Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I’m not a violent guy, really.

I used to be, though. I used to be.

I saw a Leovardo Tapia fight once where the guy was undersized, out-quicked, and generally overwhelmed. He was getting his ass beat all over the ring, but he wouldn’t go down. Finally after a vicious combo to the head his eyes were swollen half-shut and his nose was crushed. He dropped his guard. He stuck out his chin. Go ahead, hit me. He smiled, and that toothless bloody grin did more damage to his opponent than any punch ever could have.

Back when I was 15, I’d have worshipped the guy.

Adolescence was tough on young Babylon, and young Babylon was tough on adolescents. I was an angry kid and strong for my age. On the blacktop I’d block your shot and bounce up in your face screaming “get that weak shit out!” like I was somebody. Neighborhood football, I was looking to stick somebody, and lowering my shoulder and stepping in if you were coming at me. I got in fist-fights. I started more than a few, finished some too.

Some might have called me a bully, but I was egalitarian in my distribution of intimidation and smack-downs. You were bigger than me? All the better. I guess you could say I had something to prove.

I chilled out, though, sometime in between when I started getting buddha-blessed and when I finally figured out how to talk to girls.

So, the point is that when I played in the student-teacher flag football game the other day I was mostly trying to avoid injury, but I wasn’t mad at the kids for trying to get their licks in. I understood the visceral joy of the rage and slam and adrenal rush of knocking somebody ass over head and out of their shoes in that perfect bone-crunching hit.

Flag football is, in theory, a non-contact sport, but as executed on the softball field down the street from Shitty High can actually be kind of rough. Blind-siding, pancake blocks are relished, and while out-and-out tackling is technically illegal, if someone’s got the ball it seems to be general policy to knock them on their ass any way possible without actually wrapping-up (not that anyone would look twice if an old-fashioned textbook shoulder-lead, bear-hug takedown was delivered). It’s not Smear the Queer, but it’s close.

The student-team had plenty of advantages. They play every day in gym class, so they’ve got their timing and patterns down, and they actually run a pretty well-organized zone defense. Most importantly, they’re young and quick and spry and a little blood-thirsty. Plus their bench was stacked 25 deep.

The staff squad was over-the-hill and undermanned. Only nine brave souls stuck around after school to battle it out on the grid-iron, so we recruited a couple of students to join us old-timers and fill out the squad. Fatigue would be a factor. We would be rusty and slow, that we knew, but we also would be smarter, less selfish, more patient, and could rely on hidden wells of that mysterious power known as “old-man strength.” You might be able to bounce your pecs and have six-pack abs, young-blood, but these old arms will surprise you.

The game got rolling, and we were having fun. The kids were hitting pretty hard, but it was all good, clean football. Esteban, a muscular and rather testosterone-fueled young man who I have failed a couple of times in English class, bull-rushed straight through me a couple of times leaving me on my ass, and he seemed to enjoy that. Adalberto, the fat-bastard who single-handedly keeps the school supermarket in business, kept coming at me and I kept spinning around him into the clear. I enjoyed that.

We were too slow to do a whole lot on defense, but the kids were impatient and couldn’t make much work. On offense we would methodically march downfield with short to medium passes, the receiver swarmed and knocked to the ground immediately after the grab every time. The kids would screw up a couple of times in row then get the ball to some thoroughbred Jamaican dude in a head-band and a Strahan jersey with 4.5 speed, and he’d turn the corner and take it to the house, the Jamaican Jerry Rice.

The score was close at half-time, 3 scores to 2. I had a couple of receptions and one tackle and had a done a pretty good job of mostly not embarrassing myself.

First drive of the second half I started with a nice catch I had to lay out on my stomach to grab. Sweet. Then I had another catch, this one from my knees. I wasn’t blowing anybody away with bursts of athleticism or hard-fought yards after the catch, but I was finding some openings and holding onto the ball, the consummate possession receiver. Not bad considering I was still wearing my boots and belt and dress-slacks from the school day.

The end-zone was approaching. First down. I faked towards the left corner and crossed over the middle and DeRonn the security guard/QB tossed it, a little high and behind, but I got up off the ground, stretched out, and snagged it. This was my drive. I was hit pretty good in the legs and went down, right on the goal-line. Somebody else hit me as I hit the ground, but I didn’t mind. Touchdown Babylon!

I stood up and an argument broke out over whether I had crossed the goal-line or not. The cones weren’t quite even so it really could have gone either way.

“I broke the plane, forward progress,” I stood up and was pointing and talking out of my ass to no-one in particular, enjoying the banter, when, wham!, somebody cracked me from behind right in the small of the back. The ball went flying, and I hit the ground hard, face-first.

It was a dirty play, as late as a hit could possibly be. The ball was dead. Play was stopped. I was pissed. I forgot where I was for a second, and could think only about the cheapness of the hit, the breaking of the unwritten codes of a game of controlled violence, how I could have re-torn the ACL on my bum-knee. I was no longer a teacher, the kid was no longer a student. I was just a dude on a field and that punk was a cheap-shot artist. I jumped up and lunged towards the guy.

“Motherfucker!!!” I yelled in as deep and guttural and I’m-gonna-beat-your-fucking-ass a way as possible, and someone grabbed me from behind and wrapped me up to hold me back. It was the Jamaican Jerry kid. He wrestled me back and told me to relax, but it was unnecessary. I didn’t have it in me. As soon as I’d yelled I lost all my anger. I didn’t want to beat some 17 year old kid up any more than I wanted to get beat up by one.

Everyone, students and staff, started yelling at the kid that hit me, pointing him off the field, and he stalked off, trying to look hard, but clearly a little freaked out, probably scared he was going to get suspended.

He came up to me about 10 minutes later with a sheepish grin on his face and his hand extended in apology. I smiled back, shook my head tsk-tsk, and accepted. What was I going to do, hold a grudge?

The student team won the game 6 to 5. Jamaican Jerry came across the middle on a crossing pattern, turned upfield, and that was game.

There’s a rematch coming up. We’re working on a defense to neutralize their speed and stop them from turning the corner. There’s no way we lose again.

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