The 1985 Malvern Cowboys Football Team finished the season with zero wins against six losses. Worse still, the Cowboys scored exactly two touchdowns that year – all in the same in game. The remaining five games ended in soul-crushing shutouts.
Looking back, it’s difficult to find the source of failure for my sixth-grade football squad. We had athletes. We had size. We had a coach whose addictive energy seemed borrowed from Frankenstein’s lightening. The 1985 Malvern Cowboys had the pieces to win, but what might have been missing was the will.
Our two largest players, Lynn and Willie, were two hundred pound pacifists too good-natured to apply a menacing hit. In a moment of inspirational desperation, Coach dubbed the reluctant pair The Powder Puff Twins. The assault on their affable egos had no effect.
The best athlete on the club was Aaron, the only sixth-grader in the world who could make his pectoral muscles dance like Super Macho Man. He spent his afternoons jogging and lifting weights. Meanwhile, the only exercise his peers saw came in the shape of Mario leaping over digital turtles and cartoon mushrooms. A hit from Aaron generally cleared your nasal passages while filling up your medical file.
As either a form of motivation or punishment (it was never clear which), Coach engineered an exercise designed to put twelve-year-old boys in traction. The concept was basic enough: put twenty yards between two players, and then have them collide at maximum speed. There was a kind of poetry to it, if poetry broke teeth.
One afternoon, during another listless Malvern Cowboys practice, Coach announced that we would conclude the day with the torture most recently described. To everyone’s misfortune, Coach assigned the Powder Puff Twins to duty first, and we were treated to a pair of lumbering behemoths charging one another at breakneck speed, only to meet in the middle like diplomats at a cocktail party. Coach was outraged.
“You call that a hit?” Coach screamed, the blast of hot hair from his inflamed nostrils compelling the brave hairs of his black moustache to cling heroically to his upper-lip. Coach threw his clipboard to the ground. “Aaron! Front and center!”
Aaron was as laid back as they come, and the prospect of dishing out pain to lesser physical specimens wasn’t exactly a pleasure for him. You could see the reluctance in his half-sprint to center stage. But this gave comfort to no one. When the whistle blew, mercy took five.
“Who has the guts to challenge Aaron?” shouted Coach, his arms crossed. The rest of us studied our cleats. There was no way anyone was going to volunteer to hit Aaron. He had knocked the breath and rung the bells out of too many Cowboys. You might imagine my surprise when I heard my brother’s voice declare, “Me, Coach!”
“Get in here!” responded Coach, pleased to have a martyr. My brother (we’ll call him “Pierce”) jogged to position, his plastic shoulder-pads clattering against his slender frame. Pierce’s position on the team was defensive safety, the kind of position that calls for ankle tackles in an open backfield. Head-on collisions against players twice his body mass were not on the job description. My teammates smirked as Pierce assumed the three-point stance. Even the Powder Puff Twins exchanged a muted chuckle. Like them, I knew this would not end well.
I wondered what I would tell our mother.
I envisioned a future with my own room.
Coach blew his whistle and the two boys charged towards one another like miniature rhinos. The silence among us only amplified the cacophony of the sudden impact, and I watched in a mixture of horror and amusement as my brother’s body was launched backwards as though ejected from a Stone Age catapult.
“Ewwwww!” moaned the Cowboys.
Aaron bent over Pierce’s prostate body and said through his rubber mouthpiece, “You all right?”
Before Pierce could piece together an answer, Coach had sprinted over and hoisted my brother to his feet by his shoulder pads. “Now that’s how you hit somebody!” he pronounced as Pierce readjusted his eyeglasses through the face guard of his helmet. That’s when it became clear to the rest of us that my brother had earned the Coach’s admiration, a commodity as rare and as valuable as gemstones.
As a twelve-year old football player, the Young Angry Czeck lacked all the key ingredients for success.
I was short. I was light. I was slow – incredibly slow! The common misconception is that short-and-light kids are squirrelly quick. This might apply to most, but not to angry Czechs! Our sturdy legs are built for kicking teeth, not sprinting into end zones. Of course, I was too young to embrace my destiny, leaving Coach with the unappetizing task of finding a position for me.
He settled on tailback. Really, there is no positioned more ill-suited to The Angry Czeck than tailback. One requires a burst of breakaway speed to sprint around the scrimmage line in order to be an effective tailback. Conversely, I lead the league in getting tackled behind the line-of-scrimmage. If I had the size to bowl over defenders, I might have made some impact at the position. But no dice. I found myself angrily occupying the bench the first two games of the season.
When your team position is BENCH, it’s hard to muster enthusiasm for practice. All the drills and the exercises seem pointless, especially when you’re missing your Transformers cartoon. After awhile, you begin to look for opportunities to pluck entertainment from the mundane.
“Damn it!” screamed Coach, hurling his clipboard so that it stuck into the ground like a bayonet. “Who on this team has the stones to play nose guard?”
It’s difficult to imagine a position in football more ill suited to the Angry Czeck than nose guard, a position reserved for chunky fireplug types with no necks. Situated smack in the middle of the defensive line, the nose guard was guaranteed the bulk of physical action, even if that action was generally applying his weight to the guy in front of him. Really, it was an assignment for one of the Powder Puff Twins, so imagine my surprise when I heard my voice shout, “Me, Coach!”
If my teammates snickered, I didn’t hear them. Maybe because we had yet to win or score during the season, and that any change was welcome. Or maybe because I was focused like a laser, and all I could hear was my brain screaming for me to get back to the sideline. Regardless, I took my new place on the defensive line and assumed a four-point stance before the center. (That’s the guy who hikes the football to the quarterback, Girl Ragers!)
