Bull in the ring—the maker of men it is called. Much of life is experienced in these football rituals. Much of life is explained. Boys clad in armor are numbered off. They stand in a circle, arms-length apart, waiting in anticipatory perdition. Anxiety. Fear. Mania. Mouths void of moisture, void of speech, kids eye each other with suspicion and expectation as one steps into the middle. In a sport dictated by forcible impacts, by mass colliding with mass, this one pitiless ritual can make or break you. It made me.
Growing up a boy in Oklahoma in the 1970’s, you loved football. It was more than a sport. It was a rite of passage, a way to claim superiority and bragging rights from other towns, other schools, other neighborhoods. As a youngster my Saturdays were spent in the front yard. My friends and I threw the ball around, practiced jukes, tackles and touchdown poses. In the fall the University of Oklahoma game was blaring on a boom-box. We argued over which player we were. J.C. Watts, Buster Rhymes, Billy Sims. I was always Louie Selmon. We didn’t care what the weather was like, or anything else for that matter. Football was king.
In the seventh grade my school had an open tryout to play junior high football. I was always a smallish boy, so the idea of football in pads was daunting. The pressure to play well and to succeed weighed heavily on me. What if I was the next Selmon brother? I would be known, not as some socially awkward, glasses-wearing, smart kid, but as a football star. No more being picked last. No more painful shyness. No more debilitating uncertainty. I would be somebody.
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Coach Miller, a fire-plug of a man, much more agile than his large frame belied, strode around the circle making certain everyone had been numbered. In his quintessential coach’s voice, full of authority, doom and drawl, he explained the drill.
“Keep your head on a swivel,” he prescribed. “Meet your attacker. Be aware of him and meet him head-on. Find him and attack him.”
Under the unrelenting, summer sun he walked into the ring, on a dry field by the school building, goat head stickers crunching under his feet. He looked each of us right in the eye, making sure he saw us all. When my gaze met his I shuddered nervously as I felt the truth of this moment. This was the time: retreat, or announce myself to the world. My fear was palpable as the sweat rolled down my face. My cheap Riddell helmet was strapped as tight as I could get it. An ill-fitted mouthpiece pushed my lips apart and my shoulder pads felt like a millstone.
“Men, there’s nothing more important than knowing and understanding your surroundings.” As he pointed to the circle, he continued. “If he has his back to you, you hit him. We must see what’s coming at us; be aware of what’s coming. You’ll learn to keep your head on a swivel.” And then it began.
‘Twelve!” Coach Miller barked. CRACK! resounded across the field as a young man hurtled toward the “bull,” and was met in beautiful violence. “Four!” BOOM! “Fifteen!” CRASH! “Six!” THUD!
My number was eventually called and immediately I sprinted toward the center. A loud crash echoed through my ears. I realized I had been knocked to my backside. My cheeks reddened with shame as I quickly scrambled to get back to my spot in the ring.
Coach kept asking for volunteers to get in the middle, and my nervousness grew each time I failed to answer the call. Finally, I reached the terminus. I had to either act with courage, or shrink in fear. When I stepped in to the arena Coach looked at me dubiously. He asked the right question. “Are you sure you’re ready?” he said lacking malice but instead full of compassion and care. I nodded. I was ready.
“Tell It Slant”
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What happened next was a blur. I remember all of my repressed feelings of anger, of being ignored, of being less-than coming to the surface in a righteous rage. A holy flame bolstered me from the beating I took. I remember resolving not to give up as wave after wave of much larger opponents bore down on me. Knocking me down. Getting back up. Knocking me down. Getting back up. I remember tears stinging my eyes and mucus mixed with coppery blood running down my face as emotions too intimate to describe poured out of me. And then, it was over.
I heard Coach’s voice gently calling to me as my chest heaved with viscous sobs. “What’s your name, son?”
He broached the circle as I choked out my own name. He put his meaty hands on my shoulders and with fire in his eyes peered directly into my timid soul. He said something with such kindness, with such love that it shook my foundation, and changed my life forever. “That…is exactly what I’m looking for, that kind of effort. That heart is what it takes to excel in football. Son, don’t ever give that up.” Head lowered, exhilarated, emotionally exhausted, embarrassed, I left the circle.
There is more to the game of football than offense and defense, wins and losses, tackles and touchdowns. Certainly these things are important parts, but the greater truths, the life-lessons are much less obvious. Teamwork, loyalty, self-confidence, work ethic, persistence, overcoming adversity, these are things that the game teaches. But this man, this coach, taught much more than that. What he taught me were much deeper lessons. To me, there are three virtues above all else: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Brett Phillips is an incarcerated participant in the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, which worked with inmates across nine Colorado prisons on creative nonfiction essays. While at the Sterling Correctional Facility he wrote “Impact,” part of the anthology “Tell It Slant,” which was a finalist for a Colorado Book Award in that category.