve scored with just a bit more heart; he came up a yard short.

I graduated from high school, but to me there is still nothing like a crisp fall night under the lights and watching those bright green jerseys take the field one more time.  And now I have another loyal fan who often accompanies me, who also (less inexplicably) began to love the sport he once thought was silly and that fan is my dad.  We sit there, it is our yearly ritual, we share memories of past games, talk about life and cheer on the team…

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