You know that scene at the end of the movie Cloverfield where the guy and girl are running away from the monster and they find shelter in a tunnel in Central Park and everything is fine for a moment and then it all goes to shit and the tunnel collapses and the camera shuts off and they die? Well, playing in my first collegiate football game against the University of Texas wasn’t exactly like that, but it was pretty damn close.
The first time we saw the monster was on our way to its den, Texas Memorial Stadium. Our bus weaved around traffic behind a police escort through the busy streets of Austin, TX. Then, not three blocks away from our destination, we stopped dead in the middle of an intersection.
I looked up. We were surrounded on all sides by thousands of people wearing burnt orange. All at once they looked over at our bus. A couple of the guys in front of me stood up to see if they could figure out what was going on.
“Cops just stopped,” someone said.
I could feel the air grow thicker. As if I needed a reason to be any more anxious than I already was. I was just 18-years-old, nine months removed from playing on a high school football team that went 14-0 and won the Oklahoma State Championship. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be the little guy. I’d grown accustomed to being part of the monster.
I tried to put my finger on the difference in how those two things felt thinking I could quell the storm if I could just feel it in my body.
That’s when I heard it.
It wasn’t cheering; not exactly, although the untrained ear could be forgiven for mistaking it as such. No, this was something else…
I turned around and looked out the rear windows of the bus. Creeping up on either side of us was a state of the art, charcoal gray, behemoth. The two buses passed by us slowly like a tiger stalking its prey. I looked up to my right at the tinted windows on this magnificent machine. As I squinted I began to make out faces on the other side – faces belonging to the UT football team.
I quickly looked away, trying to convey a sense of nonchalance that was eluding me. As I did, I couldn’t help but think I’d seen them laughing at us. I wondered if this was the type of thing they did to all their opponents, or just the special cases.
The bus kicked back into drive once they’d passed and we followed their lead to the stadium.
Pulling into a college football stadium for the first time, especially one as rich in history as Texas Memorial, is an almost indescribable feeling. For me, it was a mix between hearing sleigh bells while staring out the window as a kid on Christmas Eve and being called into the Principal’s office in middle school, equal parts magic and menacing.
I grabbed my bag from the bottom of the bus and fell in line behind the other guys as we made our way to the visitor’s locker room. It was nothing special – white walls and wooden lockers. My number and name had been taped to a small locker in the corner. Freshman procedure, I guessed.
I unloaded my bag and began the ritual of putting my pads in my pants, followed by the arduous task of fitting my belt through loops that had obviously been made to fit something the size of a shoestring. After folding and finagling the belt into position, I threw on my pants and walked out.
The stands were empty as I emerged from the tunnel. Still, I could imagine what they might look like packed with 90,000 screaming fans. I couldn’t help but marvel at the turf when I got to the bottom of the tunnel where the pavement hit the grass. It was meticulous, as if each blade had been measured and cut at the exact same length and then dyed a captivating shade of hunter green. It almost felt wrong to step on it.
I walked the length of the field, jogged around a bit, pretended to stretch, actually stretched, then walked back toward the tunnel. By this time a few people had started to make their way into the stadium.
Back in the locker room I threw on the rest of my gear – shoulder pads, helmet, gloves, and cleats. Then I relaxed into my locker and covered my ears with headphones, drowning out the sounds of Lil Wayne with Tool.
I closed my eyes and pictured myself having the game of my life. I shed blocks, made tackles, batted down passes, and sacked the quarterback. When I opened them, it was time to go.
The team lined up across our designated half the field and we went through the same stretches we’d gone through every day that week in practice, only they felt different this time – more important somehow. When we were done, I followed the rest of the defensive linemen to the end zone next to the tunnel to our locker room. By this time half the seats were full and the closer we got to the end zone, the rowdier the fans got.
Surrounding the tunnel to our locker room was the motley crew of fans, the Student Section. I tried my best to ignore them, but it was like trying not to sneak a peak while passing by a car accident. I had to see, and, unfortunately, when I did, one of the crew saw me.
He looked down at his program, and, like Willie Mays chasing down a fly ball, snatched my name from the pages and belted out, “Hey. Naylor. You suck!”
So it wasn’t the most sophisticated put down I’d ever heard. We were in Texas, after all. But what these fans lacked in creativity they more than made up for in sheer doggedness. After that first hit, the insults kept coming and coming. I tried my best to tune them out, succeeding in large part because the drunken shouts were too difficult to make out.
