The beginning of my friendship with Shawn was inauspicious. He punched me in the mouth.
Shawn and his older brother Kyle were protecting their turf at the Carthage baseball field. I was about as far from invading it as I could be. Looking back, I imagine my parents had dragged me out there hoping sports would rub off on me by osmosis and distract me from Birds of North America, comic books, and dinosaurs. Perhaps I was a bit too old for those pursuits; one thing’s for certain, though—soft, brown-shoe-clad, uncoordinated, nine, I was no threat to the boys’ diamond kingdom. By the time I’d gotten off my back and the ground, the brothers were gone, their point made all out of proportion to my willingness to understand it.
A couple summers later, I was horrified to learn that, after my dad built us a house out on the rural route, Shawn would be one of my new neighbors. Barely had fear balanced upon my brow when he came in the yard, walked up to me—I was probably looking for interesting insects—and demanded, “Do you want to learn to box?” Based on past experience, that was the last thing I wanted, but I quickly considered my options: being beaten up for sport, or as social punishment? In the ensuing years, I’d learned that Shawn was already involved in Golden Gloves, and the ominous metallic image conjured by the program’s name assured me that escape would not be a choice. I stuttered, “Sure”—and Shawn beamed a grin at me and proceeded to enthusiastically stick-and-move me through some basic steps. I was hesitant to believe it, but it appeared his intentions were…good. I’d thought he wanted to teach me to box so kicking my ass would be more of a challenge, but he seemed sincerely to want me to learn for my own good, and for fun. He was a patient teacher, he was manically hilarious, and he didn’t seem to think I was a pussy. That much of one, anyhow.
The lesson didn’t stick because I didn’t seek out further opportunities to practice them. However, Shawn and I became fast friends anyway. We landed in the same sixth grade homeroom, where we ritually tortured our Baptist minister-cum-teacher Mr. Lawhon. I was not as abashed in the classroom arena as when faced with proving my manly mettle in nature; I enjoyed doing schoolwork so much I did it quickly so I could do what I wanted, and I’d developed a taste for mischief to complement my interest in stegosauruses and Green Lantern / Green Arrow. One day, just before the recess bell was due to ring, Lawhon asked if any of us had questions about the social studies activity we’d just survived. Shawn raised his hand. This act alone stretched my eyebrows to the back of my head: Shawn normally lacked even a molecule of seriousness about his studies. I craned my neck across the room in anticipation of his inquiry.
Lawhon, eyes narrowed, murmured, “Yes, Shawn, what is your question?”
A long squeal of gas, sounding like it was being forcefully expelled from a balloon, followed, then was bisected by the bell—which, among other forces, propelled Shawn out to the playground before the teacher could even sneer one of his frequent idle threats. Nearly in tears and collapsed into laughter at my desk, I was courting disciplinary action myself. That, I thought, was a masterful emission, and over such natural phenomena young friendships are sealed.
Meanwhile, on weekends, as summer cooled into fall, Shawn continued to lure me into neighborhood danger. A few weeks later, he and the even-more-feared-and-a-damn-sight-older Butch Adams showed up at my door to tell me I’d be joining them in a game of sandlot football at Shawn’s house. I didn’t even know how to play football. They simply needed a body, though now I suspect it was yet another stage of Shawn’s altruistic mission to toughen me up—what kid does that for another kid? Five minutes into the game, I blinked my eyes and noticed I’d caught a pass from Shawn. I did not drop it (at this point, I was still literally striking out in kickball at recess). Also, a culvert ran just behind me, and, as I broke the trance brought on by my impossible success, I looked up to see Butch streaking toward me, shoulder aimed at my midsection.
Have you ever gotten the wind knocked out of you? As it turned out, my vain attempts to suck mine back into my lungs and see through the stars spinning in front of my eyes at least took my mind off the pain cycling through my back and neck. I lay sprawled in the ditch, but, again, to my amazement, I hung in there and completed the game. Nobody praised me; nobody even seemed to notice. Somehow that was just right, and, from then on, Shawn never missed a chance to invite me to play. Before long, I was knocking on neighbors’ doors myself, recruiting.
