The chartered motor coach chortles and lurches through the blue-black Vermont summer night toward home, winding down rural two-lane highways, from Colchester up one side of Lake Champlain to the Vermont Bridge at Rouses Point, New York, then across and back down the other. Five hours to travel one hundred and fifty miles. In my reverie I hardly feel a thing, even when somewhere along lonely U.S. Highway 11 the clock strikes twelve and I turn thirty-one years old.
Before piling back into the bus, the team had gulped down what was left of our lunch–cold cuts, corn chips, and soda–and loaded our equipment, face masks pulled snugly through our shoulder pads, into the enormous luggage bays in the bus’s belly. Then we made a beer stop before heading back in earnest. Some guys called home from the bank of pay phones outside, but I thought I’d keep the daydream going awhile longer.
I had obtained my wife Candace’s permission to join the Watertown Red and Black semi-pro football team, America’s oldest, several months before.
Though football would have me out of town three nights a week between May and October, commuting to and from practice and games, I assured her I’d do my best to pull my weight around the house and with our infant son. At the time, she said she actually thought the whole thing was kind of courageous–a college professor going back to football after all these years. She said I needed to play, had to do it, that I would regret not giving it a try. She certainly didn’t want to be the one to say no to the enterprise. Besides, she said, she was hoping it might help me get some closure where football was concerned. (It was not uncommon for me to watch four college football games of an autumn Saturday afternoon, then three more pro games on Sunday and one more Monday night.) Our season was six weeks old by then and I often got the impression she had no idea what she’d agreed to back in January. I was paying more attention to football, not less.
In the convenience store, I agreed to split a twelve-pack of Honey Brown with offensive tackle Mark Bowman, who graduated from Saint Lawrence University, a small private school on New York’s northern tier, the same year I joined the faculty. Someone made a crack about the two Saint Lawrence guys drinking the pricey stuff. Now, back on the bus, 290-pound Bowman and I fill our pair of seats pretty well, so that I am almost relieved when Dave McNeil calls from his seat back by the toilet for me to come and do my “rookie chugs.” He’s threatened me with this since I got on the bus in the morning.
I take a longneck bottle back where he sits with Al Countryman and Bruce Gonseth and Jesse Lamora. McNeil wears sunglasses, wind pants, and a University of Kansas sweatshirt he got during his time in the army. He still wears the army crew cut too.
“Professor,” he says with much relish.
“I went to college for, like, ten years,” I tell him. “I know how to drink a beer.”
“I went to college for a year,” Al Countryman says absently from a couple rows back. “I decided it wasn’t for me.”
“No, Al,” says Bruce Gonseth. “They decided it wasn’t for you. That’s what academic probation means.”
Gonseth and Countryman work as New York State correctional officers at the Cape Vincent, New York, facility, McNeil at the county jail. Jesse Lamora drives a grain truck but he has an application in with the correctional officer academy in Albany. In New Jack, Ted Conover’s account of his experience as a guard at Sing Sing prison downstate, Conover calls corrections New York state’s “growth” industry, something particularly true in and around Watertown, a small, dying industrial city on the Black River, ten miles from Lake Ontario.
“Come on, Professor,” McNeil says impatiently. “You gotta chug that motherfucker, every drop, without stopping. Jesse’s gonna check it for you when you’re done.” Lamora holds a clear trash bag in the seat beside him, full of dead soldiers.
All of this strikes me as juvenile and inasmuch as it’s a hazing ritual I’m opposed to it, but I like beer and I’m in a good humor and I don’t expect this will be a problem. Seems a small price to pay. I turn the bottle up and let the beer flow down the back of my throat. As I drink, McNeil sings the theme from Gilligan’s Island, adding emphasis when the lyrics mention “the Professor and Marianne.” When I’m sure I’ve finished, I chug one more time then turn the bottle over to Jesse. But when he turns it upside down there’s a drip.
McNeil erupts. “It’s not empty!” He’s yelling.
There’s much war whooping and stomping of feet. It’s just foam, I almost say.
“You’ve got to do it till you get it right, Professor,” Lamora tells me.
“Five minutes, then you have to try again,” says McNeil. ‘send back another rookie! Come on, Bow.”
I let Bowman slide past me down the aisle toward the back of the bus and slip into my seat. No sweat, I’m thinking, get it next time. Bowman downs the beer, no problem, and on my second trip I chug like a pro, without incident.
When I reach my seat the second time, Bowman and I talk awhile about acquaintances we share from S.L.U. I down the rest of my beers almost as quickly as the first two. One by one, McNeil initiates each of the ten or so rookies on the bus. Forty players are on board, the other dozen having caught rides home with friends and family.
