I was filling out the application for my youngest daughter to play soccer in the Police Athletic League. It was the first or second Saturday after the start of school year. The league organizer, a well-known community activist who had immigrated from Ireland decades before, looked me dead in the eye and asked, “Would you like to be a coach, Dexter?”
I almost puked. I played little league baseball and even a couple of seasons of youth soccer in the W-town, a rich, white suburb of Boston, but I was a terrible athlete.
There was no way I was going to be a coach. My intent was to sign my kid up for the soccer league, stand on the sidelines, cheer when appropriate and compliment other parents on how well their kids played.
At game’s end, I’d say goodbye and tell my daughter how well she played on the walk back home. The thought of coaching 11- and 12-year old boys and girls (mostly boys) who lived in a public housing project a few blocks away from my single-family home in a neighborhood of Boston was too alien to contemplate.
Growing up in W-town did not prepare me for this.
“Ah, I can’t coach,” I said. “I don’t really know how to play soccer. I was never all that athletic,” I said to the league organizer.
“Maybe you didn’t hear me the first time,” she said. “Would you like to coach?” It was a command framed as a question. I looked at the league organizer and then at my 11-year-old daughter. She peered up at me with that questioning look on her face that said, “You aren’t going to wimp out on me, are you?”
“Oh, OK, I’ll coach,” I said. “When’s the first game?”
“In about 20 minutes.”
“OK,” I said. “Bianca, you stay here I’ll be right back.
A few minutes later I returned to the soccer field wearing a gray sweatshirt and a ball cap. I carried a clip board with a single sheet of paper on it and a pen in my pocket. I simply had no idea what I was doing, but I was at least going to look the part of a coach.
Minutes later, I found myself yelling from the sidelines in support of a group of 10- and 11-year-old boys and a couple of girls as they played against a team without a coach.
We lost the game 5–0. We were simply overrun. It was humiliating, but it was our only loss that season.
Before the next week’s game, I was able to recruit a recent graduate from medical school who was working in the radiology department at a Boston hospital to be my assistant coach. She had played soccer in college before knee injuries ended her career. She was kind, soft-spoken and astoundingly beautiful.
The fact that she knew how to run a 20-minute practice before the games was a real boon, but the crucial factor was her beauty. The young boys were simply not going to lose a game in her presence.
They crushed the opposing teams without remorse or hesitation.
Of course, I made a great show of being the coach as I ran up and down our half of the field yelling stuff like “Get back on D!” and “This is our house!”
Yes, I know, telling my charges to “Get back on D” is more appropriate for basketball or maybe even hockey, but what the hell, my goal was to convey to them that I gave a damn about whether or not they won or lost and that I desperately wanted them to win.
Indifference was not a sin I was going to be guilty of. Ineptitude and I had been longtime companions.
At some point I realized that I was, mutatis mutandis, channeling the spirit of a man who coached high school hockey team in W-town decades before.
His name was Kevin Crowe.
The summons came over the speaker during last period, sometime during the first semester of eight grade. During the end of day announcements, the vice principal — a man rumored to have a metal plate in his head as a result of a war injury — reported that W-town’s high school hockey team needed an equipment manager for the upcoming season and anyone who was interested should go see Mr. Crowe who taught gym at the junior high where I was a student.
I had no interest in hockey. The one time I played ice hockey on a pond close to my house, I fell into a hole a fisherman had cut into the ice, bruised my thigh, soaked my left leg up to my crotch. I limped home with the left leg of my snow pants frozen.
In sixth grade I had played in an after-school floor hockey league and had the distinction of scoring two goals against my own team. Eventually, I scored a total of three goals against our opponents, which brought my net goal production to one.
I had no athletic talent. I admired, envied and feared those who did, which made my decision to ask for the job inexplicable.
To make my decision to apply for the job even more unfathomable, Coach Crowe scared me to death. Rumored to be former drill sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, his specialty was making seventh and eighth graders do leg-lifts, sit-ups and push-ups until they could no longer move. He was exactly the type of guy I did my best to stay away from, with good reason.
Let’s face it. I was a little and brittle kid and had been for a long time. I got the sense I was different in kindergarten when Mrs. Dolliver, a kindly woman whom I adored, invited me to sit next to her and asked me to draw the picture of a man with the paper and the crayons she provided. It was toward the end of the year and was happy to bask under her undivided attention so I took my time as I drew the picture she asked.
When I was done, I handed it to her.
