The Summer I Strived

Rishika Srivastava

© Copyright 2022 by 
Rishika Srivastava

Photo courtesy of Pexels.
Photo courtesy of Pexels.

All I could think about was summer vacation when I was growing up. I couldn’t wait to be homework-free, enjoy long days in the sun playing Cops and Robbers, and stay up well past my usually mundane 9:00 P.M. bedtime during the week. I was thrilled at the notion my life wouldn’t revolve around a schedule of activities such as the following …

Wake up.

Go to school.

Come home.

Do homework.

Do chores.

Eat dinner.

Study for tomorrow’s big test.

Eat a bedtime snack.

Go to bed at precisely 9 o’clock on the dot, with, as my mother would say, “no if’s and’s or buts about it.”

My eighth-grade summer vacation was off to a great start. And by that, I mean I never opened a book or thought about anything that remotely sounded or rhymed with the word homework. Everything changed one afternoon when I heard a loud knock at my front door.

I answered.

Hello,” said a somewhat familiar face. A grey-haired man wearing a blue Detroit Lions sweatshirt didn’t do much to hide his sizeable pot-belly figure. I knew him from somewhere, but I couldn’t put my finger on just where. Before I could acknowledge him, he spoke again. “I’m Mr. Kornoely, the new Pee-Wee football coach,” he said kindly while flashing a smile that left me queasy.

You’re Todd’s dad,” I said. Todd Kornoely was a friendly kid. I wouldn’t call us friends. We were more like mutual acquaintances. That meant we didn’t bother one another.

Yes, that’s right,” he said. He reached into his pocket and handed me a crumpled-up paper. “I wanted to stop by and see if you were interested in playing football this year.” I didn’t know what to say. For years I had wanted to play football. Real football. And for years, I had to succumb to playing flag football — running around with a neon stripe tucked into my pants only to look like a real disappointment — because my parents thought the game was too dangerous for my thin frame, and heaven forbid if I were to get hurt.

Really?” I said, hoping he didn’t sense the surprise in my voice. “But I’ve never played football before.”

I certainly wasn’t going to admit to playing flag football. Unless he was blind or stupid — or both — he must have realized that my chances of success in tackle football were slim. I was tall and skinny and as graceful as a newborn calf. I had a mouthful of metal, a pair of sizeable circular eyeglasses resting on the bridge of my nose, and enough acne to scare somebody. If I had gone up to someone and introduced myself as a football player, they would be inclined to believe I was either a kicker or, more appropriately, a liar. “Don’t worry about never playing,” he announced sternly. “It’s even better you haven’t played before. I am looking to get everyone involved this year. I’m not focused on winning. I want to teach the fundamentals to kids of all ages, sizes, and abilities.”

Boy, what a load of crap. Who did this guy think he was talking to?

The way the syllables rolled off his tongue reminded me of a poorly done infomercial. He must have been a car salesman. He probably sold every Cadillac on the lot spewing that garbage. Even kids like me who weren’t involved in sports know that coaches only care about winning. Suppose you’re coaching at a junior high or high school level. In that case, there’s a pretty good chance you’re a frustrated jock whose most significant and most admirable accomplishment is reading your name as it hangs from the rafters of the school you dominated athletically.

Still, I was intrigued and downright fascinated at being a part of the football team. He continued to ramble on about the benefits of playing football. I’m not sure what he said because I was too busy daydreaming. I had this vivid picture in my head. I saw myself walking down the halls on game day decked out with my football jersey instead of the ridiculous button-up my mother would have dressed me in.

I saw my locker decorated with hand-drawn posters with my jersey number scribbled over the center with phrases of encouragement jotted above and below by the cheerleaders. “Have a great game,” it would read. Or “Score a touchdown!” And maybe if I were lucky enough, “We can’t win without you!” I escaped reality briefly, standing with the front door open, my eyes squinting away from the hot sun. It all felt so natural, so spontaneous. I started to believe I could do it!

My reality wasn’t as optimistic.

The night before the first practice, I stood in front of the mirror wearing all my equipment. I didn’t look like the uncoordinated goof I had always been. Oh no! Instead, I looked like a much bigger awkward goof. None of that mattered. When I saw myself in the mirror, I saw a monster. I saw a tackling machine, not a tackling dummy.

