30 Yards

At 13 I learned that quitting is a solo act, but success is a team effort.

In 1988 I entered high school an obese, unpopular, D student. I wasn’t interested in high school for the intellectual discourse, as a route to college and career, or to explore different subject areas. I just wanted to play football.

I had been picked on throughout junior high. Boys grabbed my flabby pecs and told me I had bigger boobs than any of the girls. Bob became Blob. A teacher, exasperated with my lack of progress, told the class, “We have millions of dollars’ worth of brains in this class, except for one or two people.” She had been looking at me.

I’ll show them! I thought, Football’s going to make me cool!

Beyond my own stardom, it would make my dad proud. His parents had forbidden his playing football. I hadn’t given him much to be proud of. But that would soon change.

Twice-daily pre-season practices started in early August at the World War I-era campus where they stored freshmen. The field was bare in the middle from decades of use, and the ground was rock hard from that year’s drought, a terrible summer in which 47 of the 90 days claimed new heat records.

On the first day, we lined up on the field. Our last names had been written in marker on athletic tape, applied to the front of our helmets.

Coach walked among us, his clipboard hidden behind his back. “My goal” he yelled, “Is to turn you from boys into men.”

That’s why I’m here!

He continued. “We are not allowed to cut players. That said, we will do everything in our power to get you to quit. We only want survivors on our team.”

He stopped in front of me. “Hey Chikos, you like coffee with your roll?”

I removed my mouth guard. “What?”

He jabbed me in my gut with his clipboard. “Your roll. Your roll. Do you like coffee with your roll?”

Everyone laughed.

That August was the closest thing to hell I’d experienced up to that point. Each morning’s temperatures started in the 80s and rose throughout the day. Practice consisted of calisthenics, group drills, and conditioning, over and over and over.

I remember one particular drill, which was typical:

Two tackling dummies lay on the ground, ten feet apart. I hunkered in a stance between the two dummies. Evans lined up facing me, three feet away. Wolnik cradled a football, ten feet behind Evans. When Coach blew the whistle, Wolnik was to get past me, while staying between the dummies, and I was to tackle him.

“Remember boys,” Coach said, “butt down, head up!”

Coach blew the whistle. Evans and I lunged toward each other like two bighorn sheep battling for supremacy. He threw a forearm toward my chest as I tucked my head in. His forearm landed on my facemask, which jerked my head backwards. Everything went black, except for a cucumber-shaped flash. I don’t remember hitting the ground, but I must have. When I opened my eyes, I was on my back, facing the sky.

“That’ll teach you to put your head down, Chikos!” Coach laughed.

After morning practice, we showered, but immediately began to sweat again. Those of us who couldn’t go home sat in the shade of the gym’s north side steps and ate our musty sack lunches, which had baked in our septuagenarian lockers all morning.

One day someone played a Guns N’ Roses cassette on a boom box. It was the first time I had listened to hard rock. Before then, I listened only to oldies; I had an idealization of the 1950s, that everything modern was leading society away from that perceived innocent time.

I felt sinister enjoying it, like a prude who finally allows himself to laugh at a dirty joke, many of which I also learned from those guys. I felt liberated, like I was finally becoming a part of something.

Since we were called by our last names, I became Chikos and, later, Cheeks. I stopped thinking of myself as an individual and started thinking of myself as a representative of my family. I was carrying on the tradition of people who went before me: people who survived war, depression (both economic and emotional), immigration, and working every day at rough jobs so they could support their families and offer a better life for those who came after them. Being a Chikos became something to be proud of and I needed to be worthy of the honor.

Afternoon practice was like crawling through the desert. Our oasis was a long pipe, six feet long, bolted to the side of the gym. It had holes drilled in it, like a flute. During our break, when the assistant coach turned it on, water shot out. We waited our turns, throats dry, mouths encrusted with dried saliva, tasting dirt and salt.

