The temperature has dipped to the low 90's at night at the Richmond Revolution's practice field, the field also doubling as their actual field for 2011. They play indoor football outside with a special exemption from the Indoor Football League while awaiting the construction of their indoor new home across I-95. An indoor setup on an outdoor field looks as odd as you think it does: the 50-yard indoor football field sits like a blockquote inside a blockquote in the middle of a full-sized outdoor field, a long box of space bordered by foam barriers with sponsors names emblazoned on them and bookended by the tiny tuning forks of indoor goal posts.
Revolution head coach Tony Hawkins looks at me walking up with shoulder pads and helmet in hand.
"I want you to know, I'm against this. I'm really, really against this."
"Okay. You want me to kick?"
"Well, we're not working on kicks tonight, but…sure, we can fit you in there or something. We'll work it out."
On the field there is no contact for the moment. The Revolution's players run through pass drills and coverage, loose and cutting easy swaths through the humidity. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coles spots me walking to the car to get my gear.
"What position you playin'?"
"Meat, I think."
He nods. It's fine. I'm kicking. I'm not getting out there.
I was running once around Inman Park, an affluent neighborhood with fringe pockets of complete sketch where broke hipsters, hippies on their last skids, and rednecks fleeing the burning trailers of their discarded rural lives land for short periods of time.
I jogged past one of these pockets, an apartment complex seemingly made for local television crews to find dead bodies in late at night. A tiny methed-out wraith of a woman opened the gate to exit onto the street with something on the end of a leash. She weighed 95 pounds at most, but the Rottweiler she was barely controlling tallied 120 pounds easy. It also had no intention of continuing the leash-control agreement it had with its partner.
It fired out towards me, running headlong in my direction with shoulders lunging and teeth bared to the gums. It had to be a smoker, or asthmatic, or perhaps was itself struggling with the negative aftereffects of smoking crystal methamphetamine out of light bulbs with its owners. Nothing else would explain how I managed to run in circles around a car and get up on the hood before it took a cutlet or two out of my ass.
The owner's boyfriend subdued the dog, but I barely remember what happened afterward. I do remember the adrenaline spike the instant the dog tensed into the launch position, the taste of aluminum in the mouth, the vague hint of nausea and the WTF feeling of your legs running somewhere your brain clearly did not approve ahead of time. All the components of fear soldered together into a single instant, and then one moment of futile mental preparation before annihilation.
I walk back to the field. Coach Hawkins looked at me.
"You're not kicking. You're on onside return. Warm up and be ready in five."
A Rottweiler growled somewhere deep in my brain, and I tasted batteries.
The coaches lined me up opposite defensive lineman Tyrell Henderson. On the first play I was so nervous I lined up the wrong way in a misaligned three point stance, a technical mistake that didn't matter anyway. When you haven't played a contact sport ever, your body cannot process the data it's getting. The list of errors looks something like this:
382 ERROR: You are playing football
492 ERROR: You are playing football against someone who is paid to play it.
829 ERROR: You are slow and they are fast.
555 ERROR: Legs and arms moving randomly without purpose.
999 ERROR: You have been massively impacted into the ground.
I was instructed to "stay skinny" on the next block attempt. This is deceptively easy. You pop free off the line, eyeballing an unimpeded path to the kicker when---CHOOO CHOOOOOO--- a blocker off the backside cuts in and clears you out like a produce truck wiping a cyclist off the roadway. I flew back and took a nice dramatic tumble around the Field Turf. I would find bits of it stuck in the most personal of spaces that night in the shower.
The team broke formation, then reformed for onside cover drills.
"You have to do one of two things here. You fall on it, or you knock it over the fence, okay? Fall on it, or knock it over the fence. Got it?"
