"We are who we have learned to be, and in certain instances, it's done in order to survive-"
Although we're born into this world with certain personality tendencies already mapped out in our DNA, it is our life experience that steers that potential, sometimes resulting in unexpected and inconsistent behavior, and other times, those experiences can be enlightening, molding us into highly successful individuals well beyond our own expectations.
Looking back through my own life, I remember being a quiet boy, shy most of the time, who loved friends and family and was very trusting to a point of being naive.
After moving to another state in the middle of eighth grade, I was forced to interact with kids who had been friends with one and other their entire lives. To me it seemed like a game of Red-Rover, and it was tough to break their chain. I did not want to play-
I went several months sitting quietly in classrooms, appearing more distant than afraid, but it was the fear that prevented me from opening up. After three months in self- induced seclusion, I was able to direct my focus during a weightlifting contest in gym class, setting an all-time school record. That gained me instant popularity and with that newly discovered confidence I broke out from behind the silence and began establishing meaningful friendships.
We moved again at the end of my freshman year in High School, a move that saddened me. On a personal level I had grown so much and I wasn't ready to surrender it, again. But we moved and this time it was back to where we had originally come from. They say "you can never go back" and it's been my experience that "they" were right...
I returned a changed person to old friends who had also changed. It was at a time (early 70's) when kids 13-15 experimented with alcohol and drugs, and while in Connecticut I had remained clean, motivated only by the desire to be an athlete, fully understanding that alcohol and drugs would only hinder that goal. I continued eating healthy and working out in an effort to be the best I could be. I never believed that I was born with any athletic advantages, but that it was out of desire and focus that my bigger successes had resulted.
Before moving to Connecticut I was one of the Captains on an undefeated Pop Warner football team. We went undefeated and it was after a week long bout with Bronchitis that I played in the South Shore Championship game, beating Walpole, a heavy favorite, and we did it handedly. At the end of the game the trophies were presented, both team and individual. I was totally ecstatic, winning the championship and being part of a great team, and all the while knowing I'd be moving to Connecticut within a few short weeks. It was like a last hurrah with my childhood friends for me.
When they announced the MVP I wasn't really paying attention. In fact, it was our trainer that had to jar me away from my celebration and tell me I had won the award. I was shocked- We had a great player on our team, probably one of the best Pop Warner players ever, and I assumed that he was the MVP... I received the award, and on the ride home in the team bus, "he" cold-shouldered me...
When I returned from my two year hiatus in Connecticut, I had forgotten all about it, the hard feelings. The team championship had always meant more to me than any individual award.
It was during the spring of our junior year that I approached him with the idea of working out together. He was fast and I was working on it. I had become very strong, lifting routinely and although he was not lacking in the strength category, I knew I could help him develop his strength and take it to another level.
He was probably unaware that I had nothing but respect and admiration for him. Wanting to work out with him was done in order to make us a better team. It was a time when Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick were the best running duo in the NFL and I told him we could be the high school version of it. He agreed to work out together.
I was excited the whole way over to his house that afternoon. I had seen him shake off would-be tacklers and run for long touchdowns for many years. He was as much my hero as my friend...
We began by doing some stretching and calisthenics before we lined up on his dead end street to do wind sprints. The street was paved, but had a light coating of sand on it that had not yet been swept away after a long snowy winter, but it was the perfect length. It was incredible to run with him. He was as fast as he was powerful. His thighs were thickly-muscled and it appeared as though there were rocks stuffed under his calves. I was always a few steps behind him, but that was fine with me. I knew he could motivate me into becoming a more complete player by improving my speed.
After just a handful of 100 yard wind-sprints, we headed downstairs to do some weight lifting in his cellar. I wasn't trying to out-do him, that's not what this was about, and so we used the same weight and began doing some reps on the bench. After just a few sets, his interest seemed to wane, and that's when he suggested we head upstairs to watch old Pop Warner film. I was easy and agreed to cut the workout short and watch some film.
I was surprised when he had the reel-to-reel already set up and the film of the 1969 South Shore Championship ready to play. He pulled the shade and hit lights in his living room and we began watching the black and white film in less than real time speed on the free-standing screen he had set up. At first it was fun to revisit that game, but then something strange began to happen. He was pointing out defensive plays I didn't make and making it a point to mention tackles I missed...
Maybe I was naive, but I completely understood what he was doing. I told him to stop the projector, that if he was upset he hadn't won the MVP he could come over to my house and I'd give him the trophy- He had no answer. That was the first and last time we worked out together, but it did motivate me to train harder.
Our senior year was a bust. Certain changes were made to our starters that disrupted the dynamic on what was once a great football team. Our quarterback was moved to tight end, I was moved from middle linebacker to defensive tackle and lost my starting position at fullback, and the play selection featured only "him" going off tackle right and off tackle left and we became very predictable. The defenses keyed on him and his impact was greatly minimized.
