When you’re a kid, and a stranger in a strange land, it is absolutely, vitally important that you be cool.
It wasn’t always possible to be “bad.” “Bad” was a special kind of cool that carried other sort of things. To be “bad”, you had to be really great at something, or a lot of things. But most of all, you had to be tough to be “bad”. That was the keystone, the foundation, of all badness — being tough.
One of my problems was, I was a dork. I had thick glasses and bad teeth, and my thick torso and long limbs made me look funky and weird even though I was more athletic than I knew. That led to the second of my problems: lack of confidence. So, for the most part, I didn’t compete with other kids in physical activities, because I was convinced it would lead to embarrassment and not being able to be “cool” any more. Being cool was crucial; it was the difference between being an outcast and being a punching bag.
With all that going for me, my first exposure to physical education in Georgia was horrible. It meant being in shorts — decidedly uncool — in front of a lot of kids that were looking for reasons not to like you. It meant being forced to participate in sweaty, stinky games with and against other kids, putting my cool facade at risk repeatedly. In fact, every day. And it meant that I was likely to be the subject of a lot of whispering, laughing and pointing — all favorite activities of kids with a stranger in their midst.
I didn’t have any choice either. This is part of school — they don’t ask you if you want to do it or not. You just do it. I decided then, that hot, first early autumn school year, that I’d try. I’d really try to be less than a dork, and see if I could do it. If I couldn’t, well … I always had the asthma card I could pull out and use.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, while I wasn’t an exceptional athlete, I was able to keep up with other kids my age, and was actually superior to some of them. There was big John Magnussen, an overweight smart kid that did everything he could to avoid PE. He brought in a note every year that pretty much excused him from PE, and sat in the bleachers of the gym or on the grass on the field, watching it all happen. There was Johnny Hunter, too, and while he wasn’t overweight or anything, he was a nerdy kid, and didn’t do very well. They ended up being friends of mine, as you can imagine, because we were all outcasts. It was band together or be isolated and mistreated. There was at least a little safety in numbers.
Scott Bianca was, I was pretty sure, well on his way to being gay. He and another kid — whose name I can’t remember to save my soul — hung around together. The term “gay” wasn’t popular in that age group at that time, and it certainly wasn’t accepted. So there we were, trying to survive the schoolyard and the humiliation of PE, the four of us being scorned, picked last or not at all until the teacher had to assign us a team, or just ignored. We liked that best.
But in the end, I did all right. Not a lot of kids were superior, but there were a few. After a couple of months of getting used to trying and not taking anything too seriously, I didn’t dread PE quite so much. I still dreaded it, but not as much.
So, that gray and soggy day in October, in the heart of football season, it was time to play flag football on the practice field where the school team ran their routines.
Flag football was something I’d done in California for PE too. I was at least familiar with the game. So when the sides were divvied up and I was left standing there with my four nerdy friends, I decided I was going to go for broke and really try to play well. Not just keep up — outshine.
It was a bold move. I had to be great or I’d spend the rest of the school year as the butt of every joke by every kid on the football team. There was no room for error. Any screw-up would be certain kid rep death.
John opted out, and Johnny was gangly and awkward. Scott just did his best to hang out with his other femme friend and stay out of the melee. But I dove in head first.
At first, I was reserved. I was being careful and not making mistakes. After about 10 minutes of that, I was really opening up the floodgates. I made catches — a new thing for me then — and made plays, ripping flags free from ball carriers, rushing the quarterback, doing whatever was asked of me and doing it really well. It was all going great.
Then my big moment came. I’d been so cool, I was sent to cover a receiver. That was huge for nerds. You’re always asked to stay back, stay out of the way, play deep, make sure you don’t get in the way of the “good” players. But I was being asked to be one of the good players.
I was in my glory.
I stood there, watching the kid as he flanked out wide toward the fence. That side of the field was mucky and wet from all the heavy autumn rains. The field, belonging to a Catholic school, wasn’t the top priority for school funding, so it was bad. Mud holes, thin grass, and one side lined with viney, climbing plants of some kind that grew up over the cyclone fence separating the school from whatever was beyond it. I never knew, and still don’t.
He was nothing special and I figured it wouldn’t take much to cover him. He was out there alone — no one else lined up near him — so I figured he wouldn’t be getting the ball. He was just there, but I had been assigned to him and I wasn’t going to let him be open on my watch. When the ball was snapped, I was ready.
