Sitting in my chair in the team clubhouse, I see that there is no red card hanging inside my locker today. I’m a veteran of this team, so I have earned the right to not get a red card. If they wanted to cut me, an assistant would personally invite me to the coach’s or general manager’s offices respectively. There are three players in the clubhouse who have already received red cards. One, a back up receiver, empties out his locker, slamming each piece of his equipment into his dufflebag. A third string tackle silently weeps. He sits on his chair and stares at his uniform for a long time. The third player, a backup running back on his fourth team, mutters curses to himself about the lack of judgment by the coaching staff in particular and the entire organization in general. In a perverse way, I envy them. I wish there was a red card for me. At least then the team would be making my decision for me.
My body began to betray me. This rebellion began quite some time ago. Last season, I only played eight games due to injury. I’d only played eight games the season before that. Three years ago, I missed the entire season and the season previous to that one I’d missed four games. With my shoulder no longer strong, I couldn’t throw the ball downfield. My bad knees keep me from being that mobile quarterback every sports writer used to gab about. I’ve even taken to wearing a flak jacket for my tender ribs; which also restricts my already hampered movement. This all has made training camp pure hell. Most training camps are pretty bad; they work you to the bone, but this year, with the constant pain and diminished skills, this training camp was pure torture. Now with camp pretty much over, I long to be home recuperating with my wife and kids.
Mike Stangel has been my backup for two years now. I trust him. He’s got talent coming out of his ears. I took him under my wing when I first was injured. I found he was a quick study. He’s done a fine job during my absences and will do just fine in this league.
With the team in good hands, it’s time for me to walk away while I still can; under my own power, on my own terms. It’s time to call it quits. Ah, ‘calling it quits’. I wonder would my dad call me a quitter like he’d done when I was 10?
I had left the cub scouts, much to my father’s chagrin. That was the time when things had become contentious between us. Since I was no longer a member, the cub scout meetings held in my home got really awkward. One day from that time is still vivid. It was after a month of my departure and my dad insisted on having the meetings in the den of our home.
This particular day, I’d come home from school, well not quite straight home. I was tired of hiding in my room while the scout meetings went on. So this day I hung with my new friends, two brothers, Richie and Darrell Gathers, and my long-time friend Big Sam Queensbury. We trudged home, taking the long way on purpose, stopping now and again to explore oddities in the gutters and within the occassional brush. Talking about nothing in particular, there came a point when we all realized we had an affinity for throwing rocks at the already broken windows of the abandoned Philips property. Unfortunately, window-breaking loses its allure fairly quickly and it was getting late. I couldn’t avoid home for too long without causing worry. So we said our goodbyes and split off once we got to our block. Big Sam lived two doors down and the brothers lived diagonally across the street. Before ducking into our homes we promised to engage in some more borderline mayhem tomorrow after school.
Putting the key in the front door of my house, I could hear multiple voices inside. Luckily, when I entered there was no one in the living room to ask why I was so late. The voices now were more recognizable. “Good job guys on our ‘Month of Honesty’ initiative!” It was my dad and he was with my former pack having their meeting back in the den.
Hungry for a snack, I tip-toed across the beige carpet, still wearing my outdoor shoes and sped through our florally upholstered living room. Located between the living room and the den was our kitchen. I snuck in there undetected. Typically brighter than the living room, the kitchen made me feel a bit exposed. I “scouted” around to see what snacks there were I could snag. Thankfully, Mom, who was still at work, left an open box of Twinkies on the counter near the refrigerator. Fair game! The Twinkies were probably for my ex-pack, but I figured one less Twinkie wasn’t going to set the scouts back any. Like a predator I struck, stabbing at the Twinkie. After carefully ripping off the plastic wrapper, I took a quick bite up to the Twinkie’s first hole, savoring its greasy, spongy, creamy, sweet goodness. To this day I love the smell of Twinkies. It’s artificial cake-like fragrance filled my nostrils. I had had a long day at school and needed this snack to take the edge off.
As I took a second bite, making sure I only bit up to the second hole, I could hear my father addressing his charges. “Gentlemen!” My dad always addressed kids as if they were adults. Never did he condescend just because they were kids. I admired that. “This meeting’s come to order!” Dad’s voice was deep and full of bass that commanded attention and respect. Even I had to pause.
