"Hey Pussy!" I cringed as I slowly limped away from the last set of gassers, praying that the screaming voice of the team captain wasn't for me. "Hey 95!" It was. That was the jersey number the equipment manager gave me about two hours earlier. The first and only time I would wear that number, and the last time I would wear shoulder pads for the rest of my life. I was 21 years old.
I was reminded of this exchange as I watched Eric Steinbach of the Miami Dophins during an episode of Hard Knocks, as he struggled and fought to continue playing the game. A stellar eight year NFL career that came to an end this morning when he retired from the League.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to compare my incredibly brief and uneventful playing days with those of a former NFL Pro Bowler. I played in high school, was good enough to make a couple of JUCO teams, but injuries and a lack of total commitment to the sport kept me from ever starting another game after leaving high school. That last practice I walked away from was the walk on tryouts for Southern Connecticut State University, a small Division II school in New Haven, hardly a football powerhouse.
The similarity exists only because in both situations, and in most player's lives, you don't get to choose how you leave the game, it makes that decision for you. And no matter when that day occurs, whether it is after your senior year of high school, a couple of college seasons, or after a terrific pro career like Steinbach's it is never easy. I have never met a player in any situation that didn't wish that they could put on the pads and just line up for one more game, even one more play.
I'm not sure what it is about football, maybe it is the physical toll that it takes on your body that makes every victory so much more special than in other sports. Perhaps it is the tremendous camraderie that is created through the shared sacrifices of the ultimate team sport. Or maybe it is that once you are done playing, that's it. There are no "pick up" games like basketball, or watered down sports like softball to baseball. Don't give me touch or flag, it's not even close. Of all the sports I have played in my life, football is the only one that brings the nostalgia of wanting to get in there for one more play every time I watch a game. I would wager that any former player would agree.
This occurs despite the fact that I haven't started in a game of any signifigance in 26 years. I can still recall individual plays from the last time I mattered on a football field. We lost the County Title to Hempstead 30-0, and it still bothers me. The first cool mornings of the fall up here in the Northeast and the smell of the fresh cut grass immediately bring back the memories of my last real season. I can still hear our team captain yelling a cadence as we ran laps, and I can still see that look in my coach's eyes as he built up his pre-game speech during Homecoming, from barely a whisper up to a stirring crescendo, we were ready to run through walls for that man once he was done that day. Sorry, but baseball and soccer just can't bring that kind of passion out of a person.
When I left high school, I forgot the most important lesson a football player needs to know to succeed. As Dirty Harry once said, "A man has got to know his limitations." I was a six foot tall 230 pound defensive lineman, with a body and skill set ideal for that position. I had a strong lower body, good hands, and I knew how to use leverage while engaging blockers. My ideal landing spot would have been a small Division III School, where I could have stayed on the line and played for four years.
Unfortunately though, like many players, I had visions of bigger things than DIII. So I went to Junior College and switched to linebacker, thinking that I could learn the position and maybe make it to Division I after a couple of years. I was delusional. Playing in space at linebacker and banging around on the defensive line are two very different things. To play linebacker you need to have the knack for seeing the ball and reacting to it amongst the chaos of 22 moving bodies. It is a skill that can't be taught, like having a good arm in baseball, it is something that you are born with.
So after two years of injuries and being a scout team tackling dummy, I moved on to Southern Conneticut. I finally accepted that I was meant to play defensive line after all. The problem was that instead of being 18 and healthy, I was 21 with a surgically repaired knee. I wasn't a player anymore, I wasn't even close.
That last day, during walk on tryouts, the coaches put me in a simple pass rushing drill. Maybe it was pity or maybe it was to politely tell me to get lost, but they put me against what was clearly the shortest, fattest, and worst lineman on the field, and he kicked my ass. Three years earlier I would have blown right by him, a quick club move, maybe an underarm rip, and he would be gone. Now, the only things that were gone were my speed and my skills.
By the end of practice, as we finished up our sprints, my knee screamed in pain, I knew it was over. With about four sprints to go I walked away.
I was humiliated, I was angry, but he was right. My knee hurt, but if you can walk you can run coaches always said. I sucked up what little dignity I had left and finished the sprints.
I took off the pads for the last time. To this day I can still hear the deep baritone of one of the team's star defensive tackles mocking me as I limped out of the locker room, "A one day hero."
As much as it hurt, I can't even fathom how leaving the game feels to a guy like Steinbach, who has put in more hard work and endured more pain than I could in ten of my lifetimes.
But there is one common thread that does bind us ever so slightly. Like most players in this game, we didn't get to choose how we would leave the game, that decision was made for us. That is the reason you don't see too many "Kareem" or "Ripken" like retirement tours in football, Bettis and Strahan notwithstanding.
I hope that incredibly gifted players like Montee Ball and Kenny Britt, and every kid who is now struggling to get through August two a days, whether they are in high school, college or the pros watched Steinbach and the pain that was obvious as he struggled to hang on to the game that he loves for just one more season, or even one more play.
I hope that they watch him and realize the incredible gift that they have to be able to play this game. And that they understand and appreciate that more than any other sport, it is no cliche that their next play could be their last.