My classmates and I were at the end of our 8th Grade year, in our final week or so before summer vacation. After returning from lunch one day, my male classmates and I were directed into a classroom for a meeting with our high school’s Varsity football coach and his team captains for the upcoming school year.
The coach…I’ll call him, oh, let’s say “Porky”…and his team captains…let’s just refer to them as “Sluggo” and “Jag”…eyed my classmates and I with quiet contempt as we shuffled into the classroom and took our desks. Once we’d seated ourselves, Porky stepped forward and asked:
“What’s the problem, gentlemen?”
Met with our collective silence, Porky repeated the question, then added that, last week, he had handed out applications for next year’s Fresh-Soph football squad. As of yet, he had only received four of them from our class.
“That leaves the Fresh-Soph squad short”, he told us, “and that’s not going to happen”.
He asked us if we had a problem with football, or hard work, of if with him as a coach, or if we were just scared.
One of my classmates raised his hand. Porky nodded for the kid to speak.
“I think some of the guys are scared of getting beat up in practice, like for Freshman initiation?”
This prompted a conspiratorial glance between Sluggo and Jag, who both grinned.
“Don’t worry about Freshman initiation, fellas”, Sluggo warned us, “If I see any Freshman walking the halls next year I don’t recognize from the team? I wouldn’t want to be you.”
Adopting a slightly more diplomatic tone, Jag stepped forward.
“Maybe some of you don’t think you’re big enough or tough enough to be a good ball player”, he said, “but how are you ever going to know what you can do unless you try?”
He also assured us that football players who wore their jerseys to school on game days always got “major attention from the ladies”. This inspired a low murmur of appreciative chuckling..which seemed to really piss off Sluggo, likely sensing it was detracting from the effect of his Bad Cop contribution moments earlier.
“Show of hands”, he barked at us. “Who’s playing ball next year?”
A few hands went up. Not good enough.
Eyeing one of my larger 8th Grade classmates, Sluggo advanced on him where he was seated in a desk.
“What’s your excuse? Why the hell ain’t you playing ball?”
The kid shrugged.
Ordering the kid to stand, Sluggo got nose-to-nose with him, muttering what sounded like threats of bodily harm.
The threats were effective. Asked once again if he’d be “playing ball”, the humbled 8th Grader nodded yes and returned to his desk upon receiving Sluggo’s permission.
Eyeing the rest of us, Sluggo continued his blustery harangue. He was on a roll.
“See that? Biggest guy in the room, don’t mean shit to me. You got a problem with Coach, with me or my team, you don’t want to play ball? I’ll knock your ass into next week. And don’t think I’m just going to forget about you. Any Freshman I don’t know from the team, you’ll be hearing from me and the Varsity all next year. You better believe it”.
Then he asked for another show of hands. Every 8th Grade hand went up.
Except for one.
Not mine, I’m sad to say. I suspected these overgrown dim bulbs were all bluster, but they might not stay that way if someone called their bluff. I saw little point in drawing special attention to myself, so I played along and put my hand up.
Sluggo and Jag zeroed in on the sole 8th Grader who hadn’t, one of our well-known class wise-asses. A soft-spoken, low-key wise-ass, but a wise-ass, nonetheless. Let’s call him ‘Mort’.
They asked him his name. He told them.
“Why don’t you want to play football, Mort?”
I’m not big enough, I’m not any good at it, and I have no interest in the sport, he answered.
Sluggo and Jag informed Mort those reasons weren’t good enough. Jag told Mort he should at least “give it a shot” before making his mind up.
“I don’t want to give it a shot. I hate football. Why would you want somebody on the team who hates it?”
Moving in close to Mort, nose-to-nose, Sluggo hissed at him, “Oh, you hate my team, huh? What, you think you’re better than we are? Maybe I’ll just kick your ass right now, smart-ass. How about that?”.
Mort shrugged. “I’m sure you could. I’m still not going to play football”.
Glaring at him for a moment or two, Sluggo stepped back and warned Mort that he was going to ‘remember’ him. We all knew what he meant by that. Mort was doomed.
Throughout Sluggo’s intimidation campaign, observing his prime attack dog in action, Porky never quit grinning. Not only the school’s football coach, Porky was also a science teacher known to reward players with unearned grades. We’d also heard he had a shit-list of students who crossed him or annoyed him.
Naturally, once the shakedown concluded and the troglodyte trio knuckle-dragged their way back to whatever caves they’d crawled out of, the consensus among my 8th Grade classmates was nearly unanimous:
Fuck those guys.
Everyone pretty much agreed we’d raised our hands, ‘volunteering’ for the football team, just to get these goons off our backs. Come August, we were still going to do whatever the hell we wanted. Whether that included Fresh-Soph football or not was going to be our decision. Not theirs.
In the end, Porky had enough players to fill his roster. The only Freshmen who suffered at the hands of Sluggo and his Varsity goons were the Freshmen who’d gone out for football believing they’d be immune from having the shit knocked out of them on a daily basis.
They didn’t understand, though, that having the shit knocked out of you by the Varsity squad happened at every practice. Football is a contact sport.
When you hold that tackle bag for the Varsity (as I found out my Sophomore year when I did go out for football), especially when you’re considerably smaller than the other player, you will get knocked on your ass. Every time.
And when you’re on the ground, even with a tackle bag between you and the Varsity player, things can happen. Fists or elbows can find their way into your ribs or your groin, without warning.
Growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, my classmates and I were supervised by a few teachers who not only condoned certain types of violence or intimidation, but occasionally dished out their own.
Mouthy students grabbed and slammed into wall lockers.
Disrespectful gym students taking a soccer ball or a badminton racket to the back of the head by the Phys. Ed. teacher.
A couple of our teachers were famous for breaking dowel rods over the skulls of the unruly after repeated warning whacks on desktops went unheeded.
It wasn’t exactly commonplace, but when these things happened, nobody ran and told on the teachers. It’s not that we had a code of silence or anything. We just figured that’s the way things were.
If a teacher did something– made a threat, grabbed or whacked a student– in front of the rest of the class, then, obviously, we assumed, the school administrators sanctioned it, so it must be okay. Especially if the teacher in question had had their job for a long time (a long time, in our minds, being a decade or longer).
Now, speaking for myself, I just didn’t want to be a tattletale. Or, worse, be viewed as weak by my peers. If another kid wanted to push me around, I’d push back. If I wasn’t capable of pushing back because the kid was a lot bigger than me, I’d shrug it off and do my best to steer clear of him. Things always worked out in the end.
When an older so-called friend thought it funny to sock me in the mouth with his hockey stick during a face-off, I shrugged it off, even as I staggered away bleeding all over the ground from a split upper lip.
I mean, hey, if the Phys. Ed teacher didn’t think a deliberate penalty was a big deal, who was I to complain? He was a grown man, after all, who’d been teaching for nearly twenty years. I was just a kid.
That’s not to say I didn’t grow to have contempt for these fuckers, particularly Porky and his attack dogs.
Porky coached another eight years before retiring to his teachers’ pension. Sluggo, just a few years after high school, fell asleep at the wheel driving to his early morning factory job and fatally crashed into a tree. I have no idea what became of Jag after high school.
Unfortunately, Mort, who became a good friend of mine in high school, fell into a bottle during his brief stint at college and, not long after that, found heroin. He’d recovered off and on throughout his thirties, but, from what I’m told, remains unable to manage his money on his own.