As far as I was concerned, Superman had two weaknesses — kryptonite and number 27 from the Jackson Park junior high pee-wee football team. I had fitted hand gloves, multi-colored eye paint, and every other finger taped just like the professionals in the NFL I watched on Sundays. I was ready to go.

And then I got hit.

Well, crushed is the more appropriate description. Destroyed isn’t even out of line. I showed up for the first day of practice expecting to make an impression.

You ever play defensive end, kid?” bellowed my coach. And when I say coach, I’m not referring to Mr. Kornoely. He was only the assistant coach, and all the hoopla he sold me from outside my porch a few weeks before the practice was bullshit.

No, sir,” I screamed back, trying to maintain a sense of intimidation. I didn’t want anyone to know I was scared shitless.

Line up over there,” he announced. “All you gotta do is get to the quarterback.” Before continuing, he slapped my right shoulder pad with enthusiasm, nearly knocking me off balance. “Can you do that, son?” I want to say I looked that son-of-a-bitch right in the eyes and yelled, “You’re damn right I can!” But that would be a lie. I can’t recall what I said because the next thing I remember, I was laying face first in the grass with my headgear buried so far in a mound of dirt it looked like I nose-dived into a sandbox.

I sat out the rest of the practice. I probably had a concussion, but my safety wasn’t the reason for finding the bench. I’m sure the coach considered me a liability and didn’t want to be put on trial for manslaughter had someone killed me during practice. The next day at school, my best friend Chris Oles confirmed what I already figured to be the truth. “I thought he killed you,” he said jokingly, but severe enough to get his point across.

Who?” I wasn’t worried about the hit anymore. I had to find out who had nearly killed me. I had my pride to defend.

Miss. Srivastava ,” he said. “You rushed the quarterback and ran right into his block, man. It sounded like a car crash.” If he was trying to sugarcoat the situation, he was failing miserably. “Everyone wants to know if you’re going to quit,” he said — in a way that proved he, himself, was questioning the statement.

I’m not going to quit, you big moron! I’m going to be a star! After a couple of games, I will lead the team in tackles and go from a zero to a hero! I was thinking, but the words came out a bit differently. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” I explained, refusing to make eye contact with him. “I’m not sure I’m big enough to take this beating.” I lifted my tee-shirt to reveal a set of purple and dark gray square bruises along the edge of my forearm. I wasn’t looking for sympathy, but some reaction would have been excellent, considering my arm looked like I had just been beaten to a pulp by an alcoholic stepfather.

If you quit, you will be the school’s laughingstock,” he said.

Claire was my best friend. But it was hard to sit there and bite my tongue while her did hee best to destroy the little dignity I was trying to hold on to.

I’m not going to quit,” I explained. I wanted to quit, but I sure wouldn’t let anyone know that. “It’s only one practice. Tomorrow will be different.” I sighed.

Tomorrow came. The only thing different about this practice was that I was lined up as the defensive end of the right side of the line, not the left. I came back with a vengeance. I took a pounding for three and a half hours. I bled. I was sore. I was bruised. But one thing nobody on that field could call me was a quitter. Whenever I got knocked down, I felt like quitting, but I was determined not to give anyone that satisfaction. The whistle from Coach Corey’s neck finally sounded. “Water break, girls. Nice job out there!” he chimed. I picked myself up from the ground and made my way to the bench, trying to disguise the surefire anguish shaped into my face.

Coach Corey was the guy with the clipboard. He was running the show, and if I must say, it was a poor production. Mr. Kornoely, for all his faults, was at least genuine in his demeanor. This slogan was hanging from a poster board outside the cafeteria that read: Jackson Park: Molding student-athletes into champions on and off the field! It was corny, but I could see Mr. Kornoely living up to that fable. Hell, he was probably responsible for the whole thing. Coach Corey was a tyrant. He reminded me of a Softball Dad. He was the middle-aged guy who walked around in a muscle tee shirt exposing a shitty motorcycle tattoo and had blonde highlights in his hair. He probably played softball on the weekends to satisfy his ego and prove that he was not only the best-looking guy in the “dad” group but also the most athletic. I could picture the conversations he would have during games. “Nice at-bat,” someone would say. “Thanks,” he would reply with a sheepish grin and then continue. “If I didn’t blow my knee out my senior year — I lead the state in home runs; feel free to look it up — I would be playing pro ball.”