“Dexter, the man in your picture doesn’t have any hands or feet,” she said with a clear look of dismay on my face. “Why doesn’t he have any hands or feet?”
I quickly took the paper back and added the missing appendages in hopes of pleasing her, but the damage was done.
I got sent to summer school.
In the years since, I have imagined myself responding with the obvious answer.
“The omissions are intentional,” I should have said. ”It’s symbolic of my feelings of impotence and immobility. I mean, what the hell. I’m five. What do you expect?”
My one memory of summer school is of playing a board game and being just a roll of the dice away from winning the game and getting my piece of candy when one of the other students, a boy a couple of years younger than me with a hearing aid of some sort, got a lucky roll of the dice and moved his marker past mine and then into the winning spot.
When the teachers handed him the candy that was meant for me, I exploded in sadness and fury at the injustice of it all. “I never win at anything,” I wailed. The teachers called my mother to bring me home.
Like I said, I was a piece of work.
But when I heard the announcement about the job opening, I knew I had to go see Coach Crowe and ask for the job. Part of me sensed that putting myself in his orbit — even in a tangential way — was a risk worth taking.
I had an overpowering sense of my own uselessness and being equipment manager seemed like a way out.
I made my way down Coach Crowe’s office and told him I wanted the job and it was mine.
The job didn’t require much work except to attend the dozen or so games, most of which took place at a ramshackle hockey rink located two towns over. Between periods, I handed out sliced oranges and water bottles to the team in the locker room and sat on the bench with the team during the games.
As modest as the tasks were, they were a lifeline to something better.
After the first season, I had a varsity letter jacket. Yes, it had the humiliating “MGR” affixed to the letter itself, which a few players on the team mocked, but the fact was, as a non-athlete, I lettered in a high school sport even before I set foot in the building. It was, to borrow a phrase from my brother, “pissa.” When I started freshman year, I knew a few upperclassmen who gave me rides home from school. By alternate turns they harassed and looked out for me in the hallways of the school.
The real upshot was that I was able to step into the inner sanctum of winners. Little and brittle as I was, I got to tag along with young men who by virtue following the instructions of Coach Crowe, had earned the right to compete in the state championships at the Boston Garden.
I walked on the ice at the Garden before they played stood and wept in the locker room after they lost to a private school in the first round of competition. I got caught up in the drama of the team’s success and was crushed by its loss. Coach was there with the players, telling them this is how it goes for most teams in the playoffs, that only one team wins it all, and that he was proud of them.
I saw what manhood looked like, if only from a distance.
Another benefit of the job was that it forced me to pay more attention to the physical world from which I had been estranged and a lot of it had to do with the run-down rink where the team played.
W-town had at one time a rink of its own for a few years and I have vague memories of skating their once with a childhood friend, but the town sold the property because it was too costly to operate.
The story, as I remember it, is that the team did not know the rink was closed until very close to the start of the season, forcing Coach Crowe to scramble to find a place to skate for the upcoming season.
Unlike W-town’s lost rink, which was, to steal a phrase, a clean, well-lighted place, the other rink in which the team found itself was a poorly designed dump. You could see the look of despair on the faces of the visiting teams as they walked into the building. It was an ugly building where they were very likely going to get trounced by Coach’s team.
The locker rooms were placed right next to the entrance, up a set of wooden stairs that the layers had to walk down and across a cement floor — in their skates — to get onto the ice. Rink officials had placed rubber mats on the cement floor to protect the skates and these mats would collect salt and other detritus from the soles of people’s boots as they came in from outside.
The team’s benches were on the opposite side of the rink from the locker rooms, requiring players, coaches and trainers to bring their gear across the ice before the game. To get to the bleachers, visitors had to walk a narrow passage between the snack bar and the timekeeper’s box adjacent to the rink. The one thing that did work was the refrigeration unit. The building was cold.
The locker rooms had no lockers, just benches attached to the walls and the men’s room stank with urine, probably from the drunks who pissed into the sink because of a shortage of urinals and stalls in the bathrooms. Just making my way through this building was a chore that required me to pay attention to my surroundings in ways that I hadn’t previously.
Many years later, when I saw Coach Crowe at an awards ceremony where he was belatedly inducted into W-town’s athletic hall of fame, he said to me, “I was always afraid you were going to catch a puck in the head.”
He was right to worry.
I was in my own little world.
