Friday, October 16, 2009

The Ballad Of The High School Athlete

From what I've gathered, it's basically the same everywhere, but different. And for those of us lucky enough to have participated, high school athletics was an education in itself.

The Baltimore Ravens 2009 first-round draft choice, Michael Oher, made the move from right tackle to left tackle in last week's contest between the Ravens and the Bengals. He lined up against Bengals defensive end Antawn Odom, who led the NFL with eight sacks going into the game. Odom finished the game with eight sacks and added only two tackles. Of course, Michael Oher the person is one of the main subjects of Michael Lewis's 2006 novel: The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.

Oher's move to left tackle is significant for two main reasons. First, the left tackle has become the marquee player on the offensive line and one of the most important pieces of every NFL franchise for that matter (the evolution of which Lewis beautifully explored in his book); and second, because the move to the left side, the "blind side", probably a permanent move for Oher, marks the full realization of a lot of people's vision of Oher's potential as a professional athlete and maybe less so, his own.

The amazing and sometimes shocking story of Michael Oher, at least the high school athletics part of it, is a story experienced by millions of current and former high school athletes across the nation, myself included. Now, I'm not talking about his brutal and broken childhood and adolescence; my childhood was just fine and when it was sour it was usually caused by my own loud mouth and a penchant for injuring myself with fireworks and other objects. I'm talking about about how Oher's high school sports experience shaped him as a person, and his future. Of course just about all of us at least had a home before discovering high school sports--not so for Oher--but the significance of sports is not necessarily lost on the rest of us.

For my high school sports experience, football in particular, I learned quite a bit about myself and the rest of the world. There was plenty of drama and not a lot of politicking (at least not from my vantage). I know that is not the case in a lot of other places. There are towns in Texas whose identity and consciousness is derived from the football team's success (or failure).

The truth is, after my first high school football practice I wondered how I would make it through a second. It was a brutally hot day in August and we finished practice with "conditioning" which that day consisted of about enough sprints from sideline to sideline that I thought I was going to die, and then a couple more when I thought about doing it myself. After, out of breath and overheating, I stretched out on the hood of my brother's black 1992 Toyota Camry and wondered what the heck I had gotten myself into. The color black attracts heat; I was in honors classes but I wasn't always smart. I survived the next practice and the one after that and by the time I got my diploma I actually had four letters to my credit, two of them from varsity. I wasn't the most talented on my team, fielded from a public school of about 1600 students, and I certainly wasn't the most physically gifted, but I worked my butt off on the field and in the weight room, and I earned those letters. Here are the rest of the things I gathered along the way:

I learned that given the right leadership, high school kids from every measure-- dumb, smart, fat, skinny, poor, rich, etc.-- can, actually, work together for a common purpose. Not necessarily succeed, but at least work towards a common goal-- winning football games. I found out that you can learn a lot more about a person from their effort on the field than you can from their transcript or the condition of their home. I learned that there were many different kinds of tobacco, including "wacky tobaccy". I learned what happens when a teenager puts Icy-Hot all over his testicles--he runs around like a maniac in the middle of the night and loses control of his bowels. That's the type of thing that happens when you put 60 kids on buses, ship them about three hours away from home for a week to a place nick-named "Camp Hell" with little to do at night after three practices a day except play cards and pay a 15-year old 12 dollars to put Icy-Hot where it doesn't belong.

I learned that on Fridays, you needed to know these two things: 1) you were subject at any moment to a "ball tap" by one your fifty-plus suspecting teammates (a quick and painful smack to the groin for those not in the know); and 2) you had better know number one. "Ball tap Fridays" were a staple of my high school football program. We usually played our games on Saturday afternoons and so our walk-through practices were most often on Fridays. Players wore tee-shirts and jerseys, helmets, shorts or sweats and no other padding on Fridays. So, of course, Friday became the most dangerous day of the week. But learning to protect my genitals wasn't the only thing that I took from my high school football experience.

I learned that by and large, people were most forgiving of the most physically gifted among us. And, I discovered that if you showed up every day and worked hard, however physically deficient, some people were willing to give you a chance. I learned that, like Rich Rodriguez's Michigan players, voluntary summer workouts weren't really voluntary, no matter what they were called. But if you were worth anything you didn't need to be told that.

