A Year of Cowardice and Courage (Part 2)
How football’s most violent and notorious tackling drill awakened the barbarian in me and added courage to my life.
"Violence is part of America, and more than that, it is a part of our species. It is around us, and it is in us."
- Gavin de Becker from The Gift of Fear
In Part-1 of this series on the toughest and most important year of my life (the seventh grade), I wrote about being bullied at school and not fighting back. I also mentioned joining a rec football team in a working-class (and predominantly black) neighborhood with kids who didn’t attend my middle class (and predominantly white) junior high. In Part-2, I’m discussing how violence in football awakened the barbarian in me on the field, giving me the courage to confront my fears off it.
After practicing in shorts and t-shirts for a couple weeks, my lanky older brother Hap and I stood in a parking lot adjacent to our team's practice field waiting to get our pads. While I was regulated to the offensive line, Hap quickly established himself as the back-up quarterback and starting wide receiver. Always confident, Hap blamed his backup status on our coach’s insistence to run the option instead of Hap’s cherished “Run and Shoot” passing offense (fashionable at the time). As the gangly Hap slowly quarterbacked the run-oriented offense in practice, the team began calling him, “slow motion.” As Hap and I waited for our pads, we noticed another middle-class white kid loitering nearby, someone we hadn’t seen before. A part-time assistant coach asked him if he was here to join the team; the kid nodded and said, “but I can't practice until my parents register me with the league." “Register!” the coach laughed. “Ain’t none of these kids registered. Do you wanna play or not?” With the exception of Hap and me, none of the kids' parents registered, paid, or signed anything. Their kids simply showed up and played football. But someone had to pay for the equipment needed to outfit a tackle football team. Enter Coach Manago. While the intimidating Coach Nemo (see Part-1) focused on the defense, Coach Manago handled the offense. Manago was Nemo’s opposite in almost every way. Short, chubby, and always smiling, I never heard Manago yell at a kid; instead, he just busted their chops. Besides calling Hap, “slow motion,” Manago called a few of the heavy metal loving white kids, “grits.” He referred to many of the black kids – kids he’d known for years – as “knuckleheads.” And at every practice he’d say, “quit playing!” even though we were actually there to play. Although a city worker like Nemo, Manago didn’t drive an old white pickup truck like Nemo. Instead, the plump and positive Manago drove a 300Z sports car, carried a beeper, and covered down on all team expenses.
On the day we received our pads, Manago didn’t arrive in his sports car. Instead, he pulled up in a white van. Swinging the side door open, the other kids sprinted towards the van. Jogging over, I stood up on my toes and peered over my teammates’ shoulders. Stacked floor to ceiling inside the van were white helmets, shoulder pads, football pants, and blue game jerseys with orange numbers and lettering that read “AP Wolfpack” across the front.
I grabbed my new gear and jersey #79, and dressed out with the other kids in the school parking lot for our first full-padded practice.
From his van, Coach Manago yelled, “Hey Ne-Mo!”
Leaning back against his pickup truck, Coach Nemo responded, “Yo-Yo!”
“As soon as I pass out these pads, I wanna see who can lay a hit on who. Know what I’m saying?”
“Yup-yup,” Nemo replied with a smile.
Following our warmups, Frankie led a booming “Wolfpack” beat, where every player began slapping their thigh pads and clapping their hands to an infectious beat. A minute later, Nemo yell, “bring it in!” Twenty-five adolescent boys clad in body armor gathered around him.
Standing tall in his usual black work boots, dark blue work pants, and a white undershirt, Nemo laid down the law.
“For now on, none of ya’ll will take off your helmets till the end of practice. You hear me?”
“And that goes for the games too. Even if I kick you to the curb -- which I might do – you keep your doggone helmet on. You got me?”
“Alright. We’re running Oklahoma today to see who can play on my defense. I want to hear some cracks and pops.”
Nemo and Manago soon split up the team into two groups, each coach running their own Oklahoma drill.
The invention of this violent and notorious drill -- employed for decades by high school and college coaches across the country – is credited to University of Oklahoma legendary coach, Bud Wilkinson. In 1949, Coach Wilkinson created the drill, now named after his school, to evaluate each player’s tenacity. The drill is so violent (just Google it) that it’s now banned in college and pro football -- which is a damn shame, because this drill awakened the barbarian in me and changed my life for the better.
Though there are many variations to the Oklahoma drill, here’s how the AP Wolfpack ran it. With old tires lining either side of a tight corridor about three yards apart in width and ten yards in length, the coach selects two players. Both players then lay on their backs within the tight corridor with their helmets pointed towards each other and three yards apart.
One player has the ball and his goal is to run over the other player trying to tackle him. And because there isn’t enough width in the tire-lined chute to run around the defender, the drill ensures a violent collision. On the whistle, both players pop to their feet and explode into each other.
