(or, A Properly Forged Sword)
By Eric P. Mueller
Silence, rare on the football field, usually occurs with gasps, like after the hardest collisions, or, in a moments of loss when the team scores, a player is injured, or you lose the game. That’s probably why my silence stood out as long as it did. It was only a moment, but my entire team and the staff that coached us waited on me to say anything, once, and I said nothing. In that spell of seconds, the wordlessness etched something onto my face that I could not read, even a mirror, and its weight was more burdensome than the tissue around my body and the armor I dressed in to play.
It was my junior year, the year when we were supposed to become men. Sophomore year in football, especially for lineman, was the forging of a sword. Players are melted down in intense summer heat, and then bashed mercilessly with blacksmith hammers until an appropriate tool for war emerges from the anvil, still scolding. I was a weapon, but I did not feel all that powerful.
I’d felt the weaponlike power in the off season, we were forced—strongly encouraged—to attend weight lifting sessions four days a week after classes in our school’s weight room with the head coach, Coach Bell. This was unheard of in our shoreline Connecticut town known more for soccer, lacrosse, and an apple orchard than football.
My best friend, Adam and I dreaded the two leg days per week, which included front squats, hang cleaning, deadlifts, and box jumps.
The outdated olympic bars, which felt like sandpaper, scraped our legs when the bar grazed our lower bodies in every rep of the deadlift. The boxes, allegedly built by one of our teammates and his father, were two sets of four boxes ranging from one foot high to three and a half feet. But that family owned a construction company, so never really knew the truth in that regard.
What we did know was pain. I was always one of the top four largest players on the team, sometimes the heaviest. I say large and not big because in football “big” means muscular, it means stocky, it means strong, not squishy and soft, like me. I’ll never know if I ever fractured my tibia, but I remember the bruises, blood, and throbbing from hitting the edges of the wooden box with my legs. Walking down to the weightroom, for levity, we sang a parody of a Hawthorne Heights song that went, “so cut my shins and black my thighs,” every week.
The hard work did pay off when I squatted 405lbs in our off season test. When Adam spotted me, it felt like he was helping too much, so it didn’t feel like I earned it, but people looked at me differently after that. One upperclassman accused me of being on steroids. I weighed nearly 260, so I didn’t think squatting 405 was as impressive as my 145lb teammates squatting 315.
Coach Bell didn’t say anything specifically negative in that instance, he was proud of me, too, but he trained us to be negative in general. If not negative, critical. On front of every mirror in the weightroom, after we lost the annual Thanksgiving game against our rival, Madison, he posted a sheet that listed the score of every meetup between our towns for the last three decades. In the bottom right corner, it mentioned that we had only beaten them four times, as well as the definition of what a rivalry is. The bottom read, not much of a rivalry, is it?
This was the start of his attempt at using psychology and “bulletin board material” We once received a packet with a series of basic commandments like showing up on time and banning swearing.
Coach Bell was a character to us. We knew he lived alone, was divorced. He worked nights, something along the lines of security, where he could watch football tape for hours. His yell was both from the gut and the throat, and his voice carried across several football fields. Refs and other players would ask us what it was like to be coached by a legend, and. if we were okay.
We had gone 5-5 the prior season. It was Bell’s first season with us. Guilford had not won more than three games in ten years, so the town was treating us like we were special. Coach Bell was intent on making us feel otherwise, ready to prove ourselves for true greatness. Most notably, he gave us a flyer about the concept of averageness by Edmond Gaudet, consisting of classics like:
– Average is what the failures claim to be when their family and friends ask them why they are not more successful?
-Average” is the top of the bottom, the best of the worst, the bottom of the top, the worst of the best. Which of these are you?
– Being “average” is to take up space for no purpose; to take the trip through life, but never to pay the fare; to return no interest for God’s investment in you.
– Being “average” is to pass one’s life away with time, rather than to pass one’s time away with life; it’s to kill time, rather than to work it to death. The saddest epitaph is this’ “Here lies Mr. and Ms. Average
As the text resonated, my greatest fear turned from failure into failing OR being average. It was like suffering from depression and anxiety at the same time. Black and white had found their gray. Fight or flight had found stagnation.
Luckily I had immersed myself in other texts that year. A Separate Peace and Catcher in the Rye were formative for me. When Adam became the starting center due to an injury in Bell’s first season, I could see a number of us pushing him down the stairs out of envy. I also felt like we were living in our own separate peace, waiting for an upcoming war.
