One who is forced to play a sport, regardless of their loathing for it.
Recently, while chatting with some guys at a party, I drifted into the dire shoals of sports-talk. The conversation had started innocently enough, reminiscing about youth and school and all of its attendant horrors. It was light, snappy party patter. Good stuff. But then a guy (who looked like a Brad but wasn’t a Brad) steered the topic toward his glory days in intramural soccer. I should have confessed my lack of interest and authority on the spot, but I was wine-soaked and foolish, and so I feigned understanding. This was an error. The more he went on, the deeper I delved for convincing lies, volleying through his remembrances with clueless chirps: Oh, totally. Tell me about it, man. Pssh, soccer… right?
When the inevitable finally occurred, and he handed the subject back to me, I choked. Utterly.
Here’s a little free advice for you: When asked your position on the soccer field, “center-left” is not an acceptable answer.
I had outed myself as an anathelete – a tragic, grade school softboy – fellas who don’t take the field, so much as are taken by it… cajoled by well-meaning parents and concerned guidance counselors who, in my case, viewed my stubborn disinterest in group sports not so much as a personality trait, but as a problem to be cured via immersion-therapy. Despite a volley of protests, I was signed up for baseball and soccer, both the indoor and outdoor varietals. Gloves and shinguards were purchased. Ballcaps were donned. Back yard practice drills were run by my enthusiastic father, and scored to my own chorus of protracted, Victorian sighs. To this day, those temperate harbingers of Springtime – blooming dogwoods, sunparched dirt, the woody smell of fresh-cut lawns – make me anxious and itchy and inescapably sad.
For I am an anathelete. An inside cat. A scrabble player. A man more likely to attend a ball than hustle for one.
At the time I resented my parents for this – my enforced conscription into the dreaded boys of summer. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed enough empathy to understand how frightening it must be to raise any child – let alone a sour, solitudinous lump like me. I was an odd kid. I had friends, but not many. I lacked the easygoing nature required to play well with others. I was an only child… which is to say: a cerebral weirdo, more interested in chatting with adults over coffee than playing games with kids. It’s only natural that in their desperation they’d draw comparisons between me and the closest child they could find – which, in my family was my cousin, M.
M. is the closest thing I’ll ever have to a sibling. We were born six weeks apart, and thus our parents formed a social unit, spending weekends and vacations together, raising the two of us in tandem. There are photo albums chronicling our shared infancy – each of us strapped screaming inside our baby-carriers, beside our drowsy and exhausted mothers; M. and I as toddlers, costumed in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles regalia, our postures frozen mid-kata, our hands flattened into pasty karate chops; our fathers possess the requisite blackmail photos of us in the bath, arraying our army men in an execution line along the tub’s porcelain edge, plunking them one by one into the suds.
As time wore on, M. and I began to grow in different directions. I mean this literally. Come the pubescent years, M. brototroped into a more traditionally male form. (NB: By “traditionally male form” I do not mean to suggest that I condone this particular view of masculinity. I merely mean to describe the thinking of the time. Gender is a fluid concept. The patriarchy is a cancerous system of dehumanizing power which must be torn down. Black Lives Matter. All that stuff.) M. took an intense interest in sports, becoming a capable wrestler and soccer player. He had the full scope of the athletic carriage – a muscular frame, a quiet, single-minded focus and dedication to practice, and an inherent team spirit. M. had the inexhaustible desire to hustle, to score, to raise his fist in the air and hold it aloft like a torch to light the way of his own athletic excellence.
My own career as a soccer player was spent sulking. If I did run, it wasn’t so much toward the ball as it was away from a bee. At this phase of my little-league career, roles of play were still democratized; Children were rotated from position to position, outfield one game, pitcher the next. My coach – a beardy Episcopalian of inexhaustible patience – did his damndest to keep me in right field where I belonged… but the time eventually came when I was called to service amid the infield. This poor man had to dress me in my catcher’s armor… belting the plastic carapace around my myriad bruise-and-breakables… explaining to me that, should a runner attempt to take the plate, it would be my responsibility to protect it with my whole heft. I don’t recall my exact response… but it was certainly some version surely you jest, only adjusted to the 4th grade reading level.
When I finally emerged from the dugout and rattled homeward, I was met with the politely stifled hysterics of the crowd. I don’t – and didn’t – blame them. I’d have laughed too at this shambling lobsterboy. I searched the crowd through the mesh of my mask and, spotting my parents, excitedly pointed to the oversized plastic jock that had been strapped on above my pants. Mom! I shouted… Look at this! And then proceeded to waggle my white codpiece to and fro. My father retold this story for years… pantomiming the waggle every time I brought a girl home.
I just never cared. Not about the game. Not about the score. Not about winning. It never mattered. That has always been my the biggest issue with sports – other than, ya know… the heat, and the running, and the shouting, and the overwhelming self-seriousness. I just didn’t think it’s important. Were we playing for money, or national pride, that would be another thing altogether. But we never were. Win or lose, we all got pizza.
These days, team sports are a distant memory. I’m in my late-30s. I am no longer culturally viable. Nobody cares that I’m even alive, let alone how well I play with others. But as I shuffle ever-farther into the mire of early-middle-age, the more and more essential physical activity becomes. If not to foster a darwinian appetite for competition, then at least to stave off my physical degradation from doughy, gentleman meatstocking to bloated corpse.
I have to exercise now not so much to build character, but to forestall death. And that’s a competition I can get behind. I’ve successfully avoided athleticism for 37 years. I had a great
run sit. But the time has come to hike up my sporting apparel, don some ridiculous hat, and work up a bit of a sweat. So, this week, I signed up for a kickboxing class. I put on shorts. I ran and jumped and burpeed. I punched and kicked. I sweat and cursed and flailed around. For an entire hour I pummeled a bag, and sprinted, and melted in front of a room full of lithe, be-pony-tailed women. I exercised. I hated every goddamn minute of it. But I did it.
But here’s the rub: an hour before my class, I met some chums at a bar. Turns out this gentleman can kickbox with three glasses of wine in his belly and NOT throw up on himself.
So I got that goin’ for me…