The Second Third, Week 1: Pulling My Own Weight

Somewhere around ninth or tenth grade, I took my required high-school health class. Early that first semester, we were asked to set a fitness goal for ourselves. I was one of the small guys on the football team, and a mediocre wrestler, at best, with a large head, skinny build, and little natural athletic talent — so there was plenty of room for physical improvement.

I thought about speed and strength-related goals, like many of my male classmates, but ultimately settled on this: “I want to be able to bike or walk anyplace I want to go, even when I’m in my 70s.”

Or something like that; you get the gist. To be completely honest, I had visions of a family bike trip across the country. Our teacher was also a coach on his way to assistant principal, but even he took notice. This goal was not like a lot of the others. It was extremely long-term, and seemed modest, but as a man of a certain age, he knew this was no small thing.

As a senior, I played varsity football as second-string noseguard. I was about 6-2 and 175 pounds at the end of season, so when wrestling started, I told my coach I was going 189. (Dad told me in 7th grade, when I said I wanted to wrestle, that I always had to wrestle up a weight class — I was forbidden to cut weight, or he would pull me from the team.)

By the mid-point of the season, I weighed 152 pounds, and wrestled 160, 171, and 189, as needed. I was skinny, sure, but had never been in better shape, and had my best (albeit still mediocre) season.

Freshman year at Yale, after several months away from organized sports, I entered an intramural wrestling tournament. I wrestled three shortened periods, won my first match, and went outside to puke in the snow.

The second match was the next day. This time, my opponent had put at least modest effort into his cardio since high school, and it showed. For me, it’s been downhill since.

Today? 6-3 and 235 (on a good day). My bike hung in the garage all spring and summer this year. I road the stationary bike indoors after dark fairly regularly for a few months — but as far as biking anywhere I want to go…well, I can still ride, but we aren’t gonna make time. Especially on the hills.

What’s more: it has begun to bother me that I cannot move my own weight with just my arms. I can do solid pushups, but no pull-ups. From a survival standpoint, this seems like a bad thing. Not that I expect to be in a fight-or-flight situation this week, but then, that’s the point: you never know…

In some ways I was wise as a kid; in some ways, just way less busy and as invincible as only a teenage boy can be. But here in my Second Third, I should be self-sufficient — and that means physically, too. I’ve got work to do.

We All Have a Role to Play

I was a 105-lb. third-string safety on our freshman football squad in high school — scrawny, slow, with a size-8 head that made me cast a shadow like a keyhole. I got to rotate in and out with two other skinny little guys at the end of lopsided games. I didn’t play much.

Last game of the season, we were playing our hated rivals, Reed City. They had a great freshman squad, and by the end of the first half, we were down 60-0. At half time, coach told the starters, “Well, guys, we’re gonna give the rest of the boys some playing time.” We went back out, and me and the other little guys started our three-man rotation at safety, switching out every few plays.

I was on the sidelines when a stocky third-stringer who was in at noseguard, came off the field looking shell-shocked. “Coach!” he panted. “You gotta get me out of there! I’m getting killed!”

I didn’t think about being 105 pounds of pencil lead. I said, “Coach, I’ll go in at noseguard!”

Coach shrugged. “Alright, Thorp! Stay low and plug a hole!”

I crouched at the line in front of a second-string linebacker half again bigger than me. “Thorp!” he yelled. “What are you doing?!”

Too late to answer. On the snap, I scrambled forward on all fours, looked up, and saw a black jersey and the ball. I jumped on it.

My first sack — heck, my first tackle of the year! They had to check the roster to announce my name. The backups gave up just 12 points in the second half. (Admittedly, Reed City sat its starters, too…) I played defensive line the rest of my high school career. Never started, but I never forgot, either…

Stay low and plug a hole. Words to live by.

Confessions of a Casual Sports Fan

We didn’t watch a lot of sports when I was kid. I’ve been to two professional sporting events in my life: Tigers-Yankees at Comerica in Detroit a few years ago, and Yankees-Orioles last fall in old Yankee Stadium. But when we visited Busia and Dziadzi, sports were on—Ernie Harwell calling the Tigers game on the radio; the Lions telecast on Thanksgiving; college hoops or football in season if my uncles and cousins were there, too.

