A Football Play Saved Me From The Cemetery

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I started playing football when I was in the 5th grade, and by the time I was in 8th grade, I felt like I was pretty good.  Others took notice as well.  Our coach went by the name Bucky.  I never knew, or can’t remember, his real name.  I thought he knew everything about football, like I thought my Dad knew everything about everything at that time.  He had a muff of thick, curly and uncombed hair nested on his head and his front top teeth had a gap between them that made a convenient holding place for the cigarette he would frequently house there.

We practiced in a park by the trolley line and rode our bikes to get there.  It wasn’t a football field, just grass that served as center and right field for the little league baseball diamond in summer.  No lines.  No goalposts. By the end of the season, it was just dirt, or mud, depending on the weather.

I was a running back.  The play that got me noticed the most was something Bucky called the D2 counter.  It was basically a misdirection play.  I’d line up in the left slot, next to our tight end.  When the ball was snapped, I would spin in a circle and run along the line following our guard, who was pulling.  “Nuge,” our QB, would fake a dive to our fullback and hand me the ball.  Running to the right, I would look for a spot of daylight to cut upfield and, when things went right, click off 10-20 yards.

When we ran the play in practice against a defense made up of our own players, it never worked.  They would recognize the formation (and the spin, which makes it seem silly to me now) and my buddy Tim would run me down from the backside, sometimes before I even got the ball.  Fortunately, at that time, no team we’d be playing were scouting games at this level, so when we ran it in a game, they hadn’t seen it, and it usually worked great.

The D2 counter got me noticed by the high school coaches (Ok, one coach) who came to our games to look for talent (and ended up settling for me).  He coached at an expensive private school that my parents had no chance of affording and he’d recruited my teammate, Pete Gregory, the year before.

His team was not good. That season, they would lose every game. By a lot.  Tim, Nuge and a few of my other teammates got recruited by another private school that was winning every game that season and they ended up going there.  I didn’t understand why that coach never talked to me. Still don’t (but I don’t hang onto things….).

Presented with what appeared to be a tremendous opportunity for their son, my parents made the obvious choice and sent me to the school to get an education and play for Coach Auch.  I still wanted to go to the other school, the one my friends were going to, the one that didn’t extend the offer, without which we had no chance to afford.  I had no understanding of money, only friends.  Maybe you can empathize.

Overestimating My Abilities

When I arrived at summer camp as a freshman, I thought I was a badass.  Here I was, a “scholarship” kid, a star about to grace these losers with my ability.  “I hope you’re ready for me” I would say to myself, like I would say it to them but never did.

They were ready.

I learned fast that, just because a team hadn’t won a game last year, didn’t mean that guys on the team weren’t better, stronger and faster than me.  At camp, everyone practiced together, freshman through senior. Getting hit by guys 3 and 4 years older than me was eye-opening, pain-inflicting and humbling.  I wasn’t prepared for any of that.

When classes started, my ego suffered another blow.

I’d never thought much about the rigor of the education my neighborhood Catholic grade school had provided.  I took what they told me to take and did what I was asked to do.  Mostly.  And I had nothing to compare it to either.  Until now.

At my new school, which had every grade from kindergarten through high school, it became clear to me quickly that its expectations for students were, well there’s no other way to say it, way more than what I was used to. It’s no fun (in fact it’s humiliating) being a freshman that needed to be placed into several 8thgrade classes because I couldn’t keep up with the 9th grade curriculum. I was that freshman.  Jock stereotype confirmed.

Our financial status, relative to my new classmates, was confirmed as well.  There were a lot of Jaguar’s, BMW’s and Mercedes’ in the drop-off line and in parking lots during games and parent meetings.  My Mom was driving a Ford Granada, my Dad a pick-up truck.

Before camp, I thought for sure that I’d start every game, but reality set in immediately freshman year when I found myself standing on the sidelines, helmet on but with no chance of playing, during the varsity games.  Although we practiced together as one team (a small school thing), I only got playing time in the JV games.

Adapting To My New Normal

Fast forward a few years and things were gelling much better for me in this private school environment. I slowly caught up academically, although I was never competing for top of class.  Our football team got better, too.  Senior year, Coach Auch chose me and my buddy, Mark, to be co-captains.

I wish I could tell you that I was the star running back on the team, but coach explained to me that I could better “serve the team” as a guard on offense, which wasn’t fine with me at first – like it isn’t for a lot of kids when they’re asked to play the line. It was the right thing, though. We had kids who were better runners than me.  All progress starts with the truth.

By the time I graduated, we’d won the league championship 2 years in a row, beating the team from the school my friends went to, the one that had been undefeated when we were in 8th grade, one year and tying them another.

When I started high school, I thought that I was there for football; for the D2 counter, or whatever Bucky’s play would be called there.  Sure, I was aware of the prestige of the school, that it had been founded in 1785 by two signers of the Declaration of Independence, among others, that I might be challenged academically and that, besides Pete, I didn’t know anyone else who went there.  But none of that ended up mattering much.

What mattered was how I learned to fit in.  To adapt. To matter in a way I hadn’t considered.

Besides the other scholarship kids and Pete, no one that grew up where I grew up ended up at this school. We came from the wrong side of the tracks (although as I recall, the tracks had been paved, replaced by buses). While athletics got me an invitation to this party, I wasn’t born into the same league, and my family didn’t run in the same circles, as most other kids who were there.  I wasn’t better than anyone there because I could run the D2 counter, and I learned that the other kids weren’t any better than me because they drove a Corvette that their parents gave them for their 16th birthday.

Turns out that what the D2 counter gave me was an opportunity.  For a great education, yes, but for much more than that.  Going to that school was a gift that my parents saw, but that I surely did not; until much later.  A gift that gave me the confidence to know that I could compete, not just on the field, but in life.  A gift that made me realize that a job working for Brother Richard at the cemetery (a summer job that for some in my neighborhood turned into a career) didn’t have to be the place I’d end up.  A gift that told me I could be a lawyer, a businessman or a doctor (ok, there’s no way I could be a doctor) because my classmates could.

I showed up at that school with a chip on my shoulder, an attitude of arrogance, an ego.  I was all about who I was.  When I left, I still had a chip and an ego.  My arrogance, thankfully, had transformed into self-confidence, a better sense about myself.

The combination of those three things, my chip, ego and self-confidence, now had nothing to do with who I was, but rather who I could become.  What was possible.  It was my new D2 counter.  My new capability to look for daylight and cut upfield.


Special thanks to Hammerstone Marketing for blog design, SEO and featured image selection.

Mike Malatesta

Mike Malatesta

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