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Austin Chronicle We Got Game

Sports memories can be more like deep, dark secrets than celebrations

JULY 5, 1999:  In the world of sports, many are called but few are chosen. Even the unlikeliest athlete among us has a sports story to share; but like other youthful recollections, sports memories can be more like deep, dark secrets than celebrations of past glories. Some are painful -- reminders of eagerly searching the heavens as that first pop fly came careening from the sky, only to realize the ball had already landed with an unceremonious thud at our toes. The common thread in all these stories is, we discovered, how simply "playing the game" changes us. After all, no matter what happens -- win or lose -- eventually we have to take a deep breath, pick the ball up, and throw it back in.


Merry Elmer

"Ho ho ho, merry Elmer!" brayed Elizabeth King, running to home plate, victorious from a hit that brought in two runners and a homer. I was on the bench desperately hoping I wouldn't have to bat. No one else wanted me to, either.

I was a fifth-grader by fluke in my New Orleans elementary school. I had skipped fourth grade, so I was a year younger than the rest of my classmates. But I was two years younger than Elizabeth King because she had failed a grade. This distinction polarized us in the eyes of the other kids -- we were different from them because we were not the same age. Elizabeth lorded this over me, targeting me because I was smarter than she was. "Ho ho ho, merry Elmer!" she'd say inexplicably and step on my toes or knock my papers off my desk or literally just push me.

Elizabeth King was a big girl. Tall and very developed for her age. Fifth grade is the last stand of girlhood, and Elizabeth was busting out all over -- literally. When Elizabeth got up to bat the boys jockeyed to stand between home plate and third base to watch her run. She had naturally inflated teenage breasts that bounced under her tight sweaters and caused the boys' eyeballs to bounce along with her as she rounded third. She was quite aware of this and swaggered around for their benefit, chest thrust out. I can remember the teachers huddled by the playground talking about her during the ball games. You could tell by the way they looked at her and shook their heads.

Elizabeth was also a good hitter and was often chosen a team captain. She didn't run fast, but that didn't matter because the ball was long gone. She'd sort of half-run, half-parade from second base on. Meanwhile, I was cringing on the bench, hoping Esther Reganbogen would go to bat before me so the game would be over or the ground would miraculously open up and swallow me. Each of those scenarios had about the same chance of happening. Esther Reganbogen was a bigger geek than me and worse at bat, but that hardly mattered -- we both were considered team poison. The inevitable happened. I struck out. "Ho ho ho, merry Elmer!" Elizabeth jeered as I slunk back to the bench, utterly humiliated. I hated sports at school and vowed I always would.


illustration by Jason Stout

After sixth grade, Elizabeth King went to a different junior high, and I wouldn't see her again. Except once. I was on the St. Charles streetcar headed uptown from the library. I'd been lucky enough to catch the Roman Taffy man, who rode his horse-driven cart through the neighborhoods selling fresh, wax-wrapped sticks of glorious pink taffy for a nickel. I bought five sticks and was working on my second, chewing it laboriously as the streetcar rattled down St. Charles. When it stopped, Elizabeth King got on with some creepy looking guy who had his hands all over her the minute they sat down

About three stops later, the creepy guy rang the bell. The streetcar groaned to a stop and they exited. Turning to the right as they stepped off, they walked directly under where I sat. I knew she hadn't seen me and was probably too stupid to remember me. It wasn't right, but I stuck my head out as she passed underneath the window and spit a huge glob of pink chewed taffy atop her poufy teased flip. I pulled my head in so fast she never saw me but the sound of her shrieking was incredibly liberating as the streetcar chugged away.

I didn't say it then, but I sure say it every damn time I think about it. "Ho ho ho, Elizabeth King. Merry Elmer." --Margaret Moser



Last-Round Draft Pick

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote an essay describing a typical day in my future dream job as wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys. It was a vividly realistic depiction of the big plays I'd be making during big games at Texas Stadium -- a dazzling execution of coach Tom Landry's perfectly scripted game plan.