At home, we didn’t pay much attention to sports unless a Michigan team was making a playoff run. I tracked the Roar of ’84 on black-vinyl-covered portable radio with a 9V power source and a hanger for an antenna. We watched the Motor City Bad Boys elbow their way to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, and watched the Wolverines bounce Seton Hall from the NCAA tournament in 1989. I had a big box of baseball cards, but didn’t know the three Don Mattingly rookies were worth anything until a kid at school showed me a photo in a collector’s magazine in junior high.

These days I get a lot of grief here in Minnesota for not rooting for the Twins and the Vikings, and a lot of grief all over the place for cheering for the Yankees. I have my reasons for the teams I cheer for, but none of them have to do with family ties or geographic loyalty. In fact, my reasons are only slightly better than colors and mascots. Here’s the breakdown:

MLB: Yankees (Runners-up: Twins and Tigers)
As I said, I grew up with the Tigers. I loved Chet Lemon for his name; Señor Smoke (Willie Hernandez) and Aurelio Lopez for their names, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson for being Sweet Lou and Gibbie, game-in and game-out. About the only non-Tiger I could name anywhere else in the league was Kirby Puckett, and I loved him, too, for his name, his frame, and his game. Now I live in Minnesota, and the Twins always seem to put together a solid team. You gotta respect that.

As I got older, I lost interest in baseball. It seemed monotonous to me on television, and it wasn’t until after I was married that I began to catch the subtleties of the game. In fall of 1999, Jodi and I and two-year-old Brendan were at her parents’ place in South Dakota. Her older brother Brad was watching the World Series, cheering hard for the Braves, so I took the other side—the Yankees—just to keep things interesting … besides, their shortstop, Jeter, is a West Michigan boy. And I like history and tradition. I like raucous home fields.

The next spring, when baseball rolled around, little Brendan said, “We root for the Yankees, right, Dad?” He told me his favorite player was Andy Pettite, because he wore his cap low over his eyes—and he began to do the same.

How can you argue with that? We’ve been Yankee fans ever since.

NFL: Packers (Runners-up: Lions and Broncos)
Barry Sanders was a class act. Crazy talented and all business: no spiked balls or touchdown dances. He’s the one bright spot I remember for the Lions. Ever. I grew up in Michigan, so I wished (and continue to wish) the Lions well every year. But my cousin Mel was from Green Bay, right across the big lake, and Lambeau was legendary. Again: I like history and tradition. I like raucous home fields. When the Lions washed out, I pulled for the Packers. That hasn’t changed.

However: the first game I ever remember watching start to finish was a Broncos game, with Elway putting on a show. When I met Jodi, I learned that she is the only member of her family who is not a Viking fan. Her uncle told her as a little girl to root for the Broncos. So Denver stayed on the radar, too.

NHL: Red Wings
Michigan team. Yzerman and Lidstrom. History and tradition. Raucous home fields. And when I went to college, they were deadly on Sega hockey. We played a lot of Sega hockey. ‘Nuff said.

NBA: Pistons
To be honest, I watch very little basketball. But the Bad Boys, and the fact that my favorite soft-spoken superstar from those days, Joe Dumars, is leading the organization these days, means when I cheer, I cheer for them.

NCAA: It’s complicated
I went to Yale. Long tradition of intercollegiate athletics, but aside from hockey, not grabbing national headlines these days. Still, I pull for the Bulldogs. I grew up liking Michigan basketball, but also have great admiration for Coach Izzo at State and Coach K at Duke. I grew up liking Michigan football, but I now work for Minnesota, so I pull for the Gophers whenever I can (football, basketball, hockey, and wrestling). I’ve never followed college baseball. I also worked for Ferris State, and will cheer for them, except when they play the University of Minnesota or University of Minnesota Duluth.

That’s it. For what it’s worth, the kids like the Vikings and hate the Packers. And Jodi likes the Twins. To each his our her own. As I type, New York leads 7-1 in Game 6 of the World Series. Matsui-san is on fire. Go Yankees!