When I was a boy, I was always just a little afraid – of being hit or hurt, making a mistake, looking stupid. It wasn’t readily apparent, but I always was fearful that my weakness would be revealed, that everyone could probably see the fear in my eyes. Then, I surmised, when I wasn’t around they would talk about what a chicken shit I was.
Most of my friends, I was convinced, were never afraid. Not Pete Treat, only 5’8”, but ate glass and never backed down from anything. Or Bill Payes, a silver spooned maniac who incited others to riot, Others like Bucky who, one day feeling maligned by our demanding football coach, picked him up and threw him against the locker room wall almost knocking him out. And he got away with it because he did the same thing to opposing centers.
Then there was this big raw-boned farm boy, Ronnie Butts, gentle as a kitten unless defending his end of the line. He would just toss offensive linemen like bales of hay, He never talked, just created mayhem.
I had come to the Midwest hicksville town when I was 15 – kicking and screaming – from an elitist suburb where most everyone went to college, owned a car, belonged to a country club and seemed to grow up being a stock- broker or insurance salesman, that is, if they weren’t a doctor or lawyer. My new friends, in contrast, were a mix of small town, rich, poor, farmers, suburban kids living in the last rural outpost of Chicago – hayseeds who worked and played together in all the ways kids do who weren’t consumed with lives of how much, how fast, shopping malls and being the best.
These new friends had played together since first grade and, now in a school of 400 in a town of 4000 they hardly knew how good or how big they were until as seniors they went undefeated in football, won 26 basketball games and went to the state championships – an astounding tribute to their toughness and skill.
I was a runty half-back playing football, I just tucked my 150 pound body behind the big trees on the line and dashed around, afraid, but determined not to let them down. Of course, I would make the obligatory tackles, break off an occasional run and made a rare block or two; but, it was never really carefree and spontaneous or having fun like the rest of the guys. We were so good and so much better than the other teams that even I received accolades and awards. One small college wanted to give our whole team, lock stock and barrel, scholarships. It never would happened, but what a great idea.
Deep inside I didn’t believe that I deserved nary an honor as long as I felt one ounce of fear.
So, I went to college feeling like a fraud and not intending to play football at all. I had chosen a Minnesota college where I’d be able to play hockey, my true love and fearless passion. You see, football is terribly premeditated – with lots of time to think of the consequences, to analyze one’s feelings, to dwell on “what could happen.” Hockey, on the other hand, is a reaction game where speed shots raw adrenaline into your brain and excises fear. In hockey I could be Bucky Grom, or Pete Treat – diving, crashing, fighting, never hurt, never worried.
Habit, Fear and the Truth But, I get ahead of my story. I had played football every year since I was ten years old. Despite all of the old apprehensions and self-doubts, in college I found myself, once again drawn, like vice to the devil, to football.Slightly bigger, I was now more experienced, a tad tougher and a proven winner, but, my brain still got in the way of my guts.
I must have learned something because not only did I make the freshman team, but, I was made co-captain. If they only knew how nervous I was they surely would have sent me packing. Always nervous that one day they would uncover the truth, I continued the charade, running scared. No matter how I performed, I have passion for the game. I just couldn’t kick the habit.My freshman year our varsity won the league championship – undefeated for the first time ever; moreover, only one player wasn’t returning the next year. Entering as a sophomore, my performance anxiety had decreased considerably, and I guessed that I would feel a lot less pressure to succeed.
End of Another Myth One day early in the pre-season practice, I was sent into the backfield, ostensibly to block for our all-conference wild man, Petsey Voss. He could stop trains with his glance, afraid of nothing. Suddenly, he had the ball. It was like a bad dream. I was running in front of him leading him around left end. I felt his hand on my butt, using me like a probe as we moved toward the oncoming hoards. He expected me to sacrifice my body and block the onrushing linebacker or tackle whose job was to demolish first me, and then Petsey.
Apparently, Petsey had never been told that I was not a blocker, that I had rarely run interference in high school, and that I found the idea of placing my body in front of the approaching monster tackle quite distasteful. Through gritted teeth, Petsey snarled, “Look prick, if you fuck up this block I’ll personally whip your ass.”
Suddenly, there was no doubt whether the greatest source of fear was in front of me, behind me or within my failing psyche. There, coming straight at us, was the all conference tackle, Bruce Mahachick, roaring and hungrily eyeing me up . I don’t remember being crazy enough to throw my body across his knees and, truth be told — I never felt a thing. I do remember old Petsey prancing untouched into the end zone with a grin a mile wide and shaking his fist in triumph.
The elation quickly turned to grief as Petsey, beside himself with wild-eyed enthusiasm, came running back to the huddle mumbling “Hey, you’re my boy – yes sir, you’re my boy.” And, sure enough, from that minute on, for the next three years, I was a blocking back, laying my body out on a daily basis.
A New Perception – A New Reality It was difficult to believe that fear no longer ruled, that I had crossed over some line that turned a terrified act into a normal experience and cast away the weighty albatross that had plagued my life. It was not so much that Bucky and Pete had courage – but rather that they had freedom from their own voices of restraint. They had refused to let their minds manufacture the fear that would block their willingness to act. My inhibition was my own creation.