When The Train Comes, Make Sure Your Bags Are Packed
I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a four year starter. Strawberry field, Oneonta, New York, a hazy August morning in the not too distant past. That day was scheduled to be our first inter-squad scrimmage and both sides were chomping at the bit to let the pads do a little talking. I was an extremely nervous freshman who had just been told that he would be playing the first series at free safety. Now, at the time I looked like a human lollipop. 6’6″ 180 is a nice look for a high jumper, but an unusual build for an athlete flying around the secondary hammering opposing receivers. Adding to my nerves is the fact that I had only been playing this position for a week. I originally came into camp preparing to be the next great quarterback that Hartwick produced. But, the coaches asked me if I’d switch to defense. I liked contact, “sure” was the answer.
My key for the day in our base defense was reading our Senior all American tight end Greg Balcavage (A.K.A Balky). Great. Greg, and I mean this in the nicest way possible, was a freak. They called him the “creature.” 6’3″ 235, tough as nails, mean as a junk yard dog and still the best tight end that has stepped on to that field. He had hands like catchers mits, was faster than a human that size should reasonably be and a total mismatch nightmare for me, a walking skeleton in shoulder pads. So yea I was nervous. Though, on this particular day I had had an ace up my sleeve. I knew on one specific play I was gonna have his number. I just had to do the right thing at the right time.
The play was called Y delay. A basic tightend screen that the offense had run and embarrassed aggressive opposing defenses for years. Balky would feign like he was blocking, pause for a count or two and then release into the area that the opposing defenders had vacated. Usually, he was as naked as a jay bird with the nearest opposing color 5-10 yards away. He would snag the pass, turn up field and ramble for some big time yardage. I watched this scenario go down several times in practice and promised myself that when the time came I was going to haul my bony frame at him with every ounce of my being.
So the ball is snapped and I read my keys. Offensive line shows pass and Balky is staying in too. Thing is, his eyes are darting around like a rookie at the main table of the World Series of poker. Somethings up, he’s gonna release and I know it. I just have to time it up so I don’t hit too early and get a pass interference call, or not too late and risk getting trucked. After a second, he darts downfield turns and looks for the ball.
In all honesty I don’t remember whether he caught the ball and I tackled him, or I broke the pass up. The only thing that stays with me is the crack of my shoulder pads against his, the roar from the sidelines and the birth of my new nickname-sticks. Already resembling one, I now had a moniker that was fitting for how I hit people. Sticks stuck, and for the next four years that’s who I was. It’s funny, under normal circumstances, 1-1 or squared up Balky beats me 9.99 times out of ten. But in this particular setting, I got the best of him. The train came to the station, my bags were packed and I hit that train as hard as I could. Team mates went bananas, the coach who moved me there looked like a genius and my confidence was sky high. I told myself right then and there, that If I could rock an all American, then I could play at this level.
Now maybe my path would have been different had I not prepped for this particular play. Say I disregarded the tight end and vacated the scene. Balky catches the ball and runs down the field untouched. Business as usual, next play, life goes on. Maybe I still play early, as the coaches saw something in me that I didn’t at the time.
Or maybe we go the other way. Confidence drops, coaches lose faith and I’m off the squad in a season or two looking to transfer. Those little moments are big. Each practice, each game, each season is a chance to harness one of those and make it your own. Write your own story. The season is coming, the train creaks into the station for a moment. I hope those bags are packed well, all you gotta do is pick em up and step on board.