Once our drills were done and we’d simulated a few plays, we came together as a team. The restless energy inside the huddle was palpable. Someone shouted out a few words meant to pump us up. I’m not sure anyone was actually listening but we all seemed to grunt and cheer in the right places. We broke the huddle by shouting out “Aggies!” in unison. The fans’ boos were so loud as we left the field I felt them as much as I heard them.
Back in the locker room I fished through my bag for the final piece of my uniform, a letter from my dad. I found it tucked into the corner pocket next to a roll of athletic tape. On it, he’d written a few words of encouragement along with a few quotes from famous writers and athletes. The one that resonated most was four simple words from a Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not go gentle.” After reading it over a second and third time and trying my best to absorb what it meant, I folded it down to a one-by-one inch square and pressed it against my wrist. I grabbed the roll of athletic tape and wrapped it up until I was sure it wouldn’t fall out.
Now I was ready.
I tossed my headphones back on. This time I didn’t press play. I only wanted to give the illusion that I was listening to something so no one would bother me. I like silence before big events. Kind of like the calm that comes before I big storm, it just makes sense. My plan worked for the most part. No one bothered me. The shaking did.
Being from Oklahoma, I’d never experienced an earthquake in real life. The closest thing I could imagine to one was a simulator I’d been on at Disneyland when I was ten that jerked us back and forth mirroring the images on the screen. Only there wasn’t a screen this time.
I looked up at the ceiling. It pulsated with a strange and violent rhythm and through my oversized headphones I could make out the muffled sounds of 90,000 Texas fans exploding with anticipation for the new season. I remembered the section above our locker room, filled with students filled with booze. I wondered if it were possible for the ceiling to cave in. This was an old stadium, after all. I inched closer to the exit in case I needed to make a run for it.
Just then, Coach Sams walked in to the room. Someone cut the music off and we all went silent.
“All right, fellas,” he said. “Let’s go.”
And so we went. Back out the doors, down the tunnel and onto the field where the sold out crowd showered us with even more boos.
Then came the cheers. They were so loud and frantic that I wondered if The Beatles had just made their way onto the stage at The Ed Sullivan Show. But it wasn’t four Beatles entering the arena, it was 100 Longhorns, and even though I’d seen them stretching next to us not 30 minutes ago, I couldn’t help but think they’d all grown at least a foot since then.
After a few attempts I gave up trying to swallow to frog in my throat and tried to find the truth in my dad’s words, “Nervous energy is still energy.”
I knew he was right. I also knew that it didn’t make me feel any less nervous. And it definitely didn’t help matters when we won the toss and elected to go on defense first.
There was a small section of turf on the sidelines separating the offense and defense that was designated for the guys who were about to go on the field. Once the kick off team had vacated it, the starting defense stepped inside.
This must be what it feels like to stand in front of a firing squad, I thought. And then, right on cue, a cannon went off and the game was under way. We stopped them around their own 35-yard-line. I jogged onto the field and into the huddle.
Our middle linebacker, Jimmy Cottrell, took the signal from the sideline and shouted it out to the rest of us.
“Over, two. Over, two.”
We broke the huddle and waited for the Texas players to line up before we got into position. I located the Tight End. He lined up to the left.
“Louie, louie,” Jimmy called out.
I shuffled over a few feet and took my stance in between the guard and tackle on the left side of the line. Texas was in an I-formation. Their All-American running back, Cedric Benson, stared straight ahead, not giving any indication where he might go. I stared straight ahead, knowing the two guys in front of me would lead me to him if I reacted quick enough.
The quarterback put his hands under center.
“Blue, 42. Blue 42. Set. Hut!”
The guard and tackle burst out of their stances. I lunged into them gripping the guard’s shoulder pads with all my might. It was a double-team block. I sunk my left shoulder into the tackle as he worked to drive me off the line. My cleats dug into the grass. I couldn’t give an inch or a hole might open up big enough for Benson to blast through. The pressure kept building and soon it felt like I was holding up a brick wall. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could hold my position. Then I felt a lightning bolt shoot through the ball of my foot. I burrowed into the ground knowing a pile up was better than conceding another inch.
A whistle blew and I waited at the bottom of the pile for my turn to get up. That’s when the pain hit. The ball of my left foot felt like it had just been pelted by a fastball from Randy Johnson. In reality, I’d experienced the unfortunate occurrence of having my big toe hyperextend all the way back to where it touched the top of my foot, and it fucking hurt.
I hobbled to my feet wondering what the hell I was going to do next. I couldn’t come off the field, not after one play. Everyone would think I was soft.
“That’s why you don’t start a freshman,” they’d say.
No. I had to at least play out this series.
Luckily for me the pile up had worked and they’d only gained three yards. I walked back to the huddle as normal as I could manage.
