Middle school, or Junior High School, was an exceptionally difficult time for me. Puberty had caught up with me and I had a face full of pimples, awkwardly large hands.. and a small skinny body. Girls were more advanced emotionally and physically so I was intimidated to approach them. Most of the kids I met had known each other since kindergarten. I was the newby.. an easy target for bullies and mean girls. My mind was constantly preoccupied with who was gonna come for me first… the big angry kid with a beard in my science class… or the short, quick tempered kid who was always acting out in my math class. Either way I knew it was coming.. and classwork took a backseat to keeping an eye out for predators.
The only release I had from my self centered thinking was athletics. I played baseball in my hometown in the summer. The fall brought football. Back then, how much you weighed determined football team placement. I was under 100lbs so I would be playing on the lightweight b’s, a Saturday game schedule for the “little guys”. This suited me perfect since I played pee wee football in Calumet Park. My father approached me about playing football in the new town… asking me if I was interested in playing. After my first year playing organized football, in my old neighborhood, my father said it was painful for him to watch me play. He told me firmly, “Son, football is a contact sport. You HAVE to be aggressive. If nothing else is going right on game day… just fucking hit someone. Anyone.” My reply took all the courage I had at 11 years old: I replied, “Dad, I don’t think everyone can be aggressive. I don’t really like hitting people.” All I remember was the look on his face. My reply ended the conversation. It broke my heart. I now had more reason not to have conversations with the old man. When he asked me if I wanted to play football in my new town I knew there could only be one answer.
The first thing I remember about our first practice was that we were all the same size. Maybe an inch or two difference.. but everyone was thin, small and inexperienced. I had a year experience under my belt from a respected program near the city (Chicago). The coaches wanted to see what I could do. They paired us up for sprints… and I was quick. Quicker than most. They rotated us to see who was quickest… I was slower than no one on the team, and tied only one. Next, they wanted to see us hit. We had pads on so it was time to test aggression and heart. They walked us through a play and had me line up at linebacker.. “the General of the defense”. They showed me how to watch the ball to see who gets it. Once that “back” came through the line of scrimmage it was my job to make sure he remembered my number by hitting him. My defensive coach held my shoulder pads walking me through the lesson.. and I listened. My mind, however, reflected to that conversation with my dad. The look on his face … rage began to fill my veins… and when I saw the back with the ball I broke free from my coach’s grip and hit this kid so hard, twenty years later at a reunion when that coach saw me enter the room he screamed that was STILL the fiercest hit he ever saw on a football field.
The following year I was in 8th grade and weighed a little over 106lbs. The “heavy weights”, as we were appropriately called, were for the “big boys” weighing over 100lbs but less than 130lbs. This was a Sunday competition team. Sunday.. football day. This team had more raw talent than any team I have ever been on… with various levels of experience. The coaching staff was nothing short of the most experienced, talented and driven volunteer coaches even the NFL could be proud of. These coaches were responsible for motivating, organizing and developing the first ever undefeated heavyweight team to come out of Oak Forest. This was my first REAL experience of how a group of individuals can become a fierce warrior unit. Thirty years later I still think of this team and the things we accomplished…
After we went undefeated we were constantly being challenged to play by kids in the neighborhood. We were proud and almost always took the challenge. The last challenge we accepted turned out to be more of a fight than a football game. “Haters gonna hate” is the phrase kids use today. One kid brought out a knife on our running back. Another kid pushed and pushed and pushed our left offensive end til he ended up in a creek. And a third kid came after me. This kid had 30lbs on me and atleast 6in. in height. I had no idea how to fight, my team usually backed me up and challengers would back away. This time it was just me, again, and I didn’t know how to walk away. This was the second time a kid would hand me a personalized ass whoopin in front of my friends. This one left me unconscious.
It was time for me to learn how to protect myself.. by any means necessary.