Today is the Superbowl. What is it … something like 110 out of 100 homes are supposed to be tuned in? I will be. (Frank won’t care – he doesn’t care what’s on TV so long as he’s able to sit in my lap!) There will be Superbowl parties, Superbowl bar gatherings, Superbowl specials at the grocery store, etc. etc. And let’s not forget the Superbowl TV ads – my particular favorite was the “Darth Vader” kid, whose dad let’s him think he’s magically started the family’s VW using “The Force”.
With all that said, you might think I’m a huge football fan. I’m not. I watch on average maybe a dozen games a year, mostly in the playoffs. Full disclosure … I might tune in a few more games than that – you can only watch Pretty Woman, Big Trouble in Little China, and Armageddon a few dozen times or so before they get tiresome. But even then, I’m either surfing the net, cooking or as happened this past season, playing with Frank. On the ESPN site, you can personalize the index bar, arranging the sports in your own order of preference. My index bar? “MLB, NHL, NBA, NFL” … that’ll give you an idea of where the sport ranks for me. Football is “okay”. But I’ll get back to that.
I spent some time on the phone last night with my buddy Larry (still living out in the San Francisco Bay area). If you become a regular on my blog, you’ll see his name appear quite often. If I were Butch Cassidy, Huckleberry Finn or Oscar Madison, Larry would be Sundance, Tom Sawyer or Felix Unger. Brothers from a different mother. Anyhow, it dawned on me yesterday that New Year’s Day is only 20 days away! Let me explain … most people celebrate New Year’s on January 1st. For the Chinese, it starts in February. The astrological new year starts in March. Mine? This year, mine starts on February 20th … that’s the day Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Fort Myers, Florida! I’m 20 days from baseball!
After that realization hit, I spent most of yesterday morning online, reviewing all the personnel changes the Sox had made, analyses from every corner of the internet, what the moves meant for the Sox as it related to the luxury tax … not just this year, but for 2016. And I emailed a bunch of articles to Larry, just in case he had missed any of them (which I’m sure he hadn’t because he’s as big a Sox fan as me).
That lead up to the phone conversation which, after 30 minutes of baseball talk, turned to today’s game, then to my trip plans and the blog. I told him that I’m sort of drying up as to what to write about, now that I’m in a holding pattern, waiting for some other things to happen before moving forward. I said, “Maybe I’ll make a new category about the Red Sox and write about that,” to which Larry replied, “Red Sox? Tomorrow’s the Super Bowl … who the hell wants to read about baseball? Write something about football! Write about your playing career!”
My “career” if you want to call it that, wasn’t much of a career. The highlight and the lowlight happened within about 3 days of each other – I had been given “walk-on” status at the University of Nebraska as a placekicker. Three days later, I was lying in the university medical center. I was taken there after a pretty gruesome injury. I was playing “street football” with some buddies of mine behind the dorms. Just a friendly game. I was barefoot (to this day, I still wear shoes as little as possible, but that’s me). I saw a friend, “Flip”, toss a football to another guy, knew I could intercept it, and ran back to cover the receiver. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground, stunned. It took what seemed an eternity for me to grab hold of my wits, only to see my friends gathered around, telling me to just lie there, that Flip was going to get his car to take me to get help. And then I saw my foot. What “stunned” me was a manhole cover, sitting a couple of inches above the pavement. In hurrying back to get to the ball, my foot had hit the cover just right (or better put, just wrong), immediately under my big toe. And the running force I had generated turned its edge into a blade – it had torn the ball of my foot nearly off, dangling off the side by a thin piece of flesh, exposing bone. My buddies wrapped my foot in a sock and tied it real tight to stay the bleeding and put me in the car.
Forty some-odd stitches later, lying in the bed, I was still stunned … more so when the doctor started talking about the rehab work i would need. I casually asked him about what this might do to my placekicking ability and he replied, “Placekicking? Son, we have a long way to go before you’ll be able to even walk normal again!”
After my buddies got me back to the dorm. I had all sorts of thoughts. The biggest one centered on what the doctor had said. What if I can’t ever run again? How am I gonna get around on crutches? What am I going to say to my parents? What am I going to say to my father? Football was really the last thing I was thinking about.
I have to say that I was never really “into” football. When I was a kid, I wanted to play baseball. There is an innate beauty to the game. I was great in little league. All-star for three years running. The “big bat”. I love baseball. One problem – after graduating up to the next level, I discovered I couldn’t hit a curve ball to save my soul! (Larry says the common call amongst minor league washouts is “Mom, I’m coming home – I just met Uncle Charlie!”)
About the same time I was imagining that I was going to be the next Ted Williams though, my father insisted I play football. It was a man’s game! And what he wanted, he got. He signed me up for the 12-13 year old league and that was that. Because of my size, I was put on the line. We had the typical playbook, with names such as “21 right,” and “33 left”. We’d run them in practice, which started out with calisthenics and ended with running three times around the practice field. (To this day, I still don’t understand the football benefit of lying on the ground, rocking backward and forward on your stomach – the second time I did that, my nuts slipped out from under my cup, which caused unbelievable agony when I next rocked backwards!) Despite being a smart kid, nothing in the playbook, nothing in the practice sessions, nothing the coaches were saying registered. I didn’t have a freaking clue as to what I was doing!