Once, the water wouldn’t come on. The coach wasn’t unsympathetic, but wouldn’t suspend practice on account of our thirst.

“I don’t know what to tell you, boys. The best I can say is to just grin and bear it until it comes back on”.

Easy for you to say, old man. I thought, You’re not the one dying out here!

Minutes later, during drills, the water shot several feet in the air like Old Faithful. The precious water trickled all over the unappreciative sidewalk. We sighed relievedly, like prisoners of war who just heard the cavalry bugle. The coach turned his head at the sound of the water splashing, shrugged, then faced back to the drills.

We thought of worse things to call him than “old man”.

Conditioning came at the end when we had nothing left in the tank. We ran sprints, strained push-ups, gutted out sit-ups, plus many others I’ve managed to block from memory, all while wearing 20 pounds of equipment. Every muscle ached and I strained to breathe, like an underpowered vacuum cleaner. No matter how hard we tried, it wasn’t enough to satisfy the coaches. A voice in my mind asked the unthinkable, Is this worth it?

I had no true rest. Even in my sleep, I dreamt I was sweltering at practice. At home, we couldn’t afford air conditioning so I’d wake up several times throughout the night, my sheets clinging to my body. One night I woke up screaming with my first charley horse. Every morning I woke with aching muscles and new bruises replacing the old fading ones. I was never ready to go out there again, but I always did.

One day, as practice ended, I took off my helmet. I was overheated, parched, filthy, and my eyes stung. I started toward the water pipe.

“Put your helmets back on, boys!” Coach yelled. “Two of your teammates decided to come late to practice today. As a result, they will watch the rest of you bear crawl until they learn their lesson!”

What?! We have to be punished for their mistake? This doesn’t make any sense!

Coach ordered the offending players to sit on a tackling dummy.

The rest of were to bear crawl the length of the field, akin to climbing a horizontal mountain. As I started, I looked 100 yards in the distance to see the goalposts wave in the heat.

Behind the goalposts, two girls from our class, team managers, sat, fanning themselves with clipboards. I was clueless about girls, but I knew one thing about them: they talked. Beyond wanting to make the team, I wanted word to get out among their tribe.

I imagined the talk if I were to quit:

Who’s this Bob Chikos guy in my class?

He was a loser in my junior high. He still is. He couldn’t even make it through football.

But if I survived:

Who’s this Bob Chikos guy in my class?

He was this fat guy at my junior high, but he’s changed! He made the football team. He’s actually pretty good!

My hamstrings were so tight, I couldn’t bend my knees. Since I had little upper body strength, I locked my arms to keep from falling. When I looked down, all I could see were drops of sweat landing on my filthy hands and an occasional bee threatening to sting.

After 100 yards, Coach blew his whistle.

“Get back here!” he screamed. “If you don’t make it in time, you’re all doing more!”

We sprinted across the field, toward the goal line, where Coach stood like the only girl in port.

As the last of us limped to the end, he announced, “Not everybody made it back in time. I guess our two friends haven’t learned their lesson yet. Go again.”

Again we crawled. Because I was exhausted, I had to put in more exertion just to cover the same distance.

At midfield, I looked to my left. Someone had taken off his helmet and was on his hands and knees, vomiting. Twenty yards later, I looked to my right. Four others were walking toward the locker room.

Not me — football is all I’ve got!

Ten yards from reaching the end, Coach’s whistle blew. I scrambled to my feet. My ankles locked. Unable to push off the ball of my foot, I ran off my heels. At the worst possible moment, I had forgotten how to run!

Through my facemask, I saw everyone finish ahead of me. Everyone will have to go again because of me.

I was the last one in, but I made it. Coach looked at his watch in mock surprise. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t start my stopwatch so I don’t know if you made it back in time or not. Looks like you’ll have to go again.”

Worse than the abuse in junior high, worse than the physical treatment in practice, worse than the incinerating heat, now my spirit had been broken.

I crouched back into my stance. This time, tears, not sweat, dripped onto my hands.