Also, I was growing. Having sprouted to nearly six feet, at 13 I was big enough to do actual damage myself playing football and basketball. I’d taken an odd route to being player, though. As a premature nerd, along with a fascination with zoology, superheroes, and mythology, I’d developed an obsessive interest in sports statistics—that’s just a little hop over from mythology, anyway, isn’t it? Aside from feeling I had no choice but to play (thanks to my father) and barely believing I could survive playing (thanks to Shawn), that I could actually make the statistics I was fixated upon was a temptation I couldn’t resist. I picture this process being reversed for most athletes; they learn to excel at sports, then they get interested in its tantalizing and deceptive numerologies.
Sad to say, the most important statistics during my first two years on the hardwood and gridiron were our won-loss records—put more succinctly, our loss records. We didn’t win a single football game, and in basketball we were little more successful. As players, like any junior high kids, we boasted only the roughest-hewn skills. However, in ninth grade, things changed for us again, and Shawn was right in the middle of those things, as usual. So was I, to my surprise.
We won our first-ever football game, right out of the gate. Our season opened way out of town, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. When we trotted out onto their field, we confronted a marching band and cheerleading squad both of which were bigger than our entire roster. Their football team itself appeared thrice our size—both in number and bulk. They proceeded to run back the opening kickoff and waltzed in for a two-point conversion, and we were down 0-8 with only mere seconds having elapsed. I experienced a bad mythology flashback as I watched their running back spin the pigskin across the end zone: this was a very, very bad omen.
Minutes later, our helmets bowed in prayer after we’d made negative progress on the ensuing kickoff return and quickly dug ourselves into a third-and-27 hole deep in our own territory, I began to contemplate the thin line separating an omen from an actual shootin’-fish-in-a-barrel prediction, and looked across the huddle at Shawn, who happened to be our quarterback. His eyes were mean slits.
“Awright, they’ve been playing us up. We’re going deep to Nathan on a post. That’s not the play call, but that’s what we’re doing. Keep ‘em off my back. ON THREE!”
Shit. He was serious.
Result: 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown. We blew the extra point, but hell—it was now a game. And ol’ Shawn had the stones to just improvise according to what he was seeing.
As we headed back into the locker room at halftime, still down 6-8, the Fayetteville fans—they seriously dwarfed the handful of parents who’d made the trip to see us—rained insults of a nefariously nasty nature down on our heads. “It’s just a ninth-grade football game,” I thought—but I converted the hurt into fuel. Soon after the second-half kickoff, we scored again—Shawn connected with me on a 20-yard pass play to take it down to the one-inch line—made the extra point, went up 13-8, and that, as they say, was all she wrote. I had never before cried from happiness, nor have I since except quite a bit more discreetly at the altar. My tears, though, were for more than just having won a game against pretty imposing odds. They were also from astonishment at our power—a bunch of 14-year-olds determined for themselves that they would win, then won. Or maybe, simply, Shawn did, and sold us on the prospect.
In basketball, a new coach met us for tryouts. In his recent past, he’d been a star guard at Missouri Southern State College, but his court skills weren’t what really made him special. He had charisma, style—a lime-green three-piece “game” suit? Why not?–and great instincts for coaching youngsters. He was the first adult Shawn and I had ever met who talked to us like we were his equals, and entrusted us with serious responsibilities. One might be skeptical of this approach when applied to 14-year-olds, but Shawn had been ready to lead for a while, and spending time in his orbit had caused me to wonder (and fantasize) about my own capabilities. Coach Stevens sensed this, and soon we were both involved in planning strategy with him. He expected me to provide leadership for the starters on defense, on the boards, and in sheer hustle; Shawn was the “captain” of The Blonde Bombers, our mad-dog reserve squad who uncorked lightning nearly every time they touched the court, especially when we were playing at home. Our gym was smaller than regulation; if memory serves, it had to be a good 15 to 20 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than any other high school’s. After Shawn and the Bombers checked in, spectators might be treated to long-range set shots that, while launched from almost half court, were actually “only” 25 to 30-footers. Shawn would bring the ball across the midcourt line, then, without hesitation, uncork a Steph Curry-like high-archer into the hoop. The Curry comparisons end there, though, as Shawn launched his shots off his shoulder and beside his ear, the action resembling a shot put / slingshot hybrid. We won most of our games, but Stevens surprised us by giving us the reins and encouraging us to have fun, to the extent that we came to expect it.