Every recess during the fall, I was making the dream come true in Alfalfa, Oklahoma. My little school didn't have a football team, but I organized games on the playground. On good days, I could get four players for each team. I played quarterback sometimes, other times wide receiver, but I was always the leader because I could call the plays. The defense never knew what was coming when I was at the helm. They'd run left and I'd pitch right. They'd rush the line and I'd throw deep. Statute of Liberty. Halfback pass. Reverse handoff. I carried the ball like an OU wishbone back. I was fast and hard to tackle. Fingertip catch. Reverse direction. Touchdown! Glorious.


illustration by Jason Stout

Then I graduated eighth grade at Alfalfa and had to transfer to the nearest high school. Finally, I thought excitedly, real football! I'd get to wear pads, just like the pros. I was aware that my size -- I then weighed just under 90 pounds -- might hurt my chances of earning a starting position, but I wasn't too worried. I loved football, and I was a playmaker; I'd come shining through for sure. My dad drove 12 miles into town four times a day so I could attend two-a-day practices before school started.

Coach Greene was an intense, burly fireplug of a man who called me "Little Man." Soon the other players did, too. We immediately began learning how to hit each other -- what seemed to me hour after hour of pointless and painful collisions. In the defensive end drill, Coach demonstrated how to take on a blocking fullback: "You throw your arms up in his shoulder pads," Coach bellowed, "and you neutralize him!" When it was my turn, I stepped into the backfield and faced the charging back. But I didn't neutralize him. I dodged out of the way. Was I supposed to throw my body in the path of a freight train just for practice? This wasn't the game I dreamed about. As the days continued, my hope of becoming a star sank ever lower as I was continuously outrun and run over. I stared sadly down at the new cleats my parents had bought me. What a waste of money. Except for a few brief seconds with the kickoff team, I never played a single moment in a game that year. I'd sit by myself on the bus returning from away games and daydream about the old days, when a brilliant play call and a gutsy pass would win games, when my rapid discernment of an opponent's ploy would lead to leaping interceptions. Now it was all about leading through the two-hole, plugging gaps, and knocking down your man just to make him get up. It wasn't at all glorious.

I didn't play football the next year, though when I was a senior, and weighed a formidable 125 pounds, I tried again. More pragmatic now, I hit people when I was supposed to -- at least when the coach was watching. At our preseason scrimmage, I went cold when Coach called a quarterback dive, realizing my job as lead back was to take out our star linebacker, whose dominating presence on our Class AA team was roughly comparable to Lawrence Taylor's. But I shot through the hole, turned to my left, and rammed that speeding Jimmy truck. My body crumpled like an aluminum can as he drove me under -- but he couldn't get through me in time to grab the quarterback, who cruised through that hole and tore his way to a 50-yard run. Touchdown. "That's it, Fullerton!" cried the assistant coach. Then the whole thing came back on a penalty. One big hit for Little Man, one negated gain for the Carnegie Wildcats B-team. Surely Landry would never have drawn it up that way. -- Kevin Fullerton



Shortchanged

Among the many things that the popular girls at my school had in common, there was this: They wore their wind shorts well. Late-Eighties fashion trends are, as a rule, humiliating, but unlike jelly bracelets and splatter-paint bows, the boom in wind shorts was a particular nightmare for any girl with a burgeoning figure and a little padding to spare. In other words, me.

See, in my gym class, nylon wind shorts were slung low on the hips so that they hung midway to a young lass' knobby knees. But for anyone with curves, wind shorts never did stay on those pesky protruding hip bones, instead creeping up and up into all the wrong cracks.

