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Senior year in college: The final hurrah
before the hard slog of adulthood. The last
taste of campus celebrity. The fleeting
perception of being a big shot. The hard
reality of taking a cheap shot.

I’d had a terrific collegiate run through my
junior year at Rutgers. Scholastically, I was
on the Dean’s List. Socially, I was an officer
of my fraternity. Politically, I was a
member of the university’s prestigious
Crown & Scroll Society. And athletically,
despite a recent knee surgery, I had
performed well enough on a football team
that lost as many as it won (actually a few
more) to pique the interest of NFL
franchises like the Chicago Bears, Kansas
City Chiefs, and Houston Oilers.

Life was good, perhaps too good.

We had just finished the first practice
session of summer camp—two weeks of
two-a-days in New Jersey’s late August hell.

“Get in shape, Don,” grumbled Rutgers’
hard-nosed offensive coordinator
disapprovingly, his steel-capped cleats
clanking on the walkway leading into the
locker room while I sat on a bench outside
the door, wheezing my ass off and
threatening to barf—again.

The days ahead promised to give new
meaning to the description I had once
heard of a football practice:
a period of
intense boredom punctuated by moments
of acute fear
. The author of those words
was presumably equating
fear to the
physical aspects of a game that demands
the repetitive collisions of large bodies
intent on doing damage to one another.
Honestly, that part never bothered me as
much as the psychological challenges of
becoming a starter and remaining one.
That said, and what with my having been
Rutgers’ starting fullback for the past two
seasons, one would think I’d have arrived
at my final summer camp in the best shape
of my life. Clearly, I did not. And so began
my last year in football—one year too late,
as it turned out.

So there I sat, outside the locker room,
totally spent, wheezing like I had
emphysema and knowing that I was
carrying a few too many pounds. I had
tipped the scales that morning slightly
north of 225—considerably higher than my
ideal playing weight. Not only did the next
couple of weeks promise to be brutal, but a
younger, faster, magnificently conditioned
sophomore would be pushing hard for first
team fullback reps. By the close of summer
camp, my starting job would be in serious
jeopardy. Good news, as it turned out.

There are times in one’s life when negative
circumstances conspire to not only focus
the mind, but actually free it. I had last
experienced that focus as a Rutgers
freshman with such a lowly place on the
frosh team’s initial depth chart that there
was no way to go but up. It was a “what
the hell” moment that saw me pull out all
the stops and ultimately land on the first
team. Now, three years later, I found
myself at risk of teetering off that
prestigious pinnacle—a fall that would hurt
far more than never having made it up the
hill in the first place.

By the end of summer camp, I had
wheezed and barfed my way into pretty
decent shape, but my coach maintained a
serious bug up his ass about my not
arriving that way two weeks earlier. “Show
me something Saturday, Don, or Mel will
be running with the ones.”

Coach Hard Nose was referring to that
Saturday’s summer camp
coup de grace
the final, full-tilt, game-condition
scrimmage. Open to the public, officiated
by pros and observed by scouts, it defined
the team for the season ahead. If I was
going to enter the season as
the man, I
would need to pull out all the stops that
afternoon—my one chance to make up for
a lazy-ass summer and an embarrassing
summer camp.

Forty-five years have passed since that
suffocating, late August day—years over
the course of which I have had at least my
share of negative circumstances that focus
the mind. But I can think of no time when I
was more determined to take it to the
absolute max than on that Saturday
afternoon in Piscataway, New Jersey. It
was simply the best game of my life.

Playing with reckless abandon, I ran over
anyone who got in my way and went out of
my way to run over those who didn’t. The
crowd was juiced, officials buzzing
Who’s
the fullback
, scouts taking note of big
number 35, and me high with the
exhilaration of kicking ass—my head never
clearer, my heart never hungrier, my
adrenaline literally feeding off itself.

No one touched me that afternoon without
paying a painful physical price, no one
except Byron.