Such an arrogant man.

Coach Corey looked like the kid you would want your daughter to date just by looking at his yearbook photo. He spoke well and even had me believing the things he told me. During practice, there was a moment when Mikela Ramirez, a mammoth kid who was somehow in the 8th grade despite standing nearly six feet tall and weighing something like a thousand pounds, took the ball as the fullback and ran straight through the line. The end zone was in her sights, and I was in her rearview mirror. She smashed everyone in one single motion and never looked back. This was my time. I picked myself up and ran after her with nobody anywhere close. He slowed down considerably around the 20-yard line, probably to admire her work, and that’s when I leaped towards her and caught her by the midsection. I had her! She kept plowing towards the goal line, unaware of my existence, as I slid down from her mid-section and clutched to her ankles.

TOUCHDOWWWWNNN!” Coach Corey screamed, holding on to the last portion of the syllable for an eternity. He ran into the end zone, waving his hands like he was about to tell us he had just won the lottery. “Way to power through, Mike!” I thought he was acknowledging my existence as a player on the team for a moment. I had just risked my life to tackle a grown woman, for Christ’s sake. I lifted my head, spit out the dirt fragments that I had been forced to swallow as Ramirez dragged me a good 30-yards into the end zone, and looked towards coach Corey expecting to hear the rest of the team clapping in ecstasy and charging over to carry me off the field on their shoulders like a scene right out of a crappy B-movie. I figured I had finally earned my stripes.

I could officially call myself a stunner.

I tried like hell to get up, but my body was limp. It was the closest I’d ever felt to paralysis. “To your feet!” he scorned. There was no extension of a hand, nothing to boost my spirits. I was going to make it to my feet if it killed me. “What the hell were you thinking out there?” I was halfway to my feet, and I could feel the spit from his mouth as it drenched the back of my neck. I looked him square in the eyes, unsure of how to respond.

I was trying to make a play coach,” I muttered, unaware if he even heard it.

That kid outweighs you by two-hundred pounds. Don’t let me ever catch you doing that again.” His pupils transformed into little balls of fire. His nostrils expanded with each breath he took. I looked over his shoulder at the rest of the team, wondering why nobody was coming to my rescue. “Do you understand me, kid?” he snarled.

I was confused. My brain was filling up with a plethora of questions. I was playing football, wasn’t I? The object of the game was to tackle, wasn’t it? Why am I playing a defensive position if I’m too small? It’s not easy for a fourteen-year-old kid to be blunt with a middle-aged man, especially when you’re nowhere near puberty. “I’m supposed to tackle coach,” I said.

You are prohibited from tackling someone that big, do you understand me?” He reached over and jerked my face mask a few hundred times. I suddenly wished football helmets came with airbags because I felt like I had just been in a car wreck. “He’s just too damn big for you,” he continued. “Ramirez, get over here.” Mikela Ramirez lollygagged her way over and stood next to Coach Corey awaiting instruction like a slave waiting to take orders from his master. “How much do you weigh?”

Two-hundred and thirty pounds.”

And how much do you weigh, kid?” Forgive me, but isn’t the coach of all people supposed to be able to get a semi-accurate gage on the weight of his player — especially his defensive end?

Eighty-five pounds,” I echoed reluctantly.

Exactly my point.” He beamed with the excitement of a boy scout. It was sickening, honestly. He was doing his best to show me up in front of the entire team — as if what I had just endured wasn’t enough punishment. I stared at him blankly. My eyes were open, but I saw nothing. Instead, I brought myself back to a conversation with my dad a couple of years earlier when I was bullied by this fat insecure redhead named Susan Henry.

There comes a time, kid, in every player’s life when you have to stand up for yourself regardless of the outcome,” he said. He waited, hoping it would sink in before continuing. “And that time is today.”

What do you suggest I do?”