This wasn't the first time my athletic uniforms had posed problems. As a wee towheaded tyke, I had been a fierce soccer warrior, sturdier than those freckle-faced creampuffs, once sending a runt from the other team limping off the field with a mouth full of blood and one less baby tooth. But with the advent of fifth grade, I grew a conscience and a cup size. It was a catastrophe in so many ways, but most crucially this: Our flimsy white jerseys with the breathing holes left no room for the imagination when it came to a girl's growing womanhood. The year prior, a new transfer student had the fourth grade hopelessly atwitter by proudly sporting a bra under her jersey. Paralyzed by the thought of such attention, I experimented with alternate solutions. There were several; one involved duct tape. But in the end, it seemed the easiest thing to do was simply not to play. No one quite understood -- least of all my bulldog of a coach -- why this ferocious, ass-kicking fullback was very politely declining to be a White Buttercup. I was not about to explain.

After a few years' sabbatical, I decided to dive back into sports. Our middle school didn't have a girl's soccer team, so I opted for basketball. God knows why. I've suppressed most of the specifics of that process. I do remember that there were girls slower than I was, shorter than I was, worse at their free throw than I was, and -- most crucial -- fatter than I was. There was one girl. We'll call her Meg. She was heavy and lead-footed -- not fat exactly, but thick, from the puff of her round pink cheeks down to her swollen ankles.

Meg did not wear her wind shorts well.

She didn't belong, and she knew it, but when the 13-year-old boys yelled names at her, she did the only thing she could possibly do under such circumstances: She ignored them. She played, focused and unapologetic, bounding down the court as her wind shorts inched up her thighs, which shook mightily as she ran. Unlike me, she did not slow herself down by fidgeting with her uniform and tugging her shorts back down. Somewhere, somehow, she had found the courage to post her shot while boys perched high up in the rafters yelled "moo" and "oink." And still, she seemed to genuinely enjoy herself. Spelling bees and science fairs were for Mom and Dad; playing basketball was for her.

I never made the basketball team. In fact, I was the only one who didn't. It's sad, I know, and I probably escaped to the nearest bathroom and collapsed on the toilet with one hand covering my leaky eyes and the other holding the stall door, because those things never locked right. Tragedy it is not. And yet the memory sits front and center when I look back on my childhood playing sports. When it comes to the subject, my triumphs are sadly few. Even the thought of athletics dredges up the remembrance of my failure, my bitterness at high school sports, the terror of being picked last for teams, the frustration that my body was never what I wanted to be. But, wait. I do remember one more thing.

That year, Meg was a leading scorer. --Sarah Hepola



My First Team

For some reason, people seem to think it strange that a wonkish snag like me knows and cares about sports. Blame it on Flipper.

I was a dorky, terribly uncoordinated and (it must be said) fat little thing spending my post-toddler years in a town called Cutler Ridge, since wiped from the South Florida map by Hurricane Andrew. We were driving into the city, and I had my nose stuck in a book, and then I looked up and saw what seemed to me to be everyone on the planet, all thronging around the Orange Bowl.

Obviously, I thought, these people are here to see Flipper -- Flipper, King of the Sea. (I thought he swam right from Biscayne Bay into his tank at the Orange Bowl.) But no, I was told, this was Sunday. The Dolphins everyone was clamoring to see were not has-been TV stars. That's how I learned about football.

By the end of that season -- which was, yes, That Season, the Dolphins' 17-0 romp into history -- I had been imprinted as surely as a baby bird, knowing the anatomy of Bob Griese's injured thumb, the ethnic origins of the names "Csonka" and "Kiick," the difference between "aqua and coral" and ordinary blue and orange, and the proper emotional responses to the Cowboys (hatred), Raiders (fear), and Redskins (pity). Even after leaving for the other coast the following year, and adopting California teams in other sports, I stuck by the Fish, and am now stuck with decades of 8-8 seasons, first-round playoff losses, a hideous new stadium, and a pervasive stench of waste. That's love for ya.

