Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 3

Part 3 - The First Day

(you can read Part 1 - Recruiting here, and Part 2 - Move-in here)

Pictured: Haverford's Dining Center, where students from all walks of life eat and  wax philosophic on what constitutes a hookup. Picture taken from

Homer spoke lovingly of dawn and "her rose-red fingers," though, we must assume, the blind man was orating based on someone else's good authority. I am not a morning person, but I agree in part with his assessment. It is a singular feeling to smell the dew and let the chilly air slough the drowsiness from your skin. One feels privy to secrets the world has denied its sleepier denizens. And rising before the sun does feels as though one has won a small cosmic race. Being awake in the early morning is invigorating. Becoming awake, if you'll pardon the ontological hair-splitting, sucks major ass.

Freshly re-named and nervous for the first practice, I slept fitfully on an unfamiliar mattress under unfamiliar sheets. I kept my windows open to combat the late summer heat, but letting in fresh air also admitted the continuous buzz of cicadas. I bolted out of bed in a frantic daze, certain I had overslept, to discover I was up ten minutes before I had meant to be - there is no more effective alarm clock than human pessimism. I shambled from my dorm room into one of the labyrinthine stairwells. With no internal campus map, I chose an exit at random and left Gummere, clutching my keycard and soccer bag. Dawn's rose-red fingers jabbed me in the eyeballs, Three-Stooges style. I'd left the wrong way and circled around the building toward the athletic center, grateful that I was the sole witness to this mistake.

I entered the locker room to find only one teammate, a junior. He nodded at me and we changed into our soccer clothes in silence. In later years, the program would standardize our practice outfits, but as of fall 2007, we were left to our own devices. I wore a tight shirt since the first practice of the day was just the 2-mile fitness test, thereby putting more thought into drag coefficients that morning than I had into my workout regimen over the summer. The rest of the team trickled in, and when we had all donned our apparel, the captains led us out to the field where Joe and Don were waiting. The former was short and surly, the latter tall and wide-eyed: the two might have made a fine vaudeville duo. Coach Joe instructed the captains to warm up for 11 minutes, and we set off jogging around the campus. This warmup time limit seemed to be a private game between them. Joe would give us a duration and read our time back to us each time we returned, but we were never punished for tardiness or cutting it short. It was an vague benchmark to which Joe paid inordinate attention.

During the jog, we paused to circle up and stretch. In these intermissions, the upperclassmen explained the other Rhinie obligations: first, the captains solicited jokes. I jumped, excited that my weekends scrolling through websites with names like had provided an unexpected benefit. I stepped into the middle and delivered one of my favorites, about an Irishman and a bar and ordering three drinks. The boos echoed off the trees, shattering the serene quiet of the pinetum. One or two other freshman tried their hands to similar effect. The real joke, it seemed, was to watch the freshmen try.

We were also informed of "Superbar," a lurid tradition dating back to a short-lived Wendy's promotional offering of the same name. It was used as a verb and noun for "the first Rhinie to score on the field and the first Rhinie to score off it." Each morning we were quizzed about our non-soccer exploits, despite a practice schedule that left little room for anything beyond stretching, showering, and sleeping. In the past, the freshmen who achieved "Superbar" in either capacity were taken to Wendy's as a reward; now it was simply a euphemism.

The circle allowed me to get a better count of the team. In addition to the ten freshmen blinking sleep out of their eyes, the team consisted of four sophomores, seven juniors, and a single senior. The shortage in this last category, I learned later, was not coincidence. The senior captain had been the lone holdout among the players in his class, who had attempted to oust Joe as head coach the previous years. As is the case with most 6-signature petitions, the effort was unsuccessful, and the rebellious faction left the team in disgust. This kind of pyrrhic defeat could be seen as a distressing omen for the overall team mentality, but to me, it meant a couple fewer sharks in the tank. 

We returned to the field ("11:32," called Joe) and prepared for the 2-mile run: eight loops around the track encircling Walton Field. I steeled myself: in my best attempts I hadn't come close to the 12-minute cutoff, and was banking on adrenaline to make up the extra time. We crowded to the front and inside of the lanes, upperclassmen ordering freshmen to the back. One junior fumbled with his iPod as Joe counted down, cursing its battery life. "Wait," he cried to no avail - Joe may even have sped up. As our coach growled "Go" the junior heaved the iPod off the track in desperation and hustled to catch the departing crowd. I remember seeing the headphones trailing behind in full extension, a tiny white comet.

