From now on they will call me Hambone

This time of year is nostalgic. About a month ago, I passed by the old football field as I returned from work. My first thought was about how tough the first two weeks of the season always were. I have never sweated like I sweat during the brutal practices of the first two weeks of a football season. Then the emotions of how it all started came over me. The first season of football would be a determining factor in how I approached the rest of my life.
I barely remember how I got started in football. I certainly had not planned it out. I was out on a bike ride with my best friend when we rode by the sports shop where you put your name on the list to sign-up. My friend was eager to be on the football team. He was an aggressive kid and more of a natural athlete than I was. The reality of it all was I knew nothing about football, and I was not an overly physical kid. About a month later, I got a phone call from a new teammate. Practice starts next week.
I had played baseball for years. I was not great, but I enjoyed being on a team. In my head, I think I assumed that football was going to be a lot like being on a baseball team. I had not even considered how physical football was. I also did not realize what a boys club I was joining and how I came in as an outsider. Most of the kids on the team had been playing together for about 3-4 years.
I was way out of shape going into the season, and the first couple of days of practice only amplified it. Unlike baseball, these coaches were closer to drill instructors. They constantly pointed out how I was dragging behind or not as quick as my other teammates. It was apparent these coaches were partial to the kids that had been on the team previously, almost ignoring us new kids. If I thought it couldn’t get worse, practices with pads started in week two.
My teammates’ punishment kicked up new levels once we all were in pads. The tenured kids on the team that were aggressive and use to hitting were constantly targeting me. They could see my discomfort and hesitation and took full advantage. Even during breaks, they would run behind, slamming their helmets like a sledgehammer into my helmet. The coaches almost seemed to ignore it. Looking back, I wonder if they hoped the behavior would slim out the herd. After three days of this, I could take no more and walked off mid-practice. As I rode off, the coach yelled to make sure to return the pads.
The bike ride home only offered a brief sense of relief. I knew I would have to go home and tell my father I had quit. He was surprised to see me when I arrived and quickly asked why I was home early. I told him how it was going and that I was not cut out for the sport. I think the lack of attention from coaches and the fear he saw in me that he was not willing to accept. Maybe he knew if I started to quit now, it could be the start of so many more things I don’t follow through with going forward. “Get in the car,” he told me. “I’m taking you back down there.”
When we pulled up, the coach met my father halfway, and the yelling almost started immediately. He had told me to wait in the car, so I was unsure what was said. My father was backing down an inch, though. The others kids all stood and watched as they yelled it out. Eventually, it stopped. The two spoke for another moment, and my father returned to the car. He said, “you’re going back tomorrow.”
Dad took me home and explained how I needed to hold my head up. He showed me some tricks and tried to help me understand not to fear the hit. Dad got me a jersey instead of the heavy t-shirt I was wearing in the 90-degree heat. He let me know he would come and watch and support me through it. Still, I knew the boys wouldn’t make this easy, and now they had all kinds of ammunition to use against me.
I returned with my head high and ready to put in total effort. The teammates that had been hard on me continued to be hard on me, I took their hits and worked hard. The season was tough, and I didn’t play a lot. I was not the coach’s favorite kid, and he preferred to avoid me. If I got it right, he certainly said so, though. I bet the coach was surprised that I signed up for a second season the following year.
Football was what it was. I was never an insider with any of the teammates. My second season was easier because there was new fresh meat, although I still took my licks. Football is not where the story ends.
By ninth grade, I was well known among most of the team and rarely had an issue. Some were just bullies and constantly took shots at me. In eighth grade, my thyroid had quit on me, and I gained a bunch of weight. Reading class had become unrelenting. Frank to one side of me, and Misty sat in front of me. The two of them constantly were making verbal jabs at me. One day, as class ended, Frank looked at me and said, “you know what? I’m going to call you Hambone. You are shaped just like one.” I remember thinking this was going to be a whole new level.
Frank shared several classes with me, so it spread like wildfire. Each class, he would rally and tell all the kids around him that I was to be known as Hambone. To better understand, it is only fair that I share Frank was no slim jim himself. One could say he was larger than me. I spent the next week or so just shrugging it off, realizing it was not going away.
I was a heavy kid, but I didn’t want or need the stigma that comes with it. Many of my choices were not great ones. Fight against it, taking the physical abuse that often came with it. Of course, I could go to the administration, but that would likely worsen it. Most of my classmates found it amusing, and Frank would not let up.
My particular lesson from football is how I decided to move forward. I was not going to let fear drive how I approached the situation. The lesson my dad had taught me by walking back onto the field was not just about not quitting. It was about holding my head up and that only I could stand up for myself. So, I owned it. Sure, call me Hambone. In the early days, it was a sticks and stones kind of approach. At first, the less I let it bother me, the more frustrating it became for the bullies to use it against me.
Over time it became a brand, the name used in respect. It did not bother me, and I was not afraid of them. By the end of the year, most people had just shortened it to Bone. No one used the name any longer as an attempt to belittle or demean me. They used it as any other name of any other classmate. It had become a badge of courage for me.
I look at football differently than most other kids. I attended school with no. I do not see it as camaraderie or a sport I would recommend, not entirely because of the hitting. I went on to play 25 years of Hockey. The sport is poorly administered over and constantly has pockets of bad apples. The damage I took on the field has followed me throughout life, both physically and mentally. I did take the most I could from it and have never looked back.

Leave a Reply