Kevin D. Sawyer was awarded Honorable Mention in Essay in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.
To recall my toughest struggles, combined with conditioning and the brutality of physical violence, not even 21 years of imprisonment match high school football. The lessons learned in those early years, in many ways, prepared me to survive the penitentiary.
I was a rough child, but not much different from other boys my age. Too often, though, found myself the victim of boyhood because I would hurt myself trying to discover the world. Before completing the first grade, I’d already received stitches three times. And other wounds that required sutures were left to heal on their own. That was in 1969. Kids were physically and psychologically tougher back then.
Conditions in life hardened one’s mind and body. Growing up, life didn’t babysit me so I was open to receiving a uniform amount of pain. It seemed like I was always suffering, too. Looking back, I believe agony was a rite of passage. Then too, life in those years was about learning to navigate through natural paths leading to danger.
I’ve never ridden in a car seat. Not so long ago, seat belts were optional. Parents smoked around children when secondhand smoke wasn’t a concept or an afterthought. The thought of riding a bicycle or skating with a helmet and pads was absurd. The pain that followed those actions was a part of life—just like tackle football in the park with friends.
I grew up at perhaps the tail end of the “spare the rod, spoil the child” generation, so violence was normalized and mitigated with life lessons. Yes, I received my share of spankings.
Some may call them violent beatings or ass whippings. They weren’t. Most times, I knew I had them coming and why. I wasn’t a victim of what is too often called child abuse.
Violence is physical injury, whether it’s intentional or happens by accident. It’s essential at times; a reminder that we’re living beings. I couldn’t live without some forms of violence because I was a boy. Boys my age thrived on violence, at least the ones I grew up with did. We were sucked into a vacuum of punches, pranks, put-downs, jokes, insults, fights, harassment, teasing, bullying, and so much more. Oh, boys weren’t supposed to cry either—not the tough ones raised to endure greater challenges later in life.
Like most things, childhood didn’t last long. One thing I learned: There’s a dark space of uncertainty when you’re young. And in all its vagueness, there’s a portal. For most of the boys in my circle, if we survived and emerged on the other end, we transitioned and became young men. In doing so, I grew to learn that toughness wasn’t necessarily about being physical. It was about one’s ability to mentally withstand the innumerable tests life metes out, and to exercise restraint; mind over matter. Violence had to be tempered with discipline. The body could unleash havoc, but it also had to endure the prevailing consequences.
In the fall of 1977, I entered high school. It was my freshman year. I signed up to play football for the first time. I’d never played organized football with a team. In fact, up until that point, I’d never played any team sport other than in middle school PE classes. The summer before ninth grade started, I showed up at my high school’s gymnasium with a doctor’s physical report on my health, a parental consent form, and my body. I handed it all over to the head coach, Mr. Sullenburger who also taught math at Pittsburg High School in California. He was my first coach and the leader of the freshman football team. I looked forward to the sacrifice I was about to make for him, my team and school. For me, it was going to be another rite of passage.
I learned immediately how special a coach is to a player. Mr. Sullenburger and his assistant coaches dedicated numerous hours preparing us with rigorous practice schedules and how to understand basic strategies of football. They worked with players in many capacities, on and off the practice field, sometimes dealing with us one-on-one.
In August of ’77, one week before school started, in the heat of summer, I was still thirteen years old and wouldn’t turn fourteen until late September. I wanted to play the wide receiver position like Lynn Swan, number eighty-eight, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but I didn’t understand the science behind the game.
NFL players were every boys’ inspiration. A year earlier, I met some of the Oakland Raiders and got their autographs—Willie Brown, Kenny Stabler and Otis Sistrunk who was huge, unlike myself. At five feet, six inches and one hundred and thirty-five pounds, I couldn’t even bench press my own body weight. Not understanding the game, I somehow found myself practicing as a tight end. In those years, we practiced in triple sessions. That meant we had to train three times a day: morning, afternoon and early evening, before sunset. We seared under the sun and had a lot of conditioning to do because none of us were in shape or football ready.