There are, I'm sure, numerous strategies runners employ to ward off the monotony and strain of their endeavors. Mine was to swear with each exhalation, my plodding accompanied by a rhythmic stream of quiet obscenities. The joking and ribbing from the warmup jog had dissipated as each man (boy? youth?) focused on his own progress. I threw myself across the finish line and heard my time called out - over the 12 minute cutoff. I allowed myself a few more panted curses. I figured they put this run first for the same reason DMVs start driving tests with parallel parking - to weed out the unfit as quickly as possible. But as I looked around, I noticed only around half the team had finished and was staggering around, hands on their hips like a flock of exhausted chickens. As the rest of the players finished, coach Don had us state our times so he could write them down, and I was elated to learn that only two members of the team had beaten the requisite mark. Such a show of unathletic solidarity was heartening: surely they couldn't cut all of us? Joe muttered some words of disapproval and disappointment and we trudged off toward the dining center, unaffected. I felt cautious optimism - these were not Olympic champions noisily hocking loogies next to me. I could hang.

The team ate a quick breakfast, where everything the freshmen put on their plates was subject to skepticism - "eggs? That'll make you puke." "Orange juice? You're gonna boot, Rhinie." I headed back to my dorm and realized that, while I had brought an iPod to campus, I had nothing with which to charge it. In retrospect, the smart move would have been to ask any one of my teammates, but at the time it did not even present itself as a possibility. Instead, I forced myself to ration my music intake, treating myself to a play of "Sweet Escape" once every few practices. I listened while stretching, then ran back to the locker room for the second training session of the day. At this point a light drizzle had picked up, and would continue in varying intensity for the next two weeks. A strict reprimand had been taped to the locker room doors about tracking in mud, and the time spent miserably thwacking our cleats against the ground further cut into our breaks between practices.

The second practice was much less encouraging than the first. Now that actual soccer skills were being called upon, I found the gap between myself and the other players widening. These were players who knew not only the names of exotic feints and tricks, but how to perform them. My instruction in such matters amounted to a brief lesson given me by a friend of the family, when I was 6, in the front hall of our house: he told me to kick the ball with the side of my foot rather than the toe, and that was it. To borrow the proud, unenlightened vocabulary of American football, I could most charitably be called a "blue-collar" soccer player, or, least charitably, "bad." We ran passing, dribbling, and trapping drills: these last were conducted by Don, and involved impossible combinations unseen in regulation play. "All right!" he barked, consulting a weathered clipboard. "You're gonna trap it with your chest, to your thigh, back to your chest, then head it back to your partner!" Balls rolled off in a dozen directions, pursued by frustrated Rhinies. "Ok! Go head, thigh, chest, other thigh, and then play it back with your foot - go!" We improvised and hoped Don wouldn't notice, stalling until his whistle mercy-killed the activity. At the end of these practices, we'd scour the surrounding foliage for miskicked balls until the tally matched what we'd lugged to the field. There was no reward for finding one, but in the manner of adolescent boys, it became a fierce competition.

Pictured: Haverford's Weight Room. Not pictured: me, trying futilely to remember the difference between "strength position" and power position." Picture taken from Performance Plus Camps webpage.

Our third commitment of the day was a weightlifting orientation. If the reader is noting the multitude of obligations, the reader is not alone. Through competing interests between the strength coach, Cory, and the soccer coaches, our preseason days often contained three practices and a lifting session. I spent the entirety of that fall massaging my hamstrings and hobbling between academic buildings. Cory was a new addition to Haverford's athletic staff. He was young and cheerfully no-nonsense about his work. He was no aged trainer living vicariously through his charges, and could be found working out in his down time with weight that caused the squat rack to rattle impressively. His credentials were impressive - he came to our college from a position with an NFL team - our team was not. We wobbled our way through the orientation, shooting each other incredulous looks at Cory's fixation on our "abdominal brace," which felt for all the world like a fancy term for flexing our abs. Cory distributed workout plans and one or two players bemoaned the lack of bicep exercises. Cory shook his head in disgust and walked back into his office.

The final practice of the day was given over largely to a scrimmage. Guys limped up and down the field, listlessly playing the ball to the closest teammate to avoid expending any unnecessary energy. A 0-0 tie left no one happy and we flopped down in a cooldown circle. Upperclassmen tossed chunks of cleat dirt at Rhinies, but without any force or malice. A few tried to wheedle their way onto the trainer's golf cart to ride back to the locker rooms, but were rebuffed. Dinner was reserved - some upperclassmen told the freshmen to add them on Facebook, while others told us they would never accept our friend requests. I made a soggy walk back to Gummere, where a few other freshmen were housed on different halls, but I was too tired and too socially anxious to make small talk. Back into the unfamiliar bed, under the unfamiliar sheets. Having exhausted my quota of iPod plays, I opted instead for sleep. Dusk, with his fingers probably in some shade of grey, wandered over the horizon, but I wasn't awake to meet him.

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