Monday, November 9, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 4

Part 4 - Preseason

(Part 1 - Recruiting is here;
Part 2 - Move-in is here;
Part 3 - The First Day is here)

Preseason at Haverford was two weeks of a grimy, enjoyable routine. We pulled ourselves out of bed, bemoaned the rain, practiced, ate, slept. We were immersed in soccer, focused with an intensity that we would fail to match in our academics. We had no classes or extracurricular activities to compete for our attention, and though there were other teams on campus, our schedules kept us largely isolated, finches on Darwin's neighboring islands. 

The GIAC at night, when it transformed from an athletic center into an airconditioned footpath between academic buildings. photo from
The drills and scrimmages began to separate the wheat from the chaff: Waldo and Seal were among the freshmen distinguishing themselves, while Mugsy (renamed Ray Charles when it came out that he was colorblind) and Crabbe/Goyle were secure as backup keepers. The most visible mark of distinction was the Red Pinnie, an award handed out at the end of each day to the most dogged competitor in that day's activities. I coveted it but did little on the field to earn it, sailing passes out of bounds in mathematically impossible arcs, attempting futile tackles as more nimble-footed teammates dribbled past, and firing vicious shots that did much to clear the surrounding foliage, but little to confuse the goalies.

I ran exclusively with the backups, often conspicuously partnered with Petri, a gangly soft-spoken Rhinie who seemed, like me, to reside on the social fringes of the team. I was dismayed to group up for practice one morning and have coach Joe inform us Petri had quit, perhaps after weighing his chances at meaningful playing time against toiling in dismal mud for six hours a day. My closest competitor gone, I found myself firmly in the lowest talent stratum, and I began to feel the pressure. In writing this I looked for the quote about diamonds being formed from coal and learned, aptly, that is a myth. Pressure on coal gives you smaller coal, a somewhat less inspiring metaphor. My skills and fitness lacking, I chose to ingratiate myself instead through toadying - I brought out and returned the equipment for each practice, and spent my offtime stretching in my dorm room or wringing out my t-shirts, a continuous problem.

Each athlete was given a laundry loop for our dirty clothes, and it fell to the slowest Rhinie to make sure the bin full of loops was placed outside the locker room for retrieval. The loops were meant for athletic apparel, but with no uniforms to speak of, enforcement of that policy was left to our discretion. We gleefully piled jeans and hoodies onto our loops alongside our compression shorts rather than shell out the quarters necessary to wash them back in our dorms, ceasing only after a stern notice was slid under the door. It was a valuable service we appreciated immensely, but was hampered (apologies) by circumstance. The rain that fell for the duration of preseason was coupled with an uncommonly cool spate of weather, and our condensed practice schedule often meant pulling on the same soaked clothing we'd just discarded, as the laundry workers were unable to keep up with demand. We'd curse as we squelched back up the stairs and out onto the soggy fields, where no amount of windsprints could keep us warm.

After one especially windy, rain-swept drill, coach Joe called us over and launched into a diatribe on the finer points of tackling and 1-on-1 defense. Rain glanced off the hood of his favorite weatherproof jacket and settled into the cotton blends of our T-shirts. While it was no doubt an interesting academic exercise, the majority of the team was focused on keeping feeling in their extremities. I recalled a National Geographic special on Tibetan Monks and their ability to transcend the trials of the body through intense meditation, and, lacking any other recourse, decided to give it a go. I spread my arms to the side and pinched my thumbs and forefingers together in my best approximation of eastern religion. My attempt to will myself into warmth was interrupted by a loud throat-clearing. "What...are you doing?" Joe was staring at me. "Mind over matter," I chattered in response, and the coach led the team in a round of laughter. Back in my dorm room, I allowed myself two repetitions of "Sweet Escape" to salve my ego.

The Field House, where, when the weather was too heinous, we gratefully came to run laps. Photo from

With practice doubling as a free-range breeding ground for pneumonia, we looked forward to opportunities to stay inside. One such occasion was an orientation meeting with one of the many deans - part of Haverford's commitment to prioritize the "student" half of our identities over the "athlete" half. We filed into a lecture hall and sprawled into the back rows, pulled down in our seats by a combination of weariness and the insolent nonchalance of 18 year-olds yet untested by college, let alone real life. Even in the confines of a classroom, the teams self-segregated, placing our muddy backpacks as conversational sandbags between volleyball and cross country, field hockey and soccer. I opened my notebook and doodled to avoid my teammates' argument about Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, names with a tenuous residence in the same boondocks of my brain as Coldplay lyrics and the "stalactite-stalagmite" mnemonic.

The dean entered. She had a warm nonthreatening manner that took on an ominous flavor as she began methodically calculating the hours in a given week and allotting them to our future commitments. We'd need to put in, she emphasized, three times the amount of studying we did in high school to maintain comparable grades. She carved out chunks for sleeping, eating, class, practice, and free time, and came away with more hours than she'd started with. "So, how are you going to make it work?" It was the type of open-ended question that lecture halls greet with roaring silence and the players gazed back stone-faced, calling her academic bluff. I looked up from copying down her equation. The dean, heedless, left the problem unresolved and launched into a list of academic resources at our disposal. I paused the meeting by asking permission to use the restroom, a high school formality I quickly abandoned after seeing the nonplussed look on professors' faces. I returned as she was wrapping up to discover my backpack had been turned inside out, the contents, straps, and zippers all on the interior. As we trundled outside, Waldo laughed and told me the process was called "egging." I smiled wanly and headed for my dorm, clutching my backpack in both arms.

This sort of freelance prank was insignificant next to the institutionalized initiation rituals concocted by the upperclassmen. First, they engineered a get-together between the Rhinies and the field hockey freshmen with the same benevolent spirit that prompts older brothers to offer their younger siblings "Hertz Donuts." They ensured it would be a good opportunity to acquaint ourselves with our fellow athletes, barely stifling their laughter. I picked out an outfit, careful to avoid mockable items, and joined the two groups congregated on the grass outside the dining center.

Like all good social interactions, the event lacked any chance for organic conversation and was tightly policed by the sophomores on hand. "Sit in a circle!" we obeyed, looking less like college students and more like overgrown campers. "State your name, your hometown, and a fun fact," they barked, proving "fun facts" are always demanded in the least fun settings. We went round, introducing ourselves to no one in particular, offering the usual fare of bland trivia reserved for occasions like this. Waldo said he had a pilot's license and had flown to six continents, eliciting murmurs of approval and interest from the field hockey players. "Really?" I asked. Waldo ignored the question.

We were then instructed to play a round of "Never Have I Ever," a game that is fun in proportion to how much the players are willing to divulge and the stakes for having done or not done a given claim. As this contest consisted of 20 stone-sober strangers and had no consequences for winning or losing, the admissions were as boring as expected. I confessed to having never blown a bubblegum bubble. We shifted uncomfortably on the wet grass. To spice things up, the next activity involved two teams passing an apple down the line using only our necks, but our sobriety and discomfort with the game led to an efficient completion. Finally, we were paired off to do a slow dance without music, in the sunlight. My partner and I tightened our lips sympathetically at one another until some shred of mercy took hold and the upperclassman ended the proceedings.

The late afternoon in the middle of the first week was circled in our calendars for an unofficial "swim test". The mundanity of the name coupled with the upperclassmen's obvious excitement tipped off most of the freshmen that not everything was on the level. Being especially naive, I caught none of the sinister overtones: I may have been willing myself into ignorance, as swimming was an area in which I felt a modicum of confidence, having spent many shivery mornings in the summer driving to the local swim club with my dad. As we gathered by the campus pool, I got in to swim a few practice laps. The juniors were dumbfounded and corrected me: "Get out of there, dumbass. It's a bellyflop competition."

