For the next few months, a small town in Texas may be the best place in the world.
Every year the Friday night lights open the floodgates of memory – time travel that seems to replay forever all around us.
I believe I hold a unique record at my high school: the only student to have gone through off-season workouts in two sports without ever playing one second of either during a game.
I started out in band, back when that could substitute for PE on your transcript (a bad idea, by the way, and one I hope has gone the way of medicine balls and steam cabinets). But after a great freshman year, things went sour. I switched to choir as a junior.
(A buddy makes incessant fun of me for being in choir – but at my high school, choir was cool. Football players were in choir, and cute girls. We won contests, had fun trips, and you didn’t have to go to your next class with a big circle on your mouth from the baritone.)
Being in choir and having friends on the football team is probably what prompted me to attempt to complete the transition from nerd to jock.
I lettered in tennis, but that wasn’t really a sport at my school back then.
(Example No. 1: Our coach, the assistant volleyball coach, loaded us up on a bus the first day, took us to the city library and invited us to check out every book we could find on tennis, admitting she knew nothing about the sport.)
(Example No. 2: The chubbiest kid in school played tennis, competed in his street clothes, made it a point to never, ever run and was just as good as me. He lettered, too.)
So I decided I would go out for football, understanding that if you’re a senior they have to let you on the team. After talking to the coaches, I signed up for off-season football the spring semester of my junior year.
The way they laughed as I walked away should have told me something. The scene when I walked into the training room for the first time should have clinched it.
A guy was lying on the floor saying, “I can’t feel my legs!” as a group of coaches (high schools didn’t have trainers then) gathered around him. I think I heard someone say, “Walk it off, you little … ” as he turned his head to spit into a cup.
I kept a low profile, lifted weights and ran and sweated. It hurt, but I gained 20 pounds that semester while avoiding serious injury. I’m sure I impressed the coaches with my combination of (no) size, (no) speed and (no) skills.
My best buddy, a three-sport star who feared for my life if I ever ventured onto a football field, talked me into being manager of the basketball team the next year. There was only one catch – it was a year-round job. Athletes could come over to basketball after football, but managers could not.
Since we’d lost in the state championship game my junior year, he and I both thought we had a pretty good chance at another trip to Austin as seniors. I took a deep breath, said goodbye to a budding football career and signed on.
The football team went 12-1, losing in the state semifinal game. The basketball team got shot down in the regional final – one game short of a trip to Austin – and just like that, the season was over.
With no more stats to keep, all the seniors gone to baseball and a very sincere sophomore to launder all the towels, I asked the coach if I could suit up and do off-season basketball until school was out. He needed practice dummies for the real players and had probably taken note that all I did was shoot anyway, so he said OK.
So from March through May my senior year, I was a basketball player. I learned the full-court weave, ran yo-yos and did “foot-fire” drills until my calves were knots. I never developed any jumping ability, but I was able to fill a spot and let the big boys practice humiliating people the way they would when they won the state championship the next year, going 34-0.
A college buddy and I drove to Austin and watched with the cool detachment of the formerly involved.
School starting brings it all back – the pungent smell of a gym, the piercing shriek of rubber-soled shoes on a wood floor, the blast of a whistle, the smell of fresh-cut grass on a striped field.
Like most, there are things I wish I could get a do-over on from high school.
Athletics isn’t one of them.
I probably missed getting my head cracked on a kickoff return or committing a turnover in the waning seconds of a crucial contest.
I think I got the best of high school athletics. It was conditioning and camaraderie, not competition, that built the team. The weight room, the off-season gym, the long, painful runs and the longer bus trips – that’s what makes kids into teams.
When the triumphs and tragedies of games are long forgotten, those are the times you remember.
I sure do.
Bob Buckel is executive editor of the Wise County Messenger.