With the flexibility of a snake, I leaned backwards so that I could spy the den’s inhabitants from the kitchen to see what Dad had to say. Frozen, I held my half-eaten Twinkie just outside my gaping mouth and saw Dad, sitting forward in his old Lazy-boy recliner, his Popeye-like forearms folded, stretching out the sleeves of his blue scout uniform.
“Now being that this is September,” he said. “That means our theme for the month is ‘Cubservation’! Who can tell me what ‘Cubservation’ is?”
“I know what ‘Cubservation’ means, Mr. Walker!” pasty-faced Tully Simpkins answered. The little know-it-all waved his arms as if he were still in class. Dad, unable to ignore his antics, pointed to him. “It’s about the scout law on cleanliness!”
Dad clapped his hands and gave Tully the thumbs up. “Gentlemen, Tully is absolutely right.” Tully sat back on our beat up second-string couch, triumphant. Back then he always had the answers. But he didn’t have any answers when cops busted him with ten grams of cocaine underneath the passenger seat of his BMW. But that would be 15 years from the time of this meeting. Did I mention I hated Tully Simpkins?
“‘Cubservation’ is like ‘Conservation’,” Dad continued. “Our duty this month is to pick a weekend when we can go over to McKinley Park and clean it up; make it look nice for the Fall.”
The all of the scouts nodded with enthusiasm there on the battered green couch. There was Ricky “Nosepicker” Stubbs, trying to pick his flat nose on the sly. My good friend, Roger McNeil, was present trying to stifle a yawn. Leon “Crybaby” Tyree was there ready to complain about Dad’s plan. Sean “Comedian” Pinkney snickered to himself as he found the prospect of cleaning the park funny. “Bad Breath” Brian Wilkerson was there too chain-popping Tic-Tacs. Rounding out the pack was my friend, Jamie “Don’t Call Me Jaime” Ortega, who just shrugged at the plan. These kids just pledged fealty to my father to clean parks of trash and broken bottles. I had no time for pledges or meetings or community service. I had new friends who had other interests; most of which could be considered delinquency by most standards.
Shoving the last of the Twinkie in my mouth, I stepped back into the kitchen, relieved that my presence went unnoticed. Observing my dad, in his element, spending quality time with boys he was not related to, saddened me. How dare he treat other boys like sons while ignoring me; his own flesh? A fury built up within my chest and I felt emboldened. It was still light outside and I refused to spend the afternoon hiding in my bedroom again, like I’d done during previous meetings. I was tired of skulking about because Dad refused to have these meetings elsewhere. Why couldn’t he have just left the scouts when I left, like most parents? But no, scouting was supposedly in our blood. My two older brothers were former cub scouts, Dad was a scout and Grandpa was a scout in his day as well. I wanted nothing to do with scouts anymore. Although I no longer desired to be a cub scout, Dad simply loved being a scout leader. He could never understand why my level of dedication never rose to his level of passion.
I needed to “play” outside in our backyard, but to do that I had to pass through the wood-paneled den. Grabbing a second Twinkie, I tore off the wrapper like a starving savage and strode out from the kitchen with anger fueled confidence; at first. I walked with purpose into the den, but once I was in several feet, I felt naked. I couldn’t show that while trying to slip past Dad and my former pack, so I feigned obliviousness and chomped on the Twinkie like how a cow chews cud.
Eyes widened with shock, as the pack watched me try to pass unabated. Heads volleyed from me to my father wondering what he would do. Only Tully Simpkins spoke. “Hey Jake! How’s it going?” What a little prick!
Unlike the boys, Dad barely acknowledged I was there. The Big Guy continued his spiel on ‘Cubservation’ seguing right into the central-office approved treatise on the importance of selling nasty-assed popcorn. Dad would not acknowledge in front of these more dedicated boys that he had a son who was a ‘quitter’; not between the hours of 5:30-7:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. During this time period, I did not exist. This was his passive/aggressive way of teaching me and the pack a lesson.
And I could never convince Dad the reasons I quit were legitimate; well, legitimate to a ten-year old. First, I questioned the practice of selling stale popcorn and mulch. Yes, mulch. I am not a salesman. I’ve never had the desire to sell. I have always hated selling and salespeople. It was never a part of my DNA. Even today you can see my discomfort with the few endorsement deals I have. Dad should’ve have been proud I was taking a stand against the forced child labor of selling crappy popcorn and lawn products to an unsuspecting public. Of course, he didn’t see it that way. Not being able to tell the difference between the popcorn and the mulch did not help matters.
