Locker Room Longings
I flashed this morning on a scene from sometime in the late fall of 1963. It must have been raining, we were wet and cold, and now we were all back in the steamy hot locker room. The freshman football team. Last game, last practice – I don’t remember. The coach, I’ll hold on his name, was finishing his speech. The line, delivered at the end of his speech, which struck me was this: “The real heroes in here are the ones who never got in for a single play this year.” One of those things some coaches say.
I couldn’t tell you the team’s record in the fall of 1963. I was five foot seven and weighed probably 165 pounds – a lot more than I do now. I was the President of the freshman class, a mistake in a lot of judgements which I’d go back and change if I could but I can’t. For some reason I was assigned the position of guard on the team, the offensive line. That defies logic. And I was in the room that day, the last day, it smelled like a locker room of sweat and boys and wet uniforms and towels badly in need of a wash, and I was one of the players the coach was calling a hero, one of us – and there must have been very few – two, three, me – who never made it into one play through the entire nine-game schedule. I wonder how many offensive plays there are in a nine-game season, 12-minute quarters for the kids, say maybe 40? Does that sound right? Say it does, meaning out of some 350 or so opportunities to yell, “Cushman, get in there”, my coach chose to exercise that option zero times. Still – he said it made me a hero.
I wouldn’t say I was pudgy back then coming out of junior high school, not at all, but headed in that direction more than skinny. I was one of the three or four kids who, when the gym teacher made us run laps around the football field to get all warmed up and everything for gym class, I was one of the guys puking up against the chain-link fence. No one ever called me an athlete then. No one ever has, in fact, and no one ever will unless they go back and retroactively give ribbons or plaques, even scholarships, for hoisting consecutive brewskies, or for smoking fat doobies then chasing frisbees – giggling. Is giggling a sport?
So don’t ask me how I became a guard for an offensive line on a high school frosh football team sitting in the end-of-the-season locker room with all the guys, being labeled a “hero” by a coach who watched me roll out there in the mud and catch grass stains on the uni and give up every weekday afternoon, doing the suit up/show up thing, and decline some 350 times to tell me to get on in there.
There is likely no need to offer full disclosure of all things athletic and aggressive in my nature for you to make the leap of assumption that I probably sucked, and if the goal was to win the game, didn’t deserve to be in there. “What about the team?” Julius Campbell asks in “Remember the Titans”. No doubt. On the other hand, what about the kid? If you were coaching, say, a Tiger football team, sixth and seventh graders, and those players’ parents and friends were showing up to root them on, and the kids were out there banging on each other three or four times a week, wouldn’t the impulse be to give everyone on the team some playing time? That’s how I’d feel if I was the coach. On another other hand, if Bill Belichick lost a game to the Dolphins in the last few minutes with some questionable “substitutions”, and missed the playoffs as a result, and after in the press conference explained himself by saying, “I just wanted to give all the guys a chance out there.”, celebrity football God or not, the Bahstan fans would be howling for his head. NRA fans coming with AK’s. The Patriots are big business. It’s a business. The only goal is to win. If you suit up that’s what you show up for.
But the ninth-grade freshman football team? A lot closer to those Tigers than those Patriots, and in way more ways than simply birth certificate dates. I don’t know. You hear people say it makes no sense to regret the past. I’ve never bought that, I regret lots of my past. Ache about some of it. Hell, I’d go back and not be the class President, which was stupid and useless. I’d leave alone most of the women I “dated”, for all of our sakes. I’d of found my way out to California earlier than I did, and stayed way longer, become a poet. Instead of freshman football I’d probably run cross country, considering I took up running about 18 years later from that day in the locker room, and ran my ass off for the next 25 years, and loved it. Loved running. I’m a runner.
I’d also go back there, to that locker room on that day, late fall freshman year, and when the coach was done telling me and a special few others that we were heroes, raise my right hand to speak, get acknowledged – at last – and say, “Fuck you.”
Oh my God – class President and all!!!