He did a little fake that didn’t fool me a bit. Then he backed up, shuffling toward the fence. He was really close to the edge of the field, and I thought he might go out of bounds, but I had my “cool” on, and I was covering him anyway.
I laid off a couple of yards, and watched the quarterback’s eyes. When they locked on my guy, my heart palpitated audibly. Seriously, I could hear the beating of my heart outside my chest. When the ball came racing in at me, on a line, I freaked.
I stepped up and sort of shut my eyes, putting my hands out in front of me to swat the ball away. I felt the pigskin slap on my palms and suddenly I was holding it.
I’d intercepted the pass.
It took me a second to realize what’d happened. I almost screamed, staring at the ball, but something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention and I looked up, my limelight short-lived.
Everyone and their uncle was running right at me, full-speed.
I almost yelped, but I had to be “cool”. I bit my lip and started my gawky, slower-than-molasses-in-January run down the field. I didn’t know what happened to the kid behind me, the one I’d been covering. The waves of shouting voices coming from my right drown out any footfalls coming my way and I just ran. I got up to speed like a Peterbilt truck, but I ran as fast as my hormonally-enhanced body would carry me.
I’d gone maybe 10 yards when the tide of kids came in from the right in front of me, cutting me off. I twisted my body, trying to keep my flag out of their reach, and swerved heavily to my left, trying to get around the swell of bodies in front of me. I was caught up in the moment, running like the wind, my long black hair whipping out from my face as I hurtled headlong forward and to the left farther.
That’s when I noticed the immovable object coming up on me fast and merciless.
I noticed for a moment that it was weird. Most cyclone fences had cylindrical posts, poles that held up the chain link portions. This one had I-beam posts, with the flat sides pointing toward the field — right at me.
I shut my eyes and held out my free hand, determined not to let go of the ball. A split second later my vision exploded into white and yellow sparks as my forehead careened off something, snapping back my head and causing a deafening ringing in my ears.
My weight shifted from the force of the blow, my head pulling back over the top of my body and sending me onto my back into the sloppy, gooey brown and red mud of the Georgia field. There was a splashy sort of plop! as I landed hard, full onto my back, my hair immediately sopping up water and flotsam from the turf, my clothes soaking through to underwear, jock strap and finally skin.
When I looked up, I was surrounded by kids, all looking somewhat concerned for me. My glasses were crooked on my face and I could only partially see the crowd, all of them murmuring and staring wide-mouthed at me. The PE teacher was bent over me, his hand resting on one knee.
“You okay?” he said, and I knew no matter how I answered, my “cool” was all gone, washed away by that muddy puddle in the middle of the practice field and swept away into the leaden sky.
“Yeah,” I lied, “I … I think so.”
“Can you move okay?”
I checked; all my limbs seemed responsive to my mental commands. “I think so.”
This brought a relieved bit of quiet laughter from everyone.
“Tell you what — that was one hell of a hit on the noggin. Why don’t you call it a day? Go get showered up.”
He lent me a hand and helped pull me out of the quagmire, and quickly whipped his hand down my back and legs to knock as much mud off as possible. I was glad my socks weren’t too bad — just a few spots from the splash. But I’d have to go without underwear the rest of the day.
As I handed him the ball and walked across the field, trying to knock more crap off my head and the backs of my arms, I was about three quarters of the way off the field when the teacher came up behind me, the game having resumed.
“Hey, hold up,” he said. “Why don’t you go ahead and call your parents when you’re done showering. Go on home for the day.”
I looked up quizzically. “Really? I mean, I’m okay, I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine.” Secretly, I wanted to go home. My head was ringing and throbbing and all my cool was long, long gone. I had no idea how I was going to face the rest of the day. And without a hair dryer to control my long locks, I knew I was in for even more uncool.
“You’re gonna end up with one hell of a headache, JD,” he said gently. “I don’t think you’ve got a concussion, but you should probably just rest for today.”
I shrugged. “Okay,” I said. I continued on toward the gym.
“Hey JD,” he called once again, and I turned around to look at him, still trying to knock the thick, gooey gunk from my skin.
“Great game, man,” he said, and smiled broadly. “Why don’t you think about playing next year?”
I smiled and went on my way.
I joined the team the next autumn, too.