My career as a sports fan has been a steady downhill slide since 1972 -- different, say, from rooting for the Saints or the Cubs or (until now) the Spurs, where failure has become part of the fun and triumph is too weird to truly appreciate. When the first team you love is (maybe) the best that ever played, your future fandom takes on the just-one-more-hit mien of the heroin addict, overlaid with scorn for the poseur passion of the fans of convenience that follow the all-star variety shows we now call "sports." (Hockey in Dallas. Give me a break.) I know other teams have had their shining hours -- I lived miserably as a Dolphins fan in San Francisco in 1985 -- so I know that someday, I will be able to recapture the transcendence of my first time. But that's what we all say. --Mike Clark Madison



Jesus, My Tennis Partner

It is perhaps axiomatic of my adolescent existence that though I thought I had "psyched myself up" (appropriate lingo for a mid-Eighties teen) to attend tennis camp, I was entirely unaware of what would quickly become the most memorable element of my stay there. For several days before departing, my mother had been reminding me that I needed to pack. Eventually frustrated with my shirking of that duty, she sat me down the day before I was to leave and read out loud the list the camp had sent of items I needed to bring. I had assumed that this list would consist of the following things: T- shirts, shorts, sunscreen, and tennis racket. So I thought it was pretty funny when the first word out of my mother's mouth was "Bible," though it was an inward laugh because I pretended not to hear her.


illustration by Jason Stout

Sometimes it can be an effective tactic for a reporter to pretend not to hear something. Persistent, Mom seemed far more certain than I was that I actually owned a Bible, and of its precise location in my room. Along this journey, I had time to ponder Jesus' relationship to tennis. I didn't have a clue, but I figured it might be fun to handily defeat my opponents and then praise God. Once I arrived, it gradually began to dawn on me that my parents were the lucky recipients of two camps for the price of one quite odd one: tennis camp during the day and Bible camp at night. I found without fail that Christian kindness -- in abundance at sing-song time each night -- was temporarily but routinely suspended on the tennis court during the day. The competitive mindset was not vicious, mind you, but we were there to improve our tennis game. Maybe Jesus did help me out after all, though: I became confident enough on the tennis court to actually hope that others would do unto me as I planned to do unto them. Improving my game was not in any way the most enduring lesson I learned, however. Let me frame that lesson as advice: If you happen to run into my mom, don't ignore her if she uses the word "Bible."-- Clay Smith



Holding Court

I never became the tennis player my father wanted me to be. A nationally ranked player, a college coach, and a teaching professional, his life has revolved around the game. But to me, practicing tennis was just another chore my old man made me do. His criticism of my abilities didn't instill in me a love for the game, but a job my dad got me when I was 13 did make me a lifelong fan of professional tennis.

Every January the men's pro tour had a tournament at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, and my dad pulled some strings to get me on the ballboy crew. This was during the mid-Seventies, the glam-rock age of tennis. A brash young buck named Jimmy Connors ruled the court, and long-haired pretty boys like Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, and Vitas Gerulaitis gave tennis a real rock & roll image. What a thrill to be right there on the court, watching these magicians who defied the laws of physics, making that little yellow ball obey their wills instead of any higher law. Even their bodies were different. They all had massive, powerful thighs and one arm twice the size of the other, like some mutant race of lobster men. When we got to throw a ball to them, or race across the court to retrieve an errant serve from the net, we became a part of their magical world. That adrenaline rush was unforgettable.

I remember watching Connors whale on the ball with a Wilson T-2000, a steel racket with a tiny round head that could be a museum piece today. It was like a weird skillet with a really long handle and catgut strings instead of a frying surface. But Jimmy flat out pounded the ball. And despite his fiery temper, Connors was a damn good sport. I remember he once intentionally double-faulted after his opponent got a bad call from a linesman. He then proceeded to whip the guy's ass.

I always wondered why the chicks screamed whenever Borg walked onto the court. He had long, greasy hair, a nose like a mashed turnip, and eyes that were way too close together. But I'll be damned if the chicks didn't treat him like a Beatle.

I remember standing on the court while Roscoe Tanner practiced his 120mph serve, at that time the fastest in the game. It was a lesson in terror. That ball came at you like some giant egg shot from a bazooka, and if you didn't want your wrists snapped you had to dodge the bullet and play it off the back wall.

