’96. You tackle now-NFL fullback Heath Evans nine times in your final high school football game. We’ll start with that — he’s SEC. You tackle Heath Evans, and he kips-up and says “Awesome tackle, man!” every time you hit him and it really sounds sincere, and then he bounces back to his huddle and stares wide-eyed at you and neck-cracks like Dutch, and then he trucks your ass again and says, “Awesome tackle, man!” 40 rushes for 160 yards. He chips in 20-something tackles at linebacker just because. Postgame, you’re still padded-up and slouching on the locker room aluminum benches. One of your best friends is sobbing in his helmet. You wonder why you aren’t.
’99. A doctor compares your ligaments in each shoulder — precariously stretched from football — to “shredded toilet paper.” He performs back-to-back surgeries. Your mom dresses you in broad-striped, collared shirts that she buys at TJ Max, oversized to accommodate the slings. This is not a good summer.
‘86. Rewind and you’re 8 and racing your brother on shiny mountain bikes to the neighborhood tennis club, weaving and racing and raising up from your seat and swapping “Three Amigos” quotes (El Guapo: “Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?” Jefe: “A what?” El Guapo: “A ‘plethora’.” Jefe: “Oh yes, you have a plethora.”), and you wear matching jams because your mother buys matching jams from TJ Maxx and you will wear them. Trekking it to Rucker Park or corralling rabbits this is not. Your brother holds a lifetime 74-0 record against you. You lose the 75th by forfeit midway through the second set when you storm off and scream in a dramatic, unintentional double entendre, submission: “your balls are just harder than mine.” You bike home, and your dad is looking through the window, and once you’re inside he places his hand on your shoulder and says, “one day you’ll be bigger than your brother.” You sniffle and nod. He is right. The sun does rise. The day does come. When it does, you quit tennis because it’s for sissies.
’95. Your best friend, who introduced you to basketball years before, breaks your nose in practice, as your coach tries to implement the Box and 1. You’re the 1. Your nose is destroyed. It’s on the side of your face. The doctors use a hammer for resetting. You wear the Rip Hamilton facemask in the playoffs. For some reason, opposing fans find this funny.
‘91. Your best friend introduces you to basketball. Sixth grade. Your jump shot is carefully modeled after your hero Bill Cartwright.
Not surprisingly, you are an erratic jump shooter.
Most weekends are spent playing 2-on-2 games to 100 on Dean’s driveway, silver packing tape marking the three point line, his big-haired mom brewing endless Gatorade in big-spouted jugs. You’re always matched up against Dean; it’s the only way you’ve known him…Dean-O…the Italian Stallion — gangly, Knicks-shorted, gold-chained, lathered-pimply-back.
The rules of the game: (1) you impersonate different college players; (2) you yell their names after scoring. You rotate between awkward Samaki Walker post moves and an arsenal of Tony Delk pull-ups and floaters. One sunny afternoon Dean complains of a stomach ache. You, of course, press mockingly where it hurts and diagnose that “it’s the Hooters wings.” It’s cancer. You help bury Dean on your 21st birthday. The silver tape comes off the driveway.
‘01. You tear your left ACL during an intramural basketball game. The same shoulder-doctor tells you that stripping a piece of your hamstring for a replacement is the way of the future. Strip it, doc. Your hamstring cramps upon exertion forever more.
‘04. Doctor now tells you that using a cadaver’s ligament as a replacement for your right ACL, torn during flag football, is the way of the future. Doctor makes a joke about your limbs putting his kids through college.
‘96 – Present. No one cares that you tackled Heath Evans nine frickin’ times in a single game. Not potential employers. Not women.
‘99-’01. You room with Gator basketball walk-on David Kliewer in college. You and friends establish “Kliewer’s Korner” in the front row of every home game, straight across the floor from Billy Donovan. From tip-off to final horn you lean over the railings and rage at the young head coach like a pack of pre-Twitter-Weiners — Dazzler Erin Andrews looking on in great horror and confusion — insisting/directing/commanding/one-way-negotiating that Billy D play your boy (“The gentleman WILL insert Kliewer!”). That he let the magic story unfold. That the little engine maybe could. Billy rarely complies. Athletic Director Jeremy Foley sits directly in front of you. He likes that your crew supports Kliewer, offers you gum before every game. He’s rag to riches himself — started as an intern in the ticket office. Kliewer gets in against some crap team from New Hampshire. Buckets on a swooping lefty layup. Foley turns. Fist bumps. Later, injury pares the squad to eight, and Kliewer sees real action against Auburn. Guards starter (and, incidentally, his doppelganger) Scott Pohlman for a stretch. Gets a hand in Pohlman’s face and forces a missed baseline jumper. Impact. On ESPN. The little engine does.
’10. You join the Army. You wake up mornings at 0500 in Virginia in the middle of winter and run up this hill at least twice a week in formation. 0.8 miles up. 0.8 miles down. Sometimes you’re made to sprint it and sometimes you’re made to run it thrice and every time you love the Army. One morning, you take on “Zero Day,” a two hour long weed out session of pushups and sit-ups and overhead arm claps and sprinting up and down another hill in your Kevlar and boots. About 50 people. 25 degrees. The First Sergeant running the show goads you to quit, telling you in hackneyed Southern drawl that they are currently “serving pumpkin lattes down there at Panera Bread.” You and 20 others don’t go for lattes, and then you and a buddy drink celebratory Bass in his room at 0700, and you concede while laughing and sweat-drenched that one’s drawl cannot be hackneyed, and your friend blasts on his laptop the music from Top Gun when Maverick hugs Iceman. You are both acutely aware of the lameness. Neither of you care.
’11. You deploy to the Middle East one month into your first assignment. Sometimes it gets lonely. You find the gym and there is a basketball tournament to watch. You see Sergeants guarding Majors and not calling them “Sir” and it’s OK, and you watch the same typecast players that populate every amateur tournament back home: Ram-Man power forwards who can box out a rhinoceros; double-knee braced old-timers catapulting set shot threes and straight splashin’ ‘em; legitimately skilled wingman with shorts to shins and tatted-up energy guys slapping the floor and pogo-stickers in head bands air balling free throws and skinned-kneed Johnny Flattops from Oklahoma who’d rather rock jeans shorts while working the high post. You watch these games and shoes are squeaking and you see guys who have never committed a foul in their lives make the Kobe-Fake-Good-Natured-Questioning-Face when the ref calls foul, and there are bystanders clowning in the stands and hopping and covering their mouths and pointing at dunks, and others lean back in the bleachers bobbing their heads wrapped by oversized Beats By Dr. Dre headphones and checking out the girls that walk by.
And everything’s good.
‘10. Heath Evans wins the Super Bowl.