October 6, 2012. Nebraska at Ohio State. A crisp, fall Saturday afternoon replaced by a cool, Saturday evening. And the night I realized just how washed-up I really was as a wannabe athlete.
I sprawled onto the black leather of my living room couch, the hood of my green sweatshirt pulled over my head. Navy sweats hung loose from my legs. Through my bloodstream flowed 1600 milligrams of Advil. Pain shot through the inside of each leg. Every sting in my body, every cringe in my face, taunting me because earlier that day I had pulled both groin muscles while playing in a lower recreation coed touch football league.
At one point in my life I could run. Those days are gone, replaced by an increasingly pudgy fella who despises working out or eating right but is too competitive to lay off the gas pedal when it comes to sporting events that don’t matter. If I didn’t know this sad fact already, the throbbing in my lower region heaped a hearty reminder my way. On this Saturday, over the course of two games in two hours, my two pathetic attempts to sprint shot fire rods through my groins and into my throat. “Mother f****r!” I screamed on these two separate but equally depressing occasions.
I kept playing, of course. I winced and hobbled. I dragged poor legs around the field. Some twisted spirit and a warped sense of duty to Dad, who sacrificed everything to drag his body onto the football field, compelled me to continue.
“Your dad wouldn’t stop,” repeated the grating voice inside my head. “Shut up,” I mumbled back at it. He played games of tackle against the best athletes in the world, I thought. I was busy playing coed touch in the lowest of the divisions offered. Apples and oranges. Fathers and sons. Legitimate and ridiculous. Every step hurt. Each would be sprint reduced to a humbled trot.
The game continued. I kept playing. Those who stay will be champions, I suppose.
But by Saturday night, my entire body throbbed. Moving meant contractions that shook my body. Moving meant a reminder of how I injured myself.
Look, I’m not here to say I’m any great catch. I’m 30 and have had the same hairstyle for 12 years. My fashion sense is a combination of fading navy and dull gray. I carry a book bag and notebooks wherever I travel. I’m often writing, and I’m even more often alone. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m odd.
But, I do have a job, a little disposable income, friends, and the possibility of a somewhat active social life. Still, there I lay, by myself, as a Saturday night ticked to Sunday. My legs burned. Hurt screamed inside me. The Buckeyes pulled away from the Cornhuskers. Braxton Miller danced from defenders on legs young and fresh.
A young man playing a young man’s game. Bastard. And a damn good one.
I watched in discomfort with a remote control in my hand. My fingers strained to switch between the other games on TV that night. A circle of ketchup that escaped the half-eaten cheeseburger now on the coffee table stained the center of my sweatshirt.
An old man playing an old man’s game.
Finally, the pain overwhelmed me. I cupped both hands under my left hamstring and lifted my leg off the couch. My barefoot reached the ground, and I did the same with my right leg. Sitting up, I pressed my thumbs into the insides of my legs. I dug them into the source of misery so tender I screamed. A ceiling fan spread my wail around the living room.
I stood, slumped forward, and walked. First, I walked to the medicine cabinet and dropped 800 more milligrams of Advil into my system. I shuffled to the stairs, leaned my body against the handrail, and dragged whipped legs up a flight of stairs. Give me peace, and rest, my sad body begged.
I hope I can still play next week, I prayed to nobody, as sleep overtook my eyes.
Coed touch football might be a young person’s game, but even a washed-up 30-year-old can dream.