Mark Wilson pummeled me. He flattened then rolled me like dough, the football lodged between my liver and my pancreas. I think it’s still there. Everything had started out peachy keen. I was at the back of the line, not making eye contact with anyone, ducking from time to time behind the upperclassmen. Then Wilson, a senior 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound outside linebacker, belted out, “Spencer up front! I want Spencer up here now!”

I blanched. I cringed. I cried a little. Tentatively, I walked to the front of the line.

The coach would blow the whistle, toss up the football between us, and I was to catch the ball and take off one direction or the other as Wilson barreled down for a tackle. It was a wicked drill, very fascist. The ball carrier was at the mercy of the tackler.

I barely made it to my left before the pigskin became an additional organ. It was a miserable experience.

We met in science class. Wilson was my lab partner. I was a sophomore, he a senior, and for some odd reason, he thought I was smart. I’m sure Wilson figured he had picked himself a brainy lab partner, one that would help him get a passing grade. But little did he know I myself had been seeking a brainy kid to help me pass the course. With us both being football players, me on the junior varsity, him, of course, on varsity, Wilson insisted we team up. What a mistake. I didn’t know an atom from an apple.

Fires were started. Beakers were broken. Tests were failed. Apparatuses were tied around my neck. The greatest scientific study we prevailed at was how long it took for my left arm to bruise after Wilson punched it repeatedly. I usually had it coming. I would try to impress the football star by pretending to know certain things-such as that acrylic acid combined with some other chemicals would not burn his pinky finger.

My arm went numb when we could have received extra-credit for knowing the symbol for the element Indium. I cracked under pressure and said Id, probably thinking of the symbol for Idiot instead.

Then the junior varsity season ended, and we were all called up to practice with varsity for their final week. It was another miserable experience.

Every drill Wilson called out my name as I cowered at the back of the line. I recall all the helmets turning in my direction, my JV teammates jealous that Wilson even knew my name, yet thankful he wasn’t hollering out theirs.

It got to the point where I felt that Wilson was practicing new tackles on me. He would cut out my legs on one, then sandwich me to the ground on the next, as if he were experimenting. I was his lab rat.

I survived the practices, and the public humiliation of my own gutlessness. After the season, Wilson informed me that he had picked me for each drill so I wouldn’t get killed by the other linebackers. I thought that was nice. I reciprocated the swell gesture to a few underclassmen the next year.

But I can still to this day feel that football jammed in my ribcage.


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Brad Spencer

Brad Spencer has been covering sports in and around Oak Park for more than a decade, which means the young athletes he once covered in high school are now out of college and at home living with their parents...