The San Diego Sailors
The summer training camp was at a prep school near San Diego, and Tim had the feeling that he was the only player present who had actually attended such a school. Lots of large young men were moving around in the oppressively crowded locker room. A few people were giving orders, but no one seemed to be listening. Eventually, the players drifted out on to the playing fields in shorts and T-shirts.
Tim was standing by himself when a tall interesting-looking man came over and introduced himself. Little as he followed football, Tim had heard the name. Enoch Maddox was known as a talented wide receiver, one who was also said to be difficult. Tim couldn’t remember if he was the one who had asked his coach not to speak to him unless he spoke to the coach first. In any case, Enoch, now smiling, remarked, “I’ve been told that all expansion teams are like this.”
“It feels like being part of a herd of cattle.”
“That’s what we are, very expensive cattle. I don’t respond when coaches just wave their arms at us. But, if I’m addressed by name and asked to do something reasonable, I’ll comply.”
Just then, one of the coaches, Tim wasn’t sure just which, was waving his arms and shouting for the offense to move in one direction. Enoch, taking no notice, asked Tim what his position was. When Tim replied that he was a punter, Enoch, said, “I remember, now, I’ve read about you. They want to make you into a quarterback.”
“But I don’t want to be one.”
“A wise decision. You still make plenty of money as a punter, but don’t get destroyed.”
“How are you for injuries?”
“Relatively lucky. Mostly light to moderate.”
At that point, a middle-aged coach with a bit of a rubber tire came over, glared balefully at Enoch, and addressed Tim, “You’re Hastings, aren’t you?”
When Tim admitted it, the response was. “Come with me!”
Glancing at Enoch, who was amused, Tim followed, slowly enough to irritate the coach.
It turned out to be a passing drill. Three quarterbacks were taking turns taking snaps from the center and throwing sideline passes to a group of receivers who were also taking turns. When Tim joined them and was waved to step forward, he knew that something had to be done.
He already knew that the centers snapped the ball up against their inner thighs with great force. If a quarterback got his fingers in the wrong position, they would surely be broken. To be safe, he put his right hand flat against the thigh, made a fist with his left, and kept it out of the way. The ball, predictably, bounced off his right hand and dribbled off to the side. At the same time, Tim simulated great pain, grabbed his right hand with his left, and doubled over. The coach reacted with fury, “Holy fuck! What the fuck are you doing?”
Finally, he bellowed, “Ain’t you never taken a snap before?”
Grimacing with his imagined pain, Tim shook his head and choked out, “I’m a punter.”
The other quarterbacks looked rather pleased as Tim slid away. One less competitor. It turned out that Enoch had followed along behind Tim, and had seen all. Catching up with him, he said, “Not bad acting.”
“You could tell?”
“I’ve seen a lot of genuine pain, but that coach is pretty dumb and easy to fool. You can stop holding your hand now. But don’t smile or laugh.”
“It said in the little piece I read that you have a very good arm.”
“Pretty good. But it’s true that I don’t have a clue about being a quarterback.”
“There are some interesting things we might do later on.”
The whole team had steak in the school dining room, and spent the evening watching various TV sets in the lounges. The players divided between those who had played for other NFL teams, and had connections with one another, and the newcomers to the league. There were a lot of the latter, including undrafted free agents, most of whom had little chance of making the team. If they did beat the odds, they’d be rich men. Otherwise, they’d have to find regular jobs. The trouble there was that they had mostly been in segregated athletic programs in college, in which there was hardly any emphasis on genuine learning. For these ‘scholar athletes,’ being a doorman at a hotel might be a decent job.
The result was an unpleasant tension in the atmosphere which Tim wanted to avoid. He was quite happy to be left to read a book in a fairly isolated little nook.
The next morning, the special teams coach took the kickers and punters off to one of the fields. He spent more time with the place kickers, as they were more important, but finally got to Tim and the other two punters.
It was soon obvious that Tim could punt much farther and higher with more hang time than either of the other two. After one of Tim’s big punts, one of the others said ‘shit’ and began to walk off. The coach said to the two, “It looks as if we won’t need you soon, but we’ll keep you on file in case this man gets hurt.”
