That week of practices before school started had evolved into being the occasion of the most aggravating vacillation I’ve ever encountered in my life. He’d go to practice, find out that it wasn’t that bad, then as night fell and he started thinking about the challenges of the next day tackling, scrimmaging, whatever he would be filled with fear and tell me he was going to quit.
I wouldn’t let him, and then the next day the whole cycle began again.
Then it was Monday, two-a-days were over, but after-school practice had begun. And so had the whining. “I don’t want to go. I’m scared of getting hurt.” I felt like screaming.
Why can’t he make up his mind? I am indifferent to the sport of football, wary of the machismo culture high school football players create for themselves, but willing to let him play if he wanted to. But part of me was wanting to insist that he continue for a couple of reasons.
First, I didn’t want him to give in to fear yet one more time.
He is a fearful child fear seems to be a primary motivator for him, unfortunately. He acts up in school because he is afraid that if he is successful in school or doesn’t make people laugh, they won’t like him. He wouldn’t swim in the ocean for fear of sharks.
For his own sake, I just wanted him to conquer this one, to see that he could do it.
“Make up your mind. If you want to quit, quit. If you are going to do this, shut up, quit whining and do it.”
Teammates approached and asked what was wrong. They took him off and spoke to him. I knew what they were saying. They were telling him that they had been scared too. The older ones were saying that it would get better. It would get fun. The hitting wouldn’t hurt so much anymore. You get used to it.
He came back to me, excited and resolved. “I’m going to stay.” He ran into the locker room, and emerged maybe 20 seconds later. Panic was in his eyes as the other boys were starting to file out to the field, fully suited. “I can’t remember the combination for my lock.”
My heart sank. Is he cursed? Christopher gazed absently at the maroon and white figures bouncing up and down in the distance. “They’re done stretching. There’s no use in going out now.”
We stood there, cheerleaders practicing on the grass beside us, drops of sweat glistening from our brows. It seemed like it would never end.
He swore in the car that he would go on Tuesday and that he would show them he wasn’t a wimp, that he would try his best and that he wouldn’t let himself be stopped by his fear. He was going to do this.
You know how it ends.
That afternoon he takes his bag and my eyes follow his stocky figure into the locker room. Once again, twenty seconds later, he is back, this time fighting tears. “No.”
A silence fell between us and I waited. There was no doubt in my mind as to what happened in there. “Did someone make fun of you?”
His eyes filling, he nods. “Bill Welch. He said, ‘Here comes the quitter.’”
“So you’re going to prove him right?”
It seemed so simple a week ago. Go play football. Work hard and have some fun. But now it has evolved into a crisis involving manhood, acceptance in a new school, figuring out what it is you want to do and what others want, and discovering that some things are a lot harder than they look, and I don’t mean just football.
I just can’t untangle what I’m supposed to see in all of this, and in what direction I’m supposed to steer him. Are we supposed to see these fears as energizing, temporary obstacles to something fruitful, or are they the voices of the true Christopher emerging as he sees the reality of what seemed glamorous and cool from far away but really aren’t what he’s about, after all?
Whatever it is, he can’t go in. He has collapsed inside from the weight of it all and decided that with everything else, he cannot face them right now. Facing them tomorrow seems easier at the moment, even though I feel it will be much worse.
We drive home, for the most part in silence. I consider what one does with barely used cleats and wonder what the point of all this has been. The only words Christopher speaks are uttered as we turn into our street, a block away from home. He asks me when basketball season starts.
I have to tell him I can’t tell him the answer to that one. He’ll just have to find out for himself.