The suffering didn’t last long. A few days into practice, while attempting to catch a routine pass, I jumped straight up with my left arm extended to the sky, but the ball was thrown too high and wobbly to catch. It hit the tip of my left ring finger with such force that my finger jammed, shattering the bones. I felt instant pain. That’s all I remember. Because boys weren’t supposed to cry or whine about getting hurt, I somehow managed to finish the practice. I went home in excruciating pain and built a makeshift splint for my broken finger, just as I’d seen the pros do. I returned to the following practice session but was in no shape to catch passes, block. Even the pounding from running was painful. After practice ended, I went to my coach and told him what happened. He looked at my swelling finger, bandaged it for me, said a few words and sent me home.
I didn’t want my mother to know I’d been injured because she had been reluctant to allow me to play football. Somehow she knew I’d get hurt. It was part of my modus operandi. She’d had enough of me getting beat up and sewn up before I finished the first grade. And it didn’t help that she worked at a local hospital in the intensive care unit. Like many times before, I was taken to the emergency room where my finger was X-rayed and placed in a splint and a bandage that wrapped down to my elbow. My season had ended before it ever started.
However, by the end of that academic year, I was able to bench press 205 pounds—about seventy pounds above my body weight. To me, game time and Friday Night Lights were bigger than life when I was in high school. On game day, at the end of sixth period, the marching band, cheerleaders, majorettes, and flag girls would march in the hallways to fire up our classmates for the pep rally in the gym.
All football players wore either their home or away game jersey on Fridays—depending on where the game was played. Everyone knew who we were. It was all about school pride. And we had a lot to be proud of in the late ‘70s. Our high school was one of the few in the area that had a steel stadium equipped with lights for night games, a press box, and an all-weather track that surrounded a well manicured lawn. And we put on one hell of a show for our community.
Sophomore year, summer of ’78, a little taller and a few pounds heavier, I returned to the football field determined to play the position of wide receiver. I made the move to junior varsity but I didn’t have any experience. More than one hundred boys attended spring training in the previous school year. About eighty showed up the following summer with their physical and parental consent form to pick up a practice uniform.
Our equipment was old. The varsity handed it down to the junior varsity. Freshman were at the bottom of the proverbial food chain. Some of the shoulder pads hurt because the straps would dig into our skin, and some of the helmets had webs on the inside and half-moon pads located by the ear hole. There was no discussion about brain injury from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), but I knew something wasn’t right from the headaches I had to endure. We called it “getting our bell rung,” but we were taking serious blows to the head in those old Riddell helmets.
According to the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University, the trauma triggers progressive brain tissue degeneration, including the buildup of a protein called tau. CTE has been found in 99 percent of deceased NFL players’ brains. Today, I wonder if they were merely headaches or traumatic concussions I received. Our coaches and parents didn’t know what was happening to us, and neither did we. It was all part of the game.
The cage over our face that was all the head protection we had, not counting the mouthpiece that was required for everyone to wear. It made it difficult to suck in air until we grew accustomed to the obstruction.
Triple sessions again. The first practice started at 7:00am. This meant everyone had to be in uniform and on the practice field when the coach blew his whistle; not strolling into the locker room. Some guys couldn’t endure the practice and quit after the first one or by the end of the day. Others left with season ending injuries, usually due to torn muscles and broken bones. They had my empathy. About fifty of us survived to play that year. The war of attrition reminded me of my non-start freshmen season.
Unlike freshman football, playing junior varsity was a little more intense. JVs had different coaches but it was the same drill. Once the coach blew his whistle he owned our bodies. He told us what to do, how to do it and when. I never questioned my coaches because they all seemed to know what they were doing. They knew everything about the game. They were grown men, parents, and teachers. They’d been doing it for a long time. I think a few of them had served in the military before the Vietnam era. They knew about war, and that’s what they were preparing us for, with the concept of teamwork.
