Saturday, July 15, 2006

I am Zinedine Zidane

This post involves talk of sports, but it's not about sports, so I implore those very wise folks who don't waste precious time with utterly inconsequential sports stuff not to tune me out right away. At least give me a minute.

Last week the world was all aflutter about an incident that happened in the World Cup final between France and Italy. Towards the end of overtime, one of France's star players, Zinedine Zidane, headbutted an Italian player.

Zidane was ejected and France lost the match. Afterward, Zidane said he was upset because the Italian player talked some trash about his mother.

Oh no! The ultimate insult! I can't believe that another player would make remarks about one's mother! Oh the humanity!

My favorite sports writer, Bernie Linicome, did a nice column about the meekness of such an insult compared to what usually goes on in sports.

Which brings me to the title of this post. I feel for Zidane. Because it was just this type of behavior that kept me from doing something I loved, which was playing football.

Many high school students were conscripted to participate in P.E. But I liked it. I was good at athletics, except for baseball. (My nickname: Andrew "Dribbler to Short" Heckman, because a weak ground ball to the shortstop was all I could manage when I hit the ball at all, which I hardly ever did. I like to chalk this up to my horrible eyesight rather than any lack of hand/eye coordination.) But FOOTBALL, THAT I could play. And I was especially good at intercepting passes and knocking down guys who were bigger than me (as happy fate would have it, they were usually guys who were better looking and more popular than me, not that either of those qualities were rare in my classmates.)

Intercepting passes and knocking people down are the main responsibilities of the position in football (or "Meatball," as a Brit friend of mine terms it) known as "Free Safety." So I thought I'd go out for football officially and try out for the free safety position, or, barring that, any position where I could run fast and collide with somebody.

But as it turned out, I learned that possessing intelligence and talent were not enough. Oh, I was fine on the field. But to be an athlete, one also had to be an utter asshole. In an athletic locker room, particularly a meatball locker room, one communicated in put downs. "Hey, give that towel, spongecock!" "Nice attempted catch, you fucking homo!" "You call that tackle, fag? I thought I was being humped by a mosquito!"

Actually, if the put downs had been that clever, I wouldn't have minded so much. But they weren't. It was the most degrading, inane, frat-boy atmosphere I have ever experienced. And that's not even getting into the towel snapping, pranks and fart-on-the-guy's-head-as-he-dries-his-feet hijinks. So even though I was good at the actual "job," I said, "Screw this!" to the company and quit.

I didn't have the fortitude of a Joey Harrington , who is too much of a Renaissance Man to be truly successful at professional meatball. I just decided I'd rather make pizzas so I could buy guitars, darkroom equipment and telescopes.

I'm sure it's just as well, but occasionally I wonder what would have happened if I'd stuck with it. At least I would have had a chance to "earhole" a few more jocks (for those non-meatballers among you, that means hitting a player so hard that he's looking out the earhole of his helmet). But I might also have ended up like Zidane, his last impression on the world being his expression of hatred for the moronic nature of jockocracy. I remember after Columbine happened, I talked with friends about how we understood why a high school student would want to shoot all the jocks, because the bastards made our lives miserable.

All that said, though, there's something beautiful about the perfect put-down. My personal favorite is from Michael Jordan, who at one point during a game turned to a player on the opposing team and said, "You know how many rebounds you have tonight? As many as a dead man." But then again, it's a lot different being burned by the best who ever played the game, as opposed to having your balls towel-snapped by the guy who is the quarterback of the team only because his dad owns the local bank.

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