It was a hot, sticky late-summer night and our football team was on a barely finished practice field bordering a suburban forest. The air was thick with twenty-year old man-sweat and the odd burnt-rubber smell from crashing football helmets. We were working on running routes, adjustments and coverages.
Since I was a slot-back (or a Tight End for our American friends) we had to practice blocking running and catching. This particular night we were working with Receiver Coach “Pencil” — I assume it was a nickname. In my limited exposure to Coach Pencil it was obvious he “didn’t suffer fools lightly” and I was about to experience it firsthand.
We practised one of the simplest routes in football — the “Out.” Here, a receiver lines up opposite his defender, runs eight to ten yards upfield, makes a quick fake and turns Out, towards the sideline. At that instant, the quarterback passes the ball, and if the Out works, you make the catch and run out of bounds. This new field had yard markers but little else — it lacked end-zones, sidelines, and out-of-bounds.
Coach Pencil yelled “Patterson, lineup on the right side for this Out. Yer the designated!”
I gave myself some encouragement and lined up in my position. I hear the Quarterback call “Blue-24-Blue-24” — just kidding, I can’t remember our play calls, but he called something and released us on two, on two! Off I went — all six plus feet and 220 pounds of extremely limited athletic ability.
I made my sprint upfield, head faked the defender (who was my good friend and knew exactly what I was trying to do) and turned to the right sideline at top speed. But when I turned — no ball!?! This caused my brain to start misfiring: Wasn’t I the designated receiver? What’s wrong? Where’s the sideline? Should I stop? Suddenly, I saw the edge of the field flash by under my feet, then the loose dirt at the edge of the field and I was running top speed into the forest! I was only slowed by the brambles and thick underbrush.
Damn! I turned and slunk my way way out of the woods all to great laughter, hoots and hollers of my teammates. They completely lost it when the noticed I had twigs and what appeared to be poison ivy stuck in my face-mask.
“Get over her Peterson!” coach Pencil bellowed. It’s amazing how quickly your name is forgotten when you suck.
“What in the hell are you doing?” coach asked.
“Well,” I replied feebly. “I ran my route, but I wasn’t sure where to stop. I got confused. I thought I was the receiver on that one.”
“I don’t care if you run all the way to Timbuktu!” retorted Pencil. “If you see the edge of the field and don’t realize its time to stop — you get what you deserve.”
And that has stuck with me for over 25 years. No one cares if you run all the way to Timbuktu out of stupidity. If you’re dumb enough to follow your route all the way into the Forest — or over a cliff — enjoy!
You can have the best coaches, strategies, and teammates but at the end-of-the-day its only you out there on the field. You follow your route but make adjustments when necessary. No one can hold your hand all the way. This lesson failed me in football but has served me so well in various careers. There have been literally dozens of situations where I was alone and in-over-my-head. But, ultimately I was able to think my way out and succeed. Thanks Coach Pencil! Drop a comment below about a time you experienced a failure (or success) like this football story. – rich patterson