Renegades From the Cause
ren·e·gade | “re-ni-gād”
Renegade. Noun. A person who deserts and betrays an organization, country, or set of principles. A person who abandons a religion or set of beliefs; an apostate. A person who behaves in a rebelliously nonconformist manner.
Renegade: Adjective. Having treacherously changed allegiance. Having deserted a faith, cause, or religion for a hostile one. Having rejected tradition. UNCONVENTIONAL
Origin. Late 15th century: from Spanish renegado, from medieval Latin renegatus ‘renounced’, past participle (used as a noun) of renegare, from re- (expressing intensive force) + Latin negare ‘deny.’
A long, long time ago, a renegade was a Christian who decided to become Muslim. That definition is now outdated, and these days, a renegade is anyone who breaks laws or expectations to do their own thing or join the other side. Although it may sound cool to be a renegade, renegades or renegade-type actions are generally disfavored and frowned upon.
Most people in America love and feed off the game. And then, there are those of us who actually played the game at the highest levels who have spent our lives getting as far away from it and its culture as possible. We all have our own reasons. And they are many.
I have former teammates who grew up in the middle of the football kingdom, in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, for instance, who now live in states like New York, Michigan, Idaho, Vermont, and Washington, thousands of miles away from where they grew up and played the game. They didn’t move there by happenstance.
The one who moved to New York lives up state, in a little town very close to the United States Military Academy at West Point, well up the Hudson River from New York City. I visited him during the summer of 2017. It was the first time I had ever been there. It’s a beautiful part of the country. And it’s a long way physically, mentally, and metaphorically, from Texas, where he was born and grew up.
It’s almost a different country. And we talked about how he got there. How did he go from Texas to upstate New York? It seemed a world away to me, until I visited and got to see the place, to hear the peaceful quiet, to feel the stillness in the air. And my teammate seemed very happy; much happier than I remembered him from our playing days. Hell, who am I kidding? He seemed much happier than I remember any of us being in our playing days. He married a girl from a different part of the country. From the Dakotas. They have two children.
We had lunch at a local diner. We spoke of all the years that had passed since our playing days. Could it have really been nearly thirty years? And we had that discussion about what the game had done to us and a lot of teammates. What it had done to our fathers. And how after all these years, we now were able to see some things we had never been able to see before. And finally, how life was so much better now than it had been back then.
“Good for you brother,” I said, and what went unspoken was the love one has for his old teammates, even stronger almost thirty years later than it was back then.
And I was glad and relieved to learn that I was not alone in this secret club of ours. The ever-increasing lines on our faces, the lower, rougher tones in our voices, the perspective that comes with having families, having experienced life as adults, it all led us to openly speak the truth out loud after all the years.
When he said the things he said over our brief lunch that day at that diner on the side of the highway in that beautiful spot along the upper Hudson River, I was so relieved it was difficult for me to explain it in words. I was not the only one.
When we shook hands and took a picture for posterity’s sake shortly before I left and continued on my trip east to Rhode Island, I felt an indescribable sense of relief, because I knew then and there, I wasn’t alone in my thoughts and questions.
Were there others? Did I have other teammates who felt the same way? As I would come to learn, there were.
Another teammate from Oklahoma now lives in Vermont. “How did that happen?” some people might ask. He was a football player in college and now he’s a musician playing classical piano. And he doesn’t miss Oklahoma. He travels back maybe twice a year to see his mother. “Vermont,” he says, “is like another world.”
It was the second time I heard one of them mention the phrase, “another world.”
He lives with his family in the town of Burlington, population 44,000 or so, a little bigger than the unnamed town where we went to college was in 1989, a town which has grown to be a ridiculous overblown caricature of what it used to be with a current population three times what it was back then.
Burlington is set hard against the gorgeous and historic Lake Champlain, and I would move there myself, it the winters weren’t so harsh. It’s only forty-five miles south of the U.S. — Canadian border, and my old teammate ventures into Canada regularly, he says, “to escape the American noise.” Indeed.
