Adventures in American Football: The Finale

So, are you coming back?

It was a question that had been put to me many times in the last couple of weeks. As I mopped the floor of the urinal in the club-rooms, it was becoming increasingly difficult to consider the question in the positive. The filth that stained the floor a dark yellow was, with a little bit of hard work and a hospital strength cleaner, becoming a resounding white much to my shock. I was still working out how I was going to approach the toilet stall next to me, replete with wet, balled up toilet paper all over the floor.

It was about two weeks after the season had ignominiously ended in the preliminary final, well before we had wanted it to. I was at the annual club clean-out, attended by about 8 of the 40-odd players, and some of the most unselfish people on earth. One included a player’s mum (the player wasn’t there) who, apart from cleaning out the club-rooms at the end of the season, had also washed our playing jerseys after every game. Another was a volunteer club official, who had taken the position when she was in a relationship with a player. The relationship had since ended and the player had moved on but here she was, giving away a Sunday morning to help out a community sporting team make its club rooms a little more presentable. These are the world’s good people.

I had spent about an hour already sweeping out the club rooms with a janitors broom, quickly rediscovering that I am not made for any sort of manual labour. I was busily rubbing my aching forearms when I was handed a mop, pointed to the toilet and told to sort it out. There’s nothing quite like the questions that go through your head scrubbing a grubby toilet floor. But here I was, mopping gratefully – desperate to prove myself worthy.

So, are you coming back?

“How about the rookie making a play?”

It was the one of the few times the head coach had said something directly to me about my play the whole season. Normally information about an individual’s play was passed from head coach to coordinator, from coordinator to position coach. I tried to smile as I was jamming hot chips in my face, desperate to avoid actually having to wander that line between being overly modest and thrusting my pelvis in celebration.

We’d lost – bundled out of the finals series in a manner that felt premature. I know I hadn’t been ready for the season to end. After going from spending the best part of three days a week trying to make fist of this adventure, I was suddenly faced with that most dreaded concept – free time. For the last five or so months I’d adopted a singular goal – trying to not suck at this game. And suddenly, just when I thought maybe I had some evidence that I was getting somewhere, it all ended and I had to go back to real life.

The game that day had started as per usual for me. We were playing at yet another ground I’d never played at, in a suburb I’d never heard of before. But that was hardly unusual for me. We’d warmed up as per usual, same drills, same people. It was all a little more intense than normal, because this game was to get into the final. But there was nothing to suggest I was going to anything other than my now routine token appearance on kick-off and punt teams.

But then about midway through the first quarter, the position coach removed one of the defensive backs and sent me in. It was meant to be a sub for a single play as far as I could tell. Maybe the other guy needed a breather? He didn’t look injured to me. I ran on the field in the same manner I did whenever I went on to the field – trying to hide from my teammates the unyielding anxiety that was bubbling inside me. Deep breaths helped, as did the fact that when we moved into formation, the person opposite me was my height but slim. At least the only hurt he could lay on me was to my pride – much better than those that could destroy my pride and body at the same time.

The first play I moved correctly, positioning myself quickly into the zone I was designated, identifying the receiver’s route who was coming through my area, and staying with him just long enough for the quarterback to look to another read. In laymen’s terms, I had done my job. I was chuffed. Maybe I’m getting the hang of this?

The next play, I made the same movement, the same read, but this time it was wrong. I had made an awful mistake. As the ball sailed over my head I turned to see the receiver I should have been standing next to. There was no one within ten metres of him, the ball quietly sailing towards his hands.

So this is what abject failure looks like. The coaches had taken a shot on my incremental improvement and I had been given a shot to prove myself worthy in the biggest game of the year, and I had come up short.

I had been weighed. I had been measured. And I had been found wanting.[1]

As the ball got closer, our free safety had come hurtling from about 15 metres away with a fury I wish I could have matched. The ball landed safely in the receiver’s hands but before he could properly secure it he was hit by my friend masquerading as the rolling ball from Temple of Doom. The receiver was hit, the ball flew out and the referee signaled incomplete. I have never been so relieved in my life.

I looked over to the bench expecting the hook. The position coach was furious with me, but didn’t remove me. A linebacker looked at me and simply said ‘get the next one right’ and that was that. I stayed on the field.

So, are you coming back?

There’s no substitute for game time in getting better at a game. Nothing in practice can prepare you for the nakedness you feel, standing on by yourself as a defensive back, knowing the only thing stopping your man from scoring is you moving your body in the correct direction.

Leading up to half time I was still on that same side, doing my best. The play was reverberating in my head like a fly stuck in a room. I hadn’t made any other mistakes, but hadn’t done anything useful. The ball always seemed to head to the other side of the field. I vacillated between wanting to prove myself and just really not wanting to fuck up.

There was only about a minute before half time and the opposition had moved the ball to the goal line. Scores level, the ball had ended up on the one yard line. The other teams quarterback called a hurry-up – an attempt to quickly run a play before the defence can get set. As we all hurried to our positions our captain called out our code word for ‘man’, my most hated defence. I knew I would be alone on my corner. My lack of skill like the Emperor’s clothes, my nakedness clear for all to see.

The quarterback moved back to pass. For the life of me I’m not sure why what happened next occurred. But for a brief moment it seemed like I was on the offence. I just started running to a spot where I understood the ball was going to be. The pass released, flat, hard and low, and I slid into its path, intercepting it on the one yard line.

I would like to say I reacted properly, like a good sport. I’d like to say I quietly handed the ball to the referee like we’re routinely told by our coaches to do. I’d like to say I took my place on the sideline, ready to cheer on the offence.

But what actually happened was I acted like a proper idiot. I jumped up, screaming and bouncing on two feet. I started running towards the sideline, and slammed the ball down on the ground. I got to the sideline and head-butted a teammate (it’s like a football high five), hugged my defensive coordinator and basically acted like I’d discovered penicillin. I have rarely been as happy in a moment as I was then.

After that I stayed on the field for the rest of the game. I kept making the right reads, so much so that the opposition actually were targeting the other side of the field. Points were scored against us, but not against me. It felt weird to be relieved by that. But after so long of trying to prove myself I suddenly found I was having fun. And I was not sucking.

So, are you coming back?

The day after the game I got a message from one of the leaders of the defence. A linebacker who had put me on my back so many times at training, but had always been willing to explain to me what he was doing, what I was doing, and how they were very, very different.

He told me that I’d had a hell of a game, that the spot was mine to lose. He told me the other guys couldn’t shut down the receiver and it was great to watch me grow. He said he hoped I’d be back for more. I wrote back that I would definitely be back. As I looked at that toilet floor changing its colour from yellow to white, even after I picked up those balls of toilet paper, using a mixture of the mop, my foot and occasionally even my hands, I remembered those moments and that message.

A couple of weeks later, I got a message from one of the quarterbacks. They were thinking of starting some pre-pre season training soon. They weren’t sure what it would entail yet, but just wanted to know if I might be interested.

A chance to train in the spring heat eight months before games actually begin?

I can’t fucking wait.

[1] Daniel 5:27 for those playing at home. Also my favourite scene from A Knight’s Tale

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