Just about 25 years ago, for one week at the start of football season in 1988, I had the nickname “The Wedgebuster”
See, I played junior varsity football in high school. “Played” is a bit too charitable for my participation. I was 3rd-string center for a team that only had one other center, which was appropriate for a 14-year kid that was about 5’3” and 130lbs and ran the 40 in a blistering sub-8 seconds with the wind at my back, downhill.
But I went to every practice, listened to my coaches, paid attention, knew all my plays, hustled at (almost) every drill. To this day, the smell of just mowed grass and tobacco herbicides on a balmy August evening brings back almost fond memories of up-downs and ladder sprints.
I became The Wedgebuster because my sub-Rudy hustle earned me a place on the kickoff team the first two weeks. Our team didn’t kick off very much except if we won the toss. But there I was, the ceremonial arm-dropper, closer to the center where you stick the slow kid, and there I went, down the field right to the wedge, running as hard as I could right at the kid from two counties over, eyes filled with some combination of faux anger and bemusement.
And there I was – with what I can’t for the life of me remember happening, but game film clearly showed, lumbering down into the wedge, and managing to defy Newtonian physics by coming off it, backwards, with a velocity greater than the forward speed of the wedge. Which was replayed three times on whatever 70’s betamax reject VCR the athletic department owned, with the coach gleefully explaining “There goes The Wedgebuster”
I loved every minute of it. No really. Because I ran as hard as I could, did exactly what I was supposed to do, and left it all right there on the field. Seriously, I think I lost my mouthguard when my ass hit the ground.
But this isn’t about being the Wedgebuster. It’s about what happened the next week.
One of the coaches on the team was also the school’s wrestling coach, and loved to have us do all kinds of wrestling drills, from “monkey rolls” – but his favorite was the sumo drill, which is clearly supposed to be done between similar size kids.
Which is a little tough when one of those kids is a 6-foot close-to-300 pound 9th grader, that has beat every kid to that point, whereupon the coach announces “Who will take Sterling on next?”
And no says a word. No one. You know where this is going of course.
No one, until me. “When no one else will say it or volunteer for it, he will” – I’ve been the damn A-Team of speaking up all my life.
I held my own for about 25 seconds, and then all 300 pounds of Sterling landed on my outstretched leg, and the knee had nowhere to go but out, and being a knee on a 14-year old, right back in, in two loud pops that probably sent every deer in the county running away in fear, if not from the pops, than the otherworldly screams of a not-pain-tolerant child.
At that, the wedgebuster was gone, replaced with stories told by my teammates the rest of the season, full of high school sophomore sexual euphemisms at my 25 seconds of grunting, groaning, and straining, followed by two loud pops and high-pitched screams and wailing.
For my part, I won no awards, no medal for heroism. I ended up with a hairline fracture of my growth plate, which put me on crutches for nine weeks.
I never played football again. I mean who wants to play 3rd-string center and still have to run all the ladders the starters do? I shot golf, acted (okay, recited lines) in plays, and found out that I was pretty good at Calculus.
My A-Team volunteerism was as dumb right then as it was the next day.
But 25 years later? I wouldn’t change it for the world. For two consecutive weeks in the late summer of 1988, I went as hard as I could, did exactly what I was supposed to do, and I left it all right there on the field.
And that, really, is what it’s all supposed to be about, then, now, and tomorrow.
And when your 39-year old knee is sore on a warm April night, think about August, freshly mown grass, and call it “an old football injury.”