“Under, pirate. Under, pirate. Ready…”
Shit. Not only is my big toe fucked but now I’ve gotta run a slant. This must be one of those cruel jokes from the football gods that coaches love to talk about.
I took off into the gap between the guard and center. They’d started to move away from me and I could tell already it was an outside run play to the weak side. We’d called the perfect play to defend it. Benson tried to cut back inside but it was no use. I jumped on top of the pile as we took him down for no gain.
Third down and seven yards to go. We can do this. One more stop. We can do this.
The linemen dropped back. Pass. The quarterback raised his arm and I instinctively threw mine up in the air. The ball sailed past my outstretched hands through the air en route to their All-American wide receiver, Roy Williams. I prayed the football gods would be more forgiving this play.
“Incomplete pass,” the announcer’s voice rang out from the loud speaker. “Intended for, number four, Roy Williams.”
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
I felt like someone on Death Row who’d been exonerated at the 25th hour. I limped off the field unable to hide the pain I was in for one second longer.
By the time I made it to the bench the trainers were already there. They could spot an injury from 100 yards away.
“What’s wrong?” Mike, our head trainer, said.
“Foot,” I said as I pointed to my left shoe, too exhilarated to utter more than a single word.
One of the assistant trainers worked to pull off my cleat. I nearly bit my tongue off when my toe bent back slightly as he tried to finagle it off. Once they’d removed my sock I worked up the courage to look down, half expecting to see my toe hanging off to the side, but other than some slight swelling it looked pretty normal.
I shivered when I realized what was next. Like all athletes, I dreaded the “Does that hurt?” phase of an injury, but I knew it was coming.
Mike pressed ever so slightly against my big toe. “Does that hurt?”
“Fuck,” I said through gritted teeth. “Yes.”
“How about that?”
No. My whole body convulsed out of pleasure.
“And that?” This time he bent the toe to the outside of my foot.
I might as well have been strapped to an electric chair with the lever set to 1,000,000 watts.
He turned to make sure Coach Sams was done talking to the defensive line, then walked over. They exchanged a few words I couldn’t make out, followed by an Are you sure? glance from Coach Sams, then both concluded the talk with a nod of the head. I’d been on enough sidelines to know this wasn’t a good thing.
When Mike came back, he motioned for an assistant to help me up. I threw my arm over their shoulders and limped along the sideline to the end zone opposite our locker room.
“I’d be hurt if I was playing Texas too!” some redneck asshole yelled out from the stands. Normally something like that wouldn’t have bothered me but my pride was hurting at least as much as my toe.
We got to the Texas locker room after what seemed like a five-mile crawl. Mike told them I was there to get x-rays on my foot. For a split second the pain went away. They have an x-ray machine in their locker room? How cool is that? Then I took another step and was brought back to my excruciating reality.
As I sat in the x-ray room I thought of all my friends and family who were either watching the game on national TV or sitting in the stands. I felt almost as bad for them as I felt for myself. Fuck, this is embarrassing! If they weren’t watching from the start, they’ll think I’d lied about starting. They won’t even know I played.
The x-ray results came back negative, which, in football speak, means I would need to get an MRI. The goods news was I hadn’t broken anything. The bad news was they were pretty sure there was some ligament damage and I wouldn’t be able to return to the game. Truthfully, it was a relief. Had they given me the option my pride would have answered “Yes” while my body screamed “Hell no.”
I walked back onto the field as the first quarter was ending and couldn’t believe my eyes.
We were winning the game!
Not by much, but I’d take 7-6 over the opposite any day of the week. Unfortunately it didn’t last.
Remember those Messing with Sasquatch commercials? In this case Texas was Sasquatch.
By the time the final whistle blew Texas had added another six on to the end of their score while our seven points remained the same. I wasn’t sure which bruise would last longer, the one on my foot or the one to my ego.
Back in the locker room, I made sure to take my time getting dressed. It’d been so long since I’d lost a football game that I wasn’t sure how my family would react. Turns out they didn’t much care about the loss. They were just happy to know I’d be okay and excited by the whole spectacle of college football. After a couple minutes with my mom, dad, brother, and sister I was reasonably cheered up.
“Load up,” a coach called out as he boarded one of our team buses.
I hugged my family, told them I loved them, then limped back to the bus that took us back to the plane that flew us back to the city where I’d have countless practices and many games over the next few years.
Las Cruces, NM – my own personal tunnel in Central Park. I can’t count the number of times I thought I’d be crushed by a monster there, but it turns out that people provide a much better foundation than bricks, and every time I faced a new monster, they’re what held me up.