Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Spiritual Journey From High School Football



About 2 years ago my wife said to me one morning “who is this guy who keeps texting me?” I looked at her phone and recognized the name immediately. He was the quarterback from my high school football team. More correctly it was the high school football team I was on when I was a sophomore in high school. I had the immediate association to his physical appearance and considerable athletic ability. To this day he probably was the most gifted high school athlete I had ever seen. He didn’t look like a high school player - more like a college player. He was also an excellent basketball player and sprinter on the track team. He was the fastest man over 100 yards in high school. Why was he suddenly texting my wife?

He was going to be inducted into the local athletic Hall of Fame. He was trying to organize a reunion of our 1966 undefeated high school football team. His plan was to get as many of us back there as possible - details to follow. There were 2 or 3 subsequent postponements of the reunion due to the pandemic. But yesterday on 6/26/2021 it finally happened. Twelve of the 22 players reunited for about 3 hours at a local bar. As far as I know three of my teammates are deceased and the remaining players could not be located or decided not come. The head coach was also in attendance. The assistant coach is deceased.  All of the attendees got baseball caps with their name and numbers embroidered on the back. The front of each cap simply said “Undefeated 1966 AHS Football”.

Unlike my high school reunion, I had the opportunity to say something to all my teammates. I remembered who they all were and details from our past. I know that many had significant problems in life including life-threatening health problems. I learned about their relatives who had similar problems. But most of all I learned about what that football season meant to the people who made it back to the meeting. I know that memories from over 50 years ago can get complicated and distorted. As we all sat around a table there was a collection of newspaper articles and photographs from 1966 to provide partial corroboration. There were some intense memories from the past that haunted some of the players. There was also active feedback from the coach about a few incidents where he realized that the plays he was calling were being ignored. My intention in writing this post is not to identify people with problems or criticize people, but to look at an event with obvious meaning as well as the meaning that may have been missed at the time.

Our quarterback started out with some self-disclosure of mistakes he had made during the championship season. Other players who were involved with those mistakes corroborated them immediately. Our center for example recalled a fumble on the opponents 1 yard line and the fact that it occurred on a silent count. For 5 decades our quarterback was thinking the fumble was his mistake, but our center let him know that he forgot the count. There were several other incidents involving typical football mistakes that people had been thinking about since 1966.  Resilience came up as an outcome of the coaches role in helping us overcome adversity.  

A significant injury was discussed. From the description it sounded like a traumatic brain injury, but back in those days any head injury with partial or significant loss of consciousness was referred to as a concussion. There was no grading system but persistent confusion or memory loss might eliminate a player from the game although that was certainly not guaranteed. More than one concussion led to a medical evaluation but again there was limited medical expertise in traumatic brain injuries. It led me to recall a lot of headaches from playing football. We would practice twice a day in hot weather hitting a blocking sled and doing full contact drills. There were days where the headaches just did not clear up.  I was also reminded of the only significant traumatic brain injury that I sustained when I ran into one of my teammates playing in a touch football league. In fact, I approached him at this reunion and joked that the last time he and I met - I was out of it for the next 24 hours. I had to explain that we were both defensive backs running full speed and I ran into a shoulder after diving for the ball. He did not recall the incident.

There was a strong underdog theme. At one point in the year, we did not have enough players to scrimmage so the coaches had to play defensive half backs. Many of the teams we played against had much larger players and significant depth.  That led me to recall our coaches quote to the press: “We are not big - but we’re slow”.  Our coach recalled that in some of the venues we were ridiculed for looking raggedy and not having many players. We were accused of running up the score against some teams to improve our overall ranking.  The coach found this humorous because there was no second team to put in.  At one point during the discussion, one of our receivers took over and talked about how he and one of his friends in the offensive and defensive line got psyched up for the game. He gave an inspiring and expletive filled speech about his love of football, how he liked physical contact, how he liked playing offense and defense. He presented it with such vigor that it seemed like he was ready to play - right then.

For some reason, I had forgotten how tough these guys were. We were almost all working class.  Half of us were from the East End and half from the West End of town. Some played with significant physical disabilities. It was the height of the Vietnam War and many would go into the Marines and the Army after graduation. Many would go on to play college football. I would just catch glimpses of their lives from time to time.  Everyone had a unique trajectory from that winning football season to where they were on June 26.  At one point a small group asked me what my trajectory was and I told them a variation of a story I have been telling for the past 10 years:

“The only reason I ended up going to college was to play football, be a football coach, and teach physical education.  I had a football scholarship to a small college in the area, but within a few weeks, I developed a gangrenous appendix and was hospitalized for a week.  The coach came in and told me that the scholarship was mine even though I could not play anymore (I had a healing surgical scar in my side that was still healing after a drain was removed). I probably was headed to be a version of a hippy anyway. Another professor visited me and told me to forget about Phy Ed and football and concentrate on something else.  I had excellent chemistry and biology professors and knew that I wanted to be like them and know what they knew.  From there it was a change to biology and chemistry, the Peace Corps, a plant tissue culture lab and medical school.”

That’s the short version.  There are embellishments for comedic relief and more details if anybody wanted to hear it.  I leave out the heavy parts about being depressed to the point my grandfather showed up one day to encourage me to stay in college and not knowing what was wrong with me until I developed severe abdominal pain. I leave out the part about not taking a student deferment during the lottery for the draft.  A high lottery number rather than a conscious decision kept me from being drafted.  All part of the lack of a coherent plan. Nobody wants to hear about all of that. I never played college football.  The point is – I would never have stepped into that sequence of events culminating in medical school and psychiatric residency without that football scholarship. I never would have had that football scholarship without playing with this team and being coached by this coach. Some people will tell me that sequence of events would have happened anyway. That I would have made it happen through another channel. Whenever I mention being lucky on this trajectory, I encounter aphorisms like “Luck is just preparation meeting opportunity” and others.  But I really was not prepared to do anything at that point.