I didn’t know this then, by a long shot, but I do now: leadership, paired with the belief that one can change one’s circumstances, is pretty dandy in the sports arena, but those qualities are frankly wasted if they’re confined to the circuses which, along with bread (take that how you will), distract us all from the more important crises in our lives. Imagine all those great Greek myths if they had only been sung about athletic competitions. Most high school athletes have to wait for opportunities to test their training in the world outside gyms and off the fields, and often don’t (or won’t) recognize them; Shawn and I were fortunate to be presented one the very next year. Looking back, and considering the nature of our friendship, I am wholly unsurprised we went for it.
As sophomores, we both found ourselves splitting time between junior varsity and varsity football duties. As such, Shawn and I were at the bottom of the food chain, though the toughness we’d both developed had spared us some harassment. One thing, though, that made our situation agitating was that the seniors we were encouraged to worship and fear had, as towering freshmen when we were mere scrawny seventh graders, subjected us to routine physical hazing in the hallways, often with teachers (and some of those teachers coaches) laughing if not egging the assaults on. Every morning, when they saw us in the hall, they’d “chip” us: ball their fists, flatten them out, and cudgel our chests with them (stop a second and recall what a seventh grader’s chest tends to look like: it’s already concave). This was different from getting knocked silly into a culvert in a sandlot contest; that had a somewhat larger purpose, at least. This was intimidation based on nothing but being physically bigger and chronologically older—it didn’t necessarily carry with it any talent of which we should have been in awe. Collectively, they also lacked charisma. In our current fraught time, I can imagine some readers saying at this point, “Shoot, schools actually need that kind of ritual today—these kids have no grit!” Well, grit’s a complicated thing in 2019—for example, just going fearlessly to school today is pretty admirable—and I’m simply not one to advocate any kind of abuse, physical or otherwise, having taught young people for 35 years. However, since we’d last had to be in the same space we were all now three years older, the size difference between our two groups had withered, their lack of character (at least among some of them) had become more apparent, and their primacy in all matters including football had become much more difficult to take seriously. But it was reinforced by our coaches, so we had little choice but to swallow our resentment and pretend to look up to them, though we could occasionally work out moments of vengeance in scrimmage. And a scrimmage is what soon presented Shawn and me a worthy door to open.
On a Monday night, we’d traveled a relatively far piece north to play a junior varsity game against a rival. The game was hard-fought, smash-mouth football that required all of our defensive energy, resilience and acumen, and extended into overtime, when we finally prevailed. I can’t recall why, but we stopped at an all-night diner on the way back (why wouldn’t we have eaten before the game?), and didn’t arrive at our houses until well past midnight. Most of us surely weren’t asleep any earlier than two a.m., and school started at 8. None of us were of the inclination (or had the freedom) to skip—after all, the best thing about high school is that’s where everyone is—but at least, surely, we’d not have to scrimmage after school. Surely our coaches understood.
Within seconds of dragging our asses into “the sophomore lounge”—a very dark, squirreled-away, and symbolic section of the school’s bottom floor—we discovered we’d be going full-pads after school against the varsity. Teeth grinding, I turned to Shawn; of course, he was right there. He looked me in the eye and said, “This shit ain’t right.”
It’s not that we couldn’t have taken it. I’m sure we had no doubt we could. But considering what we’d just done on behalf of the team, how we’d done it—old-time football, coach!—and when, as a result of choices that weren’t even ours, we’d finally returned, we didn’t feel respected. You might argue that, as sophomores, it wasn’t our place to be respected. I’d submit that one good thing about leadership, a great internal gumbo of toughness, self- and other-belief, courage, and inspiration, is that it makes it hard to accept one’s place. In this case, we preferred, and chose, not to. We huddled, right there in the bowels of our school, and developed a plan, which Shawn barked out to the passel of JV players who’d gathered by that time in the lounge:
“Alright, we ain’t goin’ to practice tonight. We’ll take whatever punishment they wanna give us, but we’re in the right on this one. We left it on the field last night and they don’t even give a shit. Well, we’ll make ‘em give a shit right here, with this. If any of y’all do go to practice, you’ll have to deal with us, and I think you’d rather deal with the seniors and the coaches than that. Are we together on it?”
Solemnly, determinedly, we were. The rest of the school day was tense, but, together, we kept the plan muted. I remember walking out to my car at 3:00 with my short hairs at attention and chicken-skin rippling up my neck and down my arms: this was real, and I felt more alive than I ever had. My first kiss hadn’t been one-eighth as electric! More important, regardless of what happened next, I already felt vindicated—and respected. At least our coaches had had to acknowledge and answer to our existence.