Don’t give her an inch. If she wants a fight, give her one.”

I didn’t exactly pass for Joe Louis or anything, so fighting a much bigger kid was not the route I wanted to take. Nevertheless, that conversation stuck with me. (To clarify, Susan beat me to within an inch of my life, but had you known that I’m not sure the story would surmise ahead of time.) I wasn’t contemplating fighting Coach Corey or the morons who passed as my teammates. I’m not violent by nature. But I had to do something.

What the hell is the point?” I barked back. It wasn’t the bark of a Bullmastiff or Rottweiler — no, it was more like a Pomeranian, but it was a bark, nonetheless.

I struggled for a moment but was able to remove my helmet from my head and slam it to the ground. I continued with no regard for an answer to my question. “I’m here to play football. I’m not here to hand out the water,” I pleaded with a sense of urgency. Perhaps it was happening. Maybe, finally, I had found my voice in the presence of others.

You’re here to do as I say,” he echoed a few inches from my face. “This is my team. I’m running things here. Every day from the hours of three o’clock until six o’clock, you belong to me. Do you understand??” He wasn’t going to let me win the battle. He made sure he saved face, and it was evident as I looked back and saw my teammates laughing at me and mockingly pointing in my direction.

Yes, sir,” I mumbled under my breath.

Now pick up your helmet and give me twenty-five pushups for showing a lack of respect for the school’s equipment.”

It was ironic that he was lecturing me on respect when I hadn’t been given an ounce of it since I joined the team. “You have to pick your battles,” my grandpa would always tell me. “Don’t go to war unless you know you can win,” he would shout while puffing on a big phony Cuban cigar between thoughts. I remembered that and knew that this was one battle I wasn’t going to win. I picked up my helmet and walked over to the bench. I did my pushups without complaint.

Afterward, I realized I would never be able to go to the Zoo again; because now I knew what the animals felt like behind a cage with many humans gawking at them with their mock-eating grins that stretched for miles. It was humiliating; just as humiliating as doing pushups in front of a bunch of goons who believed — just like Coach Corey — their mock didn’t stink.

You’re not going to quit,” my dad told me about a week before the season’s first game while sitting at the breakfast table. Of course, I neglected to mention that I had been getting my body lit up like a Christmas decoration for five weeks. He had no clue I was being practiced out of position — still at defensive end — and continuously chastised for missing blocks or failing to make a tackle or, hell, for even trying to tackle

Why can’t I?”

This family doesn’t quit. I told you before you agreed to play; once you start something, you finish it.” He did his best to give me a supportive half-smile before heading out for work.

Yes, sir,” I quibbled. My dad wasn’t a military man, but he did his best to raise my younger sibling and me as if the doctor delivered us in the driveway of Fort Knox.

It was finally here. The moment I had been waiting for. Today everything was going to make sense. All the hard work was going to pay off. The endless month of brutality on my mind, body, and spirit would come full circle. It sounds cliché as hell — I know — but there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Today was our first game.

An actual game.

The tackles were going to count. The stat sheets were going to be recorded. Everyone would be buzzing about the game, and I knew I would play a lead role. I tried to keep my excitement to a moderate level as I played catch with Claire during our final warm-up. “If practice makes perfect, we should be ready to go,” I giggled embarrassingly. “Are you ready?”

I was born ready,” she said.

We tossed the ball around a few more times and then slammed into each other, banging our pads around and grunting like mules on the chopping block.

The game started, and I started — on the bench. I waited patiently for my opportunity to strike. I knew it would be coming soon because we were getting beat up pretty damn bad through the first quarter. It was entertaining watching all the girls who were anointed first string by Coach Corey getting beat like nerds like in classic romantic comedy . For once, these arrogant people were getting a taste of their own medicine. They came back to the bench between substitutions gasping for air and reaching for water, blood spewing from their lips and sweat running down their eyes.

In a sense, it was a personal victory.

Our halftime speech was anything but motivational. Coach Kornoely sat in the locker room corner like a prisoner of war to Coach Corey as he brought his screaming to a level unforeseen. “Unacceptable!! Unacceptable!” He kept repeating it and shaking his head. “Six weeks of blood, sweat, and tears, and this is the product you are putting out on the field!? Look at the jersey you are wearing. Do we have no pride in our school?!”

