Growing up, I hated sports. I wasn’t sure if I sucked because I hated them, or if I hated them because I sucked. All I know is that I was forced to play organized sports until high school.
My dad loved sports. Like many men of his era, it was the best way he could communicate with his kids. If I could throw a decent spiral or a curve ball (different balls-I know), he would have had a catch with me. I watched him do this with my other siblings. My three older brothers and sister were very good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs. My younger brother and sister were also good at sports—first string, captains, stand-outs. Me, not so much. Both girls in my family could throw a baseball better than I (although none of my siblings would know to use “I” in that last bit):) No, I’m not jealous. Not at all, he lied. Anyway, out of seven children, I was the least athletic. Last in line for athletic prowess. Seventh of seven.
My father tried to be patient with me, but I would have none of it. My dad played full-equipment, contact football until he was thirty, in a men’s league in Northeast Philadelphia. He coached pee wee football, baseball and basketball at the elementary level, and softball at the high school level. My father was an athletic director for a private elementary school in our area. He breathed sports. He tried to practice with me, to teach me the basics, but I rebelled. In hindsight, I realize what I was doing. It’s taken me thirty years to figure it out, but I know that part of it was the notion of being lumped in with the rest. I wanted to stand out, be treated as an individual, not just be included in the roster, part of the line-up. And if the others were going to be better at it, then that was no way to get my family’s attention.
Most of my siblings played sports in high school – two brothers received football scholarships to a prestigious private high school, both played in college and one has coached at the college level ever since he graduated. Luckily, I was next in line from the household’s best athlete—right behind the all-star, the golden boy, the coaches’ favorite player. Me, I was third string. A bench warmer. A virtual non-participant. From my earliest athletic experiences, I was an embarrassment. I was the oldest kid on the t-ball team (I actually got demoted after my first year of Little League) This was the era of The Bad News Bears movies—a team of misfits I would have been perfectly suited for. In fifth grade, I was on St. John of the Cross’ JV football team. They called me “The Professor”—I think I was the only kid with glasses under my helmet. In seventh grade, while “playing” varsity football, I was lumped in with a crowd of overweight slow pokes. We loafed around the field and waddled our laps around the school. The coaches nicknamed us “The Country Clubbers” since we behaved like a bunch of middle-aged men out there (which reminds me: my 8th grade teacher, Sister Albert, announced to my class as I rounded the bases during a game of kick ball one day that I had the body of a 40-year-old man. How charitable of you, Sister.)
Thankfully, by eighth grade I was a full-time smoker. This gave me a reason to join the track team. My friends and I signed up to run in the long distance events. We would practice at the local high school. By practice, I mean we would disappear into the woods, then hide behind a wall and smoke a couple cigarettes. We watched the other runners do one mile laps around the school property. On their last lap (we always asked) we would come in for the end of practice after splashing water on our heads to look sweaty, and pretend to be winded. We lost every meet we ran in.
High school and college were athletics-free. A couple stints of intramurals, but nothing to brag about, believe me. Then, in my twenties, I was looking for a reason to quit smoking. I was a guilty smoker—always was—and it started to wear on me. I kept imagining myself pulling an oxygen tank to my future kid’s school play or pee wee football game (ha). My brother Joe suggested I start running. Do it gradually and build up. I took his advice. I ran a few times a week at a local trail. I signed up for a 5k when I was 25 (which I completed still drunk from a night out in Philly). But slowly, I began to change. I started to run more and smoke less. I would see the cross country teams from the school where I taught running on the same trails in the late afternoon. Jim, the girls’ coach, asked me about coaching the boys’ squad. “Jim, I’m not a runner, really.” “I see you here every time we practice.” “Yeah, but I’m not a coach.” “They need a running coach and you run—you’re qualified.” And so, I coached cross country for about six years. I learned about speed drills and pacing, and I gave them all I could. They were more than grateful. During that time, I even managed to kick the smoking habit for good!
When I switched schools, I no longer coached cross country. Ironically, I found it helped me get in better shape. Since I was not coaching, I had more time to actually run. Now, I was signing up for more races: 10 milers, half marathons. Eventually, I didn’t feel foolish when I labeled myself as a runner, or talked about an upcoming race. Today, I am still running. I discovered trail running a few years ago, and now I can do ten mile races in the mountains. I do not say this to brag. I say this to remind myself, and you, that we do not have to let our past define our future. We can become whomever we want if we put our minds to it.
In the past few years, I have begun the athletic journey with my own sons. I was even a coach for both of their t-ball teams (brought back some of my glory days). I was able to mask my lack of skills enough to assist coaching their Little League teams (I was the line-up guy), but I can’t see that lasting into the next phase of their baseball careers. I still worry that I won’t be able to be the guy they have a catch with on the front lawn. But someday, sooner than later I hope, I will take them to the trails that hug the river into Philadelphia, a serene place called Valley Green, and I will teach them the art of running. I will run along side them, I will let them beat me in the beginning, and I will share everything I know about how to be a runner. And if they decide they do not want to run, or they find their passions elsewhere, so be it. But they will know where to find me if they ever want to explore that world.
Recently, my mom was remarking about all of the races I run these days. “You know, out of all my kids, who would have thought you’d end up being the most athletic adult?” Thanks, mom (I think). But she did get me thinking. I am the most active today of my seven siblings. I do not mean to sound boastful, but it’s true. And if I had a choice of either playing sports through high school or college or being active for life, I think I’d choose the latter. I love where I am today. I feel fit. I feel alive. I get to participate in many exciting races and see many amazing landscapes. Now, if someone could just teach me how to throw a damn ball!
Painting by Veronika Nagy
Photographs of Valley Green by Ellie Seif
Click on pictures to visit these artists’ sites.