305. Football

I’ve said it so many times, in job interviews, on dates, with new friends, that I have to remind myself to give it conviction, so it doesn’t sound like I’m reading from a script.  

“Montana doesn’t have a pro sports team. In fact, none of its surrounding states do either. Idaho, Wyoming, the Dakotas — none of the big four sports have a franchise in any of them. It’s truly the pro sports black hole of America.

“So growing up, I didn’t have a personal connection to sports. Green Bay, Wisconsin, might as well have been Narnia, for all that it mattered to me. I wasn’t going to visit either one of them.”

Over and over again. But listen — just because I’ve said it a lot, doesn’t make it untrue. I mean that. Those are the reasons I got into sports, and the only reason I pivoted to journalism is that I wasn’t good enough to get there playing football.

It was all I wanted as a kid — to play football and play it well. When I was 10, I was certain I was going to play quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. I spent hours, nights, weekends in my basement, barking out play calls, dropping back in a pocket made of loveseats, standing tall amid imaginary blitzes, and slinging the ball downfield into my security-blanket tight end that, more often than not, was an actual blanket.

I lasted two years in organized football. They put me at cornerback in Pop Warner, backup cornerback, where my job was simple: Call out and stop sweep runs that came to my side.a

I was remarkably bad at this job.

I was too scrawny. I didn’t have the requisite football knowledge other kids had, especially the kids who grew up with older brothers and jock fathers.

But the biggest reason I failed is that I had an inherent, unshakable fear of getting hit and getting hurt. The instincts of aggression and excitement felt foreign to me on a football field. I wasn’t a punisher; even at eleven years old, I realized that.

It’s tough for me to picture what I must have looked like to my family — the undersized kid who half-hearted ran into the fray, eyes closed, hoping he could fashion his body into an awkward obstacle to slow down typically the other team’s most athletic player.

Hard to watch.

I was never the worst player on the team. I was reasonably fast, and I worked just hard enough to keep the coaches off my ass. But I was quiet and unsure of myself, and I know you could see the fear in my eyes.

One day at practice, halfway through my second miserable year, I took the kindest offensive coach aside, and I told him that I thought I had figured out what was wrong. I needed to be on offense, I said. If my natural instinct is to run away from contact, wouldn’t that make me a perfect running back? I reasoned.

He must have seen the desperation in my eyes because he let me warm up with the running backs that day. Of course, at the time, I thought that I had convinced him of my glittering, unfulfilled destiny as A Running Back.

My fellow cornerbacks whispered and pointed with envy as I jogged into the running backs line. I had been plucked from obscurity — Me! The second-string right cornerback! — and put on center stage with the golden boys, the ones who got the ball every play, who scored the touchdowns.

I’ll never forget that first drill. It was so simple: Take the handoff, run around a few cones and absorb a hit from a coach holding a blocking pad.

Eager to prove I knew what I was doing, I tucked the ball high and tight into my armpit, cradling it just like Emmitt Smith did. I raced forward, juked the cones, and steeled myself for the pad with my eyes closed.

And then I was on my back looking up at a grey sky, the ball rolling to a lazy stop yards away behind me. Brandon, the best running back on the team, held his hand out to help me up.

“It’s like that every single time,” he said, slapping my helmet. “Except when you score a touchdown.”

I don’t remember the rest of that day, but I do know that at practice the next day, I was back with the cornerbacks. My brief 15 minutes as a Chosen One were over. It was back to pretending I wasn’t afraid to do my job. I had flown too close to the sun.

I finished the season, but getting laid out on my first practice carry was the moment I knew I was done playing football. I just couldn’t do it. A dream cultivated one Sunday at a time, watching Troy Aikman and Brett Favre (my future colleagues!), died.

Or, at least, it evolved into something else entirely.

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