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A Year of Cowardice and Courage (1/4)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Bullied in the seventh grade, I decided to join a predominantly black football team with kids who didn’t attend my predominantly white school. In doing so, I discovered courage, fellowship, and the barbarian in me.


“At the end of the day, football has taught me so much. I'll forever be grateful to this game… if my kid can learn what I learned from this game, I'd let him play. I think it's worth the risk.”

- Curtis Martin, NFL Hall of Fame Running Back


Worst Year of My Life

Seventh grade sucked. It was the worst year of my life. It was also the most important. When I first entered the crowded halls of Independence Junior High in 1988, I was a scrawny kid trying to fit in. At the time, Guns n’ Roses blared on MTV, a Nintendo warmed every suburban home, and adolescent boys were still assholes. And let me tell ya, I had many run-ins with those assholes at my school.


Always afraid I’d make a scene fighting back, I let them bully me. Day after day, I somehow lacked the courage to stick up for myself. Consequently, I felt like a coward. But here’s the interesting thing I learned from that horrible year: being a coward in one instance (or instances) doesn’t mean I’m a coward for life. I learned that if I’m a coward one day, I can still be courageous the next.


Most of my courage that year occurred on a football field in a predominantly black neighborhood with teammates who didn’t attend my predominantly white school. Football gave me what I needed most: the opportunity to show courage instead of cowardice, to feel pride instead of shame.


For the next few weeks, I’m going to share my story from that pivotal year – a year that left a permanent mark on my personality and psyche. I think you’ll relate to this story. Because whether you played football or not, you likely had at least one shitty year growing up. And I bet that year, more than any other, shaped who you’d become as an adult. Because that’s the year you felt pain and preserved; that’s the year you felt humiliation and returned with your head held high; that’s the year you discovered the barbarian in you; that's the year you became YOU. Because through adversity, we discover who we truly are.


So here’s Part-1 of the most formative year of my life. I hope it causes you to think back upon your own, back to when you were down but never out.


Bullied

I entered my first day of junior high jittering with nerves. I had no tribe, no identity, and no cool friends to sit with at lunch. So it didn’t take long for an eighth-grade predator to smell my fear and trepidation.


Walking down the hall, carrying two books under my right arm, I felt a shove from behind and my textbooks hit the ground. Stumbling forward and lurching for the books, I rose to my feet to see Mike Melbun (his real name and let me know if you find him) pushing along my right side, nudging me every few steps into the wall as I walked faster and faster. “I heard you’re gonna fight my friend, Clayton,” Mike sneered. “He’s gonna kick your ass.”


With dirty blond short hair, a surfer t-shirt, Quicksilver shorts, and Van’s high-tops, Mike dressed like nearly every other kid at that school. Except unlike most of us, Mike was noticeably ugly. His narrow nose ended in a hook and his beady eyes sat too close together. Beyond his need for a nose job, Mike needed a dermatologist with a blowtorch to blast off all the zits bubbling up from his oily face.


As he continued to check me into the tiled wall, he realized I wouldn’t fight back. In that moment, he had found his prey.


A few days later, Mike’s friend Clayton – the one I was supposed to fight thanks to another asshole kid in the locker room pitting Clayton against me for his own amusement -- darted up to my desk before health class. “I heard you were talking shit about me, saying I was afraid to fight you. I’ll fight you right now. Let’s go, bitch.”


I’ll never forget allowing Clayton call me a “bitch” in front of the whole class and doing nothing about it. I’ll take that one to the grave.


Zit-faced Mike orchestrated this encounter, of course. And just like the other young Don King fight promoter in the locker room, poor Mike was desperate to see other kids suffer.


Turning to Clayton, my lips quivered and my eyes narrowed. Two girls turned to watch. “I’ll fight you after school,” I muttered.


“You’re afraid,” he said as more kids filed into the class. “C’mon bitch, let’s go.”


“After school,” I said, looking away from his face while trying to save my own.


