If it’s true that every life reaches a crossroads, I felt that when I reached mine. I was in danger of falling asleep in an idling car at the stoplight.
Athletes often generously share origin stories about the transforming effect of a coach or parent. My modest rise from geeky sports fan to geeky sports columnist began with a subtle moment in a stalled life, a moment unworthy of a movie or book, a moment I’m sure only I remember.
My father worked in the Air Force, and then, as a troubleshooting manager for the American Can Company. We moved about every two years, living everywhere from Knob Noster, Mo., to Okinawa.
My parents were chain smokers and alcoholics. I grew up skinny and sickly. I loved sports. Sports did not care for me.
Spending my formative years in Pennsylvania and Maryland, I devoted all the time I could playing pickup baseball, football and basketball, reading the local newspapers, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated, and watching what games were available on television. I was obsessed. My obsession did not allow me to make contact with curveballs.
In my first years of Little League, I was short enough that the coach would bat me leadoff, knowing that if I didn’t swing, I would likely draw a walk. The coach was my Father.
I went one entire season without taking the bat off my shoulder, a strategy that worked to create runs and obscure anxieties. I don’t know that I could have swung if ordered to.
My social anxieties and frequent illnesses were at odds with the sporting life I envisioned. I had trouble competing in front of spectators, even if they were parents and dogs. I had trouble speaking in front of a class. I dreamed of being Brooks Robinson, diving to catch line drives, then holding the ball triumphantly while the crowd roared. I might as well have dreamed of walking on the moon.
Having never played an organized team sport above the Little League level, I tried out for a few teams as a freshman at John Carroll High in Bel Air, Md., and didn’t make any of them.
That summer, my father took a job in St. Louis and enrolled me in an all-boys school. As a sophomore new to Vianney, I made few friends and didn’t even think about trying to make a team. I adopted every bad habit available, and muddled through school, doing the minimum in every class that didn’t involve reading or writing.
One day, as a junior, my high school held “Field Day,’’ an all-inclusive track meet. It was Geek Squad before there was a Geek Squad.
Knowing I wasn’t fast enough to win a sprint or well-conditioned enough to last a mile, I entered the 800 meters.
A couple of prominent members of the track and cross country teams took the lead. I hung back, unsure how hard I should run, afraid my lungs would burst and I’d fail to even finish if I started too fast.
At the beginning of the second lap, as I trailed the leaders by 50 yards, I decided to sprint. I passed almost everyone in the field, including a couple of track athletes, one of whom was renowned for his offseason training and nutritional habits.
Either a lightbulb went off in my head, or oxygen deprivation was making it seem so. I had found a sports skill—sprinting like an escaped convict at the end of a long race.
The high school track coach asked my name, and why I didn’t run for the school. A couple of runners from my class with whom I was friendly began urging me to try out for the team. Teachers approached to congratulate me.
Most important, I felt … good?
Yeah, good. That was unusual.
My lungs burned. My thighs burned. Somehow, having my chest ache after losing a race made me feel like a winner.
I was launched. However modest the destination, at least I had one in mind.
I wanted to compete, and I wanted to be a part of the sports world in some way.
If this were a movie, I would have gone on to win medals. This wasn’t a movie. I became a decent high school track and cross country athlete. In my case, the importance of sport was not contained in triumphs, but in experiences.
Some of my teachers began looking at me differently. Studying became easier. My days gained structure. I made friends and developed confidence. I learned how to handle defeat. I saw a direct correlation between effort and results. I learned to push myself.
I also gave myself an alternative to my home life. My parents were good people who couldn’t kick their addictions to nicotine and alcohol. They grew up in an era in which drinking and smoking were socially acceptable, as long as you functioned. I had never enjoyed cigarette smoke. As a track athlete, I was given another reason to avoid smoke of any kind. I can’t say that I avoided alcohol, but I knew I couldn’t drink the way my parents did and function at a high level.
I began writing about the track team for the school newspaper, then became the sports editor. My path was set.
Having developed confidence and endurance, I tried out for Missouri’s club lacrosse team. I was the club president and captain as a junior and senior.
Once afraid to read a book report in front of a class of 20, I now felt comfortable running a team and speaking on camera.
Running a silly race as a junior in high school changed my life and propelled me toward a career.