A Glimpse of Vice and Virtue
Sidney Nnamdi Nwangwu II
© Copyright 2021 by Sidney Nnamdi Nwangwu II
has been a tale of glory told in all societies across time. These
tales are sometimes eclipsed by fables of a meteoric rise from the
depths of the downtrodden. Stories in this vein have kept the spirit
of the legendary Hercules in the human consciousness millennia after
ritualistic worship of him ended. The greatest sports icons of the
20th century have similar tales keeping their exploits alive decades
after their retirement. In this regard, athletes could be considered
modern day versions of Hercules. Strength beyond measure, speed
surpassing comprehension, agility defying physics; mere words will
never be enough to encompass the entirety of these tales. And yet,
the inevitable end exposes their humanity and connects these
superhumans to us, rendering their stories unforgettable.
The Nemean Lion, Ali in the Rumble in the Jungle, the Nine Headed Hydra, Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, none of us will ever forget the first time these stories filled our imaginations. For spectators and rivals alike, a glimpse of the extraordinary will hold significance, but there’s a special lesson to be learned in the chase to recreate legends. The pursuit can take many forms, each requiring a host of skills and proficiencies. No matter the field, the path will lead to one place, the scales of self-enlightenment. Here each supplicant can measure themselves against those who came before. Few find themselves equal to the weight of glory.
In the tales of old, a young Hercules was met by creatures known as Vice and Virtue. These creatures presented him with two options. He could choose a pleasant and easy life, an unremarkable life anyone would be content to live. Or he could choose a life of struggle and strife, a life that would test him at every turn, but would be remembered forever. For Hercules, there was no choice, only glory. It’s not that simple for everyone. This is the story of another petitioner to the scales of self-enlightenment, a child stumbling onto the weighing pan in the pursuit of heroes.
Being big can be cool, but it can also be a curse. I was always tall for my age like my hero Hercules, but unlike my hero, I was also a couple of ice cream sandwiches from fat. My parents were hardworking immigrants from Nigeria and I was a good kid. They wanted their children to have the ‘American Life’ and so my good behavior ensured I was rewarded often. As an introvert, most of my choices revolved around food or games. My mom did her best to keep us healthy, but by fifth grade I had mini-man boobs. My weight and shyness combined into the perfect recipe for isolation, a dish many have tasted, but I didn’t see it like that. Back then, everyone was my friend-in-waiting, all the humiliation was just ribbing like friends do.
My older brothers were the epitome of everything I wanted to be. Cool, suave, funny, popular, athletic, real-life examples of older sibling dreams. They played football. My brothers had friends that were every bit as cool, funny, and popular as them. These friends played football too. When I thought about it, every football player on TV looked cool and popular as well. The correlation was easy enough to make.
This football thing wasn’t just a game. It was a beatific sport. Like the Ulama game from the Disney movie Eldorado, the participants were transformed into demigods of cool and popularity. Hercules and Superman were my first heroes, but with football I realized I had heroes in real life. Not only that, but I could become just like them. I was eager for the day I would be called upon to play this mythical game. As a demigod of cool, everyone would flock to be my friend.
My opportunity came towards the end of my elementary school days. One of the neighborhood kids tapped me to play for his team, filling my mind with images of glory. This vision made real the possibility of having my best friend as a neighbor like Corey and Shawn in Boy Meets World. The only problem was my parents. They were cautious people who watched over their children like wolves in a new forest. Considering their lives in the humanitarian crisis that was Nigeria during the Biafran Secession, who could blame them? America was a dream come true, but they still saw the nightmares lurking in the shadows of the land of opportunity. Like Hercules with the Nemean Lion, I had to get creative in how I applied my abilities to this problem.
I made the textbook move and brought my possible best friend to help me convince my mom. I was half a foot taller and at least one hundred pounds heavier than this little white kid but we were the same age. That would be enough. With him at my side, I made my plea, but my mom was ready.
She proposed I ask my father. I couldn’t let that happen. My father appreciated sports, but his was an appreciation from afar. He didn’t support putting his children at risk if there wasn’t a tangible benefit like scholarships or money. My possible best friend and I managed to keep the conversation between us and steer the talks in our favor. It took a little time, but my mom eventually agreed after sensing my determination to play.
My new team practiced at the park I passed every morning on the way to school. The park was huge, boasting pavilioned basketball courts, playgrounds separated by open fields, and a pool next door. Entering the park, I wanted to get a little playground action, but my purpose caught my eye. I could see it at the back of the park in the form of boys of all sizes condensed around a table near the restrooms. I remember watching my mom fill out the paperwork when the sunlight was transformed into a massive shadow. A random voice casually called out ‘coach’ and I turned around.