I pulled myself out as the upperclassmen stood shaking their heads, and noticed that the other teams on campus had all been invited to witness it. The Rhinies set up chairs for the juniors and seniors and then congregated by the diving board. In a manner similar to our first night on campus, we were instructed one by one to mount the diving board, introduce ourselves, give a pickup line, and do a bellyflop. The women present were both spectators and recipients of our ungainly propositions, which were likely far less ingratiating than the consequent pain we inflicted on ourselves by landing torso-first in a chilly pool. The Rhinies were judged on their flops and the winners advanced to a semi-final round. I was eliminated straight away for muttering a line I'd heard on a radio station ("Baby, I wish I was you, so I could have sex with me") and tipping over into the water. I regretted the loss more than I should have.The proceedings culminated with one of the semi-finalists agreeing to do a third bellyflop naked. He sprinted from the changing room to the pool, covering himself with his hands as he ran. As with all hazing activities, the justification for this kind of buffoonery dissolves under the lightest objective scrutiny. It was done because it had been done before, and with the promise of being able to inflict it on others in the future. Within the context of preseason, no one thought to question it.

The most blatant example of this herd mentality was the underwear song and dance, an ordeal exactly as mature as its name: we were to acquire a set of women's underwear and perform a song and dance while wearing them on top of our clothes. This was the kind of sophomoric endeavor that feels harmless in the moment but is embarrassing as soon as it appears in the rear-view mirror: like many of the freshman traditions, it was abolished before I even graduated. It was done to make the Rhinies feel uncomfortable and unwelcome - admirable goals in their own right - but none of the men involved gave any thought to how uncomfortable it likely made the women, many of whom were new to campus themselves. We Rhinies felt awkward, but none of us had to endure sexually aggressive requests from strangers with horrible mustaches. As hapless Division 3 athletes, we were walking proof that male entitlement needs nothing in the way of success or prestige to flourish. It also stands as proof of our herd-mind stupidity that, after passing the draft of this piece to my fianceé to read, she asked why we didn't simply venture out to a Target and just buy women's underwear. I blinked, and realized nothing had prevented that beyond our assumption that bothering women was part of the process.

I asked my high school acquaintance on the women's soccer team, but she demurred more politely than I deserved. Though it would have been noble to refuse to comply with this ordeal, I was blinded by a need for acceptance and assimilation. As the day of the "show" drew near, my high school friend found a teammate of hers who seemed bemused rather than repulsed by the concept. The friend accepted and gave me the items, then quit the team and returned home before I could return them. I stashed the garments in my locker until she returned for the start of classes, after which I ventured timidly onto her hall to give them back.

We gathered by one of the senior dorms after practice, adorned in various sports bras and the underwear to which our female classmates felt least attached. Each freshman was allowed to sing a song of their choice, though Charmander was instructed to give a rendition of the Pokemon theme song. The Rhinies stepped up and delivered their offerings - Pokemon, Britney Spears' "Lucky," a Fergie tune. Many of the freshman correctly guessed at the positive reception they'd receive for delivering a breathy pop hit. The upperclassmen hooted their appreciation as we pranced around and batted our eyes. Again, our insulated fraternal atmosphere kept us from seeing the inherent bigotry in comedy that boiled down to "guys acting like girls!!!" 

I was last up, and, swallowing the absurd pre-show jitters that accompanied this stupid performance, I launched into a reworked version of "Gaston" from Beauty and the Beast, with the lyrics changed to compliment one of the juniors. I had labored over the rhymes in my notebook and belted them with as much gusto as I could muster. I got loud, raucous cheers from the team, and felt a thrill of success. As we headed to dinner, the senior captain took me aside. "Hey man," he looked stern. "just wanted to say, some of those lyrics were a little homophobic. Cut that shit out." I nodded, and unhooked my borrowed bra.

Dorm Olympics, one of the many fun Customs Week activities the fall athletes could glimpse between gassers. Photo from
Our first weekend was a source of excitement, as it meant both that we'd reached the halfway point of preseason, and that we'd be getting a break from our rigorous practice schedule. The captains organized a trip to a movie theater for Friday night to see Superbad, but I begged off. My high school girlfriend was visiting before heading off to her college and I couldn't imagine bringing her along with 20 other rowdy jocks. The visit turned out to be a breakup, which we both agreed was a bummer but a good decision. We broke up that night, then parted ways in the morning, after which I rendezvoused with the team at a nearby iHop. To my surprise, they were understanding. I dug into my pancakes and listened to them quote the movie at each other - though I didn't see it for months, I osmosed the references and employed them as though I'd been along on the trip. 