But the experience I most treasure is meeting Arthur Ashe. I asked him for an autograph in the locker room one time, and he actually took the time to ask me a few questions -- and even listen to my answers. The power and grace he exhibited on court were part of his nature. Years later, I wept when Ashe died; his passing was one of the great tragedies of our time.

Sometimes I look back and wish I had practiced harder, played better, and lived out my dad's dream of being one of those tennis stars. I just didn't have the zeal for the game. But I'll be forever grateful that my dad's passion opened up an amazing world to me; an up-close glimpse of human greatness. It made me understand something about devoting one's life to a game -- and made me understand that my father's devotion made him great, too. --J. C. Shakespeare



The Sport of Kings


illustration by Jason Stout

We were kings once. It was summer, we were boys, and the game was Ping-Pong Baseball. What started as a modest experiment flinging Ping-Pong balls into a fishing net evolved into a full-fledged summer spectacle, a homegrown sport that became the stage for our grandest passions and acts of high athleticism.

Despite its modest name, I'll have you know this: Ping-Pong Baseball was twice the game of its front-yard counterpart, Wiffleball, and my brother and I never failed to take it seriously. By the end of our first season, we could both make a Ping-Pong ball dance up and down like we held it on a string. We named our pitches after the heroes of the day -- the Carlton, the Quisenberry, the Hrabosky -- and they were deadly. In time our hitting skills grew to match, and woe to the pitcher whose Carlton took too long to break: Likely as not, he'd find his pitch in the gutter (a ground-rule double), if not slapped clean over the home run fence -- a length of kite-string that hung lazily from a centerfield tree. Less Herculean was the sly art of slapping a single off the open casement windows that stood just inside the foul line -- a cheap hit but sometimes necessary to keep a drive alive.

They were competitive games, and no small part of brotherly braggin' rights were staked on their outcome. Our mother admonished us to keep the taunting to a minimum, but I'll not deny that tempers flared. Arguments over called strikes were often less than civil, and we rarely made it a full nine innings before some dispute threatened an abrupt and early end to the contest. And though my only weapon was a dented Ping-Pong ball from 20 feet, I was known to throw at my brother's head ... but only when he deserved it. I can't even begin to calculate the number of hours we spent locked in fierce battle. But it's clear at this distance that the greatest athletic feats of my career came with a Ping-Pong ball in the front yard of my childhood home, generally in a losing effort and with no other witness than my brother. If you had told me as much when I was a kid, I would have been mortified -- I still had a World Series to win -- but now I see more beauty than shame in it. It may have been a game of our own design, played out on the smallest of possible stages, with no audience save the family cat, but we played it well, and with all of our heart. We were kings once. We were kings. --Jay Hardwig



Sideline Soccer Mom

"Harder!" Dooner begged. "Throw it even harder!" I shook my sweat-drenched head and grinned, hustling to fetch the black and white ball punched at me by my aspirant goalie pal. Dooner pounced, pounded, and pummeled with the fierce and fiery determination of a proto-Pele. Her goal? To be on the debut roster of our school's first women's varsity soccer team. Me? Sure, sure, I wanted to play, too. But not the way Dooner wanted it.

Spring semester of my junior year was spent keeping stats for the boys' varsity soccer squad along with my friend Monica --a result of her unfortunate infatuation with Omar, one of the team's players. I tagged along with Monica as she tagged along with Omar. Eventually, Father O'Hara, the team's coach, noticed and found a way for us to be useful.

Soccer was hot in South Florida that year, and I grew to love the game, although I'm not convinced that my tenure as statistician had anything to do with it. For the most part, the season was spent enduring sexist locker-room jabs from my "teammates," the nausea-inducing goo-goo eyes between Monica and Omar, and the aroma of two dozen smelly boys crammed into an unforgivingly nonventilated bus.

The next year, our school would boast a women's team. The news created quite a buzz, especially amongst the girls who had drifted away from natural jock-ular inclinations to pursue other interests (like boys, marijuana, and the perfect tan), and those of us who didn't fit into the established athletic hierarchy of our talented tomboy sisters already excelling in track, basketball, and softball.