Now Bowman takes a snooze against the enormous window. I have my Walkman on, Van Morrison’s ‘sweet Thing” rolling into “The Road” by Nick Drake. Up ahead I see Coach Ashcraft in a row by himself near the driver. He’s what I imagine I’ll look like when I’m forty-eight–the white ring of hair buzzed short, the neat white goatee. He’s short and still barrel-chested, but he’s let the drawstring in his Adidas wind pants all the way out.
The showers in our locker room hadn’t worked but I don’t mind sitting in my stink awhile. My only assignment tonight had been as a wedge buster on the kickoff team, but because we hung 58 points on the expansion Vermont Ice Storm I got to cover eight kicks and played a little offense late in the game. I’m feeling it, in my thighs and calves and in my head, and it feels good. I feel the beer too. What I don’t feel is my thirty-one years.
My little brother started high school the year after I graduated and his homeroom teacher that first year had been my football coach, a snuff-dipping hot-rod enthusiast named Don Coady. Coady was an assistant coach in those days in charge of the offensive and defensive lines, along which I had played. The first day of school that year, as Coach Coady read aloud from the class roster to check attendance, he paused at my brother’s name.
“Jimmy Cowser,” he said. “You Bobby Cowser’s brother?”
My brother smiled and nodded. Coady leaked some tobacco spit into an empty soda can on his desk.
‘son,” Coady finally said, “ain’t nothing to be proud of.”
I’m sure there were many factors contributing to–moments culminating in–my decision to play competitive tackle football again past age thirty, but I imagine my wish to do so extends at least back to that moment in Coady’s homeroom. The high school football coaches in Weakley County, Tennessee, used to meet at the Hearth restaurant on Saturday mornings to breakfast and discuss the previous night’s games live on the radio–”Coaches’ Corner” the show was called–and I used to believe my life began in earnest when at fifteen I first heard my name mentioned on that broadcast. Did that mean it had ended with Coady’s dismissal?
By puberty, says New York Times columnist Robert Lipsyte, most American males have already become failed athletes. We are left to watch and cheer those who made “the cut” we didn’t make, who always can do on the field, to paraphrase Hemingway, what we could do only sometimes. A tinge of envy always accompanies our admiration of these athletes and each of us must work through his own grief over this failure.
Of course it happens to athletes in every sport. Somehow, though, giving up tackle football seems hardest. You have to do it cold turkey. My brother-in-law, for example, was a scholarship college tennis player and when he finds the time he can still scrounge a pretty competitive tournament or a recreational match with a co-worker or one of his tennis-playing brothers. The 10K road races I ran through college and graduate school were full of very competitive former high school and college runners now competing in the ‘masters’ class. The university where I now teach even has a sanctioned faculty/staff intramural ice hockey league. But nothing for ex-football players.
Maybe I started to feel too settled, too placed. Maybe, at thirty, with a mortgage and a baby, I felt too strongly the onset of my adulthood. Later that summer when I went to trade in my modest sports car for a more father-friendly Subaru station wagon, I talked with the car salesman for more than an hour about the trade-in we’d just finalized as one of many thresholds we cross in our adult lives. The first great disappointment in his life, he told me, the first of those thresholds, was when he realized that once his two years of junior college football were up, he wasn’t athletic enough to make the jump to Division I football that many of his teammates would make. He figured a lot of men could tell that story. It was certainly true of me and maybe I sensed this football idea was my last chance to do something about it.
Or was it just the opposite? maybe it was the security I felt in my new job, my new marriage, my new home that allowed me to resurrect the crazy idea that I could play football again. It was probably fifteen years of reasons. I see now that the hardest permission obtained would be that which I could only give myself, and would have to give myself over and over that season. I had to put aside my idea that a man could be an egghead or a meathead but not both and admit openly that though I loved learning and wisdom I also loved this game.
After all, of those I polled only my mother had given me grief about playing and that was because she believed, like Pascal, that humanity’s unhappiness stemmed solely from the fact that we were incapable of staying quietly in our rooms, where it was safe.
Professors and football players are natural enemies; a Rutgers University English professor recently organized a group of students and faculty there, known as the Rutgers 1000, to campaign the administration for the abolition of the university’s football program. But Saint Lawrence colleagues hadn’t bristled. The department poet once played on the faculty hockey team and another colleague played football for Princeton in his day. Perhaps my egghead/meathead idea was only the corrosive residue of my own hopelessly rigid concepts of identity. Certainly conventional wisdom may hold that an English professor can’t play football, but according to poet and erstwhile Yale center Archibald MacLeish, “conventional wisdom notwithstanding, there is no reason in football or in poetry why the two should not meet in a man’s life if he has the weight and cares about the words.” After all, Edgar Allan Poe’s nephew and namesake was a turn-of-the-century All-American at Princeton, Robert Frost had been, like me, a high school defensive end, and James Dickey played football at Clemson.
