Thanksgiving Day 1987. I am 18 years old and standing on the sidelines of an exceptionally muddy football field. Today is going to be my first time playing in my fraternity’s annual “Turkey Bowl.” There are two games, the pledges versus the young actives and the older actives versus the alumni.
It is a physical game. We don’t play touch. We don’t play flag. It is tackle football. It is violent and brutal. You don’t wander onto the field unless you are willing to get hit. We have have heard all of the war stories. Broken noses, ruptured spleen, shattered eye socket and bruises galore.
We don’t just beat the actives. We dominate them. I play noseguard. It is a position that suits me. I don’t mind the dirt. I like the contact. I love the challenge, the chance to impose my will on another.
As I age I remind myself that playing might not be so smart. I am not afraid. Fear is what causes injury. No, I am wary of the three days of recovery time. Pick up basketball doesn’t prepare you for this. This is far more physical. I go hard every play. Every time I line up I try to knock the guy in front of me on his ass. Hit him hard and hope that over time he’ll get tired of getting hit.
Usually it works. More often than not they get tired of getting pounded on, worn out by the constant tug-of-war. I start to get into the backfield on every play. The quarterback is my prey. I haven’t managed a sack in a couple of years and my ego is bruised. I used to average one a game. Way back in the glorious year of 1993 I had four.
In ’94 I was 24. No kids, no wife, no mortgage, no responsibilities. I am determined to prove that I haven’t lost it. Perhaps I am a step slower. Certainly I am a bit softer in the middle than I was. But now I have the guile that comes with age. A crafty veteran of numerous battles I use economy of motion to maximize productivity.
Every play I bait the center. I dare him to go head to head. I promise not to embarrass him too badly. Initially it works. When I was 20 I too was young, dumb and stupid. He really does believe that the old man crouched in front of him can’t possibly keep it up. He is wrong.
This game gives me a rush. It is like having a caffeine drip inserted directly into my veins. It is an addiction. I can’t bear to think of the day when I am not able to play because I can’t. Imagine a 240 pound five-year-old with three days growth.
I start preparing to play two months before. September rolls around and I roll out the Turkey Bowl workout. More push ups, more tricep extensions, crunches, bench press, curls and more. I work on creating a body built for punishment.
One hour of play. That is all I have to withstand. One hour of getting out there and giving the game all I can muster. Sometimes I play both ways. Defensive line and offensive line, with the odd bout at fullback.
Game day arrives and the alumni assemble. On the far end of the field we huddle up. Hells Bells by AC/DC plays in the background. As the bell tolls we pump each other up. We know that we are weekend warriors. There are no illusions. Most of us are decent athletes, but we didn’t play pro or college ball. We have our limitations, but not when it comes to heart. In a few minutes kickoff we’ll come and we’ll charge the actives in our own miniature war.
Twenty years go by in the blink of an eye. Thanksgiving day 2007. When I wake up I roll out of bed and hobble to the shower. My body aches from two hours of basketball. I suspect that my posture resembles that of a question mark. Inside the shower I focus on stretching and working out the kinks.
A few hours later I am standing on the sidelines. I have reluctantly decided not to play. My body still feels like hell. I tell myself I am being smart, mature and responsible. Inside my head there is a voice screaming at me. He is berating me, taunting me, teasing me, asking me when I turned into such a little man. I do my best to ignore him.
It is not working, but I am not dressed to play. I tell myself that I’ll just hang out and talk to the guys. There are a bunch who don’t play. It is nice to catch up with them. Still, I find myself staring at the field. Eventually I’ll give in. I’ll tell myself that it is ok. I’ll rationalize it by saying that I compromised. A partial game means a shorter recovery time.
So here I am many hours later. I am happy, but the truth is that I am a man who has a terrible itch. I wish that I would have played longer. I should have just played. I am not that old yet. I can still get out there and next year I will.