Coming of Age in the Locker Room

What the players say about their life in the game.

A coach likes to have a lot of those old trained pigs who’ll grin and jump right in the slop for him.UT Coach Darrell Royal

Ah, yes, Daddy D! Don’t they, now? You summarize so beautifully even your enemies despair of better saying it. You capsule those grim, sappy communal teachings I most took to heart in my burnt West Texas village about five lives ago. In one burst of cracker barrel candor you bring back the former cotton-mouthed guilts, agonies, and humiliations of the practice field; you fill my head with ancient losses: fumbles, blocked punts, imperfect tackles, fourth and nineteen. Forgive me, Daddy D. Royal, for I have sinned …

Our Midland High School coaches, wearing their rumpled good luck clothes and otherwise as faithful to rituals as witches, stomped the sidelines and ranted as if exorcising luck’s bad demons; at half-time they implored, threatened, cursed, kicked ass, sometimes cried. After losing games, as we wearily shed purple-and-gold jerseys, we avoided eye contact and shrank from view. In the showers we berated ourselves, offering contrite confessions of malpractices that might have done credit to felons hoping for the grace of a lenient court’s mercy. My fault, gang, goddammit …

Our defeated coaches tramped the steamy sullen dressing room like wandering gypsies, puffing cigarettes and muttering grief as if their collective dogs had died: Dammit, my ole trained pigs just wouldn’t jump in the slop tonight. It became near to unbearable to watch those intense, salaried Boy-Men who had goaded, cheered, pushed, punched, cajoled, and otherwise instructed us in the fine arts of Bash-and-Cracking, while preaching that some vague dark dishonor awaited those unwilling to Pay The Price. In defeat, we reacted with the shamed guilt of True Believers caught at heresy. Erring backsliders, we awaited our punishments.

No matter that one may have played near to one’s top potential, or had lost by a single point or by luck’s ill-whim; no, the sense of unworthiness—of failure, of ineptness, of having somehow dropped the soap—washed us in great melancholy waves. In permitting defeat one had somehow betrayed one’s team, one’s town, one’s self: had lost one’s youthful, uncertain gonads. “You’re not even in the backfield,” a high school temptress slurs her interior-lineman boyfriend during a lover’s spat, and shortly after his team has newly known dishonor in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. She sensed, yes, where young Texas boys might be most effectively kicked. Now her lover knew, for certain, that never would he dash for the winning touchdown with the Thalia wind in his hair …

After a double tough loss to Abilene, as we sat in stricken silence listening to the noisy celebrations of our conquerors in their adjoining dressing room, our coach said: “One more good block, boys—hell, just one more good hard tackle—and that could be us livin’ it up in there. Did you play your best? Or did you dog it? Can you look in the mirror and say you gave it all? Do you feel like men?” Forty sweaty young heads dropped to stare at four-hundred sweaty young toes, each certain in the indictment applied directly to him. It didn’t help when our First Baptist pastor prayed from the locker room in a way seeming to apologize to God for our football transgressions; where had his prayers been when we faced third-and-long?

During the post-game

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