Another teammate from the Dallas area, the one who I roomed with and sat with on the team bus, now lives and works in upper Michigan.
“How did you end up there?” I asked him.
“My wife is from up here. And I love it. Sure, the winters are cold and all that. But you become accustomed to it. I’m not kidding you, but you actually look forward to it.” He laughs.
And football? “There’s not a single person up here who knows I played, except my wife of course.”
He and his family regularly cross the bridge into the Upper Peninsula to hunt, fish, and just pass the days in his “vacation home.” “You feel the isolation, and that’s what we want sometimes. You have to escape that annual craziness that encroaches every September and lasts through January.”
This from a man who played hurt most of the time I knew him, one of the toughest guys I’ve ever known, a 6 foot 1 inch, 190 pound safety, who began starting as a freshman, a year behind me (high school class of ‘87), one of the most intelligent players I ever knew, who could hit as hard as anyone I ever saw, and who grew up, like me, in a suburb of a big Texas city, and who at 18 wanted nothing other than to play Division 1 college football. None of the Texas schools wanted him. But our school did.
He made huge plays. He covered my kickoffs and punts. He broke up passes, he caused fumbles. He played above his size.
He was taken off the field more than anyone I ever played with. I saw him out, face down, not moving, not even twitching, like he was unconscious. He was unconscious. He suffered separated shoulders, sprained knees and ankles, and broken bones. He sustained several concussions.
We loved those road trips to Little Rock that the school doesn’t do anymore because they don’t make enough money from it because we would sit next to each other on the bus during the 2.5 hour drive to Conway (where would stay overnight) and listen to Rush on one Walkman with two sets of headphones.
Moving Pictures. Geddy Lee. Alex Lifeson. Neil Peart. Tom Sawyer. Red Barchetta. Limelight. And so on. The entire album was a masterpiece about moral courage, thinking for yourself, questioning the prevailing wisdom, and challenging authority.
“His mind is not for rent.”
“Love and life are deep.”
“Maybe as his skies are wide.”
Maybe the story of Tom Sawyer was our own, personal story, even though we were both only 22 years old and didn’t even know it yet.
He doesn’t follow football anymore. But he still listens to Rush and seems even happier than he did back then.
“You gotta go to the Upper Peninsula with me Glen. I know you’ve seen and done a lot of stuff. But this will blow your mind brother.”
I promised him I would someday.
And I will go there. Because I want to see it.
And there was yet another who grew up and played high school football in Arkansas and now lives in Washington state. He lives west of Seattle, out across Puget Sound, near the naval base at Bangor, close to Olympic National Park.
I’ve been out there during my military service. I’ve taken the ferry from Seattle across the bay to Bremerton and back. And like we all say, it’s almost like a different country, beautiful and isolated; peaceful and bucolic. Like many other places, I tell people words cannot capture it; you cannot really appreciate it unless you have been there.
And then there is Dr. Michael Oriard, a man I recently made acquaintance with and a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University, who was an All-American at Notre Dame and played for the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring at age 27 in 1974. He did four years. And got out.
He had prepared for life after the game. He earned his Ph.D. from Stanford and began teaching in 1976.
I contact him. “I remember your dad, Glen. We played against each other when he was at Houston.”
In 2004, he became the Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a position that he held for nine years before retiring in 2013. Michael Oriard served as a distinguished professor at Oregon State for 37 years. And this all happened after his days playing the game were finished.
Along the way he published several books, including “The End of Autumn,” a memoir about his time playing the game.
In 1982, he wrote:
“Football has been so often hysterically attacked and outrageously applauded that we can lose sight of what it really is: a much more varied experience than either extreme implies. I would be a hypocrite to deny its possible benefits to those who play, but a fool to ignore its potential harm. It brings pleasure in pain, glory and tragedy. It is like a potent medicine: used carefully and wisely, it can invigorate and heal; used incautiously it can become a deadly poison. Football has had too many different meanings for the many thousands who have played it and the millions more who have watched it for me to arrive at any pet conclusions about its value in America. If it were packaged for purchase on supermarket shelves, some would argue that the wrapping should read: “Warning: the surgeon general has determined that football playing is dangerous to your health.”
