I’ve cranked out three chapters in about 10 days, on my new book, and just submitted another one today. Having my friend and colleague Elon Werner jump in to share stories as a “pinch hitter” on the blog has been fantastic, and today’s installment is his best yet. Witty and heartfelt stories. Definitely a great read.
Muchas gracias to my compadre and amigo!
My Life in Sports
For as long as I can remember I have loved sports. I was never a very good athlete but I loved to play. Growing up I was a tall, lanky uncoordinated kid. I grew up in Texarkana, on the Texas side of town. If you’re not familiar with Texarkana, it’s a pretty unique place. It literally straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas, so what state you live in depends on what side of the main road you live on. Walk across the street to go from the hardware store to the drug store, and you’re crossing a state line.
My first sports team was The Green Machine youth soccer team in Texarkana, Texas. I remember us as a Bad News Bears type of a motley crew of kids that could never rise to the professionalism and skill of the Toros, the dominant team in our league. They had great looking uniforms and lots of skill players. By skill players I mean kids that could consistently pass the ball to one another and keep it inbounds.
I don’t remember too many Tuesday and Thursday practices when we had a full squad. The Saturday morning games were also a little dicey. I can remember many anxious moments waiting for the fifth or sixth teammate to show up so we could field an undermanned team instead of forfeiting. I was probably eight or nine when this was all going on. I finally got my first growth spurt during my third year in the league and that was a game changer for The Green Machine. I was a good head taller than most of the kids by then so I became a corner kick specialist. I wasn’t the kicker but rather I would post up in the middle of the scrum and head the ball into the goal. It was glorious!
From soccer I made the transition to little league baseball on a team sponsored by Conoco, one of the local gas stations, and we were the Roadrunners. Again I was not your typical size for a good baseball player. I was almost 6 feet tall and maybe 130-140 lbs. Lots of knees and elbows. I was consistently relegated to right field where I could, like a doctor, do no harm. There were many innings where I entertained myself by kicking the tops off of dandelions and stirring up fire ant hills. My biggest drawback to being a good baseball player was my inability to see the baseball. For a couple years the school nurse had been sending notes to my parents suggesting I get my eyes checked. As an only child I was a big time reader and massive consumer of Saturday morning cartoons. My parents would dutifully ask me if I could see OK when they received the nurse’s note and I would say of course I can see. I didn’t tell them that I was sitting two feet from the TV, or holding my books just off the tip of my nose, and was moved to the front row of all my classes to keep my life in focus.
At the plate I was a disaster. Image trying to hit a baseball by the sound it made. Opposing pitchers were not bringing high heat with audible velocity so most times I was swinging when the ball hit the catcher’s mitt. Have I mentioned I was tall, skinny and uncoordinated. I looked like a human pretzel-making factory after every big swing. The tipping point to the acceleration of my improvement came when a fly ball bounced off my forehead in the outfield. I could see the ball coming at me, then I lost it, so I moved my glove over and the next thing I saw was my dad, my coach and one of the umpires standing over me as I was experiencing the biggest headache of my life. There are unconfirmed reports the ball bounced three feet high off my forehead.
The next day I was getting my eyes checked and low and behold I was blind as a bat from beyond two feet. As I was leaving the ophthalmologist’s office with glasses and marveling at the beauty of seeing individual leaves on trees and how cool it was to be able to read street signs from the car, my parents were shaking their heads in amazement and parental embarrassment.
At the next game as a Roadrunner I collected two or three hits including a triple. It is amazing what you can do at the plate when you can see the ball leave the pitcher’s hand. I also got moved to first base where I was actually pretty good because I had huge range for a 12 year-old.
I only played one more year of little league before junior high came calling. It was pretty fun to be able to collect a few hits and catch the occasional fly ball. I think of all the sports I played baseball was by far the most fun. Even little league dugouts are a place where you have a tight sense of camaraderie and fellowship that an “only child” never really experienced. At home there was no one to bust my chops for goofing up or share a secret with or give a high-five to. Dugouts are a special place for sure and anyone that has experienced a full season or even just a handful of games riding the pine knows exactly what I am talking about.