“That’s what I thought,” he said in victory and walked away.


I sat paralyzed at my desk. My heart thumped like a machine gun and my fingers trembled. I grabbed a pen and began drawing small circles in my notebook. Maybe I could appear too busy with my schoolwork to fight.


Scribbling deeper and darker circles onto the page, my eyes centered on the paper and the rest of my world lost focus. I thought how disappointed my dad would’ve been. I pictured him watching. I saw his eyes – the eyes of a Vietnam veteran -- turn sad. I imagined him pleading with me: “Eddie, how can you sit there and let him do that to you? You’re bigger than him. Go after that little bastard and punch him in the nose.” But I didn’t. I just sat there, paralyzed and feeling completely alone, drawing one dark circle after another.


As my days worsened, I turned to God. If a class preceded a hallway encounter with Mike or Clayton, I’d check out mentally during the final few minutes and lift my right fingertips to touch my forehead. Then I’d surreptitiously drift those fingers down to tap my chest, followed by grazing my left shoulder and then my right. The sign of the cross.


Then I’d whisper the Lord’s Prayer, followed by a Hail Mary. I prayed to disappear. I was so tired of being bullied, humiliated, and living with fear.


Aragona

Since an early age, my big brother Hap and I wanted to play football; yet, it seemed no coaches wanted us to play for them. A few weeks before, I was cut from the junior high football team. Hap, a 9th grader at the school, didn’t even bother to try out. Still 13 in September, Hap was lanky and slow – an Ichabod Crane in cleats. Yet, Hap never lost his confidence. Despite his limitations, he truly believed that one day he'd play quarterback at the highest level.


With no option to play ball at our junior high, we surveyed our options and decided to join the Virginia Beach “135 pound” youth football league. As long as you weighed less than 135 pounds and were 12 or 13 years old (Hap just made the age cutoff) you could play. Best of all, there were no cuts. Easy, right?


After our mom, a graduate of Florida State and avid football fan, signed us up with no questions asked, Hap and I soon departed our cozy, quiet, and white suburban neighborhood, called Pembroke. As we peddled our BMX bikes through Pembroke, we passed mini vans, manicured lawns, and two story colonial homes. Then we reached the edge of our neighborhood: Haygood Boulevard. Across Haygood lay a very different neighborhood called Aragona. Like a Roman sentry gazing north of Hadrian’s Wall, the world ahead was less manicured than the world we'd leave behind.


Aragona was a place kids from our neighborhood simply would not go. And that's because Aragona was tougher, rougher, and yes, blacker, than our own.


Prior to the American Civil War, Virginia’s Tidewater region -- located in the state’s southeast corner, which includes Norfolk, Hampton, and Virginia Beach -- had the largest population of African slaves in North America. After the war, the former slaves and their descendants in Tidewater experienced another century of Jim Crow. Crossing over Haygood Boulevard in 1988, Hap and I peddled into the ruins of Old South Virginia.


As we rode into Aragona, an aging liquor store slumped on the corner while we peddled by rusted cars on wooden blocks, chained-up dogs barking for food, and swarms of unsupervised kids darting across yards and over chain linked fences. Riding on, we chased our dream to become football players.


After a mile ride on Aragona Boulevard, we turned left to a bending road called Jericho Lane. Peddling through Jericho, the houses seemed to crumble faster while the bottles broke louder and dogs chased longer. Swinging around Jericho at top speed and looking straight ahead to avoid eye contact, we peddled across another busy boulevard deeper into Aragona, eventually arriving behind an elementary school for our first practice.


Circling around the school, we spotted a gaggle of kids our age. Stopping a distance away, Hap and I locked up our bikes and cautiously walked towards them. As we approached, I saw that most of the kids were black, some were white, and absolutely none were from our neighborhood or attended our school. These were Aragona boys and they didn’t wear Quicksilver shorts or Van’s high-tops. They wore cotton shorts, t-shirts with cut-off sleeves, and black cleats -- and they all seemed to know each other.