The ball was snapped and my cheetah-like reflexes sprung into awesome action. It was in that lightening-quick moment when I became acutely aware of a condition that exists only between sixth-grade boys: the bigger you are, the clutzier you are. Like a human harpoon, I aimed for my opponent’s midsection and watched him tumble over his heels, bowling over the quarterback in the process.
Coach was blowing the hell out of his whistle. “Good play, Czeck! That’s how we hit a guy!”
For the remainder of the season, I was the starting nose guard for the 1985 Malvern Cowboys. Before long, I was the starting center too. While I was too slow to carry the ball out of the backfield, I was a freaking lightening bolt in the trenches, where guys twice my size had yet to properly grow into their knees.
By the end of the season, opposing coaches were lining up much smaller guys against me. That was good strategy. All I had going for me was a gimmick, and nearly everyone in the league was a better athlete than The Angry Czeck. Still, it was too little too late. After our final game, Coach awarded me a certificate naming me the best defensive and offensive lineman on the team. Perhaps this was only a ceremonial honor, considering we failed to win a single game. But I often dust off the old frame when an injection of personal inspiration is required.
Archie wasn’t the first person to tell me he was going to make my brother cry that week. But his threat was the only one I took personally.
Travis was our quarterback. Like the rest of our team, he was not the prototypical athlete for the position to which he was assigned. He wasn’t tall and he weighed nearly twice the amount of a housecat, but he make up for his shortcomings with intelligence and grit. It helped that our playbook didn’t contain many passing plays. Our offensive strategy generally involved a hand-off to Aaron.
A week before our next-to-last game of the season, Travis got blitzed by a case of the measles. Imagine my surprise when, after Coach asked for volunteers to fill the position, I heard my brother’s voice rise from the crowd of boys.
“Me, Coach,” said Pierce, and he was given the playbook.
As the starting center, it was my privilege to have my brother’s hands pressed against my ass-crack for the week. We exchanged hundreds of snaps in an effort to acclimate Pierce to his new and unfamiliar duties. Pierce was no natural, but by the last practice, he was at least serviceable.
Meanwhile, word had leaked throughout the middle school that Pierce was the new starting quarterback for the Malvern Cowboys. The bulletin seemed especially delightful to members of our week’s opponent, the Malvern Raiders. Sacks Ahoy! Several Raiders made it a point to express their predictions of the outcome to me personally.
One such prognosticator was Archie, a rotund moon who might have swallowed a wrecking ball as an infant. Archie was, in fact, one hell of a nice guy. But like all of us, he got caught up in the exhuberance of trash talk, and he let it be known that it was his intention to make my brother cry.
Archie would be lining up opposite me as the Malvern Raiders nose guard. Which meant he had to get through me to reach Pierce. Archie was one of the better (and heavier) players in the League, but The Angry Czeck knew something that he didn’t: there was no way I was going to let him put a hand on my brother.
Of course, a brazen vow made in social studies class is easier pledged than executed once you’re standing before a guy that was once mistaken for the giant boulder that nearly crushed Indiana Jones. Archie was all business that night as I took my position between Lynn and Willie. Like Ivan Drago, he pointed a meaty finger into my facemask and snarled, “You.”
Once I snapped the ball, I realized that by “you,” Archie meant “The Angry Czeck!” I lowered my head and planted my shoulder pads into Archie’s midsection. Archie responded by falling on top of me. BOOF! I was compacted into the earth like a nickel pressed in Play-Doh®. Pierce, meanwhile, was sacked behind the line of scrimmage. But not by Archie.
The entire game that evening could be summarized by that opening play: “Pierce is sacked behind the line of scrimmage, but not by Archie.” Once again, the Malvern Cowboys endured another brutal loss. Not only did Pierce receive more sacks than a Food Center bag-boy, he tossed an ugly interception to boot. In the end, our offense failed to gain even one yard.
What we did gain, however, was dignity. And if it wasn’t dignity, it was at least a sense of purpose. And if it wasn’t purpose, then it might have been a free Coke® after the game. Regardless, I made good my pledge to keep Archie away from Pierce, who contrary to propaganda issued by the sinister Malvern Raiders the next day, never once shed a tear.
During the first week of the 7th grade, the Angry Czeck found himself standing in military formation alongside forty other boys, beneath a blistering August sun, wearing a full assortment of football padding and a white canvas practice jersey. The jersey was standard issue for seventh graders. The nice breathable, cotton jerseys were reserved for the 8th and 9th graders. Standing in a canvas jersey on a sweltering day was like suffocating inside a copper keg. I tried not to combust as I watched the coaches quiz each boy individually.
When the two coaches finally arrived to me, I was ready for them. I knew the answers in advance.
“What’s your name, son?” asked Coach C, a mustachioed, charasmatic man who was only a shoe-heel taller than me. I gave him my name. His assistant coach, a younger, tanner man named Baker, scribbled “Czeck, Angry” onto his clipboard.
“What position did you play last year?”
“Nose guard and center.”
Baker stopped scribbling. A grin surfaced beneath Coach C’s mustache. Within seconds, I would know if I had earned the coaching staff’s respect or their ridicule.
“You’re kidding me, Czeck.”
And then they started chortling. A chortle sounds like this: Hehhehheheheheh, and it goes on for an uncomfortably long period of time. So long, that I could feel another pound evaporate from my 90-pound body beneath my canvas practice jersey.
“Put him down for safety and split end,” managed Coach C, and the two coaches cheerfully advanced to he next sweaty boy.