Everyone got along well together on our team, and we always had each other’s back. We were a mixture of whites, blacks, Mexicans, Filipinos, and Italians. Our team was a middle-class and lower-class combat unit and the coaches didn’t mince words when reminding us of it. “You guys are going to play those rich white boys over the hill, the coach said in a pep talk after one practice.
There were divisions in the social strata like any other high school, jocks, and stoners. But while I was an athlete who could hang out in front of the main gym with the rest of the guys and the cheerleaders, I was rarely seen with them. I didn’t smoke, drink, or get high so I had very little in common with the stoners. We weren’t enemies. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. That was enough. On the field, we worked as a team to survive and to win because we were the orange and the black Pirates of Pittsburg High School. “Those rich white boys are coming over here to play,” the coach said. “And it would give them no better pleasure than to come to this school and kick the ass of a bunch of white trash, niggers, spics, gooks, and dagos.” The coach was Italian with dark curly hair. We knew what he was doing. He was trying to get us fired up. It was also a lesson on class privilege in America, and we were reminded of our underclass status, if a coach spoke those words to a student-athlete today his comments would go viral on YouTube and people would demand his head and the principal’s on a platter—evidence that kids are not hardened mentally like past generations.
Sometimes our coach spoke using metaphors and anecdotes to make his point. “Nobody works harder than you guys do,” the coach said. “Those rich boys sit around the swimming pool drinking Dr. Pepper after practice. But not you guys.”
We were taught how to think in game situations. Once, I saw a look of desperation in Jeremy’s eyes. He was our quarterback on JV. A running play was broken up and he was scrambling. I’d run about twelve yards out and cut to the inside to distract the defensive backs.
When I looked back, I realized what was happening. My eyes locked with Jeremy’s. I was open so he threw the ball to me. I caught it and the team gained a first down on the completion.
Reading the defense is important too. In one game I was positioned close to the offensive line. A running play was called in the huddle. My job was to contain the outside linebacker on my side, but he read the run and ran through the middle of our offensive line. As the run swept behind me, I abandoned the linebacker and hit another defensive player who was trying to stop the run. We gained yardage but I thought the coach was going to be upset with me for not following the play by the book.
“Good job, Sawyer,” the coach said when I returned to the sideline. “Way to read the defense.” I learned that sometimes I had to think on my feet because football, just like life, isn’t a predictable scenario of Xs and Os on a chalkboard.
Football players share a common bond. Ours became that of suffering together constricted by shoulder pads, hip and tailbone pads sewn together in a girdle. Knee pads, thigh pads, cleats, and a stifling claustrophobic helmet with its chin strap and that mouthpiece completed our battle dress uniform.
“Never take your helmet off,” the coach would tell us. “That’s your weapon, and I better not catch you sitting on it.” He also reminded us repeatedly that if we were ever caught smoking, drinking, or using drugs, on or off campus, we’d summarily be kicked off the team. I never indulged, so that was the least of my worries.
We warmed up with fifty jumping jacks. “One two three, one; one two three, two; one two three, three,” we shouted in military cadence. The fifty count took us up to one hundred jumping jacks. We stretched, did neck strengthening exercises and more calisthenics.
“Get set,” the coach yelled. “Bend your knees, hands out in front of you. Run in place.” It was time for the grass drill. We did what we were told. When the whistle blew, we dropped to the ground in the push-up position and hopped back up as fast as we could, still running in place. The black numbers on the front of our white practice jerseys turned green and brown.
Those grass drills lasted about two or three minutes but seemed longer. Everything seemed to last longer during practice, except our strength. Some days I’d have mental conflicts. “Why the hell am I here? Why am I putting myself through this?” I would ask myself. I could feel every muscle, bone, tendon, ligament and the perspiring flesh that made up the shell I called my body. But I was its commander. I controlled my body with my young mind as the coach placed demands on it. It hurt to live in that teenage body, but I could feel it growing stronger by the day. “That’s why I’m doing this,” I reminded myself. That was my resolve to keep pushing. The last part of the warm-up routine required us to run a lap and then separate to our specialized positions at designated areas of the practice field.
