I’ve been meaning to participate in one of Robert Hruzek’s “What I Learned From…” series of group writing projects for some time, but usually I run out of time before the deadline. This time I may actually make it. As soon as Robert announced the theme for this round, I thought of a story I could tell you that’s equally flattering and embarrassing to yours truly — but does include a lesson.
My Dad and I were famous football fans. American football, that is — Washington Redskins, specifically. So when the newspaper announced a joint tryout practice at the local high school for prospective Varsity and Junior Varsity athletes in the summer before I entered 8th grade, my father encouraged me to go. I was a pretty good runner, so I had big dreams about becoming a star running back. I imagined myself the next Larry Brown.
Eighth grade was a big transition in our school system. Students from smaller elementary schools all over the county were lumped together in what was then called “Junior High”. Thus, when I got to the practice, there were maybe a hundred people there I didn’t know. In fact, I don’t think I knew anyone. In all the confusion, I accidentally got grouped with the defensive tryouts — but I had a good time working out with the group (the older guys were going easy on us younger ones, I later realized). At the end of the day, the coach told the Varsity team to show up again for practice the next day. Somehow in my teenage confusion, I thought he meant the Junior Varsity, which would naturally include me.
And nobody corrected my misconception. For weeks, I came to the Varsity practice every day and got kicked around like a rag doll. “Heck,” I thought, “those other elementary schools sure did produce a lot of big guys.” I only weighed 120 pounds, and some of these monsters were at least twice that. I couldn’t run as fast as anyone else, even the fat ones. I couldn’t hit as hard as anyone else. I worked hard just to stay at the back of the pack. But I knew I had to keep on trying. If they could do it, by gosh I could too.
I remember a tackling-practice machine that literally launched a stuffed opponent-surrogate at you. We’d stand in line and wait to try to tackle the dummy as it sped along its suspended track. It would knock me to the ground, feet flying in the air, while all the other defenders laughed. Every time. But I’d get up, and get back in line, and get knocked down again, and get laughed at again. Every time. Day after day.
But in the locker room after practice, several players would pat me on the back and tell me I was doing a good job, and to “keep on hustling”.
And the day I finally stopped that %*&&@#^ tackling dummy, they all cheered.
Then one day as I was returning punts and getting repeatedly planted in the ground, someone I had never seen before but who was dressed like a coach called out, “Hey Chip! Come over here!”
He led me to where the Junior Varsity team had finally started practice. That’s when I understood that everyone I had been practicing with for weeks was at least two years ahead of me — many of them four years my senior. Somehow that had never come up in locker-room conversation. Imagine how embarrassed I was at my ignorance. Imagine my wonder when I realized exactly what I had survived. Imagine my subsequent confidence when going head to head against mere 8th and 9th graders. What could I fear from mere mortals, when I had battled gods?
What did I learn from this experience? When you feel overwhelmed and defeated, don’t give up. Get up, dust yourself off, and try again. Failure doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on your character or your abilities — you might simply be in over your head. But keep hustling — because if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.
EDIT: Obfuscated the G-word to go for a G-rating.