Soon, two coaches arrived. Because no one had pads yet, the first week of practice would be agility drills, conditioning, and learning the plays. Following the Aragona kids’ lead, Hap and I began to line up for calisthenics. About forty black and white kids began to slowly spread out for the warmup.


Standing five across and eight deep, I heard a voice scream, "Hurry up!" Looking forward, I saw two swaggering kids which included the one who just yelled. “Ya’ll shut up and line up!” shouted the smaller, louder, and likely faster of the two boys. That was Frankie. 12 years old and rocking a “Kid n’ Play” style box haircut, Frankie did anything but “play.” Every time he screamed a vertical vein protruded from his forehead. “Coach Nemo wants to say something, so ya’ll listen up.”


If the captain of my soccer team six months before had reenacted Frankie’s “shut up and listen” command, nearly every kid on that team would have yelled back “yes sir” in sarcasm and spent the rest of the practice explaining to him that he’s not in charge. That’s not how things went down in Aragona. There was a pecking order and the alpha dogs ruled.


Coach Nemo

Wearing a Washington Redskins red and yellow mesh ball cap, blue work pants, black work boots, and a dirty white t-shirt with sweat stains, Coach Nemo looked like he’d just finished cutting the grass on a ten-acre field. Walking with the focus of a prisoner about to shiv a rival inmate, Nemo closed in on his new team.


Okay, let me take a minute to tell you about this guy. As a 12-year-old kid, Coach Nemo was the scariest man I’d ever met. Both of our coaches, along with their friends who would occasionally showed up to coach, had blue-collar jobs and took zero shit from any kid.


As far as I could tell, Nemo was a maintenance guy for the city. In his late thirties with squinting eyes, a goatee, and dark ebony skin, Nemo prowled the practice field like a jaguar ready to pounce. He spoke with the booming voice and neck-veined intensity of a Pentecostal preacher, while tomahawking his vascular forearms every time he demanded more intensity from a player.


Watching Nemo stride towards us that first day, I knew life had never thrown this guy a break. To Nemo, “work” meant twenty years of manual labor beneath a burning Virginia sun and freezing coastal rain. He coached like he worked: hard and without mercy. A month later, after a series of murders occurred during Friday night football games at local high schools, I overheard a part-time coach ask Nemo, “What kind of piece are you taking to the game on Friday?” Looking at him, Nemo answered – and I swear this is the truth – “my AK-47.” After that, I assumed Coach Nemo had served in Vietnam.


Coach Nemo wanted a team of tough kids who evoked the spirit of the game; a game played by tough guys from tough places. For a man who likely attended a segregated school and lacked a college deferment for his draft board, Nemo saw aggression as a requirement for these kids to one day survive the dog-eat-dog world of adulthood. Nemo’s vision for his football team was pure Nietzschean. Weakness would be purged and only the strong would survive.


“Bring it in,” Nemo yelled in his deep voice. “Ya’ll are playing football for the AP [Aragona-Pembroke] Wolfpack. When you play for the Wolfpack, you play tough. If you can’t play tough, then I’ll kick you to the curb.”


“Kick you to the curb,” is something Nemo loved to say. It meant yanking a kid from the starting lineup and sending him to the bench. Nemo enforced a strict meritocracy. And like most football coaches below the college level, Nemo didn’t teach much technique or Xs and Os. He just demanded aggression and violence of action. He didn’t want athletes, he wanted barbarians in cleats.


“Most of these teams you’ll play against,” he continued, “are from nice neighborhoods who go to nice schools.” In other words, kids like me.


“When we play those teams, we’re gonna play the Wolfpack way. That means we gonna out hit ‘em on every damn play. We gonna hit ‘em right in the damn mouth. Do you hear what I’m saying?”


“Yes sir!” the team thundered.


Taking a giant step forward and slamming his boot on the dirt while resting his hand on Frankie’s shoulder, Nemo shouted with sweat dripping down his jaw, “I didn’t hear you!”