Morning practices consisted of offense work. “Receivers with receivers, running backs over here, linemen with linemen,” the coach would yell. The sun wasn’t at its zenith in the morning. The grass was still soft from the early morning sprinklers watering it so running in cleats was comfortable. I didn’t have the size to play tight end because that’s the lineman who makes up the strong side of the offensive line. He also doubles as an eligible receiver.
I was a split end, wide receiver. Practicing for that position was easy compared to the midday session. In the morning we learned and perfected passing routes like post patterns, hitch-and-go, hooks, the bomb, in-and-outs and more. We caught a lot of passes and dropped a few too. We learned to run after the catch and how to avoid defenders. “Hold on to the ball!” the coach would yell. “Squeeze it and stop holding it like it’s a goddamn loaf of bread.”
It wasn’t always fun. One time I ran a pass pattern, the ball was thrown and I jumped in the air as my teammate Louis covered me on defense. Before I touched the ball he hit me in the back while I was in midair. Snap, crash, boom is the sound of contact when a body hits the ground. All I remember seeing through the limited view of my cage was the blue sky, a few legs, buildings, and feet fly by on the sideline. Then I was kissing the turf. Louis delivered a “cheap shot” to me and he knew it. A defensive back is not supposed to make contact with a receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage unless the receiver touches the ball. Because it was practice, there would be no flag on the play or personal foul. It took me about ten seconds to pick myself up and pull the clump of grass and mud out my cage as my coaches and teammates looked on. Kids didn’t know about pain killers in those days. “Suck it up,” is what the coaches told us when we got crushed. That’s what I did. And so ended another session.
“Chalk talk for defensive backs,” the coach said at the end of practice. That meant some of us had to arrive at the next practice an hour earlier than our teammates. You could hear the moans and groans, but that was part of the game. “Damn. I can’t rest that extra hour,” I told myself. Everything the coaches made us do was necessary for building the team. We had to understand how offensive and defensive plays were used to exploit certain weaknesses of other teams.
The afternoon practice was brutal. The sun was blazing hot. The grass felt like concrete once the moisture evaporated from the soil. My cleats would dig into my feet which made it painful to run and stand. We practiced defensive training at noon. Everyone on the team had to learn to play an offensive and defensive position. During games, some guys played two positions or what we called “both ways.”
I hated those sessions because we ran the entire time—tip drill, interception drill, tackling techniques, bump and run, zone defense and man-to-man coverage. “If it’s man coverage, stay with your man,” the coach would instruct us. “I don’t care where that mother fucker goes, you better stay with him. If your man runs off the field to the snack bar you better be standing in line with him.” All of it required footwork. “If you get beat, don’t get beat deep,” he would say, meaning if your man caught the ball you’d better not allow too many yards of separation, allowing him to score. That meant you’d blown your coverage and set the team back.
Our secondary defense consisted of two cornerbacks and a safety. We never used a fourth free safety, much less a nickel defense which is five defensive backs. I hated covering the run when it was an “option” play because of the two-on-one situation it created with me, the running back, and quarterback who initially carried the ball. If I went for him he’d toss it to the runner outside. If I went after the running back, the quarterback would keep the ball and turned up field. Even though there were outside linebackers and a safety to stop the run, somehow I felt it was my responsibility to do what was seemingly impossible. Zone coverage was no different because it always seemed like two players ran into my zone at the same time. Imagine the frustration of having to do double coverage.
During the interception drill, three of us were spread five yards apart facing the coach. When he raised the ball we ran backwards, peddling, still facing him yelling, “pass!” If he shifted the ball to our right, we back peddled right. If he shifted it left, we’d move in that direction.
Once he threw the ball in the air we all yelled, “ball.” When one of us caught the ball we’d shout, “Pirate!” which was our school mascot. The two free defensive backs ran forward to block for the ball carrier. We ran the entire practice and gave up a lot of sweat.
