Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 2

Part 2 - Move-In

(you can read Part 1 - Recruiting here

[NB: though I'd love to include pictures of this year in each installment, precious few such photos exist of me, or the team in general. Whether this speaks to my unpopularity or the futility of the season is up for debate. Regardless, I have attempted to fill in the gaps with generic photos of Haverford's picturesque campus.]

Walton Field. The grandstand's capacity is listed at 1,000,
a preposterously unsafe number that was thankfully circumvented by moribund attendance.
Photo comes from Haverford Athletics website.
Every day of the summer between high school and college was identical: campers screamed up and down the hall outside my makeshift camp office, counselors tried to corral them into their activities, and I sat on a chair designed for a third grader and refreshed my browser. This was in 2007, before Google had fully wrapped its benevolent tentacles around the internet, so Haverford used an archaic client called Squirrelmail. A username and login instructions had arrived in the mail that spring and by the end of the summer, my monitor had the dull gray and red color scheme burned onto its screen. It was clunky but exhilarating, since any new email meant tidings from college. My excitement at having access to college email before setting foot on campus provides a neat, photo-negative comparison to the present day, where I'm constantly annoyed that Haverford has my contact information long after I've departed. In particular, the soccer team had already begun communicating. The coach sent out information about preseason practices, and the captains sent out reminders to keep up our conditioning. The tone of these emails was dry and diplomatic: with the administration cc'ed, the players corresponded with all the gravitas teenagers can muster to the written word. Notices often began with "Gentlemen," and ended with "Best," formalities that, I would learn, belied the personalities sending them. Nevertheless, I hung on tenterhooks for each new message, desperate to glean some insight into the upcoming fall.

My friend Scott paid a lot of visits to my office after dropping his campers at the gym to throw things at each other. He'd gone to my high school and was a rising senior at Haverford. He was unfailingly positive about the place, with none of the cynicism lodged in many upperclassmen, who wander through an academic Xanadu full of friends and opportunities and loudly declare it to be bullshit. When I told him I was attending his college, he transformed into a font of tidbits and advice about campus life. He told me which professors taught the easy courses and which thought A's and F's should be distributed in equal proportions and with equal alacrity. A housing survey arrived, and Scott offered pointers on how to answer it so I'd be placed in a good dorm. Barclay, he said, was the nicest option for freshmen. The apartments were a good second choice. "You don't want to end up in Gummere," he warned. "It's awful." Later, he looked over my shoulder as I opened my housing assignment. "it's fine," he said, putting a consoling hand on my shoulder. "Gummere's fine."

He also passed along his knowledge of the soccer team. Without faces to refer to, I retained the information only as a series of general affirmations. They were all, in Scott's opinion, good guys. This was comforting in the abstract, but in a more concrete sense, they were competition. Whether the coach had said how many men he intended to keep on the roster, or I had extrapolated from the size of my high school team, I counted the addresses on our group email chain and did the math in my head. Where some might dream of starting or being named captain, I calculated the minimum number of players I'd need to surpass and clung to that number like campers did to our necks during free swim.

As incentive to keep us in shape, the captains began soliciting and compiling logs of our workouts, which they posted each week. I took meticulous notes of my exercise and sent them in, only to discover that everyone else's summaries read like water-cooler pleasantries. "Ran on mon wed fri," and "lifted and ran this week" buttressed my wall of text: "Monday, shoulder press 10 reps at 75 lbs., 10 reps at 80 lbs...." In the following weeks, I was more guarded but no less competitive. I stacked up my exercise next to my future teammates' descriptions, wondering if I was doing enough. Coach Joe announced that we'd each need to run 2 miles under 12 minutes in order to be considered for the team. With neither a workout guide nor common sense, I eschewed running and playing soccer in favor of upper-body weightlifting, perhaps hoping to flex my way around the track when the time came.

As camp wound down, I began pulling my dorm room necessities together. This was not difficult; I avoided decoration for most of my life, perhaps out of some fear of being mocked for it. Thus, my packing amounted to stuffing the contents of my dresser into a large duffel bag, and tossing a few amenities into a preposterously heavy metal crate. We ordered a laptop through the school's catalog, but a back-order meant it arrived at my parents' house in late October. It may interest the reader to learn Dell is no longer a publicly-traded company. I mowed the lawn and walked the dog and listened to Gwen Stefani on my iPod. My friends and I held the manic, funerary parties typical of high school graduates; we knew deep down fall would stretch us apart like an old sweater, the threads unbroken but loose. If anyone had tried that metaphor on us at the time, however, we would have taken turns making fart noises until they left the room.

