In the fall of my seventh grade year, I joined my school’s football team. I didn’t have any interest in sports, but I did have an interest in girls, especially the ones who had miraculously “filled out” over the summer break. These girls seemed more interested in athletes than shy, quiet guys who wrote poetry, watched Masterpiece Theatre, and read the New Yorker during lunch period. When I told my mom I had signed up for the team, she looked at me as if I had just announced a plan to trade my piano lessons for a taxidermy course. “Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked when I handed her a list of the gear I needed. “You’re going to get dirty.”
At the sporting goods store, I noticed one item on the list was described as an “Athletic Supporter with Cup.” I thought this was some type of personal hydration device, like a team-branded thermos with a detachable mug. But when I pulled the item off of the shelf and looked at the illustration on the back of the package, a chill went down my spine. Up until that point it had not occurred to me that playing football might actually lead to injury. I had imagined strutting down the junior high halls in my jersey and chatting up cheerleaders on the sidelines, masculine scenarios that didn’t require strapping a plastic bowl to my crotch. My mom could sense my fear. “You’ll probably spend most of your time on the bench,” she said, which was simultaneously comforting and insulting. Phrases like that are a talent she still possesses.
I was late to my first practice and the field house was empty when I walked in. I found my locker and spent the next half hour battling a set of shoulder pads. When I finally put on my helmet, I was so top-heavy I feared falling over as I walked out onto the field. The coach, a man whose stomach spilled over his polyester shorts like a sack of fertilizer about to fall off a tailgate, yelled my name and pointed to a spot near the middle of the field. “You’re a safety,” he said, which was encouraging not just because of the word “safe” but also because I was a good fifteen yards from where the ball was sitting. A moment later someone yelled “HUT!” and soon an enormous player was sprinting towards me with the football cradled in his arm. “Tackle him!” I heard the coach yell. I took a step backwards, spread my arms wide, and then closed my eyes. The next thing I remember I was flat on my back listening to the coach scold me like I was a stray dog that had just urinated on his leg.
As the next play started, I sheepishly limped off the field. When I reached the field house I kept going, out through the gate and into the parking lot where my mom was sitting in her car. “I didn’t think that would last long,” she said as I climbed in the passenger seat. “But I’m proud of you for giving it a try.” I was shaken and sore, but at least I had impressed one woman.