These would prove to be very prescient observations back in 1982. Doctor Oriard foretold much about football’s future and was ahead of his time in foreseeing what would eventually happen. Even still, it is debatable whether he or anyone else could have envisioned the spate of violence, substance abuse, suicide, and at least one medical explanation for it all.
Indeed. This is the paradox.
One thinks that maybe the multitude of students Mike Oriard taught and mentored over those 37 years in Corvallis had no idea he ever played football.
After all, why would he mention it? Why would it be relevant? Why would it matter?
And these are just a few. Me, my former teammates who — like me — live thousands of miles away from the places where they grew up, and Professor Mike Oriard.
We happy few. We band of brothers; just like Henry V, but in a slightly different and much less popular way.
How does one go from playing the game to seemingly becoming a renegade from its culture? Perhaps the easiest way to understand this phenomenon is to realize the former player was never part of the culture in the first place. How is that possible, you ask? How could someone play from ages eight to twenty-three and yet never actually be a fan of the game or part of the culture that feeds it? To understand the reasons you must first realize that the player experienced and views the entire thing through a totally different perspective than the fan. Neither group will ever look at it the same way.
In the inception — in the very earliest of days — this is how it happens. This is how boys like my former teammates, Michael Oriard, and me, are created. It is happening right now, all over America. It doesn’t take much, and the seeds are firmly planted.
Parents of sons, pay heed now.
The father (and perhaps, the mother too) was a very good athlete; hence there is a high likelihood that he and/or she passes those genes on to the son.
So what does Dad do? He starts tossing a football to the son when the son is maybe two years old. And the son — who can barely walk and can’t even speak yet — can catch the ball.
How is this possible? Well, because the father gets excited, and the two-year-old boy senses this, and it goes from there. The two-year-old boy learns how to get praise.
And then the son can throw the ball. And then, the son can kick and punt the ball. And so on and so forth.
Parents, pay heed.
I know the father does this because my father did it with me, and I confess that I did it with my sons. I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time when you are a young father, it just seems like the normal thing to do. This is not an indictment of fathers — including me — it’s just a recitation of objective facts.
And very soon, you observe that the son is pretty good at the thing — throwing the ball, kicking the ball — whatever it may be, because after all, again, he is after all, the father’s son.
And then one day, the son looks around and learns that he’s being praised for being able to throw the ball, and catch the ball, and kick the ball. He is getting lots of affirmation and pats on the shoulder for being the kid who is really good at, for example, throwing or catching the ball, or blocking or tackling someone.
And all of this gets very deeply embedded in the son at a very early age.
Pretty soon, if you are the son, you don’t even think about whether you like it or not; you just do it, because it has almost become your entire identity. It is how you gain personal value. Nothing else matters. You are in the pipeline now. Your dreams are no longer your own. Forget what other interests or talents you might have. These things do not matter. After a time, you don’t even speak of them. It’s not part of the plan.
People like you because you’re good at throwing or catching the ball. The pretty girls in school like you. Other parents like you. And at a very young age, the sport takes over your life. And there’s really no thought or discussion about you doing anything else.
And that’s how it happens.
That’s how it happened to me, and it’s how it happened to my father. And it’s how it happens to so many other men.
How many people were better-suited to do something else, something they were more naturally-suited to doing, that they would’ve loved much more, but didn’t get the chance because of the game?
Actually, I need to rephrase that.
How many people were better-suited to do something else, something they were more naturally-suited to doing, that they would’ve loved much more, that they did not do because of the culture surrounding the game? How many secret dreams were put on hold? How many avocations were delayed? How many careers were never taken up? How many dreams were simply forfeited? How many desires were never followed?