The only thing I was prepared to do in high school was play football. The teaching and guidance side was totally lacking. I can not recall a single piece of good advice that I received from a teacher or guidance counselor in those years. And the teaching was atrocious. You showed up, put in the time, did not create any problems and graduated from high school. The blue-collar ethos of education.  You did not have a plan until you got to the next stage. The modern-day stories of high pressure on high school kids to get into an Ivy League schools and parents going to extraordinary and in some cases illegal lengths to get them in - is lost on me. I am the poster child for getting into whatever college wants you and establishing goals after getting there.

Football was the initial pathway.  At the Reunion, the coach discussed some of his initiatives including the first strength training program at the school along with associated competitions. I remember summer training sessions including agility drills.  I excelled in agility drills and back and forth sprinting drills. In my senior year, I could equal or beat the fastest running back in the agility drill even though he would beat me by a mile in 100 meters. These summer sessions were something we all looked forward to and it was the only planned activity in my life for the 3 years of high school.  The Coach gave us a glimpse of what it took for him to implement these plans and all of the resistance he met along the way.  That resistance came in the form of administrators claiming that he was running afoul of certain regulations, personality conflicts, and suggesting that he should work the pre-season for free even though he was already undercompensated for the amount of work he was doing. Providing me with some structure to start to get my life together came at a considerable cost to the only guy who was doing it.

Several of my teammates provided additional stories about the immediate benefits of coaching. How to play against a much larger man with limited lateral movement.  How to make adjustments during the game, based on observations by coaches who were at ground level on the side lines, attending to the injured on the sidelines, and changing overall game logistics. High school coaching is a multi-tasking job and school districts get their money's worth from coaches.

One of the most important aspects of my life trajectory has been identifying with teachers along the way.  Most of that emphasis was in college at the conscious level. But did it occur in high school football?  I was never encouraged to play any sports by my father. I learned after his death that he was quite accomplished in baseball and softball in his early twenties. By the time I knew him well, he had been working a thankless job for twenty years. The only sports advice he ever gave me was: "Look - if you want to play sports be clear that you are playing it for you and not for me." He did live to see this football team and attended the end of season banquet prior to his death in 1967.  I never got the chance to completely understand his sports advice, but speculate that it was from having to fish every day during The Depression to supply food for his family of origin - whether he wanted to or not.  

Both of our coaches were young men, accomplished athletes, and had unique personas. I remember the head coach bench pressing a significant amount of weight even though he was a quarterback in college. For the rest of my family, sports were something you did into your early 20s and then you settled into a fairly sedentary lifestyle. Out of college and then again out of med school I embarked on a lifelong schedule of rigorous training for no reason other than being able to do it.  That continues to this day. Would I have logged all of this activity if I had not played high school football with this coach? Probably not. Was there a degree of unconscious identification with this coach?  Probably.

The developmental aspects of high school football are undeniable and the stage we were all at during the reunion was undeniably different from high school. High school male athletes are competitive either by choice or necessity. It was probably the most significant motivator. I can remember thinking about the difference between competing with myself and competing with others as I was running a long sprinting drill in the 90 degree heat that occasionally happens in northern Wisconsin. In that drill 5-10 players spread out across the field and run out to the 5 yard line and back and then the 10 yard line and back until they have reached the 50-yard line and back.  At some point during that drill you realize that competition is irrelevant because it really comes down to survival and in that sense you are competing against your own physical limitations.  That familiar mind set was with me for the next several decades of cycling and speed skating. With a single exception - I preferred to do both activities alone – just me and the rhythmic breathing and sweating of that familiar sprinting drill.

The competitive aspects of high school sports also play out in other ways. Clique formation, hazing, bullying, sarcastic comments, and various forms of acting out that are expected of teenagers who we now know don’t have fully developed brains for another 10 years. That was moderated to some extent by the shared suffering of football.  At the Reunion it was fairly clear that there were many accomplishments over the course of these lifetimes but also much suffering. We were all grateful to have survived so far and saddened by the loss of our teammates who did not.

55 years had passed and, in some ways, we were a better team.

 

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


Postscript: 

If I am correct in my analysis (or not) - I am grateful to have had this experience in high school.  I am grateful for my teammates many of whom I consider to be friends but also the Coach and Assistant Coach who clearly did not get enough credit for what they did. I made the common mistake of also taking that coaching for granted until I realized that my entire career may have been based on it.


The commemorative cap:




Supplemental Qualifier:

I don't want to give anyone the impression that this is an endorsement for football or other contact sports.  Football is a collision sport and there is an expected morbidity associated with collisions. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is one outcome that has received a lot of press. My speculation is that spinal problems also occur as the result of spinal compression and hyperextension movements that are harder to detect due to the high prevalence of spinal problems in the general population that does not play contact sports.  One of my teammates sustained a cervical spine fracture from football but it did not result in paralysis.  As a psychiatrist, I have seen a significant number of people with traumatic brain injuries and severe musculoskeletal injuries from collision sports.  The number of women with those injuries has increased as their exposure to these sports (soccer, lacrosse, ice hockey) has increased.  I have seen young men and woman in their early 20s with significant disabilities from these injuries. In some cases they have also had severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from either the injury or the subsequent course of treatment. 


 


2 comments:

  1. Like many things in life, sports is a double edged sword but I think the positive outweighs the negative for most. I was a wrestler in HSchool until I had a bladder infection which led to an IVP and the discovery of only 1 kidney. I was mandated to 'no contact sports' so sublimated to becoming the sports editor for the paper and playing a little tennis.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with sports, George. Much appreciated.

    Wandal

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