“Yes Sir!” the team roared.


Nodding and taking a step back, he said, “hit it, Frankie.”


Suddenly, Frankie broke into a beat, slapping his thighs and clapping his hands into a loop of rhythms. On the final clap of each five second loop, the whole team (except my brother and me), yelled “Wolf-Pack!” Then again, and again, and again. The beat was infectious, and once in full pads, slapping our thigh pads added a base thud to the snare crack of our clapping hands. Similar to a Polynesian war dance or Highland bagpipes, the Wolfpack beat preceded battle -- carried out before every practice and every game. Like the siren of a Stuka dive bomber, the beat warned all within earshot that the AP Wolfpack was about to drop a bomb on their ass.


Bernard

Standing beside Frankie during warmups was our other self-appointed captain, a kid named Bernard. A year older than me and a grade behind, Bernard was built like a mini-Earl Campbell. With focused eyes, a short reddish-brown afro, and a thick neck, Bernard was what many in football call a “man-child.” The term is an affectionate one and used by coaches across the country. Essentially, a “man-child” is a kid built like a man -- a very muscular man – but still, according to his age, a child.


At 13, Bernard’s defined biceps and powerful thighs matched the giant chip on his shoulder. Though he hadn’t said a word, I knew Bernard was the de-facto leader of this team. As Frankie yelled and screamed, Bernard said nothing. He just watched us, as if deciding who should stay and who should go.


After our warmup, we broke into groups for speed and conditioning drills. Standing ahead of me in line for a cone drill, Bernard turned back with a crunching nose, daggering eyes, and asked, “How long till you quit?”


“I ain't quitting," I said.


“Yeah, we’ll see,” he gruffed, looking me up and down with dirt on his cheek.


“I don’t know you,” he continued. “Where do you live?”


“By Bayside High School,” I replied.


“You mean in them big houses behind Bayside?”


“Yeah,” I nodded, looking away.


“You rich or something?” he asked with open breaths.


“No,” I answered, desperate for his interrogation to end.


“If you live there, then you’re rich,” he replied while turning back. To my relief, it was his turn on the drill.


Throughout the next week, we chanted, screamed, and ran agility drills, while learning a few basic plays. When we ran those plays, Bernard played like we were already in pads. On one play, he invaded the backfield after head-slapping the offensive tackle’s face into the dirt. With his hands on the quarterback’s neckline, Bernard spun him 180 degrees, flinging him to the dirt like a trash bag into a dumpster. “Now that’s what I’m talking about B!” I heard Nemo scream. With that play, Bernard set the tone. Our team would play physical and we’d be violent.

With the exception of Bernard’s interrogation, no one on the team (except my brother) spoke to me during the first week. Just like in junior high, I was a nobody. And like junior high, my purpose was to survive. I just kept my mouth shut and did whatever they – the players, the coaches, the guy cutting the grass -- told me to do.


Though I had big dreams to play wide receiver or tight end, no one ever asked what position I'd like to play. They just tossed me in with the other lineman. Not wanting to make waves, I accepted my fate to be a no-name interior lineman.


Similar to my freshman year in college, I felt like the coaches barely knew I existed. I learned quick, however, that in Coach Nemo’s strict meritocracy, one’s existence depended on one’s performance. If I wanted to matter, then I’d need to do something that mattered. My opportunity to matter (and be courageous) would come a week later with the Oklahoma Drill -- a hard-hitting drill that is now banned in both college and pro football.


---


In Part-2 of this series, I’ll explain how the Oklahoma drill awakened the barbarian in me, giving me a chance to show courage instead of cowardice, to feel pride instead of shame.


When asked by a reporter if he’d let his son play football considering the recent concerns about head injuries, Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin answered, “If my kid can learn what I learned from this game, then I'd let him play. I think it's worth the risk.”


In Part-2, you'll see why I agree. Till next time, barbarians.


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