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A Year of Cowardice and Courage (4/4)

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

In the 7th grade, football gave me something we all need to flourish in life: a Crucible.

“The bottom line is this—the Crucible is a rite of passage that, through shared sacrifice, recruits will never forget. With that memory and the core values learned in recruit training, they will be able to face any challenges in their path.”


- United States Marine Corps Training Command


We Need Crucibles

Football gets a bad rap, mainly from people who have never played a down. The critics say the game is too violent, that it causes lasting injuries and pain. Sure, that’s true. But every valuable endeavor has its pros and cons; consequently, the violence and pain of football, I’d argue, are also beneficial.


Young men love to roughhouse, banter, seek danger, and prove their worth. (Learn why here.) Football gave me such things, and due to my evolutionary wiring, I needed such things. Moreover, the violence of the game gave me exactly what I needed as an adolescent boy and young man: it gave me a crucible.


We live in soft and easy times. Collectively, we lack any great struggle for survival or any agreed upon rite of passage. As Tyler Durden put it in the movie Fight Club, “we are the middle children of history.” Without any great struggle to overcome, we are left feeling empty and without purpose. As a result, we must find or create our own crucibles. By doing so, we gain the tools we need to overcome future crucibles and the confidence that we'll never quit.


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.”


Practice at Dusk

As twilight rolled into dusk, the practice lights shined from above. I soon felt the first cool breeze of autumn. In a four-point stance as a scout team defensive tackle, I crouched like a tiger on my fingertips and the balls of my feet, cocked and ready to pounce.


On the opposing side was my brother Hap, quarterbacking this play. Stepping to the line of scrimmage, Hap placed his hands under the center’s crotch and yelled, “Ready. Set. Go!” The ball snapped and I pushed my cleats into the turf and crashed into the offensive guard. Slipping around him, I ripped away from his block and drew a bead on Hap, hitting him helmet to helmet like a missile. Hap tumbled down like a tower of bricks, spindly arms flapping as he went.


“That’s what I’m talking ‘bout!” Coach Nemo barked. “Who is that?”


“That’s Slow Motions’ little bro,” someone replied.


“I like it!” the intimidating Coach Nemo barked.


On the next play, with my cleats dug back into the dirt, I lowered my head and raised my tail up like a dragster. “Ready. Set. Go!”


Coming off the ball, I tore into the offensive line with a forearm shiver and got nowhere. Simultaneously, Hap handed the ball off to a tailback, who ran off tackle the other way. Without thinking, I spun off a double team block and ran down the line of scrimmage towards a scrum of three defenders holding the running back up. With a full head of steam, I dove onto the standing pile and brought the whole bunch down like bowling pins.


Before I could get off the ground, I felt two big hands grab my torso and lift me off the ground and into the sky like a trophy. It was Coach Nemo!

“This boy knows how to play some ball!” he yelled. “We gonnna find a spot for you!”


By the end of practice, I was the starting right guard on offense and starting right tackle on defense.


But anyone who has played this game knows the highs never last. You’re only as good as your last play. A lesson I’d learn and thankfully never forget.


Gameday

On the morning of my first game as a starter, Hap and I joined our teammates at Princess Anne Park and its five football fields. Donning our shoulder pads and helmets, we soon began the pre-game warmup on a small patch of grass near the porta-john restrooms. After the warmup, we began the Wolfpack beat along with some chanting to fire ourselves up for kickoff.


Winning the coin toss and electing to receive, we started the game on offense. In the huddle, our quarterback, PJ, called “31 dive” – a handoff to Bernard up the gut. “Ready. Set. Go!” PJ yelled. As the ball snapped, I fired forward into a squatty fat kid wearing wrap-around goggles beneath his facemask. I tried to drive him back and he just wouldn’t budge. Taking the handoff, Bernard hit a pile of bodies and got nowhere. Now 2nd down with 11 yards to go, we ran “32 Dive” over the left guard and got nowhere; just piles of bodies at the line of scrimmage.