Before me stood a large gray haired white man, his deep blue eyes shining as they stared at me. He was marveling at my size when my neighborhood friend seemed to apparate into existence like a wizard from Harry Potter. The two of them began detailing visions of the team’s future in which I was the terror of the defensive line and the bulwark of the offensive line, whatever those were. These visions induced daydreams of the life waiting for me and the scene always started with a victory. Then my demigod brothers were there carrying me on their shoulders while thousands of fans screamed their adoration for me. These visions and daydreams were cut short when I was told to step on the scale.
I was so far over my age group weight limit that the mothers of the other players wouldn’t let me play. At first, I was incredibly embarrassed. Once again, my weight came between me and what I wanted; first friends, now football. Then I got angry because there were other kids about my size and wasn’t football a violent sport by its very nature? And yet, amid my anger, I felt an odd sense of relief.
I realized there wouldn’t be any need to separate from my candy and games. I would get the chance to enjoy my preciouses a little longer. After transforming into a demigod of cool, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy either of them because that’s not what popular kids liked according to TV. That’s when my friend began talking about weight requirements and deadlines.
Before long, a plan came into existence. All I had to do was lose the excess weight prior to the week of the first game. My heart was split between my candy and my transformation, but my mom’s face said, ‘You asked for this’ with expectation and menace. I began nodding. Then the coach laid a hand on my shoulder, flashing a bright white smile, and flicking his eyebrows up as he told my mother, ‘We’re gonna get the boy right, ma’am. Don’t you worry.’
Looking into my coach’s eyes, a sense of excitement chased away some of the disappointment from not going back to my candy and games. I knew I was being given a chance to make myself into who I wanted to be. I should’ve been far more exuberant, but I wasn’t. I was concerned with a sensation in my chest. This sensation faintly resembled the feeling I’d get when I stopped playing a game after consecutive losses. But that didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t playing any video games. So as opposed to following this feeling to its source, I chose to continue recounting my daydreams of being adored like Hercules each time he completed one of his tasks.
The first practice took place in the morning a week later. The sun was a pale sliver on the horizon, the red sky dotted with splashes of purple clouds. It was humid and the air was heavy with the aroma of freshly cut grass. The field was nothing more than a blanket of gold from the morning dew. I was wearing my football pads, but upon seeing that golden field, my pads were transformed into the armored garb of the demigods. I always knew I would be transformed as soon as I touched the field, and this view was all the confirmation I needed.
When I stepped on the field, I was still excited but that was all I felt. Odd, but I realized there must be a ritual to enact the transformation. Something like the Fusion Dance in Dragonball Z. That’s when the coaches started putting us in lines and I quickly learned there was no ritual. Just the warmup routine. The exercise was tiring but I was more agile than my chubby appearance implied. The encouragement of the coaches told me as much. But as much as I enjoyed the approval of my coaches, what I enjoyed most was resting at the back of the line before the next drill.
Following the warmups, I watched the coaches separate the bigger boys from the small ones during a water break. I didn’t know it back then, but the decisions made that day would follow every player for the entirety of their football career. What I was witnessing was our position designations. The problem was that I had the impression I’d be going with whichever group had their hands on the ball. The reactions of my coaches during the warmups seemed to be all the confirmation I needed. I let my mind dip back into my visions of greatness as I waited to be told what I already knew.
My name was called and I was pointed to one side of the field. I saw the smaller kids getting pointed to the other side of the field and that made sense to me. Couldn’t have shrimps holding the ball or they’d be pulverized. Another kid joined my side and he was smaller than me, but still bigger than the kids at the other end of the field. I wasn’t sure what position he’d be assigned, but we’d see what the coaches had in mind for us soon enough. Another kid walked over and he was bigger than the other kid, but still smaller than me. When another kid my size walked over, I was hit full in the face with reality.
I was a big boy, fated to play with my hands in the dirt, my name unknown to anyone. I never thought the thing that made me perfect for football, my size, would be the very thing keeping me from what I wanted, to score points like the popular players. And yet with this designation, I’d never touch the ball unless something went very wrong.