Dooner and I were both too silly and undisciplined (read: stoned) in our early high school careers to entertain any sincere notions of team spirit, but the time seemed right to channel our physical energies and talents into something more positive. So for five months we trained. And trained.

Every night Dooner and I zoomed over to the Tanglewood fields to practice. Every night we ran breathless legs around the park's perimeter, pushing our limits and attention spans. Every night, I chucked ball after ball into the soon-to-be-goalie's breadbasket, harder, harder, and harder. By fall, Dooner had not only made varsity and goalie, she had also made quite the scene on the local women's community circuit. Soccer had become her life.

I went to her early games, but pacing the edge of the sidelines depressed me. At one home game, Father O'Hara sidled up beside me and said, "You know, you would've made the squad." I smiled as I remembered that he really had nothing to do with the selection process of the women's team, but who argues with a priest? I wasn't on the team because I wasn't even a student at that school anymore. Fed up with the tedious cliques and snobbery of private school privilege, I transferred to a public school -- sadly, one without a women's soccer team -- for my senior year.

Pacing the sideline of the Hyde Park field, I was unaware of my pumping fists and flaring nostrils. My gaze was fixed on one lone forward on the Hancock Pandas' team. "Remember what we practiced!" I shouted to my sweat-drenched son. I must have been a sore thumb among the other dutiful moms politely chatting on the bleachers about who would next supply the team's stock of Capri Sun.

The next play brought my champion closer to my side of the field. He stage-whispered eagerly, "I know, Mom, 'Get aggressive!'" and winked. The next play, he scored a goal -- his only one of the season. I leaped and pranced and "Whoo Hoo!"-ed, remembering my days spent on the sideline in high school.

And here I am, on the sideline again. Right where I belong. --Kate X Messer



Breathing Lessons

Summers in El Paso, Texas, were like nowhere else and everywhere else in the Sixties, back in the day when kids like me had the run of the whole neighborhood. I spent my days from early morning until late afternoon at the Loma Terrace Swimming Pool, where the crackle of deejay chatter on AM radio was as much a fixture as Coach Guthrie, the head lifeguard who doubled as our swim coach.

My day began not long after sunup. I'd join the rest of the swim team at poolside where Coach Guthrie would go over our routines for the day. Sometimes we'd swim lap after lap at our own pace to pump up our endurance and practice our stroke: Palms flat, fingers pressed comfortably together, we'd swing our arms through the water at 90-degree angles and build our kicking speed with solid flip-flip-flip sounds instead of the clumsy slosh-slosh-slosh noises. Toward the end of the week, before our next swim meet, Coach Guthrie would run us through grueling exercises of sprints and relay races where we'd have to swim all the strokes -- even the ones we were lousy at. We'd swim nonstop. One lap butterfly, the next lap backstroke, then breaststroke and finally (pant, pant) freestyle, where we were expected to soar like flying fish atop the water.

As I sprinted up and down the length of the pool, my thoughts held slow and steady. The songs of the day would play inside my head and, like any kid worth her salt, I knew all the lyrics. Lap after lap, that little jukebox inside my head would spin hits by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Shirelles (the best damn girl group in the world!), Sunny and the Sunliners, and (El Paso's own!) Bobby Fuller. Songs like "I Fought the Law" made me swim like hell without even thinking about how fast I was going. During the pool's "public hours" I horsed around with the other kids, doing cannonballs, and belly flops off the diving board. The lifeguards would crank up the radio whenever a good song came on, and my sister and her friends would turn up their tinny-sounding transistors at the same time. They would lie on their towels and talk to each other in conspiratorial whispers. My sister would shoot me one of her "don't-you-dare-embarrass-me" looks whenever a boy ambled over to talk to her.

I spent three years on the swim team. Then my rebellious teenage years hit and, well, that's another story. Still, as a swimmer I learned my most valuable lesson: how to be competitive without making a whole lot of noise. Just keep your head down, think about the music, and don't forget to breathe. --Amy Smith


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