He was wide-framed, covered in baby fat, and young. Genetics had not done him a favor. As an eight grader, he lost every one of his heavyweight wrestling matches. Tommy had ballast, but no strength. Now as a big freshman playing high school football, he was little more than a blocking dummy. His strategy to mentally handle his constant inability to perform was to rise up from his failure smiling and laughing at himself, sometimes looking through the ear hole of his helmet. The team would laugh along at him, Tommy was like a mascot.
To inspire toughness and pride, the team’s last drill each day was a drill, no, not a drill, but a challenge. Next to the practice field was a steep, rocky incline that at the top was the guardrail of a local highway. It was not a pretty place, gravel and glass from the highway above was strewn down the hillside.
The legendary challenge was to begin from the football starting position and fire up the steep incline and touch the guardrail and tumble down to do it again. Cuts and scratches from the run were like badges of courage and testaments of team toughness. Tommy would get ten to twelve feet only to lose his momentum. His fall would always be comedic and funny to save face.
A transient cowboy family had just arrived into the local trailer park. The father and teenage son had just finished working the ever moving wheat harvest. They say every bull rider that rides the circuit could wear the same-sized Wranglers. All tough, wiry, strong, and narrow-hipped. This kid could be a bull rider.
As per state rules, he had to go to a few practices without pads, but this was the day. The team was waiting for his first day with pads, but no one seemed eager to try him. He was just too quiet and too confident. The team and coaches discovered that he was an animal, every tackle and every run was without fear and full-blast. He could be called humble save the fact that he was so confident in doing the task at hand.
Now the hill, He had watched every day as only the best of athletes charged up the high angle of the hill to the top. His first run was amazing as he was catlike and powerful and in record time. As time passed the cowboy kid had two successful runs and Tommy had his usual failures.
The cowboy was next in line as Tommy made his third attempt. Tommy was really digging with his bleeding hands and dusty cleats getting nowhere.
Then a most unusual event happened that they talk about in local football lore even today. The cowboy attacked the hill and drove his pads into the rear thigh of Tommy. Tommy hesitated for a second looking back to see the clenched teeth and the straining neck muscles of the player behind him. Tommy turned and tried even harder not wanting to let the cowboy down. As this short bitter battle ensued, the team captain who had always enjoyed Tommy’s tumble down the hill shoved the other players in front out of the way. He plowed his way up and drove into the other thigh.
Bulls snorting, ramming against each other with dirt flying would have taken a second seat to the masculine energy against the hill. Once, with his rear literally in the air, did Tommy scrape along on his face-mask and helmet. Catching up with his hands, he reached and touched the metal guard rail.
As the three tumbled and crashed down the hill with the team and coaches cheering and laughing. This time they laughed with Tommy, not at him.
That spring, the cowboy and his family went about chasing combines northward through the wheat belt.
Several years later, I was touring the school when I came upon a picture in the trophy case. It was of a certain young man named Tom, all-state lineman.
Perhaps, all he needed was a boost…