Adventures in American Football: Week Three

You’ve been given an opportunity, now go out there and hurt someone.

As someone who considers himself to be a relatively intelligent, mostly functional human being, it’s always weird when someone treats you like the kind of person who really, really likes inflicting pain on others. It’s even weirder when this is advice is used as a coaching technique.

Every male child played with a magnifying glass and ants at some stage in their lives. Many translated that fascination with the pain of others – figuratively of course – to their time in high school. Some even haunt your local pub on the weekend, seeking confirmation of whether your predilection for staring in the wrong direction while you try to remember if it’s pints, pots or schooners is an invitation for a re-enactment of Ali-Liston.

Unfortunately for me, the motivation to hurt other living things is something I’ve grown out of, if indeed I ever had it. Even more unfortunately, if I believe my coaches in this adventure, it appears to be the sole reason to play defence. Remember do you like hit or be hit?  It turns out this wasn’t a philosophical question. Turns out this was literal – if you want to play defence, you have to enjoy the pain of others. I do not have this motivation.

But in the lead up to the second game, I was reminded repeatedly by teammates, coaches and people loosely affiliated[1] with the team that we were not just trying to win this weekend. We were going to hurt people. We didn’t want to dominate them on the scoreboard. We wanted to hurt them. To make them scared. Winning was the end. Hurting was the means.

For a game that’s so heavily reliant on technique, on body positioning, on reading the people standing opposite, reacting to subtle movements in their hips, it is pretty strange to focus on raw aggression as the mechanism for achieving victory.

You’ve been given an opportunity, now go out there and hurt someone.

They were the words of the defensive-backs coach, a good man who has been incredibly patient with my fumbling and un-athletic attempts to learn a highly intricate and precise position. I’d been moved over to his side of the ball purely out of numbers. There was a lot of receivers and not many defensive backs. I was just depth.

He was completely serious, I think, wanting to elicit some sort of primal scream in response. For me to yell “YES COACH! RAAAAH” and use the brief opportunity I was about to have like a chance to return to nature; to strip myself down to nought but a fig leaf, rip the head off a rabbit, drink the goodness within and beat my chest in the rain.

But without wanting to sound like a wanker (Ed note: too late), I do not understand this game through that prism. I understand it from the tactical and technical perspective. Bend your knees like this. Move fast here. Slow down there. Stay low and move forward. Don’t stand still. Turn your hips this way at this point and not before. The key for me is translating the knowledge of when and what to do into the action of doing it. I do not need to do things harder, faster and stronger. I need to do them better. This separates me from the rest of the team who are skilled and powerful. They only need a reminder to find their inner cunt. At this stage I still wouldn’t know what to do with it if I found it.

But here I was, being sent out as the head-hunter on a punt team. The position is one of minimal skill. The ball is snapped. And the head-hunter tries to find the person with the ball and hurt them. So the coach grabbed me, gave me the direction, and out I went. ‘Go out there and hurt someone’ ringing in my ears.

Hurtling down the field at full speed is where the training is meant to take over. Moving as fast as one can isn’t the best time to try and remember wise counsel from your coaches, but it sure as hell reveals how much you (don’t) know. As I approached the guy who was about to the catch the ball I suddenly realised I had next to no idea what to do next.

Go out there and hurt someone.

Yup. I’ve been taught to run. I’ve been taught how to tackle someone running on a 45 degree angle while I’m running on a 45 degree angle and they’re waiting for me to tackle them. But as I got closer to the guy with the ball I had no idea how to tackle someone while I was running at full speed and they had no interest in me tackling them. And then all of a sudden it happened.


That was the sound of the returner stepping off his left foot and breaking to the right. It left me grasping at air, about 3 feet from where he had originally been. Luckily for me he merely moved into the path of my more capable team-mates. I trudged off the field a failure (not an unusual feeling for me). The coach, who had given me the very specific advice to try and hurt someone pulled me aside and told me mate, you can’t just run at him at full speed. When you get to him you have to prop, read and react to his movement. Then you pick a point to cut him off.

Without wanting to channel Adam Sandler, it was information that could have been useful much earlier. The next time down I would know what to do. I would focus more on technique, and less on aggression.

The second (and last) time I got on the field I rushed down the field, propped, read and reacted. I picked his running lane. I met him at the point, ready to make the tackle. The only problem this time was that I actually made contact with the ball runner. I doubt that today that he is aware of this fact. My shoulder and arm sprung of him as if he were a human trampoline. I may have slowed him marginally, and he was caught right after by the oncoming defence.

The head coach pulled me aside after I’d again made the lonely jog to the sideline for more sage advice – lower your tackle, stay on your feet. Basically, get better.

I wandered off, my work done for the day. I’d been given an opportunity. The only thing I’d hurt was my pride.

[1] I forget that parents are still involved in your life when your 19. All these adults watching their ‘adult’ children. Driving hours on end on their weekends to watch their offspring get hurt by grown men.

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