On August 19th, my mom, dad, and I piled into our Corolla and, to use another my dad's favorite phrases, "shoved off." I chose what I figured to be my least embarrassing outfit. The novelty T-shirts I wore throughout high school remained stowed in my duffel or back in my closet in Baltimore. Instead, I opted for my one polo shirt, cargo shorts (least embarrassing), and black sneakers. The ride up was pleasant and contemplative, spanning highways that I'd come to regard fondly over the next four years.

Brochures love to say the campus is "nestled" in whatever borough or city, but Haverford just sort of sits on the main drag of a Pennsylvania township with the same name. The street's businesses - coffee house, clothing store, brunch place - simply drop off where the boundaries of the college start. The campus itself is beautiful and serene, with no through-ways for non-college traffic. We pulled into the entryway past a guard booth manned only by a leaning stop sign. In four years, I never saw anyone occupy the booth, or even a change in the sign's position. We eased over precipitous speed bumps, and the alarm clock and lamp in my crate jostled loudly on each landing. 

Gummere Hall, my freshman year dorm. I also spent sophomore and junior year here, completing an achievement known at Haverford as a "bad decision." Photo by Jack English.

We parked and I retrieved my key and ID card from a woman in the lobby of the athletic center, who pointed me towards my dorm. Gummere stands in defiant opposition to the otherwise stately architecture of the campus. Built in the 70's, it consists of three 3-story sections, each set at slightly different heights, so that traveling between them involves ascending or descending half a flight of stairs. There are exits on either side and little to distinguish the 9 hallways. A popular campus rumor intimated that it was constructed to be riotproof, but the truth is far more mundane: Haverford simply lacked the funds to level the ground during construction, so it was built on the natural incline of the terrain.

I deposited my belongings in a trapezoidal room and my mom helped make my bed, a last mom gesture that I deeply appreciated. We returned to the athletic center, where the soccer team's introductory meeting was meant to take place, and stood awkwardly for a moment. I hugged them both goodbye, but seeing other student-athletes milling about, I detached quicker than normal. As they departed, I looked around. My neuroses, seeing me unattended, jumped in to point out how much more relaxed and at home everyone else seemed. I sat on a bench and watched a few upperclassman reunite, kicking a ball back and forth. One boy, tall and imposing, was going around introducing himself. His handshake was confident: I was surprised and disheartened to learn he was a freshman as well.

After a few minutes, we were herded into a conference room that the women's soccer team had just vacated. I passed a freshman who had come from my high school and saw her laughing with her new teammates. We filed in and the upperclassmen instructed the "Rhinies" to sit in the back. "Rhinies" was the derisive term for freshmen, a word perfect in its phonetic capacity to carry bile. The upperclassmen and Coach Joe used it with relish, and, in the tradition of all fraternal hierarchies, the freshmen endured, knowing we'd be flinging it at younger teammates soon enough. Coach Joe ran through the expectations of the team and the preseason schedule before introducing other members of the staff: Don, the assistant coach, who spoke nervously unless talking about our rival school, Swarthmore; Curt and Melissa, the medical trainers; Cory, the strength and conditioning coach, who was a new addition to the staff; and Wendy, the school's athletic director. The presentation was rife with strange abbreviations that form the secondary language of college campuses - GIAC, INSC, CPs. I took notes until I saw no one else was, then, not wanting to abandon my attentive appearance, contented myself by staring toward the front of the room as intently as I could. My resting expression is best described as "serial killer at sentencing hearing," so my laser focus amidst a sea of glazed eyes must have unnerved the presenters.

Coach Joe adjourned the meeting with a reminder to be out on the practice field by 7:30 - "if you're on time, you're late," was one of his favorite mantras - and left us to the upperclassmen's devices. The captains announced it was time for an extra, unscheduled meeting, and marched us down to the apartments. The Rhinies passed a nervous unspoken energy between ourselves. We understood the significance of leaving administrative supervision, if not the particulars. One upperclassman, a junior, laughed like Spongebob as we trooped down a wooded path that formed the campus' only connection with the Haverford College Apartments ("HCAs," I'd write down in my notebook later).