“You get water when we tell you to,” the coach would say. That almost always meant after practice. I don’t recall any player ever walking away from the practice field to get a drink of water. That was unheard of, and there was never a thermos on the field. We learned quickly to fill up on water before practice and to replenish our bodies afterward. Practice would end with wind sprints. We would run twenty forty-yard dashes. “Hands down, on the line,” the coach would shout. “Set. At the sound of the whistle go.” The whistle controlled a lot of our movement. It told us when to start or stop something. If one of my teammates jogged across the line the coach wouldn’t count that sprint so we’d have to repeat it until twenty acceptable sprints were completed. “That one didn’t count. Number fifty-four wasn’t running,” the coach would say. Some days we’d run about twenty-three forty-yard dashes—an additional one hundred and twenty yards. That’s the length of a football field and both end zones. The twenty forties equaled half mile by itself.
“Get down and put your asses on the chalk line,” was the coaches next demand after our sprints were done. We were out of breath as he’d say, “Hands on your cage. Fifty sit-ups. At the sound of the whistle pull yourselves up and go back down.” And just like the wind sprints, one of my teammates would invariably not sit up at the sound of the whistle. “That one didn’t count,” the coach would say. He let us know that we were going to suffer as a team, lose as a team, and win as a team. “If one man doesn’t pull his weight during a game, we all lose. Do it over.”
And so we did. “Come on goddammit,” a voice from one of my teammates would yell. “I don’t want to be here all fuckin’ day,” another voice would shout. I don’t recall us ever doing more than 55 sit-ups, but some days it sure felt that way. When that ended, we’d finish our endurance with a “gut lap” where’d run as a team around the parameter of the practice field, which was about the size of three football fields. At the end of each practice, our t-shirts and underwear would be soaked with teenage sweat.
“Good practice, men,” the coach would tell us with a few more words of encouragement. “See you at five o’clock sharp.” It wasn’t a reminder, but more of an admonishment. “Four O’clock chalk talk for receivers.” That meant we had to report to our school’s orange and black painted, must-filled weight room adjacent the locker room and showers an hour before the next practice started. We were immune to the smell of the boys locker room because we were boys. We were inoculated with the vaccination to protect our noses in junior high. By the time we entered high school our combined odors in the gym had become a normal part of school. Only the girls noticed the stench of the boys locker room when they passed by the open door, and they’d often tell us about it, as if boys cared.
“Some of you guys may think we’re too hard on you, but one day you’ll thank us,” the coach once said. “A lot of our athletes graduate and go to the military. Some have told us that they wouldn’t have made it through basic training if it had not been for their experience playing high school football.” I’ve always viewed every high school football team as America’s standing military. All prep sports, but especially football prepare young men for the military and beyond.
Between practice sessions, there was little time to do anything else but sleep and eat. This lasted for a little more than a week. I, along with a few friends, walked to and from practice. I lived about two and a half miles up town from my high school. So, in addition to running, drills, hitting, blocking and other conditioning, I walked ten extra miles a day. Every now and then I would catch a ride with someone, but that was rare. There was no such thing as a soccer-mom in the late 1970s. And no one’s mother owned a minivan or SUV. Kids found their own way around. My parents worked during the day, and even if they didn’t I knew better than to expect them to be my personal chauffeur. If I wanted to play football, I had to find a way to get back and forth to practice.
At those chalk talks, we reviewed plays, passing routes and other technobabble that explained the science of the game. The coach would draw Xs and Os on a chalkboard depicting offensive plays and the defensive schemes used to stop them. “Right pro, clear in,” was a pass play the coach explained to us. The pro formation meant the split end receiver lined up on the opposite side of the formation. If the quarterback called left, I lined up on the right and vice versa. I always lined up on the “weak side,” opposite the tight end who made up the strong side of the offensive line. If the formation call was “slot,” I would line up on the side of the formation with another receiver, usually the wingback, slotted next to me. The extra hour of chalk talk cut into my rest time between practices.
