In college, I went on a date with the son of my mother’s coworker. I couldn’t remember if his name was Jason or Justin, so I spent the entire night maneuvering my way out of saying his name. He... [+]
A terrifying, deafening bellow filled the room.
Old gray trash cans had been overturned in the cramped locker room, and seniors on the football team were banging loudly on them with their cleats. Luke hurried to finish his shower and go home. He did not want to be involved in this.
Every year, in the final week of summer football practices, there was a tradition—the seniors would choose one of the freshmen and teach him some humility. Luke was aware of the tradition, but he didn’t know what it entailed. It was his first time trying out for football.
He knew some of the veteran players on the team because his brother Matt, a senior, had friends on the team. During practices, Luke called Matt’s friends by their first names, the way he did when they were at his house. They made it clear to him that this was a mistake at football practice. Luke wondered if he had violated some kind of code. On the football field, he wasn’t Matt’s younger brother—he was just a freshman. He was just a kid.
After a quick shower, Luke tried to squeeze past two older players who were standing in the doorway. In a few minutes, he hoped to be out the door and walking on Yates Street, heading for home.
A hand closed tightly around Luke’s bicep and a voice called out to the others.
“I think we have our bad boy! Come on, guys!”
The younger players looked away and hurried to get dressed and leave the locker room quickly. They understood that they were all vulnerable; nobody stayed to see what happened to their teammate.
Luke felt his wet, naked body being tossed like a rag around the shower room. The terrifying sound of the steel drums grew louder.
“You have a bad attitude, freshman! We don’t like it. You need to learn who’s in charge. It’s the seniors! NOT THE CRAPPY FRESHMEN!”
Luke tried to fight back, but the wild swings of a ninth grader against twenty seniors were futile. Out of fear and exhaustion, he gave up. He felt powerless and frustrated, like a turtle on its back. “Please, just stop,” was his only answer to the cruelty of the mob.
He was thrown to the hard floor, feeling the slippery cold tiles on his back. Looking up, he saw that he was surrounded by football players wearing only towels, chanting “Pinkbelly! Pinkbelly!”
After snapping towels on his chest and belly a few times, the older players took turns slapping Luke’s belly while their friends held him on the floor. The “Pinkbelly” chant and the pounding drums continued.
Luke quietly begged them, “Please, stop doing this.”
Luke could not estimate how long the varsity team had been terrorizing him. He had lost track of time, and lost hope that he would be released. The abuse seemed to have no beginning and no end. Finally, the door to the coach’s office opened a few inches, and a husky voice called out, “Enough, guys. Leave the kid alone. You’ve had your fun.”
The slapping was over. The ear-splitting sound of the drums had ended. Luke slowly raised his sore, naked body from the sloppy wet floor while his attackers laughed. He dressed quickly and left the building, unable to stop sobbing.
He ran home, more than a mile, and had no appetite for dinner. Although it was one of his favorite meals, fried chicken, Luke’s mother could see that he was too upset to eat.
That evening Luke spoke with his dad, a football star in his youth, about the ugly incident in the showers. The sobbing was over; now, Luke was consumed with anger. They sat together on the couch in a quiet living room, while the rest of the family found something else to do. Everyone knew that Luke and his dad needed time together.
“I didn’t do anything wrong, dad. I hate those guys! I hate that team! I’m never going back there. I would never want to be on a team with those guys.”
His dad agreed that this football team might not be Luke’s best choice.
“Think about why you tried out for football in the first place, OK? Maybe you were there because one of your brothers is a running back on the JV team, or because I was once a football player. Do you think it was because football gets a lot of attention? That’s not really like you, Luke. You don’t care about attention, and you have never tried to be like other people.”
“Yeah, you’re right, Dad. I guess I just won’t go back.” Luke raised his shoulders and sat up straight. “My problem is solved.”
His dad drew a deep breath, and responded. “I can see why you don’t want to be on the team. You ran all the way home just to get away from those guys. But if you’re not at practice tomorrow, they’ll think you’re too scared to face them.”
Luke jumped out of his seat. “I’m not scared of those guys, Dad! They’re jerks. They’re bullies!”
“Then show them, Luke. Go to football practice tomorrow. They don’t expect to see you. Don’t be shy. Look them in the eyes when you’re putting on your pads. Play hard. Show them that Luke Richardson can’t be pushed around by a mob of bullies.”
Luke liked this approach. His dad continued.
“There will be two more practices before they announce the cuts. What do you want to do then? What if you make the team?”
Luke thought for a few seconds. “I’ll probably make the team. I’ve been playing well. But I think I’m gonna tell the coach ‘No thanks’. He knew it was me on the floor. He knew they were beating on me. You could hear the noise a block away! He’ll understand why he lost a good player.”
His dad sat back and smiled. He had a smart son; this boy had a backbone and self-respect, and he was proud.
“But you like sports, Luke. You wanted to participate in something this fall.”
“Dad, when I left the school today I was sobbing, just like a little kid. It was humiliating. I ran all the way through the city to get home, and I didn’t even think about the distance. Running home helped me to feel good about myself, like I was in control instead of them. Maybe I’ll join the cross country team. It’s the opposite of football in every possible way, don’t you think?”
“I do, Luke. But this is more important—I think running is what YOU really want to do. You were made to run fast on trails, not to hit people and grunt. Don’t try to be like someone else. Be yourself, Luke. At the end of the day, nothing can feel better than that."