At the age of five years old, I was in the backyard of another kid that would become my best friend through the age of twelve. Our mothers were in the front yard talking about how we might get along when my new potential friend swung a golf club and cracked me in the skull so hard I nearly blacked out.
I still recall the dull ringing sensation of that possible concussion. A lump grew on the side of my head and we headed home with an ice bag clamped to my skull.
That was the first of many such incidents over the years. As an athletic kid with two older brothers I was always trying to keep up and prove myself on any field of competition. It quite often resulted dramatic injuries.
During years of elementary school recess, I ran into the swingset metal poles so often that my mother finally told the school, “You only have to call me if he’s knocked out.” I’d be chasing after some kickball headed over the swingset and KONG! hit my head on the metal pole again. A lump would rise on my forehead like a cartoon and off to the school nurse I’d go.
Playing catcher in softball in fourth grade, I saw a fly ball pop up from home plate and ran toward the pitcher’s mound to catch it. The pitcher came running toward the ball and his buck teeth gouged into my cheek below the eye. That cut was so deep it required stitches and I had a black eye for weeks. But I still caught the ball.
That same year I was chasing down a fly ball in kickball when a heavy set kid named Jim ran across my path and I crammed into him at full tilt. He bit a hole straight through his tongue. It didn’t heal properly and he reminded me by sticking a pencil through the bottom of his tongue to show me where the hole still was. I wasn’t the one injured in that incident, at least not physically. Yet it scarred me for years.
While playing pickup football in the side yard of another friend, his older brother tried to stop me from scoring a runback touchdown and wound up shoving me into a rough concrete ditch. My head clonked on the cement and I was knocked out completely. I woke up quickly but my head hurt like never before. Plus I was seeing double. Angry and stubborn, I insisted on walking home alone but had to cross Route 222, a busy road south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I took a chance and ran across but approaching cars looked like two or three at once. I wound up at the doctor’s office for stitches that day, and several day’s of rest.
When I started playing organized sports and the risks of not performing grew higher, I had to put fear of injury out of my mind. That was tough during sliding practice in baseball, where the raw bruise on the back of my leg and butt grew worse at every attempt until I learned (the hard way) how to slide smoothly and stand right up at the bag. There are few more difficult lessons I ever learned in sports than how to slide in baseball.
I was thinking about all this rough and tumble stuff because last Saturday I rode my mountain bike for twenty miles and wound up wiping out on a slick downhill section where the road turns and I came into it a little hot. But knobby tires slid out from beneath me and I went into a decent slide while striking my right butt cheek on the road. Getting up, I was a bit embarrassed but not too badly hurt. Thankfully the approaching car was no closer and I didn’t smack into his front end. He drove by without a word but the woman in the car behind him rolled down her window and yelled, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Just a stupid mistake. I came into the turn a little hard.”
“Well,” she said in reply. “You’re braver than me. I wouldn’t go out in this stuff.”
I’ve cracked up on my bike a number of times. Once by not watching the trail ahead and I rode headlong into a fallen tree. Another happened because of bike wobble while tearing down a long hill at 40MPH in Wisconsin. Another took place when I tried riding a road bike perpendicular from the grass into a curb. I didn’t see a gap and flew head over heels above the handlebars. Landed on my helmet. Got up and rode home. Part of life.
Even on the run, I’ve stumbled and fallen a few times. Jumping a chain across a forest preserve driveway years ago, I landed on one foot and wiped out on the black ice. I went down hard, injuring my wrist. It hurt for months. Back in the 80s while training on a golf course, it grew dark outside and I ran smack into a rope across the fairway.
None of this is because I’m uncoordinated or a bad athlete. It’s because I don’t inherently dwell on limits and frankly, sometimes shit just happens in sports. If you play enough of them, it’s part of the price of participation.
That water on the knee injury during basketball in 8th grade resulted from a guy who ran with his head down and crashed into my leg coming up during a full court running drill. The doctor used an 8-inch needle to suck the black blood out of my knee, but I didn’t faint. No sir. I was so mad I stared at that needle and cursed that kid for taking me out of hoops for two weeks. I was a starter and didn’t want to lose my position.
And that’s how it goes in all of life. We get this physical, emotional and situational injuries and keep on trucking. I’ve torn ACLs (twice) and an MCL, had bone chips in my elbow and crashed so hard into a tree on my bike that the purple bruises took weeks to heal and finally migrated around my belly to turn my nuts and crank a surly liver color.
Yes, I love sports. Always have. Always will. My repaired front tooth is from a baseball accident when a line drive that was supposed to be a grounder in practice hit me in the mouth in 1971. Every time I smile there’s a reminder of the cost of having fun.
But I keep smiling. It’s the only way to live.