That was my high school’s official motto. These were not empty words. There were many dedicated and brilliant teachers and administrators at my school. Standards, expectations, and achievements were all high. It was an all-boys Catholic school on the east side of Detroit that had been there for over fifty years. It still exists today, though the school moved to the northern suburbs a long time ago in a strategic move that has allowed it to thrive right up to the present day. By all reports, it remains a superior place to send one’s sons to ensure a quality education.
That’s the good part, and I mean every word of it. But today, I want to talk about something a little less savory; a moment when my dear alma mater failed to look out for a student’s best interests – though I’m sure many people would fault me rather than the school in the tale I’m about to tell.
It was around November of my freshman year. The weather had been unseasonably warm that week. The ground wasn’t frozen and the weather that day was fairly mild, so Phys Ed would consist of touch football games out on the practice field. I think everybody was happy to have an excuse to get out of our dank little gym and into the fresh air. At that age, I was bigger than over ninety percent of my classmates, so I was generally relegated to defensive or offensive line work rather than any of the “glamor” positions. But our Phys Ed teacher, who was also the varsity football coach, insisted that everyone should get a shot at playing quarterback.
When my turn came, I considered what sort of talent we had on our team and how I might best utilize it. There was one obvious asset: Tim B. He was not a big kid, but he was a fast runner. He was a track guy, from a family of track guys. He was probably the fastest runner in the freshman class. And to start my drive, I had a basic football play in mind.
“Just run down the left side as fast as you can until you get near the end zone,” I told him, “Then look up for the ball.” It wasn’t a new idea; it’s a concept any team with a fast receiver will try to use. The way Tim was being defended, it was clear that he would be all alone out there because all of their guys were up near the line of scrimmage, and there was no way any of them would be able to keep up with him. My pass wouldn’t even need to be all that accurate; if I could get it anywhere near Tim, he could adjust, make the catch, and score an easy touchdown.
So we ran the play. I heaved the ball downfield, and it all worked exactly the way we’d drawn it up. To make it even better, I’d had the good fortune to throw a perfect pass that was dropping into Tim’s arms as soon as he looked up for it, without him needing to make any course corrections. Touchdown, good guys! Yay team! Everybody laughed and clapped, even our football coach.
The story should have ended right there. A kid in Phys Ed makes a lucky toss to a fast runner and gets an easy touchdown. Big deal. Happens every day in schoolyards across America. But coach was watching, and he had other ideas.
After class had ended and students were making their way to the locker room, coach stopped me and asked if I’d considered going out for the team… Okay, let’s stop right here.
I was (and still am) a big sports fan. I watched all kinds of sports on TV, and along with my brothers and neighborhood kids, I played a lot of baseball and football on our front lawn and on the streets near our house. But organized sports were not my thing. I’d had one brief encounter with a summer baseball league a few years earlier that had left a bad taste in my mouth. Also, I felt no kinship whatsoever with many of the kids who played on my high school’s sports teams. Many of them were kids who’d go out of their way to tease a bookish, awkward nerd such as myself, and I’d go out of my way to avoid them. I was not interested in “working through” these differences; I was entirely satisfied to simply avoid the situation. To top it all off, my interest in playing sports was pleasure-oriented, not team-oriented. What I mean is this: I could stay out by the garage shooting hoops with my brothers until mom or dad yelled at us to get into the house. I could play ball on the lawn until I was exhausted. I could do those things because they were pure fun. I’d seen enough of high school team sports to know that they were not my idea of fun.
This was particularly true of football. The kids on the team were not all bad guys, but included in their numbers were some of my least favorite people socially. What’s more, they were the ones most likely to limp into the classroom on Monday morning with their arms in a sling, scratches on their faces, and casts on their legs. It was crystal clear that this would be some form of hell for me. No mere game was worth that kind of pain. Not to me anyway. On the other hand, I attended most of the football team’s home games and I rooted earnestly. I was a knowledgeable and loyal fan. But I had zero inclination to ever play on the team. And I was just fine with that. I harbored no secret fantasies about being a football hero. Me fan, you player. It was an ideal relationship.
So there I was, standing on the practice field, and coach was trying to recruit me for the team. I initially attempted a quick, friendly brush-off, smiling and looking away as I said “No… that’s not something I’m interested in…” But coach was serious. After telling me that he thought I had some genuine ability, he quickly went into Threat Mode.
“Well, if you’re not going out for football, that tells me you’re not performing up to your athletic potential, and it would have to affect your Phys Ed grade.
I think I mumbled something like, “I’ll think about it,” and got the heck out of there. As you might guess, I never considered taking him up on his offer, even for a moment. To me, it was nothing more than an offer to be miserable, to devote long hours to a series of military-esque exercises and games that I would dread and loathe. In a way, actual military service would have been preferable; in the military, you might actually be performing a tangible service to protect your country. But taking a fun activity I’d enjoyed for years – playing football – and turning it into something awful just to placate a coach who put his own interests above mine – that made no sense to me. And as if I wouldn’t have hated it enough already, I’d have known that I was only on the team because I’d given in to threats from someone who was supposed to be a trusted role model.
Now if you played high school sports yourself and you treasure those memories, you might think that I hadn’t given it a fair shake; that I might have surprised myself with what I’d have gotten out of it; that one’s teenage years are for stretching and growing and finding one’s limits. Those are all fine old concepts about growing up, and if we were talking about something else, I might even agree with you. But I would choose a different image – the one about not having to put one’s hand into a grease fire in order to find out if it might be painful. I may not have been all grown up at the age of 15, but I’d figured out a few things.
Coach and I never discussed the matter again. I never lifted a finger to join the team, and true to his word, he lowered my Phys Ed grade to a C from that point onward. The one saving grace in my lowered grade was that Phys Ed was not a component in calculating one’s Grade Point Average.
The other thing I did NOT do was tell anyone about it. I especially did not tell my dad about it. Dad was an intelligent and fair-minded man, but there were a couple different ways I could have envisioned him reacting to this, and some of those scenarios would not have been good for me.
In Scenario A, dad might have sided with coach and urged me to try out for the team. If anyone thinks that’s far-fetched, please note that in the summer before I entered high school, my dad and a family friend had gotten together as a tag team and had tried to pressure me to specifically go out for the football team that fall, thinking that it would be good exercise for me. At the time, I viewed it as my dad trying to live vicariously through me, since he hadn’t been in a position to play high school football himself. That may have been a little unfair of me, but it’s what I thought at the time.
In Scenario B, dad might have become indignant and gone to the school to complain about coach’s conduct. Once again, this seemed like a bad deal for me. Coach had been at my school for a long time. Football was an important part of the culture there. It seemed to me that whatever tactics coach used to conduct his business had to have the support, even if tacitly, of the school’s administration. The most I stood to gain from any such action would have been an increase in my Phys Ed grade. Big deal. But I stood to lose in all sorts of ways. Certain teachers and administrators might have been ticked off at me. So might the guys on the football team – JUST the guys I was already trying to distance myself from. If things went really badly, I might even have needed to find a new school – and I truly felt that my school offered a superior education to any of the alternatives in the area.
So it was quickly apparent to me that my best course of action would be to take the demotion in my Phys Ed grade and hope the matter ended right there, which is precisely what came to pass. But it was an educational moment in my young life; a lesson in how even an honored institution may have its own form of corruption around the edges; blind self-interest disguised as hard work and nobility of effort. Builders of boys; makers of men indeed, proving once again that the most important lessons we learn from our elders are the ones they don’t realize they’re teaching us.