Hash marks are the little white lines on a football field, each one measuring a single yard of the hundred that comprises the whole. Most people never notice them. But to the players and the coaches—those who wager so much on distance won or lost—hash marks offer order to the chaos of one crazy-ass game.
I devoted twenty years of my life to football. Played quarterback at every level: peewee to professional. After my playing days were done, I coached high school ball for five years. I stepped away from the game two years ago, after my daughter was born; there just wasn’t enough time for both. But the lessons the game taught me—the metaphorical hash marks, the small lines forever etched into the fields of my past—remain. The problem has been trying to make sense of them in a world without football, especially in my new role as “Daddy” to a two-year-old girl.
Recently, my wife and I completed a backyard facelift. We put down some metal edging and filled it with a dump-truck load of river rock. We even installed a swing set and a slide. In short, we built a playground.
At two, Emmy is probably too small for such a structure. That’s certainly true for the six-foot-tall ladder leading up to the slide. But our reasoning was similar to buying her clothes one size too big—she’d grow into it.
Yesterday afternoon, I was chasing her around the playground, enjoying the first rush of warmth after so much cold. At some point, I sat down in one of the new Adirondack chairs we’d included in our addition. Em immediately took note of my concession, cutting her mother’s blue eyes at me, the look on her face screaming freedom!
She bolted, making a beeline for the ladder, small hands slapping the rungs, stubby feet taking hold. She was about four feet up when she fell, arms straight out, a reverse belly flop, all two-and-a-half feet of her body hitting the ground at the same time, hard.
She didn’t move.
And for some reason, I didn’t either.
I could hear my absent wife shouting inside my head, Eli! Help her! But there was another, stronger voice, ingrained in my psyche from all those years spent on the gridiron. It breathed up from the fields of my past, growling at my daughter:
Em’s response came in the form of a shriek, both hands pawing at the ground, tiny pale fingers turning to fists.
From my chair, I watched as she righted herself, rolling over with such fury the river rocks sprayed out in waves, a formidable wake for a girl who’d just turned two. The way she walks when she’s pissed reminds me of drunken nights: stumbling with both arms extended, feeling her way forward.
“Daddy. Da-dee!” she cried, pawing at my legs.
The voice inside my head spoke aloud to her again: “Are you tough?”
My daughter shook her head, curly blonde locks slapping her cheeks as she buried her face against my thigh. I lifted her into my lap, questioning the choices I’d made over the last thirty seconds.
What sort of man would do what I’d just done? What sort of father?
When I first started playing football for Coach Gary and the Russellville Tornadoes back in the third grade, everybody called me “Maddog.”All one word like that because that’s how my dad had written it on a piece of tape across the front of my helmet. The other players’ helmets displayed their names: WILLIAMS, MITCHNER, THOMPSON, and TRAMMEL.
My dad’s barbwire scrawl, all caps and mean.
There’s a picture in my parents’ house of nine-year-old me wearing the helmet with the MADDOG tape. In the photograph, it’s early August, the day of my first-ever tackle-football practice.
I can remember arriving at the Sequoyah Elementary School playground, waiting for practice to start, and my grandfather—my mom’s dad, Poppy—tackling me. He went real low, got me by the ankles, and twisted like alligators do sometimes when they get hold of a deer.
“Gator roll,” he said as we stood. “Works every time.”
When practice started, Coach Gary lined all the boys up single file. There was a crusty, innerspring mattress laid out near the monkey bars. I don’t remember if the drill had a name, but it was simple: one boy stood in front of the mattress, holding a ball, while another sprinted forward and tackled him.
Standing in line, I was afraid. A few of the smaller boys had come up from the mattress, hands on their helmets, tears in their eyes, shoulder pads heaving, while their fathers stood under the monkey bars with their fists clenched, maybe remembering their first hit, maybe not.
I watched as the boys smashed into each other and counted down the helmets until it was my turn. When I made it to the front of the line, I looked up to see the boy I’d have to tackle. His name was Lawson, a fourth-grader who’d been held back a year. He was grinning, with the ball held low at his waist, like he knew he was over seven hundred days ahead of me and almost thirty pounds heavier. Lawson had black hair under his armpits. I’d seen it.
