YOU SHOULD'VE SEEN my father's arms. He didn't lift weights or do push-ups or exercise them in any way, and yet they were packed tight with muscle. When I was a boy and he lifted his highball in the evening for a sip, a round knot the size of a softball came up under the skin and slowly flattened out when he lowered the glass back down. I loved his arms so much that I memorized every vein, sinew, and golden hair. I knew the wrinkles of his elbows.
In the summer, when he worked for the city's recreation department, supervising the baseball program at the park, Daddy liked to come home for lunch and a nap. He had lemonade and a BLT, then he had me lie close to him on the sofa, and he draped an arm around me. “One … two … three … “ he'd count in a whisper, and then he was out, sleeping that easily.
I lay there wondering if I'd ever have arms like his. I needed both hands to travel the distance around his wrist, the tips of my thumbs and fingers barely touching. I felt the hardness of his forearm. I saw how his wedding band fit him like a strand of barbed wire on a tree whose bark had grown around it. He smelled of the grass and the sun, of green and gold days that started early and ended late.
“Were you a good player?” I asked him once as he was coming awake.
“Was I what?”
“A good player.”
“You want to know if I was a good player?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“I don't know. Did they run your name in the paper a lot?”
He looked at me in a way that let me know he wanted my attention. “None of it matters, John Ed. Was I a good teammate? Did I do my best and give everything I had to help the team? These are the questions you need to be asking.”
I wondered how to answer them, these questions he found of such importance. Many years would have to pass before I was old enough to join a team. He pulled me close again, as if he'd just remembered something. “John Ed?”
“Always be humble.”
The rest of the year he worked as a civics teacher and coach at the high school in town. The town was Opelousas, on the road between Alexandria and Lafayette, and it was just small enough, at about twenty thousand, to be excluded from Louisiana state maps when TV weathermen gave their forecasts in the evening. In the morning, my father left home wearing coach's slacks with sharp creases and a polo shirt with a Tiger emblem and the words OHS FOOTBALL printed in Halloween orange on the left breast, the lettering melted from too much time in the dryer. A whistle hung from a nylon cord around his neck. It was still hanging there when he returned at night and sat down to a cold supper—the same meal Mama had served her children hours earlier. “You don't want me to warm it for you, Johnny?”
“No, baby. That's okay.”
Sometimes in the afternoon, Mama drove me out to the school. She parked under the oak tree by the gymnasium, pointed to where she wanted me to go, and I walked out past a gate in a hurricane fence to the field where my father and the other coaches were holding practice. Four years old, I wore the same crew cut that my father wore. I stumbled through tall grass and out past the red clay track that encircled the field. At home, my father didn't raise his voice, but here he seemed to shout with every breath. A team manager took me by the hand and led me to a long pine bench on the sideline. I sat among metal coolers, spare shoulder pads and toolboxes crammed with first aid supplies. I waited until the last drill had ended and the players came one after another to the coolers for water the same temperature as the day, drunk in single gulps from paper cups shaped like cones. The players took turns giving the top of my head a mussing. “You gonna play football when you grow up?”
“I don't know.”
“You gonna be a coach like your daddy?”
“I want to.”
Already I was certain that no one mattered more than a coach. I would trade any day to come for a chance to be that boy again, understanding for the first time who his father was. Give me August and two-a-days and a group of teenagers who are now old men, their uniforms stained green from the grass and black with Louisiana loam. Give me my father's voice as he shouts to them, pushing them harder than they believe they can go, willing them to be better. Give me my father when practice is over and he walks to where I'm sitting and reaches his arms out to hold me.
