1973: Taking One for the Team

Goat picture

As I grew up my father’s changing employment situation had us moving around a lot and by the time I earned my high school diploma I had attended seven public schools. I went on to earn an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree and a Master of Fine Arts degree while attending three different universities and one junior college – and when you add those academic institutions to places where I have taught the total comes to sixteen schools with which I have had extensive experience. Of all those bastions of academia Ricks College (now known as BYU-Idaho) was the best, with the fall of 1973 being my best term of my entire collegiate career. I made the honor roll with a 3.8 GPA while carrying 19 credit hours, I was actively involved in the establishment of the first ROTC detachment set up at the school, held multiple responsibilities in my church congregation and earned a small scholarship as the cartoonist for the student newspaper.

As I have learned several other times in my life being actively engaged in so many worthwhile things did wonders for my morale, but that doesn’t mean that semester started out as a happy situation.  I felt out-of-place, having transferred to Ricks the year from the University of Alaska, not because I wanted to go there, but because my Best Friend wanted to go there.  The change from a state school to a private faith-based institution was so abrupt that at times I would break  into hives from the stress. How that rocky start evolved into lofty academic achievement is told elsewhere; suffice it to say that at the time of this story I was starting my third (and final) semester in Rexburg 4000 miles from the most important person in my life while living in an apartment with five strangers who were not particularly friendly.

Initially I handled the situation as any other thoughtful mature young man would – by retreating to my bedroom and throwing a low-grade tantrum. Half my spare time was spent writing letters to my Best Friend, listening to Neil Young on the record player,  and mentally living a year or two in the past. The other half was spent writing more letters, listening to the Moody Blues on my record player, and mentally living a year or two in the future. I had little interest in anything other than marking days off the calendar as I waited for our happy reunion and a new life.

Given this behavior you may ask why we were separated to begin with. The story behind the split is very messy, involving unreasonable pressure from  my family  against the relationship developing any further* but we had patched our couple-hood  together during the summer after I went through a  Saul’s-conversion-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience which left me vowing “never crash and burn again”. Unfortunately my lofty intentions didn’t change the fact that my financial and academic situation required us to spend one last semester separated.

Then wonder upon wonder, things started getting better.  I got off to a good start with my classes, our new ROTC instructor got us out on weekends to go rappelling or rafting… and most important I found out that long distance phone calls weren’t as prohibitively expensive as I’d assumed. It was amazing what an occasional call back to Fairbanks would do to raise my spirits.

…then one of my room-mates mentioned the word “football” and my stress level skyrocketed again.

Football.

When people ask me about my football career I reply  that but for one problem  I could have played  professional football – that problem being that I was just not very good at the game. I was a late bloomer, gaining strength, coordination and general physical ability a couple years later than my team-mates. That didn’t keep me from loving the game, and I made up for lack of ability with enthusiasm. Fans weren’t quite so over the top as they are now – no face-painting or giant foam headgear for us – but I did closely follow my favorite teams during the season, and linebackers were just as apt to show up in my sketchbooks as sword-wielding barbarians or caped superheroes.

It was when I got involved with actually playing or talking about playing that my love for the game that I began to feel  stress. My basic insecurity and paranoia would gnaw at my confidence, so when one of my new room-mates suggested we try to get a pick-up game going with guys from the dorms I was torn between being excited about playing, and fear of demonstrating my ineptitude. Playing with this new set of room-mates brought on its own peculiar challenges as well – I was the only returning tenant that fall and it seemed like the new guys brought with them an undercurrent of criticism and negativity that kept us from bonding in quite the same way we had the previous year. I got the feeling that if I played with them and didn’t do well I’d be the goat for the entire semester.

(Don’t ask me what “being the goat” entailed – I picked up the term while reading an advertisement for a Jonny Unitas plastic model kit)

…but I really, REALLY wanted to play football so shortly thereafter we were lined up against a half-dozen dormitory denizens. We started out with a casual game of touch football but as coeds began to gather to watch, the testosterone level started to rise and before you could say “Vince Lombardi” the captain of the dormitory team challenged us to play tackle ball.

To my surprise and delight I played quite well, operating as a combination guard/tackle on offense and a linebacker on defense. Scoring had started out a bit casual, with the two teams either tied or within one touchdown of each other for most of the game, but got serious about the same time we switched from touch to tackle rule, when the girls started watching.

Despite playing well I was still edgy.  Out of both teams I was the one person who had actually played high school football; most of the others being wrestlers or gymnasts.  For some reason being the only one who’d ever had “scabs on the bridge of my nose” caused animosity and the comments got a more caustic as the contact got harder and more abrupt….and that was from my own team. It got to the point that I considered departing the field for my record player and Mr. Young’s nasal balladering when I heard a yell “Deitrick – watch, he’s coming around your side!”

A member of the other team was running the ball around my side of the line with just a couple of yards between him and the goal-line. We seemed to be a match in terms of speed but I wasn’t sure I could anticipate his intentions and stop him in time – and at that point I went into Tardis-time where my internal clock was running much faster than time was passing in the outside world.

My internal monologue kicked in: “Why am I bothering with this. These guys don’t know the kind of injuries you can get playing tackle ball. I do. I have no wish to spend the semester in a cast after killing myself for people that I have absolutely nothing invested in. All I am doing is killing time until my Best Friend and I are back together again. Who cares if they like me – I can just listen to music and live in my head.”

Just then I glanced at the room-mate closest to me and saw an expression that I  couldn’t identity. It was an open expression I had yet to see on anyone’s face in the apartment: hope, pride, friendship?  – certainly not the contempt I was expecting. There was a flash – I don’t know if it was adrenaline or the fear of sustaining a skull fracture but in that moment I had an epiphany –   the disconnection was as much my fault as the new guys; that no matter how badly I missed my Best Friend I had to stop marking the days off my calendar and start living outside my head.  I turned back toward the ball-carrier, bulled my head down and made a text-book perfect tackle.  The runner collapsed like a sack of potatoes and fumbled the ball, setting us up for the winning touchdown a couple of plays later.

It was dizzying. There had been so few times in my life that I had been the hero but in the back of my mind I knew that there was more going on than just grid-iron glory.The walk back to our apartment was not much different than walking to the field had been two hours earlier, but I felt different.  On the surface the dialog continued to be that of brain-dead 18-20 year old young men but the comments were not quite as caustic or clipped.

It was a very small difference – it was a definite improvement and a foreshadowing of the overall change that was just over the horizon for me.

(* I still can’t watch the fifth Season of “That ‘70s Show”)

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