Though my antisocial tendencies had held a strong sway over me in the first week, I grew tired of sitting in my room reading my only book (a collection of short non-fiction, my least favorite genre) and pacing around until the next practice. I began to venture out and join teammates in down time. I played some video games and swallowed all my preemptive trash talk as my characters were sent sailing off screen. I spent some time in the library, using the computers to send missives back home to my family and high school friends. We played beer pong with dixie cups of water and gatorade.

During a rare afternoon off, I found myself in a common room in Barclay, the oldest and nicest of the freshmen dorms, along with Ginny Weasley, Crabbe-and-Goyle (the team was rigorous about using his full nickname, often with a dramatic pause in the middle), and a sophomore. In accordance with our strict pecking order, the sophomore chose the movie. He picked Beer League, an execrable, plotless mess starring a Howard Stern hanger-on. We pleaded with the sophomore to turn it off, but he refused even to deny the movie's quality, let alone pick a different option. As we sat watching C-list comedians crack fart jokes, a female cross-country runner walked in. As socially illiterate idiot bros, we refused to let her exist as a fellow person and instead thrust our hormonal attention at her like competing bazaar merchants. We introduced ourselves as, onscreen behind us, a fat guy pretended a wiffle ball bat was his dick. The runner took the verbal jockeying in stride, and apparently saw past the boorishness with one of us - she and Ginny Weasley are currently engaged.

As preseason drew toward a close, the energy began ramping up. Other freshman arrived and what little free time we had was given over to Haverford's Quaker-flavored orientation activities, which dealt mostly with sitting silently until someone authoritative said we could talk. Our team shifted its focus to our upcoming conference matches. The previous season had finished with a dismal 2-14-1 record and 1-7-1 in conference, and the older guys saw the upcoming fall as a fresh slate. We played an exhibition match against Wesley College and lost, 1-2. It wasn't discouraging: we figured it was just a chance to knock the rust off. I did not play, but did my best to contribute by hollering praise and vague suggestions: "Let's hustle, boys!" "Nice clear!"

The end of preseason also meant it was time for roster cuts. This was the moment that had racked me with anxiety from the moment I had stepped on campus. Petri's departure had left our squad at 21 players, and I felt my best odds lay with coach Joe deciding that was an acceptable number. He had individual meetings with each of us and I stepped back into his office, recalling our first encounter. He stared at me, his fingers laced on the desk. "Mickey," he rasped. "How did you feel about your preseason?" This sort of reversal was one of Joe's favorite tactics: the most charitable view would suggest he enjoyed giving his players a chance to speak, but to me it felt suspiciously like my mother allowing me to decide if I was too sick for school, a decision which invariably landed me on the bus, fearful of a trap. I considered my options and aimed for cautious optimism. "Well, I thought I got better as it went along, but I know I have a lot of work to do if I want to see playing time." Joe nodded. I thought it prudent to plead my case further. but was not sure what else to add, leading me to conclude "so...yeah." Joe nodded again. A moment passed in which my brain scrabbled frantically against the inside of my head.

"OK. Well, I'm not going to put you on the team just yet," he said, and I tried to keep the disappointment from flooding my face. "But, I don't want you to quit. I'm going to keep you on as a 'practice squad' player, and maybe if you improve, we'll give you a jersey." This revelation meant the simultaneous rush of shame and pride that only arises in specific scenarios, like beating a young child at video games, or parallel-parking flawlessly in front of an adult book store. I thanked Joe and left, shaky but exultant. In retrospect, the decision feels arbitrary and bizarre. I was alone on this "practice squad," and, considering how much playing time I earned once I did receive a jersey, the distinction was practically a formality. The delay also meant I did not get a picture for the website, or my name in the following year's brochure. But in the moment, all I knew was that I did not have to hand in my laundry loop. I plunked down next to my teammates in the dining center and savored the term. Teammates. I smiled to myself, catching the attention of one of the juniors.

"Stop smiling, Rhinie bitch."

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