When I was 11, I was small for my age. But that didn’t stop me from playing sports. I compensated for my shortfall by being quick and fast. When I played on the 11-12 year old Pop Warner football team, I had just turned 11. I was the smallest player on the team by far. The previous year I was a star center and defensive end playing against kids my size and age. But on this team, I rode the pine. This didn’t stop me from making every practice and working just as hard as the other kids, however.
Our head coach was named Coach Mount. He was about 9 feet tall with bushy read hair and matching beard. He looked like a lumberjack. He never played me in games. Then, during the halftime of the second to last game of the season that we were losing badly, I saw my stepfather talking to Coach Mount before Coach Mount came over to give us the royal ass whooping that we deserved (it was Florida–they take their football pretty seriously.) I was just taking a seat on my helmet in a semi-circle with my teammates when I saw Coach Mount throw up his arms and walk away from my stepfather.
After the “you-better-play-better-or-else” speech, we donned our helmets and Coach Mount gathered us in for a “Team!” chant then released us to the field. Except for me. He pulled me aside by my facemask and without even looking at me told me that I was going in at right defensive end to start the second half. Then he walked away.
A swarm of butterflies took flight in my stomach.
After the opposing team advanced the second-half kickoff, I ran onto the field with the ten other boys on defense–all of whom were a good helmet taller than me. In the huddle, the captain asked where I was playing, “right end,” I said. A couple of kids slapped me on the shoulder pads for encouragement. We broke the huddle and I went to my position. I looked over at the sidelines. Coach Mount was standing there with his arms crossed, revealing the terrifying black anchor tattoo on his massive forearm. He had a smug smile on his face. Two assistant coaches flanked him, and the kid I was temporarily replacing stood in front, ready to run in after that first play. They were all looking at me. Behind them in the stands I saw my stepfather sitting in the bleachers like it was any other play. Only this was my first real play of the year. As the opposing team broke their huddle, I watched a massive country boy take his position at left tackle. Suddenly, I forgot how to play defensive end.
The ball was snapped. The quarterback dropped back to pass. The tackle stepped back to form a pocket. I couldn’t see past him. Then I saw the halfback fade into the flat–they were going right at me. Then the ball was passed to the halfback. I pushed off of the tackle, stepped between the quarterback and halfback, and intercepted the pass. I managed to get about 10 yards downfield when what felt like an army of pachyderms fell on top of me. Our sideline erupted, probably for the interception–but I thought it was for me. I looked at Coach Mount as I ran off the field. He didn’t make eye contact and never mentioned the play.
My stepfather didn’t say anything about what happened at halftime of that game, and was instead surprisingly subdued in congratulating me on the interception. But I’m sure he went into his office the following Monday and crowed like a rooster at my accomplishment. Or maybe he talked about how he conquered Coach Mount.
Size was never an issue for me. Not before that play. Not after it. I’m normal-sized now.