A lot of my teammates worked part-time jobs, even during the season. Some quit the team to pick up more hours because they needed to help their families, others did simply to afford a nice car to take them to and from work. "You have the rest of your life to work", one of my coaches used to say. He was right. Unfortunately the ones who gave up their pads for cars can't go back in time: another lesson learned.

Through the friends I made from football, I learned how to shotgun a beer. I learned that a ride home from practice can mean a lot more to someone than just a ride home. I wouldn't admit it until much later, but it was actually a lot of fun singing "I'm a Little Tea-Pot" as a freshman in a packed cafeteria. There are certainly worse forms of hazing.

I learned that some problems could be solved with violence. Fortunately I didn't learn that one personally. Shortly before that, I found out that if you called someone fat enough times that they would eventually fight back.

The amazing thing about my experience was that it almost never happened. They almost took it all away. By they, I mean the taxpayers in my school district. There was a budget vote one summer and apparently there wasn't enough money to go around to support our high school sports program. Or at least the majority of the voters didn't want to pony up the difference to make it happen. So, a version of the budget passed that didn't include sports, and we had to turn in our pads. Some of us cried and everyone was pissed off. Fortunately, for us, they put the vote up again (and it failed again), and then after one more vote following a campaign with signs in the middle of a busy intersection in pouring rain, it passed. I couldn't figure out why the hell they would take away our sports. It was money, of course, but it wasn't obvious back then. Anyhow, as it turned out, what's "right" will often prevail if you put it up to vote enough times.

I have no idea where I or any of my teammates would be now without sports, figuratively speaking. Literally, I don't know where a lot of them are now. I've only kept up with a handful. Nobody I know so much as sniffed the NFL, but the experience was tremendous and certainly worthwhile even if you don't reach the NFL like Michael Oher. And that goes for all high school sports-- baseball, field hockey, volleyball, tennis, soccer, whatever. One way or another they define you.

If the budget would have failed and high school football never happened for me, I never would have met any of the people that I did it with, and none of those things would have happened; I'd have never been ball-tapped on a Friday, spent a night at Camp Hell, and never would have gone to a summer workout and learned what it feels like to be truly exhausted. But the budget passed, those things did happen, and those memories will be with us for the long haul I'm sure. And I wouldn't trade them for anything.

Last but not least, some thoughts on fantasy football for week 6:

1. Ray Rice seems to be the feature back in what initially appeared to be some sort of timeshare in the Baltimore backfield. He had 21 touches last week to Le'Ron McLain's five and Willis McGahee's two. And Rice turned those into 69 rushing and 74 receiving yards and one touchdown. The window to "buy low" is closing.

2. If there was any doubt, time shares can work for fantasy owners too. Just look at Ahmad Bradshaw's line from last week: 110 yards rushing, 55 receiving and two touchdowns. Yeah, it was against the Raiders, but he's collected 375 yards rushing already for those who haven't been paying attention.

3. Don't be stubborn but don't quit on your studs. Patient owners of TJ Houshmanzadeh and Roddy White got rewarded last week with two touchdowns each and 77 and 210 yards receiving, respectively. I saw Housh get dropped in a 10-team league the week before last, snatched him up on waivers and got rewarded big time.

4. QB's: Kurt Warner's hip doesn't seem to be bothering him anymore. Over 300 yards in the air last week. And how about Kyle Orton?! Who knew? 1237 yards passing and 7 touchdowns. I guess all you need is a Brandon Marshall and a cool neck-beard to blossom.

5. Dustin Keller dropped a goose egg last week. That really hurts, especially for those that went into the Monday game needing only a bare-minimum performance to eek out a win. Maybe it is worth spending a pick in the first five rounds to get known quantity like Dallas Clark, Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez.

Check back in here every Friday around lunchtime where Brett Smiley will fill you in on everything in the world of sports and fantasy sports from the bizarre to the practical to the relatively unimportant.

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Juliann L. Haynes said...

you never disappoint, great stuff

KimKong said...

Weeeeeeeee! Great Stuff, Smiley. I have vague recollections about the Teapot ordeal, but never knew about BTFs! (Definitely not to be confused with BFFs!)