Coach Gary’s whistle rang out like a tornado siren and I ran, head back, aiming high, forgetting Poppy’s gator-roll technique. I hit Lawson up around the shoulders. He barely flinched as I bounced off of him, flailed across the lumpy mattress, and rolled to a stop in the dirt.
I couldn’t see my father, but I felt his shame, the MADDOG tape burning hot across my forehead. I stood and went to the end of the line.
After some blocking drills and a few water breaks, Coach Gary blew his whistle and practice was finally over. I had the first snap of my chinstrap undone, ready to be free of the burden, when my dad called out to me:
Dad called me “E” when all was well; he called me “Son” when he was pissed.
Through the monkey bars I saw my father. Beside him stood Lawson and Lawson’s dad. There wasn’t a football anywhere in sight, and the mattress was gone too, already dangling from the bed of Coach Gary’s truck.
What followed was a lesson in defeat: Me against Lawson, head to head, again and again. No ball. No play. No first downs or end zones. No touchdowns to be scored. There weren’t even lines on that playground field.
I don’t remember how long it lasted; time warps in moments of despair. I just remember the way Lawson smiled every time he pinned me to the dirt, laughing as my father said, “Hut,” and Lawson laid into me again. I wished for the mattress, but it was on down the road somewhere, bouncing along in Coach Gary’s truck. I couldn’t understand what was happening, or why. I didn’t know about how my father had been undersized in high school. How, even on Senior Night—a game where every player generally gets a shot at glory—his old bastard coach never let him touch the field. I didn’t know any of that. I just knew Lawson was bigger than me, older than me, and he was having fun.
And at some point, I guess I got tired of it.
Maybe Lawson was tired too, or maybe he was bored, but the next time we came together, I went real low, getting a good hold on him around the ankles. I imagined Poppy watching from the parking lot, smiling behind the wheel of his cream-colored Cadillac. I jerked hard, twisting Lawson at the knees. He wasn’t laughing when he hit the ground. I didn’t know what to do, so I jumped him, like Ralphie does Scott Farkus in A Christmas Story. There was no whistle, no mattress, just me pounding Lawson’s facemask, my knuckles going red and numb.On the drive home, I held my helmet in my lap, the MADDOG tape staring back at me, a nickname that had just begun to stick.
On a different playground, the one my wife and I built, my daughter sat where my helmet once had, still crying but not as hard now. I tried to imagine what became of that piece of tape. At what point did Dad take it off my helmet?
I don’t know.
Maybe the tape remains.
Or maybe when my daughter fell off the ladder leading up to the slide, I peeled that tape back. Maybe I was holding it while I was holding her, trying to decide where to stick it, how hard to push, how strong a girl needed to be in order to survive the world that exists beyond the confines of our backyard.
She was still crying, rubbing her nose in my chest, boogers and tears in lines across my shirt when she leaned back and looked me in the eyes. Past the blue and the white, through her two black pupils, I saw a boy and a man, an innerspring mattress and an oversized fourth grader names Lawson. Her mouth was moving, but I couldn’t hear her words. I was lost on that playground, that field with no lines, trying to make sense of every step, every yard—all those hash marks—that had led me here.
Pain comes in different forms: physical, emotional, something in between where the tears burn and the heart aches and scars never heal on the inside. Sitting there, looking into my daughter’s eyes, watching her mouth move, I couldn’t help but imagine what would’ve happened if she’d really hurt herself falling from that ladder. If her arm was broken and I’d just left her there alone, with all that pain. Did my father ask himself the same questions when he let Lawson loose on me?
I was still searching for the answers, trying to make sense of my past, when Em’s voice finally broke through:
“I tough, Daddy. I tough.”
She wiped her nose with her shirtsleeve and crawled down from my lap, steady feet crunching across the river rocks again. She went straight for the ladder, slapping at every rung, stomping on her way up. When she made it to the top, she turned back to me. I recognized the look on her face: her mother’s eyes revealing her father’s fire.
A part of me wanted to teach her the rest of the lesson: That more falls were coming, some so hard, so painful, that there was no getting back up, only moving on. But damn if she hadn’t just tackled something she thought was too big for her.
I sat back in my chair and thought to myself, Not today.
“Hash Marks” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By.
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