“Where is the kid with the surfer hair?”
They were talking about me. Matt had just had his head shaved against his will, and the seniors wanted more. They scoured the locker room, the weight room, and the student parking lot with shears in hand, and treachery in their hearts. I hid. I would say I cowered, but you don’t really have space to do that after having stuffed yourself in a locker. I would have been ashamed if I didn’t know that Cowley was doing the exact same thing in the very next locker.
It was funny to me, even in that moment, that I was actually hiding in a locker. I had seen this on TV but never thought it physically possible, nor a real life necessity. Better yet was that the guy in the locker next to mine, weighed at least 260lbs. I’m sure none of this would have happened in a normal world, but this was football.
The lockers we were in were specially designed to hold shoulder pads and all sorts of equipment. We were in football lockers because we played football, and the Neanderthals outside were our teammates. Our suburban high school was relatively small. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors all practiced together; all one big team. There were no official try-outs, and no cuts. If you showed up, and lasted, you were counted as part of the team. We were thrown together, young men and boys, and this alchemy produced a team; with a tall side order of terror.
This head shaving incident was not isolated. The day before the “sophomore sheep shearing”, one of my classmates didn’t show up to practice. It took a good 30 minutes before a trainer noticed him shrink wrapped to a goal post down at the main field. At lunch time seniors would make us carry their trays, before practice they made us caddy their helmets, after practice they made us fear.
We did not shower post practice. It was not out of prudish modesty but self preservation. The first one to try showering returned to his locker to find his school clothes clogging up a toilet. On one occasion, while we were all dressing, an upperclassman swung the wire mesh security gate shut, locking the twenty of us in our section. Immediately afterwards, bins of water were poured through the gates, flooding us like a colony of gophers.
It wasn’t really that bad. We all thought it was just part of the dues we paid to play. As with any hostile force there were sympathizers amongst them. Cole was a captain and the physical superior of everyone else on the team. He would keep others in check, give us one of those knowing nods to reassure us that we weren’t really going to die, and kept things from getting out of hand, sort of.
He did not really control Chuck. Chuck was the varsity quarterback. Some would say he had a Napoleon complex, I would say he had a Genghis Khan complex. He was the one with the clippers.
They did not find me or Cowley that day and I kept my hair. They did find us later that week and we all enjoyed a “voluntary” leap into the glacier runoff up in the canyon on a hot summer day. Possibly inspired by our trips up to the river, the coaches treated the whole team to a day at the community pool; a chance to cool off after a week of hot weathered and hot headed practices. The seniors enjoyed a nice game of dunk the sophomore. I enjoyed it as well; at least at first.
I did not dunk easily. When Chuck tried I did not dunk at all. I do not know if words were exchanged or how it all happened, but I do know it ended with me looking the quarterback in the eye while he was hauled off by three of his cohorts Cole included. I just stood there bleeding from the lip, alone.
At the end of each practice it was our pleasure to run any number of 100 yard sprints. Coach would yell out “sophomores”, and we would sprint. He would yell “juniors”, and they would run, etc. It was a time honored tradition that the sophs went first, seniors last. This gave the upperclassmen the opportunity to run over or through any underclassmen who were loitering along the way. One day I stood on the finish line, arms behind my head, desperately trying to regain my wind. By some stroke of luck I saw Chuck just as he was lowering his shoulder, preparing to collapse my ribs. I stepped aside.
My stepping aside had the same effect as Lucy’s pulling the ball right before Charlie Brown attempted his kick. Expecting to hit me, he hit nothing, followed by hitting the ground. I looked back over my shoulder as I started my next sprint. Chuck was not pleased.
Chuck had one of those stares that television tries to portray with special effects. The sort where he looks right at you and it is somehow obvious that he can see absolutely nothing else, except possibly the funeral of the one being looked at. I saw this stare from 50 yards away and knew that stepping aside would do me no good this time around. I squared up and took it.
This may have been even more of a surprise to my attacker than my previous move. The net result was the same with me standing looking down on him as he lay in the grass. On his third Kamikaze attack Chuck surprised me, and all of us, by veering last second and absolutely obliterating the sophomore standing next to me. As the poor soul who thought he would only be a bystander lay in the fetal position, I called Chuck a name. I used a word I would not repeat today and he heard it.
I did not have time to start the next sprint before he was on me and his classmates were on him. They peeled him off and had my face not been protected by an iron roll bar, my lip would have once again been bleeding.
These sorts of actions do not win one friends. I was a marked man and as such those closest to me in both emotion and age, could be found nowhere near me or they may suffer from peripheral violence. I did not always win these contests. There was a day in tackling drills where Blake decided I should spend the entire time prostrate. Every time I attempted to rise he would promptly knock me down again. There was the day I spent lined up in front of Vern. He taught me every way an offensive lineman could hurt his opponent and not be caught by officials. It was an object lesson I would not soon forget, nor soon stop feeling.
Over time this repeated pounding produced a respect and fear for my teammates that no opposing team could ever match. I faced players from much better teams with much better bodies, but I was never afraid. I recall looking forward to the day we played against others our own age as a welcome day of rest. We were usually a bit less organized, as all our practice time was taken being cannon fodder for the varsity, but it was pure pleasure being the projectile for a change.