Big boys made people crunch on the field, our brute force and displays of strength pulled fans to football. We made sure plays happened as they should, taking what glory we can but only for the sake of the team. There’s nothing wrong with that. One of my brothers played with his hand in the dirt and he was still popular. Who was I to look down on such a noble and honorable assignment? This rationale was instrumental in soothing my disappointment of never touching the ball.
some time acclimating to our new positions, the coaches blew their
whistles to gather everyone. While we hydrated ourselves, the coaches
laid down four dummy bags a few yards apart. Once the break was over,
we gathered around the dummies and learned a drill fundamental to our
future in football. This is the drill often portrayed on television
where everyone is gathered around two players, whooping and cheering
like sailors at a dockyard brawl. In the drill, the coach blows the
whistle and the opposing players leap to their feet, charging each
other to engage in a contest of wills. The only way to win is to
drive your opponent to the ground and the drill doesn’t end
until someone loses. A drill known as the Oklahoma Drill.
In this version of the Oklahoma Drill, there were four players, two opponents laying down and their respective teammates standing behind them, one of whom carried the ball. At the whistle, the ground players engaged each other while the ball carrier tried to avoid the defenders and get across. I liked this drill because it alleviated some of the monotony of practice by putting us in a game-like simulation. During one practice a few weeks later, the drill became a legendary memory I know my grandchildren will hear in perpetuity.
Despite knowing what position groups were available to us, our specific alignments were still ambiguous at the time. So, when we did the Oklahoma Drill, we big boys rotated between blocking for the ball carrier and trying to tackle him. On this day, I was lined up across from a kid who matched my size, set to attack the ball carrier like my brother.
I’ll never be able to say if it was a thought or an image, but when the coach blew his whistle, I exploded. I kept my face up and stayed low, crashing into the protector with all my strength. I drove my feet into the ground and extended my arms, pressing him away from me as he back peddled. I had all the focus of Hercules when he fought the Lernaean Hydra and spotted the ball carrier trying to make for an opening. I had to act, but something already stopped him. I was confused at first. Then I saw someone’s arm holding him in place which made no sense because my teammate was still shadowing the ball carrier behind me.
During my confusion, I traced the arm to my shoulder and was baffled to see both the ball carrier and protector in my grasp. In that moment, I was Hercules, holding up the sky and I felt more powerful than I ever had previously. My body moved on its own again and my arms bundled my opponents together to tackle them together. That’s when I realized how tiring explosive effort was and my two-man tackle developed into a three-person bear hug.
Despite not completing the tackle, the coaches were ecstatic. I could hear their shouts of approval as they blew the whistle. When we were separated, it felt like the entire team collapsed on me. Everyone was cheering and it took a little while to register that the cheers were for me. That’s when I was introduced to the most hallowed gestures of praise in the divine sport of football. A sign of approval, congratulations, respect, and admiration, all expressed in a single gesture, the Almighty Helmet and Butt Slaps. In the end my head was ringing, and my cheeks were sore, but I savored every bit of the attention. In that moment I was a champion, I was at long last a demigod.
I relished in this praise because even though I did things well, I could never elicit this reaction with my schoolwork or gaming. The closest I got was when I would watch my brothers during their games. They often received praise like this and for the first time, I felt a connection between us that extended beyond our blood relation. The praise felt as sweet as an angelic ambrosia, it was enough to make my head spin, and strong enough to embed a desire for more in my chest.
My drive was quickly snuffed out by fatigue. Every practice was an exercise in self-preservation and I did everything in my power to avoid exhaustion. I thought if I made it to practice, the weight would take care of itself. My mom kept saying weird words like ‘diet’ and ‘low-calorie’ but that was a language I refused to understand. Everything would work out in my favor just like it did in the Disney Channel movies I watched on Fridays.
When the end of summer came, I was put in front of the scale once more. I stepped on and the dial rose. I knew with its speed where it was headed. I knew I’d lost some weight, but as I watched it climb past the weight limit, I also knew I wasn’t playing. My coach was filled with regret when he told me I was free to continue practicing with the team, but I wouldn’t be allowed to play in the games. Not even if I lost the weight later in the season.
I was disappointed but not devastated. Games and candy were waiting for me on the horizon. I no longer had to worry about my mom’s strange weight control language and most importantly, I didn’t have to run anymore. Besides, I almost took down two players by myself. As a kid still coming to understand football, I knew I was going to get bigger, stronger, and faster regardless of whether I worked for it or not. I didn’t get what I wanted because the sport wasn’t ready for me, not because I didn’t work hard enough.
Middle school would be different. There weren’t any weight limits there and as the hero of the two-player takedown legend, I was certain I’d make the team. The soil for my future in football had been laid down. Now I just had to sit back and watch it grow. My starry-eyed visions as a demigod of cool would keep me company.