In the huddle before 3rd down, Bernard banged his facemask against mine. With big eyes and a tilting head, he began scraping his facemask back and forth on mine, yelling, “Block! You need to Block!”


“I am,” I said without a shred of confidence.


I’m banging into this fat kid in front of me as hard as I can, I thought. Isn’t that my job as an offensive lineman? Not according to Bernard. To him, blocking meant pulverizing the opponent, driving him back on his heels and pancaking that fat boy on his back.


On third down, the play went my way, and I banged into fat goggles and the guy next to him tackled Bernard. Now 4th down, Bernard grabbed my face mask and screamed, “BLOCK!”


“I am," I said. “No you ain’t!” he seethed.


For some reason we went for it on 4th down (probably because our punting was shit and kicking nonexistent). Coming out of my three-point stance, I grabbed my opponent around his shoulder pads and pulled him to the side. It was the most blatant hold of my life and the ref never saw it. As my opponent screamed, “Holding, holding!” after the whistle, I got up and realized we failed to convert the first down.


At half time, Coach Nemo went ballistic. Spit flying from his mouth, veins popping from his neck, he stared down the offensive line and yelled, “you better start blocking! If you don’t start blocking,” jutting his head forward and swaying it side to side, “I’ll start kicking some of you to the damn curb! Some of you are just plain scared.”


And so… we lost the game. After shaking hands with the opposing team, I tried walking straight to my mom’s van, doing my best to avoid the wrath of Bernard and Coach Nemo.


Before I could, however, Bernard stopped me and said, “Hey! On Monday, it’s you and me. You better be ready to block.”


I just nodded and walked to the van.


“I’m a Football Player”

As I sat in class on Monday morning, I kept thinking about Bernard. His warning to me after the game was real; a collision was coming. When I stepped on the field later that day, the Sword of Damocles would be dangling above my head by a thread. And I knew Coach Nemo had the scissors -- ready to “kick me to the curb,” removing me from the starting lineup.


It's important to note that Bernard was no bully. Unlike the bullies I’d finally stood up to at school (Part 3), Bernard wasn’t abusing me, he was challenging me to be better – and so was Coach Nemo. Bernard and Nemo were hell-bent on building a team of gridiron ass-kickers who took no prisoners. I knew this afternoon’s practice would be my final exam for their gang of adolescent barbarians.


“Eddie… Hello, Eddie?”


“Uhh yes,” I replied to my teacher as she brought me back from my thoughts just before class began.


“Here,” she said, handing me an appointment note from my guidance counselor.


“Thanks” I replied, thinking this had to be regarding my fight with Clayton the week before (Part 3).


After class, I walked to my guidance counselor’s office. Knocking on her door, she motioned me to enter. In her mid-30s with curly shoulder length brown hair and wearing a blue long sleeved teacher’s dress, she offered me a seat. Walking around her desk, she sat next to me on an adjacent chair.


“How are your first few months of junior high?” she asked.


Instead of answering, “Well, as far as I can tell, the 7th grade is the seventh ring of Dante’s Hell, thank you very much for asking,” I just shrugged my shoulders and replied, “it’s fine.”


She looked at me for a few more seconds, studying my short answer and then leaned in closer to me.


“Eddie, can you please take off your jacket and hold out your arms?” she asked.


“Okay,” I replied puzzled.


After sliding off my jacket, she touched my hand and sighed, “Oh my god.”


I just sat frozen and confused as she touched my forearms.


“Is someone hurting you?” she asked.


“No,” I replied.


“Then where did you get all these bruises up and down your arms and on your hands?”


“Oh, those are from playing football,” I said.


“But you’re not on our football team,” she replied.


“I play on a community football team in the city league.”


Ignoring my answer, she leaned towards me and at eye level said, “Eddie, is someone at school or…” she paused, “at home, hurting you? You can tell me. You won’t get in trouble.”