Only seven offensive players are allowed on the line of scrimmage. The other four had to line up off the line, or in the backfield. Typically the quarterback, halfback, fullback, and another receiver play off the line. The other receiver in my high school’s offensive scheme was the wingback. I was the seventh man on the offensive line. I played wide receiver as a split end, not the flanker position. If the quarterback called a play he could designate a specific pass route for me by saying “Seven, mecca pass,” or “Seven, deep post.” My job was to know my routes and to listen.
No one but the quarterback spoke in the huddle. However, because receivers at my school alternated in and out of the game every other play we were the ones who got the plays from the coach on the sideline and took them to the quarterback to make the call. The quarterback’s only decision was the snap count for the center: “Set, hike, go.”
“Left pro, thirty-six base isolation, on set,” the quarterback would say in the huddle. That meant I lined up on the right side of the formation. An isolation play simply means the fullback runs inside to block or isolate a defensive player before the quarterback hands off the ball to the halfback. Even though it’s a running play, receivers must still run down field to fake a pass reception which takes the defensive backs away from the run.
Chalk talks also served as the mental part of the game. We had to stay composed, think under pressure and become intimately familiar with each play and be ready to execute it at any time. We had more than a dozen offensive plays and variations of them. During the evening practices, the sun was still in the sky but beginning to set. Because of that, the temperature dropped several degrees as the minutes passed. And so started part three of the day’s hard nosed routine. Evenings, however, were more like game time than other practices because we practiced in scrimmage formations.
Daryl played running back. We’d known each other since seventh grade. I was faster than him but the coaches always clocked him one or two tenths of a second faster than me in the forty-yard dash, even though I would cross the finish line before him. When our times were posted in the locker room people thought he could outrun me. He couldn’t though.
One evening, I was playing defensive back. Daryl broke for a run down the sideline and I was the last defender to stop him from entering the end zone. Not only was I faster than him, I also had the angle on him so I was closing in fast. As I prepared to tackle him on the sideline, he struck my face mask with an opened-hand straight-arm. He caught me in stride with both feet off the grown and I fell on my back as he galloped into the end zone. That was my one and only lesson on the straight arm. “That’ll never happen again,” I told myself. It was better that it happened to me in practice than in a game.
We kept the evening scrimmage going and again Daryl broke for another open run down the sideline, leaving me to stop the touch down. And again I used my speed and angle to stop him. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to straight-arm me again, but just before I moved in, I hesitated. He brought his arm straight up and I paused. Once his arm was extended, he couldn’t use it to drive like a piston. He lost speed and I grabbed his arm and tried to rip it out of its socket when I took him down. Needless to say, he didn’t make it to the end zone.
My high school coaches taught us like uncompromising fathers. And like sons, we thought they were too strict, but fair at times. I respected them because they carried themselves like the man I hoped to become. They were revered for being builders of young minds and bodies just right for the game of football.
Boys have to learn quickly how tough it is to play football. Practice isn’t like boot camp as some may suggest or imagine. It is boot camp. “We’ve separated the men from the boys,” the coach said to those of us players that remained at the end of triple sessions. “Now we know who wants to play football.” That speech made us different from every other boy at school. We were part of the elite because we’d survived hell week.
Very little of what happens in football is fun. Where kids regularly practice to play basketball or baseball and enjoy themselves, with football most of the time spent involves conditioning such as running and hitting each other. It’s only fun when practice ends.
“If Joe Paterno can do it, then I can do it,” the coach said after borrowing a play from Penn State that he saw on television the previous weekend. My coaches put themselves and their players in position to win, not only games but in life. They also decided what offenses and defenses the team would use to accomplish both.
I didn’t play much my sophomore year because I didn’t have the same experience as some of my teammates who’d played several years in the city’s Junior Football League and the freshman season I broke my finger. I was still making progress though. By the end of the year I’d already been running and pole vaulting on the track team for two years, setting records and making a name for myself. My sophomore year ended with me bench pressing 235 pounds—85 pounds above my body weight.