Forty yards down the field, I imagined Coach and muttered, “You’re a bastard! I hate you, you bastard!”

An assistant coach surprised me from behind, “You can go home any time, Chikos. Take a nice cool shower, sit in the air conditioning. Mama will feed you cookies.”

How long will this go on?! I thought. Even if I make it through this round, how many more will there be?

Twenty yards from the end, I accepted that I’d probably have to quit. I didn’t have what it took and I was dragging everyone else down. I wasn’t sure how I could live with the humiliation at school, being both a loser and a quitter, but I mostly dreaded having to tell my dad.

I heard the echo of the distant whistle. I fell to my knees, then slowly climbed to my feet. Running, I inhaled wheezes as I saw people who had started behind me pass me up.

Forty yards from the end, I slowed to a walk. After 10 more yards, I stopped and doubled over.

I looked at everyone who was already at the end, just 30 yards away.

It was no longer a matter of will. I couldn’t do it. Those 30 remaining yards might as well have been 30 miles.

I felt someone grab my jersey. It was Casey, a fellow lineman.

I hadn’t known Casey before football. We had gone to different feeder schools. As someone who played the same position as I did, had I quit, he’d have less competition. He had nothing to gain if I stayed on the team.

I violated the most grievous sin among adolescent boys: I cried. “I can’t do it!”

“Yes you can, brother! I’m not doing any more bear crawling and neither are you!” He barked through his mouth guard. He dragged me as my legs moved from habit.

“Let me go! I’m quitting!” I begged.

“No you’re not!”

Wheezing, we sounded like two bagpipes running down the field. His hand slipped from my jersey but he grabbed my wrist and continued to pull.

Hand in hand, we crossed the goal line.

Coach took off his hat and wiped his forehead with his forearm. “Ok, that’s enough, boys. Take a knee.”

I unsnapped my chinstrap and pried my helmet. Now that it was off, everybody could see me cry.

“I’m quitting.” I said to Casey, as I sniffed my runny nose.

“Dude, you’re not quitting.” He said, gasping between words.

“I just can’t take it anymore.” I said, in a high-pitched squeal. “And I hate Coach.”

“It’s over. We made it.”

“I can’t do another day like this.”

“It’ll get easier, brother.” He said. “Just don’t quit.”

I didn’t quit. I’d like to say this was the breakthrough of a stellar football career, but I didn’t have any game day success. It didn’t matter — no victory could have been as meaningful as finishing that day of practice. And Casey was right, it did get easier. Or, rather, we got stronger.

After two seasons, I stopped playing due to waning interest. As I learned more about my dad, I realized that playing football wasn’t the issue. What made him proud was that his son had the opportunity to do what he couldn’t.

I had learned my most important lesson from high school: football doesn’t make you cool, but being a good teammate does.

But the story doesn’t end on the football field.

Twenty-six years later, Casey and I reconnected via Facebook. He told me about a stomach issue that baffled his doctors. He had already undergone several surgeries, none of which worked. They scheduled one last major surgery as a Hail Mary.

Then, one of the toughest guys I’d ever met, said he was scared.

I said, “Casey, you might not remember this,” and proceeded to remind him in detail about that day. How, even though he was drained, he wouldn’t let me quit. I ended with, “And that’s the tough bastard who’s going to make it through surgery!” After 26 years, it was finally my turn to pull Casey 30 yards.

After the surgery, I saw Facebook pictures of a mummified Casey in the hospital. I replied, “Yeah, but you should have seen the train that he took on!” He recovered and, within a few weeks, he was back on the football field — coaching his son. His legend grew.

In 1988, Coach had said he wanted to turn us from boys into men. He did. Being a man has nothing to do with being muscular and fearsome — it has everything to do with helping each other.

All around us, so many of our brothers and sisters are trying to make it through adversity, thinking they’ll never make it through. They need to go just 30 more yards, but they can’t do it themselves.

Will you be their Casey?