It’s been a quarter century since I tried out for a sport for the very first time. I went out for MVHS’ junior varsity football team, if you can believe that. I even made the team, which said as much about the talent pool as it did about me. But those tryouts were about so much more than learning how to catch with my left hand or learning a proper blocking technique.
Monday morning during the third week of August at MVHS trying out for football was a new, exciting and scary experience for me. I brought in my signed permission slip, dressed in my too-big Pumas, kufi, t-shirt and shorts and socks and hit the practice field at 8 am. Boy it was hot, at least ninety-five degrees! Both the JV and varsity starters were out there on the practice field warming up, along with MVHS cheerleaders and other female gawkers. One light-skinned brotha they spent a lot of time staring at in infatuation was the future Al B. Sure, the one-album R&B wonder who caught the eye of Quincy Jones. He was Albert Brown then, a year ahead of me and most of us rising tenth-graders. Even the cheerleading classmates I knew were there calling out his name. I thought it was bizarre, but then again, I could kind of understand. There weren’t exactly a whole lot of good-looking guys in Mount Vernon, forget about MVHS. And he was a metrosexual about fifteen years ahead of his time.
Despite all of my fears of embarrassing myself, I found most of the drills surprisingly easy. Then I took part in the wide receiver drills. Since I still couldn’t throw, I didn’t want to press my luck going out for quarterback. The coaches had these one-handed catch drill, where you’d run straight up field for ten of fifteen yards and catch a pass with one hand. On my first duck-footed run, I tripped over my Pumas as I reached out to catch the pass with my right hand, fell to the ground and cut up my right arm in breaking my fall. My kufi fell to the ground as well. Some of the folks on the field laughed, but a couple of players gave them mean looks and they got quiet. I caught the next five passes thrown to me, mostly with my left hand and its two crooked fingers. We were doing two-a-days, which meant breaking for lunch and coming back for two hours or so of afternoon exercises and drills. With no money, I’d go down to the deli near the high school, on New Rochelle Road in Chester Heights, and buy a plain roll or a brownie to keep me going.
By the end of the second day, the coaches had me lined up to see if I was mean enough to block anyone. As skinny and scared as I was, I held my own for five minutes blocking a guy who thought going up against me would be a piece of cake. After that set of practices, the coach talked to a bunch of us individually to tell us their news. In my case, I’d made the team, but they wanted to “bulk me up this year for next year. With your feet and height, you should play offensive line.” Didn’t they look at the physical exam they did the day before? I was six feet and one-half-inch tall and weighed a whopping 151 pounds. If I went to the bathroom, my weight would drop one percent. I didn’t know whose logic was more warped, the coaches or my mother’s. I walked home that day exhausted, hungry, angry and confused.
I had a decision to make. I could fight to make wide receiver, finding a new pair of sneakers along the way. I could do what the coaches wanted and try to get closer to 175. Or I could drop out of the tryouts, which might’ve been what they wanted anyway. Given the level of talent I saw, I doubted this, otherwise why waste the breath stringing me along? What decided it for me was when I came home from tryouts the second day. To think that I could play football, maintain my academic success as a Humanities student, and come home, run errands, help take care of my siblings, wash clothes, go over to Jimme’s, and so much more? I knew I couldn’t do it all, certainly not this year. I didn’t show up the next day. Or the day after that. My feelings were mixed, weighing pros and cons that added up to too much for me to handle. The decision would’ve been easier if I’d made the team as a receiver.
After the fourth and final day of tryouts, I was on my way home from the store, walking up East Prospect when a group of varsity football players spotted me and pulled over. “Why weren’t you at practice, man?,” “You know you made the team, right, man?,” they asked. Not knowing what to say, I said the truth. “There’s too much going on at home for me to play this year.” And no one laughed. A couple of them gave me fives as they took off, telling me to “hang in there” and “See you at school.”
I guess I had a lot to learn about people, as Danny Glover’s character from the movie Silverado might’ve said. Not everyone was out to get me, and some people actually had enough humanity to care if what I wanted to happen in my life actually did. Still, even with that, there were too many other folks in my life, including members of my family, who worked against my goals and needs. They made it hard to trust folks, especially other Black males. I could trust what someone said to me at a specific moment in time.
But I couldn’t trust anyone, not in total. My mother’s mixed signals throughout the year confused me more. Did she really buy me those two-sizes-too-big-Pumas because my feet were big, or because she didn’t want me to play football? I didn’t really know. One thing did happen because of those tryouts, besides me figuring out that I really did have athletic potential. That I needed to try hard not to allow my family to limit me and my options if I could afford to. After those football players went their way, I took my kufi off in public for the first time. If I have to be there for my siblings and Mom, at least I could be there with the courage to stand up for what I didn’t believe in anymore.