Melting Down the Gridiron

I just want everyone to know that it's ok if you don't like football

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Serena Wagner

I can’t remember asking to be on the football team. I just remember getting all the pads and a special pair of pants that fit my pudgy body. I remember showing up on the field – Kessler Field between First and Second streets in Eau Claire, near the river. When I got there, I felt like something big and ugly was crawling through my chest and into my stomach.

I was in the sixth grade. I assume my parents asked me if I actually wanted to be in football. And despite having almost no interest in the sport, I must have said yes. So for five years worth of autumn afternoons, I kind of winced into regular football practice, with the running and the tackling and the running. And the losing of game after game.

It was never fun. Football was something I was supposed to like. And if I didn’t like it, I thought, well maybe I was doing something wrong.

It was never fun. Football was something I was supposed to like. And if I didn’t like it, I thought, well maybe I was doing something wrong. Figuring this out was constant frustration. It was like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, except instead of plastic and multi-colored square stickers, the cube was made of slimy, black dread. Oh, and while solving it, I had to do crunches and sprint around a football field wearing really uncomfortable pants.

It didn’t help that none of my good friends played football. So here I am, day after day, doing something physically difficult that I’m not particularly good at – and don’t particularly like – with people who aren’t really my friends.

Go team.

Eventually, I started year six of my shoulder pad odyssey – my junior year in high school. There are two things I remember about football that year.

Here’s the first thing. At the home opener in Carson Park, we were doing so well they sent in second string players such as myself. After a few plays, I dislocated my shoulder. Our “doc” popped it back in.

Here’s the second thing. At a practice after school, we were scrimmaging against the starting offense. I rarely played defense, and since that’s where the linemen have fun, I was actually enjoying myself. We had a star running back that year, a senior responsible for much of the team’s recent success. I can’t remember his name.

At some point that afternoon, the ball was hiked and we all crashed into each other. Like normal. But as I was struggling to push some lineman four inches backward, I saw something. (Cue the slow motion and crescendoing orchestra.) As I jostled against my sweaty classmate, I looked over and saw a large teenager running at me. He was holding a football.

It was what’s-his-name, the star running back. He was breaking for a few feet of unoccupied gridiron to my left – and suddenly – five years of anxiety-filled after school football practice took over. Without thinking, I shoved my lineman to the right, pushing myself into the gap just as the guy with the ball arrived. My left shoulder exploded into his torso, and my arms whipped around both sides. I was locked onto him. The guy’s momentum carried us both forward, but my weight carried us down. Hard. As we smashed into the grass and the dirt, I could hear our pads crashing and crunching together. It was awesome. (Cut the slow motion and fade the orchestra.)

The next thing I heard was the star running back yelling, “Holy, sh*t, Paulus!” We untangled and stood up. A coach appeared and slapped me on the helmet with a manly, “Nice hit.” Everyone seemed to agree. Something rushed over me and clicked into place. I couldn’t stop smiling. I wanted to go again. And again. I wanted to keep playing.

Because finally. I finally liked football.

A week or two later I quit the team.

My favorite English teacher had asked me to be in the fall play, and I had immediately said yes. I talked to my parents – which was hard, especially with my dad – and I stopped going to football practice.

That season, after years of struggle, the Regis Ramblers went on to win their first WISSA Division III State Championship while I played Homer Zuckerman in a low budget staging of Charlotte’s Web. My chemistry teacher told me I stole the show. Not bad considering I wasn’t dressed up like a pig or a giant-ass spider.

I don’t have anything against football or (most of) the people who love it. Hey, some of my best friends like football. It’s just not my thing, and I wish it hadn’t taken so long to figure that out.

And now, despite a split-second of game-faced glory back in high school, I can’t force myself into liking it. Why? Because I’ve got more happy memories from acting in one play than I do from five (plus) seasons of football.

And that’s saying something because in the play they made me wear makeup.

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