As far as Catcher goes, my sister, Lindsay, was at college in New York, so I wanted to run away and be close to her. She visited home a few times, seemed changed by the entire experience. I felt isolated on a team where every day it felt like I had less in common with everyone on it. I wanted to run away to New York, get drunk in the snow while freezing to death, and get groped by a male teacher. My queer coming of age wouldn’t be until later in life, so until then, I looked at guys in their underwear on the budding social media site, Myspace, feeling like everyone around me was fake, and alone because of it.
There were two instances where I could have proved myself as a properly forged sword. The first was at Guilford’s first ever lifting meet. I only competed in squat. I got 385 but failed at 405, in fron of everyone, and we lost by 135lbs.
Later, during our first full padded Spring practice, which I a thing in Connecticut but not in most other states, I was told the first “one on one” hitting drill would be me against another large, strong senior, also named Eric. He called it the clash of the titans. I would block Eric, and Eric would try to tackle a running back behind me.
Bell made the team pick sides, the losing side had to run. Coach Bell, using his guttural, growl-scream, yelled, “what’s it gonna be, Mueller?” using my last name to put the spotlight on me. I seized the narrative and drove Eric back at least five yards, until I heard a whistle. Other Eric demanded to go again, and I did it two more times. Those who chose me did not have to run.
When Lindsay came home from the summer, she clashed with my dad. He stressed out about something but wasn’t telling us. Lindsay was more socially active than me, drove her car around late at night with friends. She showed me what it was like to get drunk, which made me feel warm and comfortable in my body like I never had before. She also showed me 420, my first hit I inhaled on felt like I was taking 405lbs off of my back.
The other Eric quit, as did another player who was supposed to be the starting left tackle. That role fell on me, and I worried about the pressure that came along with it. Would I win, lose, or average?
As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, a few weeks before the season started, my parents told my sister and me that my dad’s cancer had returned. He had surgery for it a year and a half prior to that summer. The cancer was in his larynx. He was going to have an operation in Boston during football preseason, the most daunting time for any football player.
My dad told us to keep the cancer a secret. He didn’t know how his voice was going to sound after the surgery, if he would even have a voicebox. My dad was going through a lot, but this was a closet we were forced to hide in, and it made my own coming out journey that much harder. Still, I pushed through those last lifting sessions and our the first few practices, carrying more weighted burdens that I felt I should have to. I was too young to see my privileges, like living in a nice town, receiving a nice education, having a good sister, living near water.
With our parents away, Lindsay had friends over one night in what could be called a party. I spent most of my time upstairs in my room, but I did join for a bit and had my first ever shots of tequila, lime and salt and all. I also learned what a “bubbler” pipe was, and how nice it could feel.
One of the attendees, who was from a town that Coach Bell used to coach in, told me scandalous tales on why he doesn’t coach there anymore. They included ordering two players to hold another player’s arms while he threw a helmet at his head, and rumors of being caught at a strip club with an underage girl. It made sense that he would teach us to care about “how we are remembered.”
I fell asleep in my room listening to acoustic music, hoping that everything would turn out okay. ‘Okay,’ in this instance, meant Dad and Lindsay on good terms, keeping my starting spot, dad coming out well like he always did.
It was probably the worst day to wake up and feel like I was walking on a cloud. I wasn’t exhausted, but felt effects of the behavior I had participated in. I looked at Mypsace men all morning, and when Lindsay dropped me off at practice, I still felt like I was walking on sunshine, dazed but not confused.
That day was an offensive practice. On smaller teams, we played both sides, and practice time is split in half so people can practice offense and defense. Later, I’d learn about bigger high schools, where players focus on one positon, one set of techniques, and get a little jealous.
The team was not doing well as a whole. We did updowns everytime we fumbled a snap, which was often. Quarterbacks were misreading their keys running triple option. And lineman, like myself, kept forgetting assignments. It didn’t help that the numbering of our plays and the terminology we used for blocking assignments changed every year, but I was told often enough not to make excuses.
One play, during inside run period (where we practice run plays meant to hit in between the two outermost linemen), we were supposed to be running power, and I was supposed to be pulling, but I didn’t.
Coach Bell, with his guttural growl-scream, karate chopped his clipboard, and yelled, “No. No. No!” after the whistle. I awaited some wrath, and explanation of what to do, and moving forward. Turns out, he was at his limit. Either with me, the team, or life. In that same growl-scream, he yelled again.
“Do you even know a single play?”
The team stood in silence, and it turned out that the question was no rhetorical. I took my mouthpiece and thought of how he responded. His voice sounded so at the end of his rope, like he was struggling to speak. “Yes,’ I said.
“Which ones?” He growled, as if ninety percent of his blood had drained, and these were his last, important breaths.