“What? No,” I replied. “This is from football. I block with my forearms and sometimes the helmets smash between my hands. Though compared to the other kids,” I added, “I bruise easy.”


Lifting her eyes off my forearms, she looked at me, and raised an eyebrow. “Some of your teachers have noticed these bruises all over your arms. They’re concerned and so am I.”


“It’s from football,” I repeated. And then I said it: “Mrs. Liggon, I am a football player. It’s a tough game and I play it.”


After she begrudgingly accepted my answer, I walked out of her office in a straight line, turned left at the hallway, and walked to lunch. As I walked, I massaged the bruises on my forearms and knew I’d add a few more today, or at least, Bernard would. As I walked down the hall, I felt my posture rise.


The Block

At practice, Bernard was prowling on defense like a junkyard dog. Now October, Bernard seemed to be getting bigger every week. At the first league weigh-in a few weeks before, Bernard stripped down to his underwear and said he hadn’t eaten for two days. The scale read 135 pounds; he now looked closer to 150. I tipped the scale at 102.


Earlier in practice, Coach Nemo laid it all out: “Bernard’s mission today is to challenge the offensive line. He’s my wildcat on defense and he’s gonna hit every damn one of you right in the mouth. For those of you who can’t block,” Nemo warned, “I might kick you to the damn curb.”


Like many young football players in the 1980s, Bernard fancied himself as the next Lawrence Taylor, known as “LT.” When Nemo turned him loose that day as the wildcat, Bernard channeled his inner-LT and roamed the defense like a marauder from the 5th century. Like the New York Giants’ linebacker, Bernard stood up with one leg ahead of the other, ready to blitz the edge or ram his way through the middle.


In the huddle, our quarterback, PJ, called "24 slant," an off-tackle hand off to our halfback. As the right guard, the play was coming my way. Nemo stood behind the defense to survey the entire scene.


Initially set next to the middle linebacker, Bernard crept forward and stood right across from me. Rocking forward and back in his LT staggered stance, he snarled like a pit bull stretching its leash. When the ball snapped, he’d cut that leash, and attack me like a Saxon. So I dug into my cleats, grinded my mouthpiece, and braced for impact.


“Ready,” PJ trembled in his voice, looking towards a growling Bernard, “set…go!”


As the ball snapped, Bernard’s helmet cracked into mine, snapping my head back as my arms reached for him. Driving his legs, and lacking any leverage of my own, Bernard dropped me like a pop-up target at a shooting range. Landing on my back, Bernard fell on top of me, his fist into my gut and his facemask against mine. I felt his breath into my face and noticed a small freckle just beneath his left eye. “You ain’t nothing!” he screamed into my face.


On the next play, I tightened my body, clinched my teeth, and swore I’d stop him this time. The ball snapped and he drove over me like roadkill, smashing into PJ like Mad Max splattering a pedestrian.


As PJ peeled himself off the dirt, he hobbled back to the huddle holding his ribs. My failure to stop Bernard and protect my quarterback did not go unnoticed.


“You gonna get kicked to the curb!” Nemo blared. “You didn’t block in the game last week and you sure as hell ain’t blocking right now!” he barked.


In evolutionary terms, ostracism means death. “Kicked to the curb” means being fired, cut, blacklisted, banished, or tossed out like yesterday’s trash. The possibility of banishment ignites a primitive fear in every human being. When our hunter-gather ancestors kicked someone to the curb, it was a death sentence. Good luck fighting a saber-toothed tiger on your own.


Standing in the huddle five yards behind the line of scrimmage with the four other offensive linemen, we bent our torsos forward, almost parallel with the muddy practice field under the drizzling rain. The receivers and running backs stood straight behind us, all ten players facing towards the ball. My big brother, Hap, then stepped in front of us as the QB. (PJ was out for a few plays nursing his sore ribs.) “Alright fellas,” Hap said. “We’re running Airwolf.”


