The prompt for today’s 8-Minute Memoir via Ann Dee Ellis: “Day 8: Birthdays. 8 minutes. So easy.”
Day 8: Birthdays
For my 16th birthday, I got a subscription to sports illustrated. Before the Internet, it was the magazine for sports information. Big glossy photos, stories about the biggest stars and also the up-and-coming young players The three television networks had discovered yet. Along with the subscription came the fall preview for both reviews, both pro and college. The preview market was huge back then.
On Thursdays when my mother would stop at Kroger’s on the way home from school and strand me at the magazine rack, I would devour each of the glossies for news about my favorite teams, the Atlanta Falcons and the Tennessee volunteers. Tennessee wasn’t very good at the time, other Atlanta head again resurgent see behind the arm of a Cal graduate who could throw the ball the link to the field that was slower than most geriatrics about escaping the pocket. The past year, the Falcons had drafted a fullback out of Auburn who had become my favorite player of all time.
There was something sacred about those magazines, but those tidbits of information, which we passed back-and-forth at school like the Gospel, adding a few juicy details and made up statistics in the course of the conversation. This is before you could Google any information you wanted, so it’s a lot easier to get away with a little fudging back then. After the preview was read until it was dog-eared, Labor Day weekend would finally come, and the games would begin. I have never enjoyed it football season as much as I did that one, living and dying but that running back and that strong-armed and stiff-legged golden boy quarterback.
The next year, Sundays were for pick-up football, and I often left for the field behind the local junior high before the Falcons finished playing. We would meet on the field, 20 or so of us, some former players, send like me who just love the game and enjoyed the thrill of hitting another human being as hard as you could and then getting up and walking away. One day in early November, the leaves already turned from the trees, the lambs black and naked, the era cool enough that I wore a coat until kickoff, I had of been that in mind when we started. There was a former friend who had insulted me in some forgotten way, and I promised him I was going to get him this week. He was faster than me, more athletic, but he was also a ball hog, so I knew he would return the kickoff.
As our wedge move down the field to meet theirs, I jogged behind the line on the right, biding my time, knowing that the ball carrier would make a sharp cut, try to race around the end, then turn and sprint for the government. I matched his steps laterally, hiding as the blocker in front of me broke the other team’s wedge and caused my target to bounce outside early. I bounced too, planting my right foot and lowering my shoulder, anticipating the electrifying crack of my muscles and bones into his belly, a more satisfying whoop I have yet to feel, even from boxing and karate.
I closed my eyes in anticipation.
When I opened them, I was back-flat on the ground. My teammates were chasing my target, who was 30 yards down the field and about ready to cross the goal line. I tried to sit up and instead, puked. A million tinny chimes buzzed in my head, and vertigo tilted the field at an acute angle. I touch the side of my face and felt the tender spot where two days later a purple bruise would rise between my temple in here, roughly the size of the head of the guy who had blindsided me on the block. In my tunnel vision to take out my target, I had missed him coming around the end, walking onto me as much as I locked onto the ball carrier. He was not a big guy, 30 pounds lighter than me, but quicker, which was a blessing in some ways because if he had been bigger, had had more mass, the concussion I received would’ve been much more severe. Back then, they called it getting your bell wrung. Now it’s called a Grade3 Concussion.
For years, the pros covered up the long-term effects of concussions, and I’m not sure we still know how bad they are. It’s obvious that beating your head against a hard plastic shell on another human being’s head is a poor life decision.
I got up and played the rest of the game, sometimes in the zombie stupor that concussions give you, sometimes in the heightened state of awareness that blended my senses together. Colors began to make sounds. Smells made my body tingle. Much later, I would learn that the concussion had given me synesthesia, a neurological condition that blends your senses so that they overlap. Soon after, I would also learn that the hit had screwed up my vision: It had been 2020 until that day, but six months later, I was wearing glasses. I went back home, walking the highway between the middle middle school in my home, forgetting the jacket left hanging on a branch somewhere.
The next week was full of foggy but restless nights, long days with the loud lights blaring in my face, the teachers’ voices setting off the chimes in my head. Yet I kept going to school, preferring into home. Evenings, I sat in a dark room, a towel or sheet over my head, trying to think, trying to do my schoolwork. My grades slipped for a few of weeks, and I got the only D ever in English, returned with my teacher’s bold red handwriting demanding, what happened? I got my bell wrung, that’s what happened.
In the grand scheme of things, my concussion was nothing compared to the ones that pro and college football players get. Sure, there were long lasting effects beyond headaches, synesthesia, and glasses. When I read, words swim on the page, and my once admirable ability to pick out typos was shot all to hell. I lost the ability to see words the way I always had, but at the same time, I have gained the ability to write them in a different way, using senses I never had before.
When Tennessee played Appalachian State last night, I wasn’t particularly interested in the game. Instead I thought of my daughter, who is playing hockey at a D3 school, receiving no scholarship but working just as hard as the boys who clacked their heads against each other last night. I’m also less than excited about the NFL. As a Tennessee grad, I followed Peyton Manning’s career from his freshman year til the day he retired, watching almost every game he played. I was thankful when he retired because a couple of years ago, I realized I’d been that rooting for a man who had been given everything. He was born into a family financial and physical wealth, taught to be a professional athlete from birth, and given every opportunity in college and at the pro level to be a star. If he had been anything less, he would’ve been a disappointment. I understand that kind of privilege comes with its own set of pressures. I also understand that my children’s lives are not enriched by watching a middle-aged millionaire throwing around a ball. When my daughter’s team has to do fundraisers to pay for their own lockers, how can I care about a sport that allows a university to rake in billions of dollars a year that it doesn’t share with other athletes. It’s a lot to ponder.
My own middle-aged birthday was not too long ago, and I didn’t order a subscription to Sports Illustrated since Sports Illustrated is available online. Or maybe it’s because the sports it illustrates isn’t nearly as glossy and sacred as it used to be.