Adventures in American Football: The Weakest Link

We are only as strong as our weakest link

When I decided to play American Football, it was the first time in my life that I was making myself the worst player on a sporting team.

Without wishing to overstate the matter, I’ve always been useful at sport. An understanding of where and when to be, some better-than-average ball skills and a bit of old fashioned determination and I’ve been able to turn my hand at almost any sport I’ve given my time to. Never the best. But definitely never the worst.

But grid-iron was always going to be different. Sure I had an understanding of what was going on. It’s not like I needed the rules explained to me. But the requisite technical proficiency and the sheer physicality of the game meant that for the first time in my life I was the equivalent of the last kid to get picked. I exacerbated this by joining the team at the back end of pre-season, putting me at an even greater disadvantage. I was hands down the worst player on the team.

I’d given myself a single goal when I started as a wide receiver. I was going to make a catch. When I got shifted to defensive back it had changed slightly: I was going to get a turnover and a tackle. These were quite lofty goals, necessitating more field time than I was likely to ever get.

And so I’ve worked. At training and outside, to try and get the basics right. At my gym I’m made footwork part of workout regime, bouncing back forth in little 5 yard dashes designed to make me, well, less awful. I’ve thrown myself into tackling drills, berating myself like a lunatic when I make mistakes. I’ve done everything I’ve been told. I’ve asked questions incessantly. And I’ve failed repeatedly.

I remain the weakest link.

We are only as strong as our weakest link

The conditions we were heading out into were the worst anyone had ever played. I knew this because my fellow players said so. Repeatedly. Confirmation didn’t take more than looking at the puddles that had formed at my feet. We were all soaked through within moments of leaving the sheds. A lake formed across the field from hashmark to hashmark, and standing on the field would see your shoes covered to the laces in water. Jokes were made about saturated balls and wet panties. Assertions of manhood, or lack thereof, we made in the face of complaints about the weather. Words to the effect of ‘suck it up you weak cunt’ were common.

It was wet. Proper wet.

All this meant I would be getting game time today. The coach had been looking for an opportunity to put me on the field in a situation I couldn’t mess up for weeks now. This was the perfect opportunity. The rain meant the play of cornerbacks had become virtually meaningless. In the wet, the ball is like a cake of soap on crack – slippery, unpredictable and impossible to corral. No one could throw the ball. No one could catch the ball. This was a game that would be played on the ground between the tackles – the biggest men on the field determining the outcome. But this time I would be on the field to watch. The weakest link exposed to the conditions.

We are only as strong as our weakest link

When the opposition quarterback dropped back to pass I have to admit I was surprised. In the time I had been on the field it hadn’t happened yet, and was more a sign of the desperation of the opposition offence. The score was only 6-0, but it was the third quarter and they had turned the ball over at least 7 times from fumbles in trying to run the ball, the ball squirting out like a popped pimple on each occasion.

We had dropped into my favourite coverage – zone. Zone means not having to follow one player across the field. It allows the defensive back to focus more on what the quarterback is doing, and react accordingly. It removes all my physical and technical disadvantages and instead takes it back to first principles – be the first to get the ball. Ball skills. Understanding space. I can do this.

The slippery ball flopped out the quarterbacks hand in the direction of a receiver in my zone. As you would expect in this weather, it was not travelling fast. In fact, the pass resembled more of a lob than the ‘frozen rope’ that most quarterbacks aspire to. Like an awful sports movie it seemed to travel in slow motion towards me. A player of each side jumped high in front of me to make an effort at the ball – both missing. The ball continued to fall to where I had taken up residence, a knee firmly planted in the water. It landed in my hands, threatened to spill out again as I clearly struggled with the realisation I was holding the ball, and then came to rest firmly in my grip.

I had intercepted the ball. I had made a contribution.

Sure it was the easiest interception that a player can make. Sure I nearly dropped it regardless. Sure I wasn’t sure if the play was dead after I took the catch – it was – and got up to run it back. I didn’t even really celebrate due to the shock. As a bunch of teammates jumped around me screaming, bashing their helmets into mine I wandered like a punch drunk boxer over to the sideline official, handed him the ball like I’d picked up something he’d dropped. It wasn’t until I was on the sideline that I excitedly yelped “I CONTRIBUTED!” to my confused teammates like Ralph Wiggum.

In the rain, a watershed moment – I was a proper football player now. I was so excited that on the next series that when the ball found its way to my side I rushed up, fearlessly throwing myself at the ball carrier, who by my reckoning was about 3 metres tall and weighed the equivalent of 3 horses. I followed all my training, made a tackle (from which I am still feeling pain almost 10 days later) and wandered off thinking how easy this football lark is.

On the next series, as if the football gods were reminding me that I was still shit, I had another, more difficult opportunity to take another interception. This time it was me jumping for a more direct pass. In the slippery conditions it slipped through my hands. I turned to see the ball fall to the ground like a glass knocked from a table.

It reminded me I remain the weakest link. But the weakest link is now just a sneaky bit stronger.

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