The freshmen were left outside the building as the upperclassmen went upstairs to "prepare," a verb infinitely more ominous when the preparations are a mystery. I counted 10 boys regarding one another in silence - a recruiting class that nearly outnumbered the other three years combined. This realization was a relief - surely other freshmen would be easier to beat out for spots than upperclassmen? "Which club did you say you played for again?" one guy asked another, cutting through my newfound optimism like piss through fresh snow.

The older guys began calling us inside, three at a time. I couldn't discern any method to their selections, but this did nothing to calm my imagination as I found myself left with the last group. A sophomore poked his head out and we remaining Rhinies bunched inside the sweltering apartment where the rest of the team sat waiting: Haverford does not air condition its dorms, and even the most spacious of its living rooms does not fit 22 athletes comfortably. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors were arrayed in chairs, while the freshmen found room on the floor.

The captains called out a name, and one of my companions raised his hand. He was made to stand on a footrest in the middle of the room, and the visual effect was that of a sweaty bro tribunal, a post-pubescent Lord of the Flies. The upperclassmen began to pepper the Rhinie with questions, chiding him for any physical tics: "don't cross your arms!" one yelled. "Don't look at the ceiling while you're thinking," another instructed. They asked for his full name, whether he had a "hometown honey," for her full name, for his favorite pickup line. I studied the questions and rehearsed my answers, determined to avoid the mistakes my predecessor was making. When the new recruit had been sufficiently cross-examined, the captains asked for nickname suggestions. A different freshman offered a possibility and was upbraided for his audacity - this was a privilege reserved for the veterans. An agreeable name was put forth and the captains echoed it, completing the process: "Mugsy!" Mugsy was allowed to step down and join the other Rhinies.

"John McCauley," called the captains, and I stepped forward and up. I always vacillate between using my legal name and my nickname when introducing myself, and saw no reason to draw criticism by correcting the captain. I stood with my hands stiff at my sides to keep from fidgeting - "relax!" demanded a junior. I gave my name, my high school girlfriend's name, my academic interests, my extracurricular interests. A dozen other pieces of trivia were presented and received without comment. Something felt amiss. The veterans were having trouble coming up with a nickname. They asked me if I already had one ("Mickey, but everyone calls me that, even my parents") and dismissed it. There was silence.

One of the captains noticed my attire. "Pull those up all the way, Rhinie," he barked, and I cursed myself for not wearing pants. I bent down and tugged my white calf socks up as high as they would go. Amid the laughter, a sophomore shouted that I looked like "that basketball player, the real awkward one!" "Keith Van Horn!" another agreed, and with that, the matter was settled. I was Keith Van Horn.

When all 10 Rhinies had completed the questioning, we did a roll call. The names revealed the character of the upperclassmen: jocks, yes, but with an unusual affinity for nerdier elements of society. Among the newly-christened freshmen were Charmander, Waldo, Ginny Weasely (a red-head), Crabbe and Goyle (one person), and Petri (named after a pterodactyl from a children's movie franchise). Steven Seagal was named for a physical resemblance. Sharkus was given the same nickname as a recent alumnus of the team. Mugsy, Seal, and Keith Van Horn rounded out the class. The upperclassmen told us their names and what their freshmen nicknames had been, with past monikers like "Missile Tits" serving to show how benevolently we had been treated. 

The captains then explained the rhinie preseason rules. There would be a mustache contest, so we were forbidden from shaving above the upper lip and commanded to shave below it. We would have a swimming test. There would be a song-and-dance performance in which we'd be required to wear women's underwear over our clothes. This last task doubled as a chance to brush up on our social skills, as those who had not brought their own women's underwear in anticipation would need to borrow it from one of the female athletes on campus. The younger captain, a junior, concluded this list by reminding the Rhinies that this was all voluntary, and that Haverford was not in the business of hazing. As we made our way back into the dusk to return to our dorms, he issued one last instruction - we were not to damage the team's reputation with any bad behavior. After all, he said, the soccer team "was sort of the nice guys on campus. Now go to bed, Rhinie bitches."

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