He slammed his clipboard down. He was asking questions, but he didn’t want the answers. We sat in silence. The score was 28–0. He was being outcoached in every sense of the word by an older gentleman who looked as though he was retired and doing this in his spare time. That had to eat at the hot-shot mentality of Corey. The high school had a long tradition of losing. Nobody had any answers, but it was vital that we, at the eighth-grade level, were groomed to change the high school culture on our way up.

It was Coach Corey’s responsibility, and he was failing.

Ah, the irony.

The second half began. To nobody’s surprise, it was like watching a re-run of the previous two quarters. The only difference, you ask? Coach Corey’s anger level was much higher.

I sat on the bench the entire game. I didn’t even see any mop-up time, and that was available five minutes into the game after the opposing team ran a kickoff back for a touchdown and then immediately picked up a fumble and put that on the board.

It finally occurred to me how much time I had wasted the last six weeks of summer vacation. As I walked home from the field carrying my equipment in my gym bag, I thought of my cigar choking grandfather again. “You get what you give,” he would say. If that were true, it was a big fat lie. I gave everything I could; jumped through every hoop, took every bump, and felt every bruise — and for what?

Pride? Acceptance? Popularity?

I thought those were things I wanted to be attached to my athletic resume. Instead, if you ever dig deep into the illustrious coaching career of Jeff Corey and the year 2012, you will probably fail to see my name in the logbooks and my body missing from the team photograph. It’s hard to be present when you quit, which is precisely what I did.

Stop here,” I said quietly. I motioned towards a small brick ranch-style home. It was the night after our first game, and I was sitting in my dad’s Chevy pickup truck in front of Coach Kornoely’s home. I had a decision to make. I had discussed it with my dad after the game with great uncertainty.

You have to grow up someday,” he said as I walked in the door with a look of frustration hanging from my face. “You do what you have to do. But you make sure you can live with the consequences of your decision.”

I knew what would happen. And the best part was I didn’t care. I got out of the truck and picked up every piece of school-issued equipment. I walked to the center of the street in the dark on an otherwise uneventful Sunday night and dropped everything I had received at the beginning of summer right smack in the middle of the pebble-coated driveway.

And I did it without looking back.

The next day at school, everyone wanted to know why I quit. “You couldn’t cut it,” one bully would say. “You weren’t tough enough,” another blockhead would holler. “You’re a quitter!” the rest would taunt. But perhaps most ironic was my final conversation with Coach Corey. He called me into his office, and when I arrived, I found Coach Kornoely standing at his side.

I’m disappointed in your decision to quit,” he began. After a short pause and a glance at Coach Kornoely he continued. “I stressed communication from day one, and I wish you would have approached me if you had concerns. Not everyone plays every game, but I — both coach Kornoely and I — would have done our best to get you some playing time through the season.

He paused a second time and pointed to stare directly at me.

We would have been happy to allow you a spot back on the team. However, how you quit was unacceptable. It goes against every value we instill at Jackson Park, and we are both sorry you felt it was necessary to act in such a way.” He stopped, struggling to grasp the perfect way to end things. And then he hit me with it. “If you learn anything from your actions, I want you to understand that quitters never win.”

The word values leaving his lips were disgusting enough in itself. But he had some gull to paint me as a quitter! I waited patiently before answering. I thought about letting loose on him. I thought about telling me what my grandfather said and how I remembered it while sitting on the bench. And I thought about going into the conversation I had with my dad during this mess. And I even thought about ratting out every people pleaser on the team that mocked me and ridiculed me for quitting.

But I didn’t do any of those things.

And then, almost effortlessly, the words just came to me.

You can’t quit something you were never a part of.”

Growing up , I wasn’t the most athletic student which in turn made me a topic of ridicule .Although I was particularly myself lethargic but that summer I strived hard and worked to achieve something .Though it didn’t turn out like I had imagined to but somehow today at the age of 18 I have figured out that it’s the effort that matters. Life is unfair quite most of the time. Family has motivated me and questioned my capabilities too. But all that matters is that “ I tried ”

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