In 1979, I entered my junior year of high school. Football was still on the agenda. I had the triple session routine down by then. I ran and lifted weights all summer. I showed up football ready and knew my plays. The rules afforded juniors the option of playing varsity or junior varsity. I chose the latter to get more playing time. Had I opted to play varsity, I’d be competing with seniors, some who had six years of playing experience versus my one. I made a good decision and was pleased with my performance that year, even though we lost one of the most important games of the season—the classic rivalry between Pittsburg High School and Antioch High School. Some of us cried in the locker room. The coaches said a few words, we dried our tears, and just as we’d learned in practice, we sucked it up and prepared our minds for the next practice, the next game and next year.
I was one of the lead receivers and captain of one game. I still remember my first touchdown against Wooster High School. It was the “seven, mecca pass.” The play was run to the left but broken up in the backfield. The coach saw how much separation I’d made between the corner back so he decided to run the same play on the right side. The touchdown was so easy I couldn’t get excited like I’d hoped. We played about ten games in a season and I averaged a little more than ten yards per catch.
In a game with Fremont High School from Oakland, California, I played on the special team during kick off. “The harder you hit them, the less pain you’ll feel,” one of the coaches said. I was apprehensive, though, when the ball was in the air and I was running down field, and my opponent and I were closing in on each other. As we ran closer, he appeared bigger and bigger.
“Shit,” I thought. “This guy is gonna nail me.” Holding on to my coaches advice, I kept running and closed my eyes at the last second before impact and gave it my all. When I opened my eyes, the other player was in the air falling on his back. Right then, I knew everything was going to get better.
The ’79–’80 was a good school year for me on the athletic field. By then I ran a time of 10.6 seconds in the hundred-yard dash and could also bench press 260 pounds—100 pounds above my body weight. Like pain killers, kids knew nothing about steroids either. My accomplishment with the weights came from untainted strength.
To say I was in tip-top shape in the summer of 1980, when my senior year of football started, would be an understatement. Just as I’d done the previous summer, I ran and worked out every other day. It started with a run to my high school weight room or occasionally to the community college weight room. Five or six sets of six reps on the bench press, pushing two 225 pounds or more in each rep; curls, squats, military press and more. I was the only boy at my school who could do one hundred dips in one set. Unlike the lineman and running backs, I was lean and pretty cut up with sharply defined muscles from years of weight training. I used to joke with my classmates saying, I had more definition than a dictionary. When I finished weight training, I’d run home to complete my workout.
There were no more triple sessions because football was changing at the dawn of the new decade. Our practices became known as “double days” where we practice twice a day instead of three. I was faster than all but about four of my teammates. It didn’t matter though, because they were either running backs or wing backs. I was still playing the split end position.
But it seemed like my talent was going unnoticed. I ran the hardest in practice, coming in first on all wind sprints. I was hitting and catching not so much to stand out individually, but to make my competition look bad in the coaches eyes. There was one problem though; the coaches never let us challenge a teammate for his position. This was a deal breaker for me. Not getting the recognition I believed I deserved and facing the prospect of playing behind guys who I was better than didn’t set well with me. To make matters worse, the school purchased new uniforms and helmets for the varsity team but failed to order game jersey number 86.
That was my number starting in my freshman year. It was the number people were expecting to see me wear on game day. Instead, I had to settle for jersey number 89. To me, that was an omen.
I had a good track season the previous year as a junior and believed my senior year was filled with promise, so I decided it was time for me to quit the football team and prepare for my final track season. I didn’t want to quit the football team before officially receiving my game uniform to play in our first out-of-town scrimmage. I couldn’t let it be said that I quit because I couldn’t take it. There was nothing at stake by then. I was already on the team. I knew what I was capable of doing and so did everyone else. I was playing for me; not my family or friends. I simply loved the game and wanted to be a part of it, if only for a short time. Long story short, I took a team and individual photo in my new uniform, attended one more practice and then walked into the coaches office and told him I was quitting. I don’t recall him looking up, and he definitely didn’t ask me why or try to discourage me. “Okay, turn in your uniform,” is all he said. Satisfied that I had endured triple sessions for three seasons and one season of double days, I quit. For a long time I had a few hard feelings about the matter, but like high school I had to let it go. Out of curiosity though, I’d wanted to know what the coaches were thinking by passing me over.