The game was in its final moments, our
dominating offense threatening to score
one more time, the ball on the 14-yard
line. Coach Hard Nose called my bread-and-
butter play—a power slant off right tackle.
I took the handoff and rumbled toward a
hole that was opening to daylight. A
linebacker and a defensive back quickly
moved to plug the gap. I probably smiled
when I saw them coming; it was that kind
of day. I steamrolled both of them and
sauntered into the end zone: the perfect
finish to a brilliant afternoon. Or so it
seemed.

Byron, playing strong safety, had pursued
me into the end zone. He either didn’t hear
the whistle blow or was too overwhelmed
by his own momentum to stop his charge.
Two steps across the goal line, I was
beginning to turn, relaxing my body, when
Byron’s shoulder drove into my right knee.
Ligaments and cartilage were instantly
rearranged.

In one brilliant and brutal arc of an
afternoon, my season was effectively over.

Years later, I ran into a former teammate,
a tough running back from Maine. It had
been maybe six or seven years since our
playing days, so there was plenty to catch
up on. Yet, not ten minutes passed before
Jim said, “I’ll never forgive that fucking
Byron for that late hit on you! It was a
cheap shot.” I hadn’t thought much about
that moment in years—marriage, kids,
career and the rest of adult life’s bag of
tricks having all but obliterated the
memory. But as I was suddenly reminded
of it, I realized that I wasn’t the only one
affected by Byron’s untimely hit. When I
went down, Jim lost the best blocking
fullback he ever had clearing the way for
his fleet feet.

Personally, I never held Byron accountable,
as if he’d intended to do damage. It was
just one of those things—one of those
shitty, unfair, life-altering things that make
you want to kill somebody. One of
those
things!

I did end up playing some that year, but
half the season was gone before my knee
was rehabbed enough to return physically.
I never returned mentally.

And so it ended. Football had been a part
of my life since I was six years old when,
every Sunday afternoon, my dad would
take a bunch of the neighborhood kids to a
field near our Baltimore row house to teach
us the basics of a game I would grow to
love. As I got older, fall Sundays were
often spent at Memorial Stadium, cheering
for the Baltimore Colts and my role model
Alan “The Horse” Ameche, the Colts' great
fullback. On a snowy December night in
1958, Ameche was immortalized in an
iconic photo when he dipped his shoulder
and barreled into the end zone to score the
winning touchdown as the Colts beat the
New York Giants in sudden death overtime
to become World Champions and seal the
NFL’s destiny as America’s premier sports
attraction.

I suspect that somewhere inside my
psyche, as I galloped into the end zone on
Rutgers' main practice field nearly ten
years later, I was channeling Ameche’s
iconic image. Sadly, I never achieved my
dream of becoming “The Horse II,” but I did
get a glimpse of it on that hot August
afternoon in 1967 when I scored that final
touchdown and began to turn in triumph.

I wish I could have that moment back. I
wish Byron hadn’t smashed my knee with
his late hit. I wish I could see what that
last football season might have been, and
how my life might otherwise have evolved.

But we don’t get to hit life’s do-over
button. Good thing too. Where in the world
would we begin?


After a career in advertising’s "shallow Machiavellian waters,"
Don Riesett now teaches at a school for disadvantaged youth in
Baltimore. His work has been published or is forthcoming in The
Awakenings Review, Folly, Home Planet News, ken*again, The
Legendary, Monkey Puzzle Press, North Atlantic Review, Palo Alto
Review, Red Wheelbarrow Literary Magazine, and elsewhere.
by Don Riesett
PERSONAL FOUL
WAISTED EFFORT: Les LaPointe
of Columbia lunges for the tackle
but can't keep Don Riesett, Rutgers
back, from gaining 9 yards in game
at New Brunswick, NJ. Rutgers won,
37-34, on a touchdown with 14
seconds left in game. (NY Times/AP)