Second, I made friends who thought scouting was simply uncool. Sorry but cub scouts just wasn’t Big Sam’s bag nor mine. What was? Exploring our town beyond the predetermined confines of my parents, hanging out, shooting the shit, while throwing rocks at abandoned properties; that was way more entertaining.
Lastly, what really pushed me away was that one of the tenants of being a top-notch cub scout was to always respect your elders. Now I get this. I was a child in a world of more experienced adults. But I’ve always had issues with authority. Dad and I would butt heads over many things as I grew up. Leaving the cub scouts was probably the starting point. While I was a cub scout, Dad was harder on me because I was his son. Eventually I’d had enough. On the day I turned in my hat, my neckerchief, my bobcat uniform, my scout manual, my popcorn, and my mulch, Dad was unable to form words, but he kept an unnerving gaze upon me. Then his realization twisted into disappointment as I held out the neatly folded items for him to take back. I probably should’ve gotten a merit badge for the expert folding job.
Now on that awkward day in our den, Dad ignored me as I slid open the patio door, and slipped out into our backyard. I was crushed that Dad did not understand that scouting no longer worked for me. I was no ‘quitter’. Didn’t he know that ten-year olds have the attention span of a fly? Unfortunately, this would not be the last time my father frustrated me nor I him.
I spied the tire swing that swung from our big shade-giving oak tree and picked up my brother’s football, which he always left lying in our yard. Just blowing off steam, I threw the ball and managed to throw my first perfect spiral right through the tire like the future pro I would become. If only Dad had seen that, he’d be proud of me a lot sooner.
Now I sit here in this musty smelling clubhouse and watch young men, who have secured a spot on this football team, carry on their raucous conversations about nothing in particular, doing their best to avoid talk of those who have been cut. My body prevents me from avoiding conversations that need to be spoken. So even before my agent, my dad will be the first call I make. He needs to hear about my retirement from me, not some sports anchor. My agent can wait because he will do everything in his power to dissuade me from cutting off his 10%. But there’s nothing he can say. After I talk to Dad, then I will talk to Coach Stevens. I know he’ll understand.
Reaching into my dufflebag, I find my phone. There’s a message from my wife, I know what she wants; no need to answer right away. She knows what I’ve been thinking. She’ll find out the details soon enough. I scroll through my contact list. As I do so, I think of my time, after scouting, in our local Pop Warner football league and how Dad, for fear of me quickly losing interest in something else, gave limited support. His support for my football ambitions only grew slightly when I made my high school team. Dad only began to take serious notice when I was recruited for college ball. Even then he had misgivings about my complete dedication. It wasn’t until I was drafted into the NFL that Dad was finally in my corner. Now, it was time to wake up from my dream.
My thumb hovers over my dad’s number, I freeze and become that ex-cub scout again unable to dial my childhood home. I am convinced by my aching knees, back, ribs, and shoulder, that I am a soon-to-be ex-football player. So I make the call.
Hunched over in my chair, I listen to the phone line ring once, then twice, then a third time. There is a part of me that wants this call to go to voice-mail. Before there is a fourth ring, the line is picked up.
“Helloooo?” It’s the light, cheerful voice of my mother. But it does nothing to release the grip tension and fear have on me.
I clear the frog in my throat and say, “Hi Mom.”
“Oh my goodness, Jake? How’s training camp? Are you okay?”
“Yeah Mom, I’m…okay,” I lie.
“What’s wrong, Jake?” She quickly asks. “You never call in the daytime during camp, Baby. Are you hurt again?”
“Yeah…I mean no…It’s just…I really need to speak to Dad.”
“Oh…okay,” Mom says concerned. “Hold on. I’ll get him.”
There is a pause as my mother leaves to get my father. I could hear the the background hum of the home I grew up in and try to picture Mom travel from the foyer to where Dad could usually be found this time of day; in the old den taking a nap in the massaging recliner I bought him with my rookie signing bonus.
“Dave? Wake up, it’s Jake,” I hear Mom say.
“Jake?” I hear Dad ask through sleep.
“Yes, it’s Jake. Come on Dave, wake up!” Mom comes back on the line. “Jake, you take care of yourself. Okay? Whatever happens everything will be all right.” She hands the phone to Dad.
“Jake? Everything okay, son?” The sleep in Dad’s voice is already gone, replaced by his trademark bass.
“Dad,” I start, but more words won’t come. What comes are tears as a wave washes over me.
“Go ahead, Jake. I’m here,” Dad says with a calm that becomes contagious. “I’m listening, son.”