We entered into the last game of our season, Thanksgiving Day, 5-4, with a chance to have a respectable season. I was moved back to starting fullback for this game and we ran the Wishbone offense. On every play our quarterback put the ball in my gut as I ran between the guard and tackle, and if in his opinion there was space, I'd get it, if not he continued down the line of scrimmage where he could either keep it or pitch it to "him" trailing the play. I liked being back at fullback and while practicing this formation, I knew we could be successful controlling the ball. They wouldn't be able to key on him, and if they did there would be other options.
It was during our last full contact practice of the season that the coach took me off the starting defense so I could run against the starters and give them a big back to tackle. I didn't like not practicing with the defense, but I had little choice in the matter.
In the huddle I was positioned in the back row, middle, facing the quarterback who was our former starter and the one who had taken all the snaps back in '69 when we won the South Shore Championship. Looking at him call the plays was comforting, but seeing the junior varsity line in front of me was a concern. On the first play the starting defense ran over the JV offensive line with ease and I was gang-tackled. I went back to the huddle to see a nervous group of young boys who were visually shaken by the task of blocking the starters, mostly seniors. I was gang-tackled again. That's when it started-
He was lined up at cornerback when he started the chant "Kill Vinnie, Kill Vinnie!" The entire defense followed suit and the chanting got loud. I looked around at the blood-thirsty looks on the faces of kids who were once my friends and it was then that I saw the evil smile he was wearing under his helmet. This was his revenge.
I expected the Coach to step in, but he did not. On subsequent plays I was gang tackled and the Coach blew a late whistle and because I refused to go down easy I was taking cheap shots to the back, sides, knees and by friends of mine I had known since kindergarten. It was like a feeding frenzy, and he continued to lead the chant "Kill Vinnie, Kill Vinnie!".
I knew the JV line was incapable of even slowing down the starting defense. My adrenalin was pumping and I looked into the quarterback's eyes and said "Give me the fucking ball up the middle-"
As we walked up to the line of scrimmage the chanting was getting louder and more spirited. When I got the ball I had my eyes on the middle linebacker, the position I lost to him, I lowered my head and shoulders and went low until we collided, that's when I exploded upwards, contacting his facemask with full force. I lifted him off his feet and set him on his ass, and ran up the middle like a wild-man, untouched. On the way back to the huddle I began taunting the defense with "Who's next?" The linebacker was still on the ground, and looking dazed. The Coach stepped in and immediately called the practice...
I went to locker room, got my belongings and drove home in my muddy uniform...
The Thanksgiving game was going well. We were successful running out of the Wishbone. I got nine carries for over 50 yards, according to my friend's father who kept my personal stats. Some of my carries were credited to "him" as we wore similar numbers, were similar in size and no one expected me to be running the ball as much as I did.
To start the second half I was moved back to middle linebacker, my natural position. At tackle I was a down lineman and that minimized my skills which were my vision and hands. It was during that second half that I had 14 unassisted tackles and several sacks. I was in the backfield so quickly the opposing Coach complained to the Refs that I was offside, but they told him I wasn't, I was on the snap count.
I had the best game of my High School career, but we lost when a touchdown was called back when one of our offensive lineman jumped off-sides, not too unlike he had done all season long. We joined the unappealing fraternity of teams that lost their Thanksgiving Game. No matter what, that's always 50% of the teams, just not how I wanted it to end...
Walking off the field alone, I was approached by the Head Coach who said "I should have moved you to middle linebacker sooner-" to which I replied "Like the first game of the year". I was pissed!
That night there were drinking parties and I did not attend. I drove around in my car alone and drank some beer, reflecting on my High School football career, one that hadn't gone as planned. I had the eight-track cranked, but all I really heard was "Kill Vinnie, Kill Vinnie!"
It was around 2:30 a.m. that I found myself angry and in the Coach's neighborhood. He took away my starting positions, had allowed the chanting "Kill Vinnie, Kill Vinnie" and put me in harms' way with his late whistles during the last practice. I saw his house and the small patch of front lawn he spoke of often and valued so much. It was wet and soft. I was young and dumb and couldn't resist. I drove up on it and sat there for a moment, reflecting. I revved my V8 motor to see if any lights went on inside his house. Then I revved it again and let the clutch fly! I tore up his entire front yard, mud and grass flying everywhere. When I stopped I was still on his front lawn, and I waited to see if he was coming out. After a minute or two I slowly bounced my tires over the sidewalk curbing, looked back one more time, cranked up the tunes, and drove off...
I made some new friends that year. I even played spring soccer, which was rarely done by football players. The friendships I made during that 16 game soccer season came at the right time for me and were meaningful.
In the end, after graduation, I put things in perspective. No one should ever be forced to play Red-Rover, it's a cruel game...
I'll always look at those former friends who chanted "Kill Vinnie, Kill Vinnie!" in a completely different way. Even now, 40 plus years later, I'm careful who I chum up with. I do not maintain a lot of friendships, but the ones I do are meaningful and very important to me...