“Oh shit,” I thought. This was a pass play and Bernard was still breathing like a werewolf, ready to hand me a one-way ticket to curb city.


As the huddle broke, Hap pulled me aside and said, “Eddie, do what you did to Kevin back in Jacksonville. You can block this guy.”


I nodded back to my brother.


All eyes were on me. I felt the bruises on my arms and the cold air in my lungs. Then I heard the whistle. The whistle. That was it! The same whistle I heard in the Oklahoma drill (Part 2), the same whistle I heard in my head when Clayton punched me in the face (Part 3). That whistle was my barbarian alarm clock.


“I am a football player,” I muttered to myself coming to the line of scrimmage. “I am a football player.”


Inside a snug helmet, I felt the rain and knew this was it. This could be my final play as a starter. I intended to make it a memorable one.


Outweighing me by 45 pounds (nearly half my bodyweight), Bernard stood like a bloody-mouthed lion back for another kill.


On that cold night in the mud on the poor side of town, I bent my legs, put my right hand in the mush, and believed I could block Bernard.


As he stepped forward for a third time, one leg leading the other, I could feel his energy. I knew he’d bull rush me. Bernard didn’t play the game with any finesse; he was just a savage who believed in the frontal assault.


“Ready,” Hap yelled as the offensive line dug in and Bernard began shaking with rage. “Set,” Hap continued. I could hear Bernard hyperventilating trying to intimidate me. But I knew something he didn’t know. Only Hap knew what I was about to do.


“Go!” Hap roared.


As the ball snapped, I plunged low on all fours, driving my legs and pawing the ground as I went. Kicking up dirt, I plowed like a hedgehog into Bernard’s legs. Charging me high, he felt my helmet crack his outside knee. Bernard went airborne. With his feet up and his head down, he tumbled over me ass-over-tea-kettle until he crashed onto his face, eating gobs of mud. On a 3-step drop, Hap slung the ball to the slot back on a quick “in” route, who then turned up field for a first down and then some.


Coach Manago blew the whistle. As I picked myself up, Hap ran to me, thankful to be alive, and slapped his hands onto my shoulder pads. “Great block, Eddie!” he screamed.


Nemo looked at me and said nothing. Bernard said nothing. Coach Manago yelled, “huddle up.”


From the huddle, I eyed Bernard. He was coated in mud, spitting grime, and favoring his left knee as he hobbled down the line to a new spot on defense.


I’d made the first great block of my life. In that moment, I unleashed the barbarian in me. I was a football player. And I kept my spot on the offensive line.


Riding our bikes home after practice, wearing our football helmets and shoulder pads as we peddled by the crumbling houses of Aragona, Hap and I headed towards Haygood Boulevard. Coming to a stop sign, I braked and looked to my right. A white truck idled at the four-way stop. Coach Nemo sat tall behind the wheel. He kept his foot on the brake and invited me to cross the road. As I peddled across the street, I looked towards him. He smiled and gave me a wave.


1993

Five years later, on a Tuesday morning at Rogers High School in Newport, Rhode Island, my history teacher took a call from the classroom phone.


“Ed,” he said. “Head down to the guidance counselor office, Mrs. McMahon wants to speak with you.” It was December 1993 and I was in the 12th grade.


Knocking on Mrs. Sullivan’s door with more than a few bruises on my forearms from a season of high school football, she answered, “come in, Ed.” I walked through the door in Levi jeans, a flannel, and an old pair of Timberline work boots. I stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 210 pounds.


As I walked through the door, she was beaming. “Ed,” she continued, “there’s someone here to see you.”


I saw a thick man with ruby red cheeks and curly brown hair stand up from his chair in the corner of her office.


“Hi Ed,” holding out his hand. “I’m Coach Murray. Congratulations on All-State. How would you like to play football at the United States Naval Academy?”

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