I was a lot of things when I was younger, but I was never a good football player. I tried, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Junior High School, seventh grade, and I’m on the football team. I don’t know what position I’m going to play but, hey, I made the team. Well, sort of. Let me tell you what happened.
One Saturday morning in early September, I was riding my bike over to visit my friends, Don and Bruce. I had a beautiful ten-speed that I had purchased at Jack’s Bike Shop with my paper route profits. I don’t remember what gear I was in, but I was standing up and pedaling as fast as I could to see how fast I could go.
Fate intervened, and my chain broke. Immediately, I went ass over teakettle, as the saying goes, and my left arm hit the curb and snapped neatly in two. Fortunately, two college girls who were driving by saw what happened and stopped to help me. They drove me to the hospital, where the doctor set my arm and called my mother to come get me. Later, when I was safely home, these two angels of mercy stopped by my house to see if I was okay. Okay? Are you kidding me? I have two gorgeous college girls checking on me! Hell, yes, I’m okay! They must know that I’m a football-playing stud.
Uh, not so fast there Tom Brady. They wouldn’t let me play with a broken arm, and so I spent the season on the sideline fetching water for the kids who could play. Never mind, I thought. I’ll get them next year. I’ll be in eighth grade and I’m one of the tallest kids in the school. I should mention that at twelve years old I was six feet tall. This would prove to be a major advantage when I played basketball, but not so much for football. To go with that height I probably weighed about 130 pounds soaking wet. I wasn’t big enough to be called skinny.
The football coach thought my physique was perfect for a wide receiver. I was tall and rangy, and I could run pretty well too. Coach forgot about one thing, however: I’ve worn glasses most of my life, and I quickly discovered that they wouldn’t fit under my football helmet. Without my glasses, I had great vision for about two feet. Beyond that all I could see was a lot of blurs. I would head down the field and turn to look for the ball, but I could never see it. This is not a good thing if you’re trying to catch the ball. Finally, after a perfect pass hit me square in the helmet, the coach decided I was not cut out to be a receiver.
Defensive end, that’s the ticket. I played on the left side of the defensive line, and the left defensive tackle was a classmate named Rick. Let me tell you, Rick was BIG. By far the biggest kid on the team, Rick would just tear up opposing running backs. I mean, this kid would eat them alive. Rick was perfect for me, because my job was to get into the backfield and turn the running back inside, where good old Ricky would gobble him up. I never even got hit. What could be better than that? Rick and I did our defensive dance all season, and he got a ton of tackles and I never even got a bruise. Yup, this football thing was for me.
In my freshman year of high school I made the team again. Actually, I think everyone made the team, because we needed bodies. Never mind, I’ll team up with Rick again, and once more we will be the scourges of the gridiron. Only one problem: the coaches moved me to offensive guard. I wasn’t meant to be a lineman. Linemen get hit a lot—and I mean a lot. I didn’t like getting hit and still don’t. This is not a good attitude for a football player.
I was so bad that they actually named a play after me. Linemen are given numbers to tell the running back where he’s supposed to run. The 2 hole was on the right side, between the guard and the tackle. On this play, I was playing guard on the left side, and when the ball was hiked, my job was to run behind the center and block the defensive tackle, who had been left alone for me to block. The play was called 31 at 2 Trap —31 was the number of the running back who would run for the 2 hole, where I would trap-block the defensive tackle. After missing my block four times in a row, our running back, Charlie, started calling the play Hagbag at 2 Trap (did I mention that Charlie called me Hagbag?). From then on, that’s what the play was called. I was immortal.
For some reason, I made the team again in my sophomore year. I’m really not sure why, because I still didn’t like getting hit, but all my friends were on the team, so it was fine with me. When I heard footsteps, I just ducked. I didn’t make the starting team. In fact, I never got into a single game. No matter, I reveled in my reflected glory—the glory of simply being a football player.
By my junior year I was beginning to seriously doubt my commitment to football. I knew I wasn’t going to play again this year, but I also knew I couldn’t quit. Real men (and sixteen-year-old boys) just don’t quit; they slog it out. After another disastrous football camp—at which the coaches tried me out at just about every position there was except quarterback—I was the kid without a position. If that’s your situation on a football team, the only use for you is as cannon fodder. I was just raw meat to be thrown to a bunch of starving dogs. The biggest kids in the school would clean my clock on a regular basis, and when I was put in, I could see them start to salivate.
Finally, halfway through my junior year, I couldn’t take it anymore. I grabbed my helmet and went to see the coach. After telling me to take a seat, he asked what he could do for me. I told him that I had decided I just wasn’t ever going to be good football player, and as much as it hurt, I said that the right thing to do was to quit, even though the very thought went against everything I believed in.
I’ll never forget his reaction. He leaned back in his chair and started to chuckle. “I’ve known since your freshman year that you weren’t going to be a very good football player,” he said. “I kept you on the team because no matter how bad it got or how badly you were beaten, you never, ever, ever quit or gave up. I wanted the other kids to know that if Hagberg, who isn’t even going to play, can take it, then so could they.” He then stood, shook my hand, put his arm around my shoulder and led me out of the locker room. To this day I’m not sure if I should have thanked him or punched him in the mouth for putting me through all that torture just to be an example.
And that is why I’m not a football player.