If I said, “32 and 33, the 50 series,” the only other plays we had installed, I thought that his sarcasm, and how he’d say something like “fine, we’ll only run triple option and pass the ball. Just for you!”
Instead, I said nothing, and we stood on a hill we were both prepared to die on. A tumbleweed would have passed through had we been somewhere more southern than New England.
How much time went by, thirty seconds? A minute? Ten minutes? My mouth was so dry.
Bell blew his whistle and told us to go back to our position groups. During that period of practice, he blew his whistle again, told everyone to come together, and sent us home. He said that we were wasting his time and the coaches’ time would be better spent watching film. This was unprecedented. “Just go home,” I can hear him saying, in his normal voice, a little choked up. We didn’t know if he was serious or not, so he scream growled it. Go home!
We stayed in our gear. The team decided to practice on a field near the track that the throwers used to practice on. It was not legal for us to practice in gear unsupervised. We thought we were being watched, the our character was being tested. We tried to rally. Years later, as a coach myself, I’d learn that they had no idea that we continued to practice, and that it didn’t really matter.
Our quarterback’s mom brought me home from practice and Lindsay wasn’t home yet. I put on Simple Plan’s “Welcome to My Life,” hugged the family dog, and cried for the first time in months.
I lost the starting spot. Part of me wanted to reach out to my position coaches and tell them what was going on with my dad, but I felt that they would have told me it was an excuse. That’s what average people did.
Dad came home and clashed even more with Lindsay. I don’t even remember when she went back to school, but it wasn’t soon enough. He did not lose his voicebox, this time around, but he would never be able to yell at a game again. His voice would always sound like he needed to clear his throat, at least until his next bout with cancer, another year and a half later. He bought a special airhorn meant for being fishing, sometimes for protection, sometimes for being lost at sea and trying to call out for help. How fitting, I felt like I needed to be rescued.
When the dust settled, my teammates, as guys do, quickly turned that shocking silence into a joke. “It’s just busting stones,” all in good fun, just giving you shit. It’s never just that, however, when you are competing against each other, and you’re supposed to be competing together simultaneously. My reaction was parodied by nearly every person that was there at least once in front of me. I can only imagine how many times I was made fun of behind my back for it. I say ‘parody’ and not ‘reenacted,’ because anytime someone imitated me, sounds like “duh” and “der,” elongated, exited their mouths as opposed to the breath without soundwaves that exited my lips. To me, it wasn’t laughing with me, it was disrespect. Upperclassmen told older alums about it. I’d hear, “do you even know a single play,” for years to come.
The parodies hurt. The disrespect hurt. Like an iceberg. The visible section of the iceberg was that anytime someone insulted my intelligence, and made me feel like people saw me as a stereotype of an offensive lineman rather than the guy who was in accelerated English classes and liked reading good books. The fact that it led to my benching stung, too.
Underneath, it was my silence. I didn’t talk much when I was with the football team, and since I spent so much time with them, I felt unformed as a person. As a result, I ddin’t talk much around my family, my few nonfootball friends, and in the classroom. I stuttered, struggled to find the perfect words, ones that felt worthy of the air they took up.
I worried about my legacy, and how I would be remembered there. When I went back to coach, players would say they only heard of me because of what my position coach told them about the box jumps. How I was tired of hitting my shins on the boxes until I persevered. Still, I wish I found a way to be better about opening up. My opinions, my hobbies, and my sexual orientation, took more time than they should have to exit my lips. Not good, not evil, not gray, either.
Silence speaks volumes. I was quiet in all situations, not just the single play. I was quiet during pro sports discussions, because I didn’t watch. I was quiet when discussing the latest Madden or first-person shooter, because I didn’t like those types of games. I was quiet in instances of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and so much more that I felt shame for, especially after coming out as gay. It took working retail, coaching football, teaching college courses, and bartending at one of the most world-renowned gay bars to finally get me using my voice.
Talking was hard, for me and for my dad. Different reasons, obviously. My father would eventually use a small device to speak when he lost his voice for good. I would find my solace in pressing keys on a board, sometimes getting my left hand stained with ink from a pen. My dad’s headstone does not say Mister Average. My hope is that using my voice, real and loud as ever, along with my brain, arguably damaged from the sport I played, but like no other, my grave won’t say say those words, either, and I would be remembered for doing good.
Eric P. Mueller was born the week that ‘Vogue’ was the #1 song in the US for the third week. He lives in Alameda, CA, and holds degrees from Allegheny College and University of San Francisco. His work has appeared in Foglifter, Thought Erotic, Mindbodygreen, and elsewhere.