My students laughed at news of my playing. One young woman said she knew a guy on the Watertown team, that he also took part in the Ultimate Fighting Championships when they passed through town. I’ll admit that scared me; I wasn’t looking to be part of a circus sideshow, and feared humiliation perhaps most of all. I slipped the idea that I would play football and write about it into a self-evaluation I had to compose and submit to my colleagues for my midpoint tenure review. At that point I was probably only half serious, desperate for an idea that might convince the department that I actually had a research plan. Of course I didn’t attend the review meeting, but a friend tells me the only eyebrows raised were those out of concern for my physical health. Like my brother, my friends at work thought I stood the chance of being killed.
I had to face the fact that perhaps no one looked askance at my idea because I actually look like a football player (a short one, mind you; I look like a linebacker the way a Shetland pony looks like a horse). I had to deal with this fact each time I bought clothes from the J.Crew catalog–shirts or sweaters that hung from the shoulders of slender male models did not fit me in that way. When I go to be fitted for a suit, clothiers always fetch me the “athletic cut” jacket, also called the “portly cut,” or they have to match the jacket from one suit with the pants from another. When I introduced myself to my next-door neighbor as a professor at the university, he asked if I was also a coach.
The COs having claimed the rear of the bus, the Fort Drum contingent, soldiers from the U.S. Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, took the seats up front and are glued to the end of Gladiator, which plays on the bus’s consoles as we roll home. Predictably, we’d watched Any Given Sunday and Remember the Titans on the way to the game, but Gladiator is the last video anyone brought. By the time we reach Potsdam, all the others–grocers, exterminators, and phys-ed teachers–are asleep anyway. I move up closer to Ashcraft to remind him he needs to drop me at the McDonald’s in Canton ten miles ahead, where I parked my car that morning. The bus will have sixty more miles to go to reach Watertown.
The driver parallel-parks the bus across the street from the McDonald’s, but I don’t see my car. Ashcraft climbs down from the bus with me and opens one of the bay doors. I find my bag right away but I’m drunk and sleepy and can’t locate my equipment. I’m the first to unload and several players have wedged theirs on top of mine. After a few minutes I yank out a face mask that looks just like mine; it’s actually Jesse Lamora’s but I don’t figure that out until the next day. I thank the coach. I could gush but am able to restrain myself, which surprises me considering the occasion, such as it is, and the beer. “Thank you, Cowz,” he says, and he’s back in the bus.
Once across the street I stand in the parking space where I know I left my car, hoping it will materialize. I see the patron parking only sign but I’d bought a meal before getting on the bus, which I thought qualified me as a patron. Any other night and I’d be beside myself–it’s past three a.m. But it’s my birthday and I feel kind of bionic.
I walk into the municipal building and up to the police dispatcher’s window. I calmly explain my dilemma. “Yes,” she says, “we got a call about that. Let me get an officer.”
Kevin Mousaw, who lives a few houses down from me, emerges from an office. He’s always been exceedingly nice and he talks with me a minute about the football team.
“They noticed your car when they were closing up around eleven,” he explains. “I ran the plates and vouched for you, told “em they could just leave it there, but they have some regulation about not leaving until the lot was empty and this little girl really wanted to get home so Eric Johnson came and towed it.”
My wife cuts Eric Johnson’s wife’s hair, or used to. Knowing exactly where the car is relaxes me even further and I tell Kevin I don’t need a ride, happy just to walk home. I lug my helmet and pads the three quarters of a mile to our house on Riverside Drive, past the Gray Lanes bowling alley, Pike’s Auto, Canton Tire, and the high-rise retirement complex, replaying the whole night in my mind as I go: the small Colchester High School field amid the pines, the cool air.
When I reach the house I place my pads down on the porch. The Grasse River across the street is high and runs loud tonight. The night we moved in my wife, Candace, had thought the rushing river was a running toilet and tried to rouse me out of bed to check on it. Once I get upstairs I sit on the bed and jostle her shoulder.
“We won fifty-eight to seven,” I say.
“That’s nice. What time is it?”
“Late. After three.”
“Go sleep down the hall,” she tells me. “You smell like shoulder pads and beer.”
This is fine with me. I’ll tell her about the car in the morning. And I’ll call my brother and tell him the whole story. I stand before the mirror to brush my teeth and examine the bruises forming on my upper shoulders just below where my shoulder pads extend, the yellowed bruises of an old man. I finger them as if to pinch myself and see if I’m dreaming.
Then I walk down the hallway toward the back of the house to the guest room where my nine-month-old son, Jackson, sleeps in his crib and I collapse on the nearby bed. When he wakes crying a little while later I pull him into the bed with me, holding him in the crook of my arm the way you’d cradle the pigskin. We sleep like babies.
Copyright ” 2004 by Bob Cowser, Jr. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.