I know what you’re thinking: the words “achievement” and “croquet” don’t belong in the same sentence. That I would even think to share these two should help to emphasize the “silence” of my athletic career.
My other accomplishments on or near a court or field include making my tennis coach cry and, thanks to straight As, earning the privilege of spanking the head football coach with a paddle. The coach would give underperforming players a light whack or two; this was more for the entertainment of the other players than for punishment.
A dentist appointment exempted me from this prestigious honor, which was probably for the best. I didn’t trust myself not to use that paddle to give my coach something to remember me by. I sure wasn’t going to be catching a touchdown pass anytime soon.
I had this epiphany the other day: being an average athlete helped me to develop a good sense of humor. At best, I was a utility player, and compensated for my inability to remember defensive schemata by making jokes and offering words of encouragement to the more talented players.
I certainly wasn’t going to win the hearts of girls with my heroic acts on the field, so I’d better have a winning personality.
During my eighth grade year at David Lipscomb Middle School, I distinguished myself by sustaining the worst broken leg in the history of the football program.
What was strange about the accident was that I had read the play perfectly. The fullback was running a sweep to my side, and my job as the cornerback was to “scrape the alley,” beat the half-back by a step or two, and make the tackle behind the line of scrimmage. My left leg was the one behind me, which meant I was a step ahead of the fullback.
If my customary hesitation—my attempt to control an inherently chaotic situation—had kicked in, the half-back wouldn’t have accidentally planted his full while on my calf muscle while my left leg was fully extended behind me.
But he did, and I heard a loud pop.
The next thing I remember was sitting up on the ground and contemplating a bizarre sight: my knee pointing up at the sky the way it was supposed to, and my left foot flopped over on its left side.
That doesn’t look right, my sluggish brain said in a voice sounding like Eeyore’s.
My hands fumbled forward, and I pulled up my tights. I then felt down my knee to the shin. Where before I had always felt the reassuring hardness of bone and firmness of muscle, I now felt jelly. The tibia and fibula had disappeared, and the empty skin had been pumped full of yogurt.
A seventh grader named Chip walked by, glanced at my leg, said “Ewww,” and kept walking to the locker room.
Thanks for your concern, buddy. And by the way, “Chip” is a stupid name.
I used my right leg to stand up and watch my left leg dangle and sway.
Oh, that’s not good, my brain said.
I sat back down and proceeded to mutter, “Oh, crap. Oh, crap. Oh, crap,” over and over again.
The coaches eventually noticed, and before long, both of the middle school coaches, and at least three of the high school coaches were crouched around me.
How many football coaches does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
I don’t know. But it takes five to make a kid with a broken leg feel claustrophobic.
You know how someone saying, “Calm down,” makes you angry even if you weren’t before? Well, the same holds true for traumatic events. Some sports medicine clown in a polo shirt with an embroidered logo saying, “Just try to relax,” will only make you want to scream.
“Just try to relax” serves only to remind you that something crappy just happened to you moments ago. Doctors sometimes say that sort of thing, in which case they mean, “Hey, I’m about to stick a sharp piece of metal in your vein.”
Two people actually did help me to relax: Scott Tillman and Jim Armstrong. At the time Scott worked as a youth minister at Hillsboro Church of Christ. I had attended Hillsboro’s church camp the summer before, along with the camp run by my church, Harpeth Hills Church of Christ. Scott was kneeling somewhere near my left ear and asking me question after question about what I liked about each camp.
I remember thinking that I had more important things to think about than whether or not Hillsboro should use a brackets system to lend a more competitive spirit to camp sports, but he successfully steered my mind, and any latent panic, away from my broken bones.
Jim Armstrong simply held my hand. I don’t think he said a word the entire time. He was in college at the time and interning with the high school program. He had shattered one of his legs in a skiing accident and spent over a year recuperating. More than anyone else, he knew the uncertainty, frustration, and disappointment that a broken leg brought to the life of an active male.
My football season had ended before it began.
And I also think what confidence that took: for a twenty-one year old guy to hold the hand of a fifteen-year-old boy whom he didn’t know without it seeming weird or inappropriate. Yet, this small gesture was the most comforting thing that happened that day. I never thanked him. My parents soon arrived, and then, the ambulance.
A blur of people had situated my leg in an air cast and loaded me into the ambulance. The EMT asked if I felt any pain.
“No,” I said.
“Well, you must have a really high tolerance,” he said.
He probably just wanted to make me feel good, to give extra pluck. It worked.
I still need to thank Jim.