This may come as a shock to you, but I ain’t exactly the most athletic dude in the world.
Sure, I can hit a baseball – well, a softball, anyway – and I can throw a football and I can dribble a basketball. However, I didn’t play in any organized sports leagues after the eighth grade (aside from the co-ed rec league softball team I coached in Denver), partly because I was busy doing other things, and partly because I never felt I was talented enough to make a contribution to any team.
The reason I bring this up is that I just got back from a two mile lunchtime run, and I spent the majority of that run replaying some of the highlights of my athletic career over and over in my mind. Let me share some of my personal highlight reel with you.
First off, there was the time in seventh grade where I was promoted to middle outfielder. The grade school league we played in allowed for four outfielders – leftfielder, rightfielder, centerfielder and middlefielder, the last of which was a sort of rover behind second base, and would act as the cut-off between the outfield and the infield on deeply hit balls.
I usually played center field because, although I couldn’t really hit or field that well, I had a cannon of an arm (at least at that age). I could throw the ball from deep center and hit home plate on the fly, zero bounces.
Our home field in Miramonte, California, didn’t have outfield bleachers, because the outfield was bordered by a creek that ran through the school. Balls that were hit that far were often lost in the overgrowth, or landed in the water.
During one particular practice, I was playing middle field when a ball was smacked deep to left. My buddy Rick went trudging after it – we were a small school on a limited budget, and could scarcely afford to lose too many balls. I assumed he’d go looking for it, give up, and come back to the field of play with his hands raised, as if to say, “I tried, but couldn’t find it anywhere!”
My mind started to wander. Forty-odd years later, I have no idea what I was contemplating. It might have been a test coming up; it might have been what happened in the latest issue of Amazing Spider-man; it might have been how do I get the cutest girl in my class, Cindy, to notice me. Whatever it was, it kept me from noticing everyone around me yelling at me to PAY ATTENTION!
Because Rick hadn’t given up. He’d found the ball, and coming out of the thicket by the creek and seeing me standing there in the outfield, he heaved the ball with all of his might at me.
The next thing I remember, I’m laying on the field with Mr. Buxman, my teacher (and also the principal) pressing a towel to my face and asking if I was all right. I reached up to my face, and all I could feel was wetness. I apparently let fly with a few choice words, from what I was told later. It is literally all a blur to me.
Rick had let fly with a rocket that sailed straight at me and pegged me square in my day-dreaming face. Knocked me out cold, bloodied and broke my nose, the works.
We were a pretty small school. My graduating class of eighth grade, for instance, had seven total kids. There were nine kids in seventh grade, just below us. So, we had to make due with what we had. All of the boys played on all of the teams – flag football, baseball and basketball.
At that age, I had zero upper body strength. I can recall one afternoon on the basketball court – a cement slab outside, surrounded by chain link fencing to keep the wildlife out, with four goals and two courts painted on the cement – we were doing free throw drills.
I stood at the line and prepared to shoot. Twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys can be merciless, so I wasn’t about to try to do a “granny shot,” where you cradle the ball between your legs then heave upwards and fling the ball at the goal. I stood at the line, dribbled two or three times, then jumped and shot.
My hope was that the upwards motion of me jumping would give the ball the added boost it needed to make it to the goal. And I was right, it did. And I even made the shot.
That didn’t stop everyone – kids and Mr. Buxman alike – from laughing their asses off.
My form was, to say the least, interesting. As demonstrated by the much-more-athletic Jerry, I apparently jumped with one one leg while kicking the other leg back behind me, in a sort of bunny hop. Very masculine; very athletic.
Mr. Buxman considered my form for a moment, then made the proclamation, “You look like a bird, hopping around looking for bugs to eat instead of shooting a basketball. From now on, your nickname is ‘Magpie’.”
And it was.
We weren’t necessarily dirt poor when I was growing up and we lived in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but we were definitely “you only need one pair of shoes” poor.
Ninety-nine percent of the time, this wasn’t an issue. I wasn’t terribly fashion-forward as a kid – I was happy in my JC Penney jeans with the reinforced knees and my hiking boots. “Waffle stompers” is what we called them, because of the pattern they made when you walked in soft dirt or mud – a sort of waffle-like pattern.
The other one percent of the time, though, was when I was playing sports. There were many times when I was chasing down a fly ball in center field or trying to do a pick-and-roll on the basketball court in my waffle stompers, and no one said a word. At least, not to me.
That was, until we played a game against our chief rival. Dunlop was the school just down the road from us, and they were bigger than us, but not by much. Their facilities were much like ours – a cement slab for a basketball court, a field that doubled as both a baseball diamond and a football field, depending upon how it had been chalked that day.
Mr. Buxman, who aside from being the 7th & 8th grade teacher and principal of Miramonte Elementary School, was also it’s coach. He decided to try a new play that we’d been working on, called the hook-n-ladder. This type of play is a staple for most teams, but this was forty years ago on a team that was coached by the principal who’s main goal in life was to make it as a painter. Trick plays were a new wrinkle for us.
We played six-man teams – quarterback, two halfbacks, center, two wide receivers. On this particular play, I lined up as the left halfback and my buddy Quentin would be the left receiver. Bobby would snap the ball to his brother Jerry, the quarterback, and Jerry would throw the ball to Quentin, who was doing a ten yard hook – that is, he’d run straight for ten yards and turn around. Meanwhile, I’d run wide, out along the sideline, making sure to stay behind Quentin. As soon as Quentin caught the ball, he’d pitch it out to me running along the sideline, and I’d make a beeline for the end zone.
We ran the play twice that day. The first time we ran it, I scored a touchdown, but it was called back because I’d gotten ahead of Quentin, and forced him into making a forward lateral. The second time, though, it worked perfectly, and I scored the only touchdown of my two year flag-football career.
It was glorious, that second time. Running down the sidelines to cheers of “Go! Go! Go!” and “Run, Magpie!” – it was like a drug to me.
I returned to our bench after scoring my second touchdown (and the only one that actually counted) to high-fives and laughter. I wasn’t quite sure what was so funny, so I asked Mr. Buxman why everyone was laughing.
“The sight of you running down the sideline in your hiking boots (he didn’t know they were called waffle stompers, apparently) with your laces untied and flapping in the wind, with the entire Dunlop team chasing you, was like a scene out of some movie, like you’d stolen that football and they were the cops trying to catch you!” he said, between fits of laughter.
I was simultaneously elated and crushed. On the one hand, I had actually scored a touchdown! On the other hand, though, I looked like an idiot doing it.
My experience with Mr. Buxman, as deflating and crushing as it often was, ended on a high note. He gave me a gift when I graduated eighth grade, and it turned out to be one that changed my life. But that’s a subject for another post.
I graduated and moved on to high school shortly thereafter, and didn’t even make the attempt to play any sports in ninth grade or beyond. I discovered music, and concentrated on that, which I very much enjoyed. I’d learned my lesson – I’m good at a lot of things, but sports ain’t one of them.
But how did I know I wouldn’t develop into an athlete as I grew older? How did I know that my talents and abilities lie elsewhere?
A little bird told me. A magpie, in fact.