The glory is in the pain

I am going to tell you about the most physically damaging play of my football career, because we are starting to understand just how damaging football plays can really be, and it seems like a bigger deal in retrospect than it seemed at the time. But also because the most damaging play of my football career was also the most gratifying play of my football career.

This was the fall of 2000, my senior year, and I played on a bad Kansas Class A high school football team. We played eight-man football, and we went 2-7 that year. I weighed 165 pounds, and as I recall I was the fourth-largest player on our team. Our best offensive lineman, a hot-blooded Dutchman* named David VanderHamm, might have been 150 in his pads.

*“I’m not Dutch!” he used to say.

One of our games was in Oklahoma City against a school called Christian Heritage Academy, which was a lot like our school — private and Protestant — only a little bigger and with a much, much better football team. The rumor was that nine of the seniors on that team were going to be playing in college. I don’t know if that’s true, but I know the quarterback was about 6-foot-3, maybe 210, and the first time the running back came busting into my gap, he might as well have been Ricky Williams. On one play, he scored a touchdown by — I swear — diving from the 5-yard-line. Their fullback was — and again, I swear I am not making this up — a white kid who was constantly screaming and had one eye that looked at you and another that looked somewhere else.

Anyway, we ended up losing 42-21, and in the fourth quarter I was still in at linebacker, but CHA had put in its second-team offense, which probably would have beaten us, too. By this time, I was frustrated. I had spent all day not quite getting to the quarterback, not quite catching the running back, getting my clock cleaned by this banshee they had playing fullback. And they put in that second-team running back, and he looked like he weighed about the same as me, and I wanted to knock off his shoulder pads.

Well, they ran a sweep away from my side, which was perfect for that. Nobody on the line picked me up, which meant I had about 15 yards to pick up speed as I pursued the play. And I was running fast. As fast as I could. A lot of sweeps end up getting strung out and they end with the running back going out of bounds or getting tackled on the sideline. I didn’t want that. I ached for this kid to cut back, and I aimed my speeding body right where it looked like the cutback lane would be.

He planted his left foot and cut. And right when he did, I met him with as much speed and force as my body was capable of generating. CRACK! Like bat meeting ball. On the coaches film you can hear that crack, and you can hear a few people in the crowd ooh a little.

For a moment, probably about a second, I couldn’t see. My upper body wouldn’t move. I don’t mean to say I was momentarily paralyzed, because I wasn’t. I could feel everything, and it all hurt. My neck, my shoulders and especially my head. I squinted my eyes hard, like when you get a brain freeze from guzzling a slushee, and all I wanted to do was pop right up and enjoy the glory of the best hit of my life, to show that I wasn’t hurt, that this is just What I Do. Ain’t no thang. But I just … could not do it. Physically. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say I needed a moment, down there in the grass, on my back, to put my being back together.

When I got up with the help of a teammate, I saw that the JV running back was still down, and there were tears pooling on the edges of his squinted eyes.

He left the game.

I stayed in.

It was a small victory, but it was a victory. That’s how I felt. Linebacker met running back, and linebacker won. I am sure this sounds dumb, because that was almost 12 years ago, but I have replayed that moment in my head a hundred times. Man, it felt good. So visceral. So explosive. So manly. It still does. I never experienced anything else in sports quite like it. I’ve hit home runs, and I’ve struck out people with the winning run on third base, and thrown touchdown passes, and sunk big free throws and dunked on my friends (on a nine-foot rim) and those things all feel great.

But not quite the same.

I have never knocked anybody out with a punch, but I imagine it must be something like that. It was so physical, so raw, so mano a mano. Who is tougher? That was the question, and the answer is always “the guy who’s still out there.”

That was one of my last football games. I didn’t play in college, so I am probably not at risk for the after effects of head trauma we keep hearing so much about with NFL players. Oh, I “got my bell rung” plenty. One time it felt like my left arm was on fire. One time I came back to the huddle and had a hard time remembering how to call a play. But we’re talking about maybe 20 bell ringings in my whole life. Maybe not even that many.

There are a lot of discussions going on about these issues now, and I don’t have the answers. But I think about that play whenever I see some linebacker or defensive back crush somebody at full speed. There are other ways to make a tackle. Safer ways. More effective ways. Ways that won’t get you penalized.

And you hear a lot of people wonder why guys still hit that way, knowing everything they know, knowing how it’s going to feel in the next moment or the next day or the next phase of life. But the answer is simple.

Because it hurts so good.