In my group with Coach Manago, Bernard (see Part 1) and Herbert started the drill. Herbert was our powerful tailback who sweated more than any kid I’ve ever met. As temperatures fell in October and November, Herbert would remove his helmet after practice and we’d marvel how his head turned into a furnace with steam swirling off his scalp like smoke from a chimney. Though Herbert didn’t talk much, he was a strong kid who ran hard. Bernard had all the speed and strength of Herbart, plus an X Factor – Berserker Viking aggression.
As Bernard and Herbert laid down on their backs, three yards apart with the ball tucked in Herbert’s right arm, Nemo stopped his own Oklahoma drill to watch. “Here we go!” Manago yelped with a cheeky smile. As Bernard and Herbert laid on their backs, other players lined the tire corridor, screaming for blood like Romans in the Coliseum. Manago blew his whistle.
On their feet and spinning towards each other like barbarians inside a fighting pit, they charged for glory. With angles in his legs, Bernard hit Herbert like a battering ram, exploding into him and snapping Herbert’s head back with the “crack” of the pads. Reeling back on his heels, Herbert knew he’d lost. Driving his legs like pistons, Bernard wrapped his arms and slammed Herbert onto his back.
“That’s what I’m talking ‘bout, B!” Nemo yelled.
As Nemo returned to his drill, Manago blew his whistle and yelled, “Next up.”
It was my turn. It would be me versus Al.
“You got the ball, Al,” Manago said, tossing him the pigskin.
I liked my chances against Al. He was a quiet chubby kid, and from what I sensed, not that aggressive. He was from Aragona and the players cheered for him, of course, but I sensed that Al never really wanted to play football.
“C’mon Al, let’s go!” Bernard yelled.
Unlike a fistfight in the school hallway or classroom, Oklahoma drill was a sanctioned fight; Coach Manago expected me to be violent. Within those tires along that narrow chute, I was free to be a barbarian.
Three yards from Al and laying on my back, I bit down on my mouth guard, stared up to the sky, and felt my fingers began to twitch. I felt cocked like a gun. The whistle blew.
Leaping to my feet faster than the overweight Al, I drew a bead for his helmet and sprinted towards him. Lowering my helmet like Bernard's battering ram, I smelled blood. About to collide, I was downright giddy to annihilate this kid.
Smashing into Al at full speed, I drove him off his feet and horizontal onto an old tire bordering the chute. As I crashed down on him, the tire’s compression beneath him sprung me back into the air and I landed back on my feet.
“C’mon Al!” Bernard muttered, “you can’t let him do that to you.”
“Next up,” Manago yelled as I jogged back in line. From that point on, Al and I were on friendly terms. Before practice, I had someone besides my brother for small talk.
Courage = Breaking Your Comfort Zones
How could I be so violent in football and so passive when bullied at school?
Looking back, it all came down to my comfort zone. With football, my comfort zone was violence. In school, my comfort zone was avoiding violence. Why? I don’t really know. Maybe because I aimed to please those in charge. When violence was expected (by coaches), I was violent. When it wasn’t expected (by teachers), I was passive. In football, I felt protected. In football, I had permission to be violent. In school I didn't.
But does this mean I was courageous on the field? Not really. Within the violence of football I was in my comfort zone; consequently, being violent didn’t require real courage -- it came natural. But what about at school where confrontation made me nervous? Standing up to my bullies would mean exiting my comfort zone. Doing so would require real courage.
But how could I harness courage off the field? How could I awaken the barbarian in me at school the same way I did on the field?
Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I now realize why Al became friendly and my bullies were unfriendly. Unlike my bullies, Al no longer saw me as passive, he saw me as a real threat; consequently, he made peace with me. Yet my bullies still saw me as passive; consequently, I'd become their prey. Historically and biologically, passive men and women are more likely to become prey; that's nature. Lions look for weak gazelles and bullies look for passive kids.
To make peace with my bullies, violence would be required. To end the torment, I’d have to break from my comfort zone at school and become the lion and stop being the gazelle. I’d have to bring a new friend with me to school: the barbarian in me.
In the third installment of this series, I’ll discuss how discovering the barbarian in me during the Oklahoma Drill enabled me to break through my comfort zone at school and bring football level violence to one of my tormentors.
Epilogue: Cowardly and Courageous
In Part-3, I wish I could say I beat my bullies to a pulp and was never a coward again. But that’s not how life works, is it? The bullying didn’t end in junior high. As a high school sophomore, I let a senior torment me. In college and the Marine Corps I sometimes became the bully. After the military in my security career, my cowardice continued whenever I didn’t report policy violations because I wanted to be popular with my peers, or whenever I was afraid to speak up because I feared termination from some corporate suits who temporarily ran things.
Courage means doing what's hard in the short term (very hard!), but worth it in the long run. I’ve never had a cowardly moment I don’t regret, and I’ve never had a courageous moment that I do regret. Early in my career in private security, an executive told me something I’ll never forget and continue to try like hell to apply to my life: “The hardest decision is almost always the correct one.” I’ve learned that it’s also the courageous one.