During a scrimmage at the rink, one of the players got hurt. “Dexter get some ice,” Coach said. I looked at him mystified. I had a vague sense he wanted me to go out onto the rink and get some ice, but I wasn’t sure and anyways, people got hurt out there and that was the last place I wanted to go.
“Where should I get it?” I asked in the vain hope that there was a freezer in the snackbar where I could get the ice. Coach looked at me with dismay “Go out onto the ice and get some ice.”
I opened the gate, stepped out onto the ice and wonder of wonders, I discovered that I was able to scoop up with my hands the frozen powder that had been shaved off the surface by the skates of the players as they got on and off the ice. As I came back in with two handfuls of the ice, Coach said to no one in particular, “He’s standing next to 17,000 square feet of ice and he asks ‘Where can I get some ice?’”
In retrospect, I have concluded that I knew damn well where I was supposed to get the ice.
I wasn’t confused; I was afraid.
And under the force of Crowe’s verbal boot in the ass, I stepped out on the ice and came back a little bit less fearful of the world than I was before.
I can’t say I was particularly good as manager. The tasks were simple and not all that demanding, but for a kid like me, they were at the outer edge of my capabilities. My most humiliating moment was when two or three 10- or 11-year-old kids, whose older brothers had just gotten their ass kicked by W-town by some ridiculous score of 10–1 — or something close to it, stole the sticks from the team’s bench after the game.
They took advantage of the confusion stemming from an end-of-the game brawl after which both teams headed straight to the locker rooms — without retrieving their sticks from the benches. Stealing the sticks was an obvious attempt to get revenge for the humiliation inflicted on their older brothers in the game they just lost — resoundingly. Their older brothers had stepped onto the ice thinking they were hockey players only to find out that they weren’t. They had Coach Crowe and the team he led to thank for that.
I chased after the thieves briefly as they ran out of the rink with the sticks cradled in their arms, but as I got close to them, I realized that I was going to have to have some sort of physical confrontation to get the sticks back.
I did the math.
If I was successful in tackling the ten-year-olds and getting even some of the sticks back, I was going to be forever remembered for having manhandled kids about half my size. And if they had somehow bested me — a very likely possibility — I was going to be forever remembered for having been bested by kids half my size.
It was a lose-lose situation, so I gave up pursuit.
The look of disdain on Coach’s face when I told him about the sticks being stolen was withering, but what hell, his team had just crushed their opponents to the point where the only way they could salvage their self-esteem was to start a fight and steal their sticks, which could be replaced. My incompetence got lost in the confusion and I kept my job.
Despite my screw-up over the hockey sticks, I returned as manager for two more seasons during which I saw what winners looked like. I learned that Coach spent a huge amount of time on physical conditioning — leg lifts, push-ups and the like and that this paid off in the later periods of the games. Other teams might do well in the first half of the game if they had good skills, but by the end of the game, W-town had just exhausted them. Tired teams lose games and our guys didn’t tire.
The other guys did.
Coach knew how to motivate his players. One memory I have is of him instructing his players to yell, “Skate! Skate! Skate!” at the top of their lungs before the game. I yelled it along with them, caught up in the frenzy. It was an intoxicating moment.
I learned how other teams acted like they had won a game in the playoffs when they beat us in a regular season game, which only happened a few times. It took place once at an away game at a much nicer rink than ours. After the game the opposing team chanted, “We’re number one! We’re number one!” into the ventilation ducts so that we could hear it in a clear attempt to taunt us.
It was kind of pathetic because, W-town had already qualified for the playoffs and was going to be playing in the Garden. The highlight of the other team’s season was beating W-town in their last regular season game. Coach Crowe responded with disdain as the chant came into our locker room through the vent in the ceiling. He looked at his players and shouted, “Who’s Going to the Playoffs?”
“WE ARE!” the team roared in response.
“WHO’S GOING TO THE PLAYOFFS?”
“WHO’S GOING TO THE GARDEN?”
The other team said nothing. I could imagine them sitting sullenly on the benches in their locker room. Their season was over and W-town’s wasn’t.
We were going to The Garden. They weren’t.
Through it all, I wore my letterman’s jacket as a talisman, as a symbol of mastery and self-confidence to which I aspired but had yet to achieve.
Then came a controversy over the amount of money W-town was paying its high school coaches. The controversy got on the radar of the hockey team captains who declared that the team was going to the School Committee — en masse — and advocate for more money for Coach Crowe.