Fear was a big part of my life back then. Fear of coming home to a beating. Fear of not really knowing what I had done wrong. Fear of asking questions. Fear of failure. Fear of being ridiculed. And for those first two years, football fit right into the pattern. Simply put, I hated it! Not only that, I was BAD at it. Now, on top of the pain and ridicule I was subjected to at home, I had another place where pain and ridicule were the norm!
Something happened in ninth grade though. I “got” it. I don’t know why, but I got it. Most of those years are a blur to me – I’ve tried to wipe them out of my memory. What I do remember was that I was suddenly good! The competitiveness fed me. I wasn’t playing against another team. I was playing against myself. I was playing to see how far I could push myself, how much I could take. (I got plenty of practice at home – you reach a point in beatings where you just numb yourself out … you take yourself “out of time” and just “endure” until it ends. I put a lot of that to use during the fourth quarter, when you were dead tired but had to keep going!)
I had also gone through a growth spurt and suddenly realized that it didn’t hurt as much to be hit. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore (at least on the football field). And once that happened, I realized something else. There’s a mental aspect to the game! I started paying attention to what was going on around me when I was on defense – first as a defensive end and then as a linebacker. I discovered I could “read” the opposing players, and get a good idea as to what they were going to do. Whether they were going to run or pass. I could anticipate which direction they were going to run, or who they were going to pass to. And I excelled at it.
I had my moments – good and bad. The good? Breaking through blockers and making many a tackle behind the line of scrimmage. The bad? Making an interception in the flats, having a clear path to the end zone … and tripping over my own feet five yards from paydirt! With my father watching (who didn’t disappoint when the first thought I had on falling was, “I’m gonna take a beating for that!) The other thing I remember was the pre-game anxiety and nerves. There wasn’t a single game I played in where I didn’t throw up beforehand! I couldn’t get a grip on my anxiety until the first hit happened, and then I’d be okay. Never figured that out.
About a month into my sophomore year, my family moved to Dallas. My New Jersey football coach yelled at me during one of my last practices before leaving. It was right after I screwed up the backfield drills by breaking through the line and tackling our halfback. “Cox, if you don’t make all-state down there in shit-kicker country, I will personally come down there and tear you a new one!” Great. Wonderful. On top of getting threats at home, I had another guy I now felt a responsibility not to disappoint!
When I first arrived, I really didn’t fit in that well. First off, I arrived over a month after school started and had a helluva time fitting in. I was “Joisey”, the kid with the funny accent. All my insecurities bubbled to the surface. And that hindered me, both in making friends and in playing football. I joined the team but they already had their depth chart pretty well determined. And I wasn’t given much of a chance to play. Until they saw me kick. I wound up getting a couple of chances to kick off and then do field goals. I felt good, looked forward to next season and immediately turned my thoughts to wrestling (which I had also done in New Jersey).
Texas football is unlike anything else you can imagine, though. Remember the book Friday Night Lights, by H. B. Bissinger, that depicted the insanity of high school football in Texas? The one that was turned it into a TV show? Well, he got everything right … and death threats as a result. Talk about proving a point! First off, they didn’t have a wrestling team. Secondly, do you know what comes after football season ends in Texas? Winter weight training. And agility drills. And then spring training. Unless you were incredibly gifted, few of the football players did other sports. A few ran track, some did field sports (shotput, discus), even fewer played baseball. For the most part, you were one thing – a football player!
I hated winter agility drills. I hated weight training. I wanted to play ball. Play. Not work at it. Granted, I didn’t appreciate the training aspect of preparing for the game … but it wasn’t like I had any illusions of an NFL career. Or even a college one! Geezus, it was a game!
From my perspective, my coaches were a bunch of sadistic men who enjoyed tormenting their players in the guise of “motivation”. They certainly weren’t like high school coaches up in New Jersey, who pushed you mentally and physically, but didn’t feel the need to demean or ridicule you. One particular bit of torture involved getting on all fours and pushing a ball … about half the size of a basketball … twenty yards up and down the field with your head while weaving in and out of tires placed every five yards. I have to say that I never mastered that … but then I never crawled around on all fours during a football game, either.
About this same time, I was going through a lot of turmoil and a rage was building up inside of me. “Rage” not “anger”. My buddies and I (by this time, I had developed a bond with some of the other guys in school) would go out and basically look for trouble. In retrospect, it was a way for me to take out the agression I was feeling. Wicked shit. Not just toilet papering and egging houses. We’d look for people jogging in the street and then knock them down by opening a car door as we’d drive by. We’d find people alongside the road, jump out and beat the shit out of them. I have to say that I am embarrassed to acknowledge that is part of my history. I am ashamed that I derived enjoyment from that. It’s not a part of me anymore, but it’s part of me. Do you know what I mean?
