Why you should care
Because this is one victory a pigskin can’t bring.
The writer has authored six books and lives in Hayward, California.
Some played the game to win, others for fun. I played it to live. If you listened, you could hear: It teaches many things. How to measure the distance between where you were and where you are today. But there is one thing football has never been able to bestow on anyone, and that’s courage. But it gave me a place to go; it brought me out of a dark place into a marvelous light. It took a broken little boy and helped make him whole. For once I tasted what it feels like to win. I had hunger engraved deep inside me, in my very purpose.
We would play tackle football on the side of the house in the neighborhood where I grew up. It was a street called Glenpark Drive: all brick houses, spaced far apart. I was faster than just about everyone at that time, so I got thrown the ball a lot. An early memory: My brother Terry, who, for whatever reason, was always on the opposite team, didn’t like my skills, so this particular time he thought to teach me a lesson. I was attempting one of my many patented moves, when out of nowhere, I felt someone grab me by the arm and my T-shirt and swing me around in midair … into the side of one of those brick houses.
I was damn good, and, yes, all the girls loved me. But what is a rise without a fall?
I was in pain. My arm was killing me, but in football there was always a place to put the pain — into the caverns of my hunger, where I’d feed off it and let it fuel me for the next game, and the next, and the next. Where I’m from, there was no crying. True grit and getting nasty with it, that was the way we were taught to play. We didn’t have the money to get good gear, so I wore anything I could find — worn shoes, the wrong ones, bad shoulder pads, homemade mouthguards. I felt football was my only way out. I did whatever my coaches told me to: I ran, tackled and dove for every pigskin that came within my reach. I played for years and I was damn good, and, yes, all the girls loved me. But what is a rise without a fall? I hadn’t done the learning in school I needed to do, a misstep that would haunt me for years to come.
Still, I made it to college, which I have football to thank for. I headed to Angelo State University to play, and it’s there the game showed me true peaks and valleys. The first valley, the one that stands out: We were playing Abilene Christian University in my senior year when one of the worst moments of my life took place. It was a big game, and our star wide receiver, Michael Ealons, who was playing on the opposite side of the formation from me, came face to face with my biggest flaw. I could never remember which routes I was supposed to be running.
Coaches would map it out on papers with symbols that meant nothing to me, symbols I couldn’t read. The route I had to run that day? Right 926, 9 route, straight down the field, but when the play started, I just wanted to run the fastest route possible to get open. I remember running across the middle and seeing Michael coming toward me. I panicked, and a part of me went back to my childhood, between those houses on Glenpark Drive; it was either me or him, and I did what I had been taught … survive at all costs. I lowered my shoulder and braced myself for the impact, and before I knew it, I had knocked out my own teammate in front of a stadium full of people.
So there I was, crouching over him and wishing that I could somehow disappear. I remember coming off the field, all of my teammates wondering what happened. By the time we had made it to the locker room, I was the butt of all jokes. I had injured the best offensive player we had on the team. My coach yelling, “What is wrong witchu? What are we going to do?” And that’s when he spat out my dark secret: the fact that at 20 years old, I still couldn’t read. It was subtle, but it wounded me. “You can catch,” he said, “but you just can’t pass!” You might have heard it and mistook it for football lingo, but I knew. He was reminding me I couldn’t even pass the class. Not a ball, but my life. I had made it to college, but I hadn’t learned in those years the most vital and important thing of all: read.
Had I been able to read, I would have been on the same page with the team. Without language, I was blind; I would injure the world around me and destroy my own success.