I Cried Today
Atlanta. Spoke last night at the Margaret Mitchell House. (She wrote “Gone With the Wind.”) About a hundred people showed. I read from River and they asked questions for an hour. I’d been here before with Dance but that was six years ago and we had to pay to rent out the space. Guaranteed with a credit card. Times change. Last night we gave no credit card.
Woke this morning. Spent an hour in the fitness center. Thinking about the town I was in. How long it’d been. My mind wandered.
Merged onto I-75 South. Drove past Georgia Tech. Something tugged at the wheel. I pulled off at North Avenue. The Varsity on my left. Smith Hall on my right. My dorm. Where I buried my face in my pillow after the doctor gave me the news.
Drove down past the stadium, over to the practice field. I cold still hear our cleats clacking on the asphalt as we walked to practice. All promise. All dream. All hope and possibility.
I’ve got a picture of me when I was four. Staring through a blue plastic football helmet. A worn football under my left hand gripped like Staubach and Bradshaw. Cowboy boots like my dad. He played for the Gators in the 50’s. Started. Scored a touchdown. As a center. He used to tell me stories.
As a sophomore in high school, I worked out twice a day. Track in the morning. Before school. Hour and a half. Weights at night. Two hours. Followed by more sprints. Weight gain milkshakes at midnight. Wake up and do it all over. By the time I was a senior, I was starting. Captain. Drooling for Division 1.
It was not drooling for me. Recruiting season passed. I got one phone call. Georgia Tech. “We think you’ve got heart. Would you like to walk on? Maybe earn a spot.”
I bought a GT cap and wore it to sleep.
I parked. Walked across the street. Hung on the fence. Stared through the chain link. Nineteen years ago. Half my life. Felt like yesterday.
The orange rubber track sat on my right. On my second day, we ran what they call the 12-minute run. Second place. A quarter lap behind Willie Clay. He was one of the most highly recruited freshmen in the States. He became a four-year starter. Helped them win a National Championship in 1990. Went on the play with the Patriots. Won a Super Bowl. I made the practice squad. Dressed out for the home games. Played in the JV game against Georgia.
On my left, the green grass rolled out. Worn in the middle. Where I made a few interceptions. Heard my name called. Got the tape pulled off my helmet by a Senior. Made Rookie of the week. Twice. ‘Earn a spot’ echoed in my ears. I’d stand at the pay phone, call home and talk to my dad.
My eyes drifted. The far sideline. The tape slows. I rub my back.
We were doing sideline drills. I remember his name. He was 6’5”. 255 lbs. A Greek God. The coaches used to say he ‘had all the tools.’ And, ‘He’d play at the next level.’ I was 5’11”. 190. Mortal.
We hit. He ran back to the huddle.
I lie on the ground. Something had clicked in my back. I stared up through my facemask. Nobody had to tell me. I limped back to the locker room. It hurt to inhale. To shower. To pee. The x-rays confirmed it. Something was wrong with L5. A hairline crack.
“Can I play?”
“Not if you want to keep walking.”
He shook his head. “I’d like to put you in a body cast.”
The chain link was cutting in to my fingers. A tear trickled off my nose. Landed on the concrete. Where do dreams go when you can’t dream them anymore?
I wiped my nose, walked across the street. The meter had expired. I drove slowly past the coach’s offices. The back door had not moved. His office was two floors up.
It was early. 5 am. The day after. I didn’t want anybody to see me. “Coach…” Coach Ross looked up from his desk. I didn’t’ know what to do with my hands. “I…I can’t play for you anymore.”
“Have a seat, Charlie.”
I shook my head. “Sir…it just hurts too much.” He’d already heard.
I was a nobody, but when I got home, he’d sent me a two page handwritten letter. I still have it. For the record—I would have run into hell and slapped the devil in the mouth if he had asked.
I left his office, and packed up my locker in the dark. So no one saw me. I remember standing in the dark, inhaling. One last time.
I walked out alone. Shoulder pads slung over my shoulder. Limped home. Scratching my head. “Who am I and what the hell do I do now?” The perfect storm swirled above me. It would last a while. Ask Christy.
Last night, I was standing at the podium, a few blocks from the practice field. Somebody asked me, “How can you write about loss and pain? You’re so young. How do you know?” The answer lies somewhere in this. Somewhere on that practice field. Somewhere in the thousands of hours I spent running, lifting and getting ready to get there. Somewhere in my dreams which were always much bigger than me.
I might not look like much. Not very big. Not very fast. You probably wouldn’t pick me first. Maybe I was Rudy before there was a Rudy. But, if you could line me up next to my teammates, peel away our skin and measure our hearts, desire, love of football, mine would have measured up. You may think that’s silly. The grown up part of me is tempted to agree with you. But the kid in the blue helmet begs to differ. That kid would suit up right now. Walk down into hell. And to be honest, he’s the one writing the stories.
I merged south on I-75. Then I-20 West. Birmingham. Wondering. Looking in the rear view mirror. If I knew then what I know now, would I do it all over?
Folks who don’t know me and read my stories look at me as a writer. They see the picture on the back of the book. Me wearing a sport coat. Looking writerly. I look in the mirror and see a kid in a blue helmet. Scuffed knees.
Every writer has their prescription for how to become one. Books are written on the subject. I own several. Some are quite good.
People ask me, “What do I need to do to become a writer.”
I think back to my process of getting published. The 80-something rejection letters. All the folks who shook their head. If I’m honest, I’ll say, “Play with your heart. Get up when you fall down. And…dream big.”