The lucky ones are the sons who figure all of this out, usually at an earlier age than their fathers did; before it’s too late. Like I did when I was in college. Like my former teammates did.
The realization comes at a time where they can still escape and do something else beyond the game; something much more important and lasting than the game. And they escape just in time, before the game and its culture can cause irreparable and life-altering damage to brains, bodies, and lives. And this group are truly the fortunate sons.
And so, how does one become a renegade from the cause, a traitor to the movement, as it were?
Maybe it started after the last game I ever played in the late fall of 1990 when I was shocked at how relieved I felt that it was finished, fully realizing that it was my last game.
Maybe it was when a call came for an opportunity to keep playing, and I told the voice on the other end of the phone I wasn’t interested because I was in my first year of law school. And then I never had any second thoughts about that phone call.
Maybe it was a couple of years later, when one of our other teammates took his own life on a dark night in the fall of 1993 during my third year in law school when he was a starting linebacker on the team. Years later, when we all learned about CTE and its symptoms, some of his actions and behaviors leading up to that night were shocking similar.
Or maybe it was when I first started to notice my late father, a former NFL All-Pro, start repeating the same conversation on the same topic several times in the span of thirty minutes at too young an age. That got my attention, and I started to wonder. This was many years before anyone had ever heard the name Dr. Bennett Omalu or heard of something called CTE. Even though it didn’t have a name yet, maybe I knew something at that point, intuitively. When my father was diagnosed with stage 4 out of 4 CTE in January, 2020, a year after he passed away, it was not a surprise to us; it was only confirmation of something we intuitively already knew.
Or maybe it started way back before any of that, when I had nothing mentally left for the thing and couldn’t wait for the final season to end, but kept going until the last game was over, just to get my school paid for. By that time, it had all become a job.
I don’t know. Perhaps I was a renegade from the cause before I even realized it.
Regardless, I know precisely the day that it all culminated. It was the early Fall of 2015. At the time I was in Blacksburg, Virginia, with my wife, and we were spending the weekend with our oldest son, who was just starting his second year at Virginia Tech. It was early Saturday morning, and we had just sat down to have breakfast. And then someone turned on a big screen TV and we were suddenly hit with the cacophony of the game day noise.
Having stopped following the thing for many years up to that point for many reasons, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that disrupted our perfect morning. I had no idea it was college football opening day. I just wanted to have a nice, peaceful breakfast with my wife, but the thing and its culture intruded on our moment.
The thing’s electronic tentacles had somehow managed to find their way into our quiet morning. Was there no place I could go to avoid this annual collective spasm? On that crisp morning in the Blue Ridge foothills, apparently not.
I’d had enough. And so I started to write. Right there in that room in that lodge at Virginia Tech, it happened. The words came in a torrent, flowing for page after page on my notepad, swift and effortless, like a river.
I told the truth, unsparingly and unapologetically. And a few days later, someone from Sports Illustrated called and told me they wanted to publish my article, and it’s a date that will live in infamy for some of my friends and even people in my family, because to the ever-lasting lament of some of them, it unleashed a beast inside of me that for many years I had somehow managed to keep pent up.
It was the writer inside, the voice inside.
It was the conscience inside.
I told the truth, and telling it felt very good. That was when I knew for certain that I had become a renegade from the cause.
Indeed, you pass the point of no return and become a full-fledged renegade from the cause when you tell the unvarnished truth.
And people do not like — nor do they want to hear — the unvarnished truth.
Glen Hines is the author of five books, including the recently published Of Time and Rivers, and the highly-regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. He is the writer and producer of the book and podcast Welcome to the Machine, available on most podcast platforms. His writing on military service, sports, current events, the outdoors, and the bright and dark sides of American culture has been published in various outlets, such as Sports Illustrated, Task and Purpose, the Human Development Project, Amazon, and Audible.