This coach was younger, and obviously better educated, than the other coaches. He said to Tim, “I don’t know anything about punting, and can’t give you any advice. Which you don’t seem to need anyway.”
“I think if I just come out every day and punt a couple of dozen times, I can keep in form.”
“That’ll give the punt returners practice in catching punts. Apart from that, you’re on your own.”
Tim thanked Coach Gibson, punted a few more times, and then drifted off, hoping to escape. No such luck. He was curtly informed by yet another coach that no player was allowed to leave the field until excused. Rather than just stand there, he alternated slow runs around the track with yoga exercises on a bit of grass adjoining the field. Some of the exercises always reminded Tim of people having sex with farm animals, and he exaggerated some of the movements. Fortunately, no one took any notice.
The evening routine was the same as the night before, but there had already been some cuts, including the other two punters. Tim avoided meeting their eyes as they left.
Tim had another talk with Enoch that evening. Indeed, Enoch sought him out. It was a little surprising that an established star would have anything to do with a rookie punter, but Tim came to realize that Enoch, in a different way, was as isolated as himself. Relaxing back in a chair, Enoch said, “Because of my reputation, the coaches are just waiting for me to start something. However, I’m going to bide my time.”
Tim laughed and asked, “Are you enjoying teasing them?”
“Certainly. You do realize that these people are totally exploitive, don’t you?
“Yeah, I guess so. I’m busy avoiding it.”
“And you’ve got off to a very good start. Just don’t weaken and let them bully or cajole you into anything.”
“A couple of reporters were asking me questions today, but I stick to the line that I’m a punter, not a quarterback.”
“Ah, the press. A fascinating topic. They’re also exploiters, but you can turn the tables on them and use them for your own purposes.”
Enoch got a phone call just then, so Tim didn’t find out how to exploit the press.
The next morning, Tim was summoned to the head coach’s office. Coach Higgins had been around for some time, had coached several teams, and had lost slightly more games than he had won. He was known primarily as a disciplinarian, always ready to fine a player for being late to a meeting, and, so far as was known, was not loved by anyone with the possible exception of the members of his immediate family. However, he had a reputation for turning bad teams into mediocre ones, and had been hired for that reason.
Tim wasn’t invited to sit, and was greeted by, “Hastings, we’re disappointed in you!”
More was obviously coming, so Tim didn’t reply. “You fucked up the snap from center and jammed your hand, so you can’t pass. You’re supposed to be fast, but you say you have an injured hamstring, so you can’t run. Are there any other things you can’t or won’t do?”
“Coach Gibson seems satisfied with my punting.”
“We knew about that. But your agent said you’d work with us on quarterbacking. You don’t look to me as if you even intend to try.”
Again, there seemed to be no need to reply. Tim just stood there, noticing that the coach, who didn’t look as if he had ever been an athlete, had little pig eyes surrounded by fat. But they were clever little eyes which had already divined Tim’s semi-secret. Tim was finally trying to formulate some reply when the coach said, “You will learn to take the snap. Is that clear?”
As Tim was leaving, Higgins called after him,
“One other thing. You’ve been seen hanging around with Enoch Maddox. He’s a bad influence. Stay away from him.”
Tim acted as if he hadn’t heard as he returned to the field. Enoch was waiting for him with a smile.“Did the coach warn you against me?”
“How did you know?”
“I know coaches. Was he awful?”
“Fairly. I agreed to learn to take snaps, but he’ll find out what a bad passer I can be.”
“Tim, I have the sense that there’s money in your background, and that you don’t really need to do this.”
“Well, yeah. I’ve inherited some money, but a year of this will make me secure for life.”
“Then stop after a year. It’s true that you can eventually discourage them from making you a quarterback, but the whole process is demeaning and corrupting. I do resist it by striking back in certain ways, but, even then, it’s not healthy.”
“I guess I’ve been tempted by the idea of punting for a few years, and really piling up the money.”
“We’re all millionaires, and we should all stop where we are. But there’s always that one more year and so much money temptation.”
“What about you?”
“I’ve saved money, and could have stopped long ago. But the greed has gotten to me every year.”
After a pause, Enoch continued, with his usual smile, “I really will retire after this year.”