Junior high brought a whole new set of problems or opportunities to my athletic career. I was a Pine Street Panther and proud of it. This was my chance to finally experience every young man in Texas’ birthright. I could try out for the football team! Everyone I knew played football. We played pick-up games in open fields, parking lots and on the streets. I had my Rec-Specs and I was ready to mix it up. Unfortunately my body again betrayed my potential. I was even taller now checking in at six foot three at about 160 lbs at that point and a stiff breeze could blow me over. I made it through two practices playing tight end. In my final practice I was running a drag route and just as I was about to make my first official catch I was, I believe the term they use today is, BLOWN UP by a linebacker. All the air left my body and I was left on the ground writhing and gasping like a goldfish flopping beside his tank. Shortly after that the basketball coach informed me I could check out his practices at 6 a.m. in the morning and my chances of getting completely abused would diminish greatly.
Basketball changed my life. Not because I was a great player but because of my teammates and my coaches. I was the lone white player on the team for many seasons throughout junior high and high school. It was an eye opening experience for a kid who had been cruising along around people and families that looked just like mine for the most part. My parents did a great job of having a wide circle of personal and professional friends of different colors and faiths but I was always on the perimeter in many social settings. I would come in and say hello and then scamper to my room to read or entertain myself. Being the only white kid made an impact that has lasted a lifetime. It took a while for me to fit into the team and there were some bumps along the way. Eventually we all got comfortable with each other and it was a ton of fun to have an even bigger social circle of friends. I didn’t care about color of skin thanks, again, to my parents but I was aware there were some double standards in play and I chose to lift my teammates up and ignore side-eye stares. My attitude was we were a team and a unit and that was what mattered on and off the court. I got a look at an education on racism and micro-aggressions early on in my life and while I have not been perfect I hope that I have been much more supportive and empathetic to people of color throughout my life.
On the court I continued my career as a sub-par player with a lot of heart. I never missed a scheduled practice and showed up at all the additional work out sessions. The sad fact was I just didn’t have a lot of athletic ability. I loved to play though. I think I scored double digits a couple of times in garbage time but everything about the preparation just spoke to me. In a move that would never fly today we practiced in different shoes than we played in. We were a Converse team so we practiced in old-school Chuck Taylor canvas high tops, but in the games we had sweet white and orange Converse Cons leather high tops.
My senior year we got new warm ups and they had the snaps up the outside of the legs. We had all been watching NBA and college stars grab the front of their pants and yank them off in dramatic fashion. We could not wait to emulate that “cool factor” behavior. Before every game our coach threatened us with multiple post-practice suicide drills if we executed the “rip off” or “pop off” as he called it. After three games of everyone running suicide drills after practice because no one could resist the opportunity to look cool, our coach relented.
The only time I received a technical foul was also one of my more embarrassing moments in high school athletics. We were the Texas High Tigers (because we were on the Texas side of Texarkana) and before every game we ran out of the locker room to Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” To this day when I hear that song and I am transported back to my high school gym. Before the refs came out of their locker room teams could dunk during their warm-up drills.
Once the refs were on the court, no dunking was allowed. I was able to execute the running one hand dunk with about 60 percent proficiency. In this particular game against our cross-town rival Arkansas High, I had just taken off from my spot and as I left the ground I saw the refs were just entering the gym. Instead of aborting my dunk I actually swung my left hand up and executed a two-handed dunk. In my astonishment I held onto the rim and since this was a new experience I got a bonus physics lesson out of this moment as my legs continued to swing underneath me. I eventually let go of the rim and I landed flat on my back right in front of the refs. All you heard in the gym was a thud, a gasp from the crowd and the blare of the referee whistle as I was T’d up before the game event started. My peak athletic achievement nearly knocked me unconscious and cost me 10 suicide drills the next day.
I got my only high school letter my senior year for basketball so in the spring I got a letterman’s jacket. I wore that jacket almost every day whether it was 70 or 100 degrees. I still have it in my closest and show it off every now and then. My son was a four year letterman on the swim team and I could not be more proud. My daughter also lettered in journalism for three years, which is a thing now and very cool in my opinion. I look back at all those Saturday soccer games or Tuesday/Thursday baseball games and especially the Tuesday and Friday basketball games with so many fond memories. There were no select leagues or travel teams for me. Just getting out there and trying to play was enough fun for me. Those games and experiences molded me in ways I don’t think I really realized until I started writing this blog as a “pinch hitter” for Bob. They taught me persistence, tolerance, sportsmanship and most of all they taught me to work with people that I didn’t usually engage or have the same interests with. Sports did a lot of me and I am forever thankful for those opportunities.