I had no idea how much he was being paid, but I had a pretty good sense of how much time and energy he was investing into the team and figured he was entitled to more money.
One of the captains looked at me and said, “Are you going?”
“Yeah, I’ll go.” I had no idea why they wanted me to go. I imagined that I would sit in the back of the crowd of players that would show up at the meeting while the captains advocated for higher salaries for the coaches of all the teams.
When the time came, I showed up and looked around for the players to see where they were congregated. They hadn’t showed up. Not one. And there I was — the stick boy — who showed up. It was kind of humiliating. Here I was, a jock-sniffing chump who showed up to advocate for a coach of a sport I didn’t know how to play.
I was the stick boy.
It would have been one thing for me to stand in the back of the crowd of hockey players, but to presume to speak on their behalf?
I went to the pay phone at the library across the parking lot from the school administration building and called the captain who had harangued me into going. “No one’s here!” I said.
“You’re kidding me.”
“They all said they would show.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You gotta do it,” the captain said.
“Me? I don’t even play a sport! I can’t do it.”
“You gotta do it. You showed up. You can’t back out now. There’s no one else.”
My doom had been pronounced. I hung up the phone and walked into the building and up the stairs to where they held the School Committee meetings. I talked to someone about why I was there, that I wanted to talk about the money they were paying athletic coaches and asked what I was supposed to do.
The secretary told me that the general public could make offer comments to the members of the committee toward the beginning of the meeting.
People — adults — started looking at me. Some people looked me inquisitively as if to say, “What are you doing here. Are you really going to go through with this? Come on kid, just go home.”
I wanted to slither out the door, but I didn’t want to be a quitter. Coach Crowe and the guys on the team had let me into their inner sanctum to see the drama of their lives, their wins and their losses. I witnessed their triumphs, their crucifixions and their resurrections.
They trusted me, let me into their world, which was a hell of a lot bigger than mine.
I simply could not repay their trust with cowardice.
So I stayed to endure whatever humiliation I had coming to me. I went into the bathroom, took a leak so I wouldn’t wet myself while talking to the School Committee.
I looked at myself in the mirror as I washed my hands and knew it was going to be a disaster.
And as I looked in the mirror, I realized that if I flopped, the humiliation I would endure wasn’t anything I hadn’t already been through, because like I said, I never win at anything.
And so I soldiered on through the feeling of ineptitude that I had become so familiar in early adolescence. The gift of it all was that I had become comfortable with being uncomfortable. I was used to it. So whatever happened, it simply didn’t matter.
When I went back into the meeting room, I saw Mr. Brown, my social science teacher in junior high. He was probably there to speak about coaches’ salaries, just like I was. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me. He was probably afraid I was going to mess things up.
The meeting started, the chairman went through the preliminaries and then announced that if anyone from the general public had anything to say to the committee, now was the time to do it. I waited a moment and then raised my hand. Everyone looked at me and a few people regarded me with disdain, a disdain that I shared.
“What’s he here for?” their faces asked. The chairman invited me to speak.
I got up to the microphone and told them who I was, where I lived and began my spiel. I had no script, absolutely no idea what I was going to say.
“Right now I’m the most uncomfortable person in this room,” I said, eliciting nervous laughter from the audience.
As I said that sentence, one part of my asked the other part of my brain, “What the hell are you doing? Why start with that? Is that the best you got? Start talking about why you’re here! These people already know how uncomfortable you are. You didn’t have to tell them that!”
WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” one part of my brain screamed at the other.
In response, the part that had hijacked control of my faculties, without my permission, told the other part to settle down and that it was going to be all right.
My mouth said something about people in W-town caring a lot about high school athletics, about how we have an athletics program that people are proud of.
Then I got to the point.
“But if you don’t start paying high school coaches in this town the money they deserve, athletics in this town will become a joke.”
That was a little rough, a bit too challenging. It’s not as if I was an athlete myself.
I paused for moment wondering what to say next.
Then it came to me. I knew what to say.
“And then I won’t be the most uncomfortable person in the room!”
I said it with an unmistakable tone of triumph in my voice, as if I had solved a puzzle and walked away from the microphone.
The audience erupted in laughter. Even the people on the School Committee laughed. And Mr. Brown smiled ecstatically. The next day he gave me a letter of congratulations, proof that I had pulled it off.
I was quoted in the paper.
Dad was proud as hell. “Where did you come up with that?” he asked.
I was as mystified as he.
I had earned my letter.