We were running around the field, and that was enough of a challenge for me.
As an aerobically disinclined freshman offensive lineman, the act of running around the field was enough to send me into a hole somewhere, crying for a tub of ice cream.
It was hot, and it was miserable, and we were running.
And then I was tripped by a senior offensive lineman who screamed at me, “You fat (bleeping) Jew.”
I got up and kept running, wondering if I’d heard it right. This was a teammate, albeit one on the varsity squad at Thousand Oaks High School, in that little Southern California haven. The fourth-safest city in America. Just voted.
We shared the same colors, the same green and the same white that I would grow to love, to protect, to care about more than any other colors. We shared the same locker room, and the same cafeteria. The same field, the same grass.
I thought we shared the same goal — to make our friends and family in those rickety stands cheer and clap and laugh.
I thought we were supposed to be together, one.
As I read the disgusting details about Miami Dolphins veteran offensive lineman Richie Incognito, and his despicable actions toward his teammate, former Stanford and current second-year Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin, I was instantly 14 again, angry at the punk who made me question if I wanted to come back for football the next day.
Perhaps I wouldn’t be so angry if I wasn’t involved in a recent argument with a friend who defended the so-called “football culture,” saying that Martin should have “handled it like a man.”
The details in Martin’s case are so gruesome, though, and they speak to the disconnect between bullying and harassment.
We’ve all been bullied. Most of us have bullied ourselves. But you don’t bully with race or creed or religion or sexual orientation.
You don’t treat a teammate as Incognito allegedly did in a text to Martin. You don’t use racial slurs likes the ones allegedly used against Martin, who is bi-racial.
If this were a player on the other side of the field, in Martin’s case, a Patriot or a Jet or in my case, a hated Westlake Warrior or Newbury Park Panther, he or I would know where to direct the rage.
Even if I were only going to play a few minutes at the end of a blowout, I would be red-eyed and frothy, and my puny little 14-year-old body would haphazardly collide into another puny little 14-year-old body, and vengeance would be mine.
How do you take vengeance on a teammate?
I didn’t. I couldn’t.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and decided not to say anything. More than 15 years later, my father is still upset I said nothing, did nothing. He implored me to speak to coaches, counselors, principals, to make a stand, to fight back like he and his friends fought back when they encountered
anti-Semitism in 1950s New Jersey. One too many times, my father encountered a group of kids on bikes, and finally they rounded up a posse of little angry Jewish boys and there were no more incidents.
But a football locker room is not a back alley, and I feared that I would alienate myself if I said a word.
The fear is not a fear of fighting, but the fear of isolation.
If Martin had “handled it like a man,” who knows how far it could’ve gone?
“I was always scared to death of anything like that,” Oregon State football coach Mike Riley said Tuesday when I asked him about the incident in Miami. “We’ve never allowed any hazing. We’ve tried to nip it in the bud right away. I want every player on the team, whether he’s a star player or a walk-on, to feel comfortable walking into the locker room.”
That’s how you win games.
Not by tearing each other down, and most certainly, not by celebrating the one doing it.