I HEARD IT when I was a kid. I still hear it. You run into a former ballplayer and give him a minute, and suddenly he's haranguing you about the deleterious effects of global warming on the game of football, arguing that the sunshine that lit the fields back when he played was more golden than it is today. As a matter of fact, everything was better back then—before the world went all to hell. You played with broken ribs and noses, tonsil and toenail problems, abscessed teeth and even certain gastrointestinal disorders, and instead of steroids and human growth hormones, you fed yourself a diet rich in protein and complex carbohydrates. Want to get bigger and stronger? Take a B12 shot and wash down half a dozen raw eggs with breakfast. For lunch, eat a twenty-ounce sirloin pan-fried in butter. After supper, get a soupspoon and carve a hole in a tub of ice cream.
I suppose it's easy to understand why so many of these old boys come off as a little sour—their prime is past, their future uncertain. And I suppose it's also easy to dismiss them out of hand for being such miserable bores. But then one of them will suddenly stop editorializing and focus on the memory of a teammate. This is when things get interesting. A moment ago, the crusty bear was complaining that no college coach is worth three million dollars a year and that TV timeouts make games drag on too long. Now he's bawling into his hands.
I'm guilty of being confused about a lot of things, but I understand why teammates always get a pass. Once upon a time I played the game, although that might be hard to believe to look at me today, with my hair streaked gray and my neck about as big around as a pencil. I was a center for Louisiana State University in the late 1970s, back when Charles McClendon was coach, and I played with people who were so good to me that I've often wondered if I was somehow ruined by their goodness. Want to know what love feels like? Have a couple of teammates carry you off the field when you're so tired and beaten that you're no longer able to carry yourself. Want to witness firsthand an act of courage that brightens your opinion of your fellow man? Have a fullback step up out of nowhere and pick up the blitzing linebacker that you, anchor of the line, failed to block.
I probably think about my LSU teammates more than I should. No, I'm sure I do. I wonder what they've gone and done with their lives. Do they have grandkids? Have they made money? Are they happy?
On more than a few occasions, while out on the road for a magazine assignment, I've spotted young men who brought old teammates to mind. One might have the same self-assured stride as our top wide receiver, while another has a profile nearly identical to that of a reserve quarterback. Though I'm never tempted to walk up to one of them and humiliate myself by peppering him with questions, I often imagine the conversation we'd have. “You know, you look like a college buddy I had a long time ago. Of course, I haven't seen him in ages. For all I know, he could weigh four hundred pounds and get around in one of those motorized scooters. Or maybe he died. But I swear, you look just like him. You're not related to Leigh Shepard, are you?”
“God, did that boy have potential. If he hadn't worn his knees out and quit the squad to return home to Texas, he surely would've been a great one.”
And on and on it goes, my description of Leigh Shepard or whomever else growing more detailed as I ramble on.
This is an odd confession, but until about ten years ago, I could rattle off the entire numerical roster for the 1979 LSU football team, beginning with the lowest digit, Don Barthel's number 1, and ending with the highest, Mark Ippolito's 99. When I encountered a number on a billboard or highway sign, I automatically associated it with a teammate. Once when I was driving through southern Louisiana, I saw a roadside marker for U.S. 90. Demetri Williams, I thought to myself. What a fine defensive lineman. He had real quick feet coming off the ball and could obliterate you with a swim move if you didn't pop him in the mouth right off the snap. Used to stand in front of a mirror in the locker room after practice combing his hair with a pick, working out the indentations left by the padding of his helmet.
At home at night, I'd watch the weather forecast and hear “thirty-five degrees in Baton Rouge” and find myself saying to the screen, “That's cold. Better wear your winter coat, Rusty Brown.”
Yes, Rusty wore number 35.
Crazy, I tell you.
Here's another confession: I still remember the most insignificant things about my teammates, even though I have to concentrate to tell you what I had for dinner last night. I remember how tall they were and how much they weighed—that's easy—but I also remember things that don't matter anymore, that probably never mattered: the kinds of cars they drove, the music they played in the dorm, how many letters they earned, their injuries, their dreams, their girlfriends’ favorite lipstick colors, the length of their sideburns, their times in the 40-yard dash.