One night, after a particularly big fight (four or five of us got into what us New Jerseyans would call a “rumble” with some guys from a rival high school), I was home cleaning up. Looking up from blood being washed off my hands, I saw my face in the mirror. And I had what could only be described as an epiphany! Here I was, hating all the physical and mental abuse I was getting at home, and yet I was doing exactly the same thing to others and enjoying it! I had become my father. And the thought sickened me. I have to say that I immediately thought of suicide. I was that ashamed and hateful of myself for what I had become. (I’ll share a poem I wrote years later about the experience.)
The next day was Sunday and my mother took us to church. I was raised as a Christian Scientist. (As an aside, I think Christian Science was a convenient way for her to look the other way at all the abuse going on in front of her eyes … “God is Love. There is no error!”) I had a great Sunday School teacher who was very insightful. And while he never came right out and said anything, I think he had an inkling as to what was going on – not only the abuse I was taking at home, but the things I was doing to let off steam. That Sunday, our lesson revolved around the story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus … where he was struck blind by a vision of Christ. Looking right at me, he said, “All of us, at one point or another, will find ourselves on a similar road. We’ll either choose to remain blind and continue doing things that separate us from Christ, or we can choose right there to follow a different path.” Dr. Linden didn’t know it at the time, but that one little statement kept me from taking my own life! I made an instantaneous decision to take a new road.
A few days later, in one of our summer practices … it was just before school started … one of the coaches took a few of us aside and began talking to us about how to take someone out of a game by injuring them. What parts of the body were vulnerable and how to hit someone to inflict injury. (Think “Kreese”, the Sensei in The Karate Kid flick .. “Sweep the leg!“) He overheard me saying to no one in particular, “Are you fucking kidding me?” The response was, “Either you’re a winner or you’re not, whistle-ass. Go do five laps!” But I knew I couldn’t inflict intentional injury on anyone ever again. I wouldn’t do that.
After practice, I quit the team. I had a particularly heated discussion with the coaches. They told me they felt I had “all-city” potential. That I was letting my teammates down. Letting them down. Letting the school down. But I was resolute. I told them that I couldn’t do what they wanted me to do and if I wasn’t willing, then I had no business being on the team. One of the coaches said, “From this day forward, you’re going to walk through these halls and everyone’s gonna say, ‘there goes loser Cox'” I replied, “Well, I don’t think my real friends are going to say that.” The last comment I heard was, “Get the fuck out of my office and turn in your shit, loser!”
Unfortunately, his words were somewhat prophetic. I did wind up losing a lot of “friends” after quitting. Some were a surprise. I maintained a few others, but that was all. I kept pretty much to myself. I dated a little, but not all that much. My father agreed with the coach, calling me a loser and refusing to talk with me for almost the entire school year. When he wanted me to do something, he’d tell my my mother. “Tell ‘him‘ that the the car needs washing.”
There’s a sick relationship that develops between an abuser and the abused. As much as I hated him, I felt I truly had let him down. I felt the treatment I was getting at school was punishment for that. That feeling wasn’t enough to keep me from threatening to kill him one morning, though … right after what turned out to be the last beating he gave me. There’s a picture in my yearbook that was, coincidentally, from that same morning. It was taken from the hall, looking into my classroom. To this day, I look at that picture and see nothing but pain and anguish on the face of that kid.
When it came time to choose colleges, I opted for Nebraska because it was far enough away that I wouldn’t be expected to come home on a regular basis. But just before I left, I told my father that I was planning on attending the walk-on sessions there. One of the things I had kept up was placekicking. I’d go gown to a field by myself and kick. It was something I could do by myself. I found the focus helped me block out about everything else that was going on. I told him that I was going to see about kicking for them. That I was only doing it for him and had no real desire of my own to play.
So that brings me full circle to where I started this story about my relationship with football. The accident happened and that was the end of that. After a while, I felt a certain amount of relief, knowing that I wasn’t going to have to do something that my heart wasn’t in. I was on crutches for about six weeks. Had to use a cane to walk for about a year after that. I more or less became a “hippie”. (Funny, I remember my father telling me before I left for Nebraska, “If I ever find out that you’ve been shooting marijuana, you’ll wish you’ve never been born!”, to which I replied, “Dad, I swear to God, I will never shoot marijuana as long as I live!” To this day, I have kept that promise. There have been quite a few days where I still wound up wishing I was never born, though.) The accident did provide a benefit later in life though … I could use it as an excuse to avoid taking up jogging. Oh, I can run now, but it’s a great excuse! (The biggest issue it’s created? To this day, my foot throbs quite painfully with every change in the weather!)
So, football and me? It’s “complicated”. I watch the games, sort of. I look for certain things on defense and enjoy seeing particularly good plays. I appreciate the hard work the players have to put in and am amazed at the talent on display. But I’ve never really followed a particular team, or spent hours pouring over stats or continually revisited old games in my conversations. If I’m ever asked, “What’s your team?”, I usually respond, “I just like seeing a good game.” I rarely sit through a whole one, though. And if The Natural, Eight Men Out or For Love of the Game happen to be on another channel at the same time? Guess where my television is tuned! ;o)
Twenty days until New Year’s Day. I can’t wait!