The turd had hit the proverbial rotary blades when we arrived at school the next morning. A couple coaches were waiting for us in the lounge, and tersely informed us that the seniors would be running practice that afternoon, and that we’d regret it. I recall chuckling (not too loudly); the fear I had of them had diminished, and I even thought to myself, “Oh, so you’re responding to this by taking an afternoon off from your paid coaching job?” Still, the prospect of two hours at the mercy of this particular group of seniors didn’t fill any of us with delight and, in good conscience, we couldn’t ditch again. This was about having made our point and showing up to answer for it. If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t have been right in the first place.
Lord, it was quiet in the locker room that afternoon. Somehow, the upperclassmen had already dressed out, and we could see them over the berm looming and glowering on the practice field as we filed in. When we re-emerged and assembled in their wake, the senior defensive captain bellowed, “You could have come to practice yesterday and scrimmaged instead of skipped like a bunch of fags. So today it’s two hours of drills. Just drills. Conditioning drills. If you can’t hack it, you’re done here. Go home and don’t come back.”
Though I recall thinking, “Hell, just conditioning drills? You’re gonna have to kill us, and that’ll be on you,” our punter, Danny, had other ideas. Danny, in many ways, had prepped me for meeting Shawn, when we were both very young and lived on the same block, before my family moved out to the country where Shawn lived. Danny, too, had kicked my ass (a couple of times, actually—you weren’t anyone in Carthage until you’d done that), but I’d gotten his sister Tammy’s birds-and-bees talk out of the bargain. He was tougher than boot leather, much quieter than the two of us, and a bit of a loner, but he was also a warrior. As the captain bloviated, Danny was standing directly in front of him about 15 or 20 feet away, holding a football. As the sound of that final threat was deteriorating in still air, he extended the ball out in front of him, took two steps, punted it just past the captain’s left ear and over the upperclassmen’s heads, and walked over the berm toward the locker room.
“Collins!!! Get back here! You don’t want to mess with us!” Without turning around, Danny lifted a third finger, and was gone.
Have you ever witnessed false authority deflate? It’s an enriching experience.
We survived the two hours of conditioning drills. It helped that Danny’s punctuating of the statement we’d made confirmed for us that we’d won. We didn’t deserve the punishment, but by administering it to us nonetheless, the senior leadership fell further in our esteem. To their credit, afterwards they seemed to respect us more overtly; I’m not sure the coaches recovered, because I detected incrementally dispersed micro-retributions being launched against us for the rest of the season.
We finished up the season strong, but our protest justified the whole season for me. I’m not sure how the rest of the players, especially Shawn, remember it, but the strategy, bravery, and common cause he inspired us to demonstrate have been a part of my fiber ever since. I’ve had several other occasions to employ them, though honestly, and regrettably, I haven’t always taken them. Whenever I have sheepishly and uncourageously avoided an opportunity to exhibit such valor, I always remember our walk-out, and what my 15-year-old self knew to do.
I didn’t return to football—I’d seen enough, really—and I wouldn’t spend as much time with Shawn again. Strangely, I now realize, that was partially his fault: the confidence and leadership he’d helped me access within myself pushed me to sample student government, where, with other students, I helped revise the school attendance policy into a fairer and more motivating document, and exert myself more fully as a writer for the school paper. For some issues I wrote nearly 75% of the copy; make no mistake, that was not a good thing, for anyone. Sports receded in my life, and academics advanced. In the future, when Shawn and I did find ourselves in league, it was to cross the state line to drink, dance and get back intact, or pile ourselves and other wild comrades into my college dorm room, celebrate our friendship as wild comrades do, check out a local rock show, and avoid jail (or, more precisely for me, avoid getting kicked out of the dorm, and school). Forty years later, he remains one of my fondest friends, one to whom I owe so much, though as increasingly older men living in different towns we see each other too infrequently.
I’ve been teaching young people across what will soon be five decades, and from bell to bell (as a current mantra goes) I am presented chances to pass along the wisdom Shawn helped me gain, as well as the wisdom we picked up together on the way to becoming men–earlier than most, to my reckoning. Each class I meet also challenges me to keep practicing those lessons myself, since no matter what age I’ve reached, I will never truly be exempt from the necessity of leading, making difficult decisions, and protecting myself and others against threats to our integrity. I may have been left sprawling in the dirt after my first encounter with Shawn, but without him afterwards, I might not have learned how to truly stand up.