A long time ago, I allowed peers to lead me down the wrong path. Despite my parents’ warnings, I did something dumb. I endangered myself and others for no good reason.
I played high school football.
I have friends and neighbors who steer their kids into team sports because they say it builds character and teaches them about life and teamwork. Yeah, maybe. But team sports also have a nefarious side.
Ever read the book or seen the movie Friday Night Lights? Football was a little bit like that in my hometown in the Midwest. We just lacked the big stadium, nice equipment, talent and scholarship potential. It was small-town football with bush-league coaches who were shitty teachers by day so that they could be self-delusional coaches by night. None had yet faced the fact that being a middle-aged man coaching high school football in a two-bit town that no college recruiters bothered to visit was not the path to a promising career. The only real lasting thing I got from those bastards was a limp that still plagues me at age 42 when my ankle locks up. If there were any “life lessons” to be learned, we players had to find them on our own.
One night, we were practicing goal-line stands and blocking field-goal attempts. Blocking a kick is a somewhat crazy act: When the ball is snapped, you try to go over or through the offensive line as fast as possible to put your body in front of the ball within a split-second of it leaving the kicker’s foot. Any later, and it’ll be too far over your head and unstoppable. It’s something that’s best done in the heat of a real game, when adrenalin overrules brain function and you don’t bother to consider the ramifications of being hit in the head, throat or testicles by a hard, pointed object traveling at maximum velocity off the leg of a 17-year-old athlete.
On a cold weekday afternoon during a meaningless practice run by coaches too unsophisticated to protect their players from pointless scrimmage injuries, you have plenty of time to think about how much it’s gonna fucking hurt. The temptation to drag ass and save your body for game night is strong.
The head coach grew angry at a couple of guys he thought were intentionally moving slow off the snap, trying to avoid the ball. “Get in there!” he yelled. “Smother the ball! Let it hit ya! It’s not gonna hurt.” I was close enough to hear him mutter the next part under his breath as he turned around: “For more than two or three days.”
Other than how to fall properly, that’s the only lesson I learned from football that I can apply to mountain biking—or life, for that matter. Pain is temporary. Sometimes it’s worth enduring for the joy of the payoff. The roar of the crowd on an autumn night when your head snaps back and the ball bounces off your facemask back to the damp grass. The winter of remembering sweet singletrack and stealing glances at the scars left on your legs from a summer of great rides.
I’ve been thinking about that for the past few days after learning that a lifelong friend just had his marriage—his life—unexpectedly fall apart. I called his sister and got the phone number for the new place he rented. I haven't reached him yet, or figured out what to say. Part of me wants to tell him that things will be OK. This won’t hurt.
After two or three years.