Sometime after quitting the varsity team, I was in the football locker room during PE talking shit, about what I don’t recall. An assistant coach responded to my trash talking. “A lot of people were expecting big things out of you this year, Sawyer,” he said. After he said that, I felt empty inside, as though I’d let him, myself, and my team down. It hurt me and I left the locker room wondering why not one of my coaches had expressed those words to me sooner. The recognition would have made all the difference to me. The coaches did notice me. My hard work stood out like I thought it would. But it was too late. I’d already quit the team. Once you do that, there’s no returning until next season. I was a senior, so there would be no next year or season.
When I started the ninth grade, our freshman football team, where I broke my finger during practice, beat the freshman football team from Antioch High School. I predicted then that if we kept that momentum we’d win the big game our senior year. After I quit the varsity team my senior year, not only did they go on to beat Antioch in the big game, they won the division in the old Diablo Valley Athletic League and went on to play and win championship at the Oakland Coliseum where the NFL’s Oakland Raiders play. I attended the game and supported my team all the way because I was still one of them.
My track season didn’t go as planned because of an injury to my left foot—another mild unforeseen heartbreak. With my senior year coming to a close, I had to focus on a job and college. I had no interest in competing at the collegiate level, although an assistant coach from Arizona State University told me they’d be “interested” in me if I performed at a certain level in track and field. A couple of community colleges tried to court me too, but I passed.
In the spring of 1981, at the age of 17, I graduated on time with my class. It was all over, but I’d pushed myself athletically to the last day. I’d endured four consecutive years of hell week with my class and friends. At five feet, eleven inches and one hundred and sixty pounds, I’d achieved another milestone. I was one of about five boys at my high school who bench pressed 300 pounds, nearly double my body weight. The others were lineman who weighed two hundred pounds or more. It wasn’t a competition between me and them, just another goal accomplished before graduation.
I’d set many goals for myself, and each time they were accomplished I changed and became more confident in my abilities. I knew I could do anything I set my mind to because I was a Pirate, and almost a man.
Forty years ago, I was a high school freshman, a growing boy trying to find his way, but I found so much more. Those four years that I was involved with football are good memories—even that broken finger. The “cheap shot” by Louis, the straight arm by Daryl, the extra sit-ups and wind sprints, the coaches yelling, chalk talks, weight training, and grass drills were all normalized violence. Although it was painful, I gained more than I lost in the end so I have no regrets. It was all part of learning.
The so-called violence and tough guy stuff is only relevant on the field. The best athletes are gentle off the field. That’s the other mental game one learns if they’re wise. I call it self-control, discipline. Oh yeah, boys cry too. So do men, at least the tough ones do.
After all these years, I realize even more that it was never about the game. It was about life. Football taught me about that as much as it schooled me about myself. Sometimes as a player you don’t know what you want until long after you realize you have it. That’s part of unlocking some of the mystery of the game and life. Mine was the life skill of teamwork, discipline, setting goals, and accomplishing them. I never thought to thank my coaches for those lessons. As kids, we tend to not think about things like that, but I can certainly pay it forward and thank high school coaches today. They do far more than they ever receive credit for, and they don’t do it for themselves. They do it for boys who will become men. And those men will train other boys to become men.
In the ensuing forty years, I’ve used my football skills to endure 14 years in and out of different colleges until I finally received my bachelor’s degree. I trekked through corporate America’s telecommunications industry working 14 years at several companies, and now twenty-plus years as prisoner in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
College, corporate, and corrections. I’ve done a lot since high school; I’ve traveled around the world, fathered a child, run San Francisco’s famous 12 kilometer Bay to Breakers race for 11 straight years, trained for and completed two mini triathlons, two duathlons, and more. But still, to this day, none of it has been as physically and mentally challenging as high school football.
It’s an unforgettably, lifelong, rewarding experience, to have been a football player. Because of it, I’m in the fifth quarter and still in the game of life. Thanks coach.