Team Sports: A Close Encounter

When I was a kid, there was only one “team sport” in the ‘hood.  Not that there was a team – nor did we really follow the rules of sport.  But we played football. I don’t recall ever seeing a baseball bat, and baseballs were rarer than hen’s teeth.  ANY ball was unusual and hard to find; however, we had a football that became used by the entire neighborhood. Or at least I think it was; its the ball I have in our closet. There may have been others, but like I said: balls were rare, and hard to find.

Football came in two forms: Scrimmage, and “kill the man with the ball”. Usually there’d was only us younger kids playing with the teenager from next door – racing around our backyard, the dog in tow (he thought he was one of us kids, too, when he wasn’t thinking he was a cat like the cat that had raised him had taught him to be). Charlie was his name – and he’d groom himself like a cat and try to climb a tree. Just like his momma had showed him.

And when it was time to play football – as I said, there were two games. There was ‘scrimmage’ where we’d line up in two lines – the teenager functioning as coach-cum-quarterback most times, showing us how things were done. He taught us how to squat, one hand on the ground; how to ‘launch’ from a squat – head down like a human bullet leading with one shoulder. He showed us how to shake someone off our back – shimmying our butt and swinging our shoulders and squeezing through.

I was only given one position in “the ‘hood” – that of ‘forward rush’ and never receiver. That was because I threw the way I had been shown – like a girl. The way our momma had showed us. After all, she was the only one who would play ‘pitch’ with us kids, ‘catch’, and games like that. Our father never played ball. Not at all. If it wasn’t something he would win, he didn’t play (and he still dislikes losing, never playing for the game’s sake, but only for his own). The only game he played was chess – and then only for the fun of showing how he could beat us. I was a steady study, willing to learn – knowing I was learning while being defeated all the time – but I only won one game against him – and then accused him of letting me win, which he relished and admitted readily enough.

My job was one I enjoyed – I relished charging and smashing my way through a crowd of sweating milling players, my eyes on one goal: the ball. My job was to take the person with the ball down. And a lot of times I would take him down – getting him in the knees, or around waist – or my favorite, leaping up and wrapping my arms around his throat. Oft times the teenager would charge, already winded, as us kids piled on – and then down he would go. We’d pile on him – “dog pile” we’d yell and scream – and then everybody would jump on. And I mean literally everybody from both sides of the team.

There weren’t any rules to the game, or at least not a lot of them. I hadn’t seen a football game before – didn’t see one until I was about fifteen or so; nor had I even heard of basketball, golf, tennis, soccer, or a host of other sports. Swimming I knew – but not as a sport or sport form. It was just something to do, albeit I loved it very much. I grew into some experience with ping-pong, courtesy of the Army Community Youth Club or organizations – running across it here and there, but usually the balls were broken or dented from overly aggressive hits.

We never scored any ‘points’ – there wasn’t any goal to run to – and we didn’t know a thing about field lines, out of bounds – any of that sort of stuff. All we knew was hiking the ball – throwing the ball (passing) – and running. Two teams of kids smashing each other up was what it came down to, with the teenager in the middle, running the chaotic show – and the dog running ’round and ’round in circles, willing to take down any ‘man’. He was like the ‘random factor’ – against (or for) anyone who held the ball – sometimes taking the ball for his own – sometimes just randomly taking down some player by knocking them in the knees. (He took me down a few times as well!) And to us kids he was simply a dark skinned, thick furred, non-English speaking kind of stranger who was welcome to our games, even if he didn’t understand them at all.

The other variation of the game was even simpler: “Kill The Man With the Ball”. That game was was even harder – and unlike the first version of football, it was a lot rougher. The idea was simple – go after the ‘man’ with the ball, take him down, and pile on top of him. And by pile on top of him, I mean everybody would pile on top – a squirming mass of kids, with a kid with a ball buried underneath it all. And it was crushing. It was so crushing my brother got knocked unconscious when one time he found himself at the bottom of the pile – the air literally crushed out of him – which is why I was unwilling to play the game – or at least be the man with the ball. I held the ball only once – a few times, actually – but there was that one time when I was buried beneath that mound of squirming bodies – and I couldn’t draw a breath at all. The weight of them was crushing me – and as the darkness swarmed in (and it was hot and moist with kids breath and sweat down there) – they let up and I was ‘saved’. It was a close thing.

But all that changed when we went to North Carolina. There there was no ‘ball’ – at least not the kind I was used to. Instead there were the ‘team sports’ – and I was a member of one.

I don’t know how it happened, or who put me in it, but I suddenly found myself one day riding my bike after school to the try-out field where they were playing baseball. Now I hadn’t seen any baseball before; didn’t know the game – hadn’t a clue, and still threw just like my mom had shown me – like a girl. Naturally the coach put me on as a catcher – since I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know how to catch the ball. And being the new kid on the block (all the time: the new kid on the block – I knew it but didn’t know it, didn’t know the effects of the thing since I was always the new kid and not some other) – I had no friends at all: none to teach me or throw after the game, nobody to run with or play with at all (unless you count my brother).

It was kinda lonely like that, and one day it really struck me hard. As I was riding my bike back home from practice one day (this was some hilly land) my bicycle chain caught my pants leg in the sprocket (there was no chain guard) and yanked me off my bike in the middle of the road while a thunderstorm was moving in. I was panicked – and then mad – because I wanted to get home before it thundered and roared, plus I didn’t want to get drenched. So here I am all tied up with this bike in the road – and there’s no one to help me. That’s when it sort of struck me in the back of my mind: I am alone in this thing; I have to deal with ALL my problems alone, by myself – and then there’s this: another one to solve. My leg was hurting (the chain had dug in); my butt and shoulder were hurting (from coming down on the pavement) – and there was no one – absolutely no one to help me. Same with the ball. No one to help me; I had to figure it out on my own. Nothing was going right and it never did. . . .

I started to hate that game: I was ridiculous at it, I was unprepared, and no one had taught me a damned thing.

So I gave it up as soon as they let me (I think it was when we moved; that put an end to that thing.) I still have my catcher’s glove – that useless old thing. I doubt it’s caught more than a dozen balls; not worth the money spent. Nor was the lesson learned.

But one thing I did learn: if I gotta problem, I gotta deal with it.

‘Cause there’s no help coming from home.

And sports sucked.