They ran through one without me. This is where hope fucks with you: you think, maybe I'm going to be able to fall on it, the least athletic of all athletic hopes, a simple bodyflop onto a ball, followed by a tremendous impact of a helmet landing on something soft and breakable. You think this prior to car accidents: "It's cool, I'll just leap through the windshield, and then do a somersault, and then land on my feet holding a tiny American flag and wearing a pair of reflective Aviator sunglasses. Then someone plays the Top Gun theme. It'll be awesome."
This is not what happens in car accidents. This is not what happens on onside kick returns.
I wasn't wearing my glasses when it happened. This is bad because I forgot to pack contacts, have the vision of a naked mole rat, and picked up the ball about three feet from my extended left hand. Having no hand-eye coordination is bad to begin with, but couple it with horrible eyesight and my reactions become a human roulette wheel of possibility. I have about a 1/38 chance of hitting my target on a good day, and this is not a good day.
Not wearing glasses is good because I don't have a chance anyway, and I can save myself the trouble of picking the frames out of my skull with a pair of pliers afterward.
The ball tumbles in end-over-end. My blockers give a festive "ole!" to the three oncoming rushers. The ball takes the kind of wicked hop oblong balls take, bounding up at a steep angle and going from "easily fallen on" to "a foot over my head" in a nanosecond. I reach up to tap the ball over the fence as instructed, and then hear the quick inhale of someone else preparing for impact.
Unwisely, that someone else is not me.
There's a moment of complete disconnection when you get hit that hard. You become a casual passenger in your body. The lights roll around the periphery of your vision. Something else grabs the controls and calmly suggests that you tuck up your arms and lay there for a minute, just to make sure you're not going to stand up on a shattered leg or lean on a dislocated elbow It is peaceful like two drinks on a porch or, more appropriately, like the minute or so before you bleed out and die from a major abdominal wound.
It hurt, too, but not that I noticed. I got hit hard on the second attempt as well, but at that point my body was numb from endorphins and whatever other chemicals my very confused body had pumped into my bloodstream. I took a nice long laze on the turf after the second hit not because it hurt, but because I was still trying to figure out what had happened on the first hit.
Coach Hawkins whistles me over, looking past me but waving to the sidelines.
"Your head hit the turf twice and bounced. You're done."
Let's compare flavors of pain between rugby and football. Rugby is medieval warfare, all slashing and brute force applied up close and personal. Football embraces the clinical death of modern war. When someone hits you on a football field, it is strictly tactical, often by design, and swift, accurate, and final. Players themselves are hollow point bullets, jacketed cores that explode through a target. Damage is extensive. The results appall.
I'm over on the sideline afterwards, showing the video to players getting a breather in between drills. The most common reaction is a long, drawn-out "DAAAAAAAAAAAMN." The guy who hit me* comes over and wants to see. He watches, and on the cue of our moment impact begins high-stepping away and raising the roof with his hand yelling "CHOOOOO-CHOOOOOOOO." Allen Joyner, a tackle with the team, stops laughing long enough to make a very serious point.
"Now imagine getting hit by Ray Lewis, man."
I don't really have to imagine getting hit by Ray Lewis. A normal person slapped into pads wouldn't remember it, since you'd shut down, go to a happy place, and wait out everything until your brain stopped slapping around in its case and your extremities regained feeling. You'd feel the pain later, certainly: a lump on the left arm from a helmet's point cracking into your ulna, mysterious cuts and bruises that turn up days later, a soreness in the neck and shoulders creeping in over the better part of a week, and the residual fuzziness that stayed with me until lunchtime the next day letting me know that no matter what I said to the camera, something had been ever-so-slightly bruised in my brain.
But as for the fear of present trauma, of the pain of a big hit? On a football field, you wouldn't have to worry about it for the same reason you don't have to worry about a sniper shooting you in the head on a battlefield: you won't see it coming, and even if you do your mind hits the eject button long before your body takes the insane amount of damage it will take on impact. Never say football is a sport without small mercies.
*Proof I was slightly concussed? I never got the name of the guy who leveled me. For the purposes of this piece, I'll assume it was Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis.