By the time I reached sixth grade, I’d earned a reputation as one of the better athletes in the grade. I recall being invited to a basketball clinic at the high school where the coaches took a first look at the kids coming up through the ranks. Already I was a flashy ballplayer, dribbling between my legs and doing pump layups, spinning the ball on my finger and shooting from the shoulder. My skinny arms were not yet strong enough to shoot a jump shot from the forehead, but I’d get there eventually.
For all that prowess in basketball and baseball and even soccer for that matter, the chip on my shoulder was still pretty large. Perhaps it was the products of a father-son relationship that tipped back and forth between encouragement and exasperation. The teasing and competitive trysts with my brothers didn’t help my self-esteem either. Nor did native anxiety as a nail-biting kid afraid that someone might not like me.
It all came to a head in a sixth-grade class when a kid pointed the projector at my face and it hurt my eyes. I got angry first, then cried in frustration, at which point one of the prettier girls in class muttered to another, “He’s such a sissy.”
That was enough to drive me to prove her wrong. I started picking fights on the playground and my reputation for fighting drew until this tough kid named Davey found out about me. “Meet me in the deep end of the Meadia Heights pool,” he told me one October day. “We’ll see how tough you are.”
The pool was empty for the winter, so the scene of the fight was going to be rather epic. Frankly, it scared the hell out of me. Plus Davey was a bit creepy-looking with a big head of black hair, super pale complexion, and really red lips that made me uncomfortable just looking at him.
The day came for the fight and I was supposed to meet him at noon in the pool. At 11 a.m. I was bragging about the fight before playing basketball with friends and a neighbor kid who was a year or two older than me grabbed me by the shirt and said, “You’re not going to that fight.”
Now, as nervous as I was about fighting the tough kid Davey, I was even more scared of the friend that grabbed my shirt. He was a little nuts as I recall, playing basketball in his socks most of the time, for what reason we never really knew. In any case, I backed off and the neighbor kid went to the fight in my place.
He returned a half-hour later with blood all down the front of his white tee shirt. He walked over to me and said, “That’s the last time you agree to a fight,” he said, pointing at his shirt. “Davey pulled a knife on me, but I knocked it away and beat the piss out of him. This is the blood from his nose,” he said, jabbing himself in the chest.
And from that point on, I ceased the fighting.
That was a big relief because I no longer felt the need to prove how tough I was. I’d learned to assume that there were always going to be kids tougher than me and that I’d meet them eventually if I kept on fighting. In fact, I didn’t punch anyone else until my senior year in high school when a kid named Kevin got so rough during an intramural basketball league that he flipped me over his back at one point. I jumped up and jacked him flush in the eye. He took a swing back that I ducked. Then I ran out the gym door all the way home through twenty-degree weather in just my basketball shorts, a tee-shirt and Converse All-Stars.
That night, the guy I punched called me at home (it was easy to look us up in the phone book back then…) and told me that he and his friends would catch me at school the next day and beat me up. So I stayed home from school on some excuse and the whole thing blew over.
I’ve dug through my youth as you can appreciate, and understand the reasons why I got so full of myself with anger at that age. I didn’t know how to handle some of the challenges of being raised by a dad with a bit of anger within himself. My dad was a really great guy, but he was also a bit presumptive about his own interests at times, and when his kids refused to help out around the house it really got under his skin. That’s when things got dicey for us, and that day that I watched him whup my brothers in front of me stuck with me for many years. I was traumatized, and the manner in which I acted that out of myself was to engage in violence too.
It can be much, much worse than I ever had it. Some kids endured regular beatings back in those days. Ours were relatively rare, or at best occasional. Most of my youth was joyous, filled with fun and laughter with my family and friends. But depending on how you’re wired, the worst part of an upbringing can determine a whole bunch of your outlook. For this Competition’s Son, it took years to work through those issues and find a form of self-esteem that was sustainable.
And I thank God that my dad nudged me into running. I’m not sure he understood exactly how good it would be for my anxiety to have a sport that tired me out, let me think on the run and built lifelong friendships, but that’s indeed what took place. I guess there were hints prior to ninth grade when I actually went out for high school cross country. Even in youth baseball, the coaches couldn’t believe how fast I could run practice loops and leave the entire team behind. They made me do extra pushups to slow me down so the other kids had a chance.
In seventh grade, I ran a 12:00 time trial in gym class and covered 8 1/3 laps, a pace under 6:00 per mile run in flat gym shoes on a thick cinder track.
My skinny frame cried out for a career as a distance runner. I took crap from my brothers and everyone else for being so skinny all those years. But I turned that weakness into a relative superpower. Granted, I was never a state champion or an individual All-American in college, but I did wind up leading the Luther College cross country team to a second-place NCAA Division Three second-place finish, competed three times in the national track meet in steeplechase and went on to win plenty of road races after college. I had a fun and largely productive running career. Nothing to complain about.
But after that day that we placed second in the nation, after the race, I walked over to hug my father for all that he’d done for me. That’s when the healing began. It would take years to fully recognize the depth of my personal issues, and I did wake up pounding the pillow one night at the age of twenty-eight years old. That’s when I finally understood that there was some anger I needed to purge and relinquish from my soul.
We’re all effectively in a competition with ourselves to find ways to let any bad things go and embrace the good in this world. We all go about that process in the best way we can. I’m grateful to have had help in that endeavor along the way. I’m also glad to be the recipient of some honest advice about who I am. Nothing can replace the value of that type of insight f you can handle it. That’s our job as human beings, to absorb some of the criticism and turn it into positive action. The formative experiences of youth carry through our young adult and adult lives until we finally make sense to us.
I hope that makes sense to you. If it does, please share aspects of your own journey if you have a moment to jot them up in the comment section below.