Late one November Friday evening during my sophomore year of high school, I was sitting near the back of a yellow school bus carrying the Russellville Golden Tigers football team home from a tough 14-7 loss to the Sheffield Bulldogs. The loss put the cap on a 4-6 season that had featured few truly bright spots.
I had barely set foot on the field during the first several games. There were three upperclassmen, as well as my friend and classmate Bob Mills, ahead of me in the receiving corps. But I had sure hands and a little speed, and so it was that as we took the field for practice on the Monday after a blowout loss in which three fumbles had been lost on punt returns, Coach Jimmy Mayfield informed me that I was the new punt returner. He gave me a single directive, Zen-like in its simplicity.
“Hang on to the damn ball,” he said.
Which I did. I didn’t exactly dazzle anybody with highlight reel runbacks. But I also did not fumble, and thus was firmly ensconced in my position when we made our trip to Sheffield to wrap up the season.
That night, I broke a long return for the first time. It was 35 years ago next month, but even now I can hear the roar that rose from the stands as I darted into the open and smell the damp grass onto which I finally was tackled 45 yards downfield. It set up our only touchdown of the night. I also wound up catching two or three passes when Coach got mad at one of the starters for some reason and, presumably as a reward for hanging onto the damn ball, played me on offense for the entire second half.
I tell you all of this so that you might understand just how utterly full of myself I was when I got onto that bus for the 20-mile ride home. I was running my mouth from the moment I sat down, and it took all of about five minutes for me to run it right into a disagreement with the teammate sitting behind me, a fellow named Mike Franks. I don’t remember what it was about, but at some point in the back-and-forth, I told Mike that when we got home to Russellville, I intended to kick his butt. He indicated that he’d be happy to give me that opportunity — which should have been all the warning I needed.
I’ll hasten to tell you here that while I’ve never lacked for physical courage when a situation demands it, I was never much for trying to prove anything through physical violence — and that my decision to abandon that philosophy on that particular evening was ill-advised. For one thing, I weighed maybe 140 pounds at the time. Mike Franks was a year older and had probably 30 pounds on me. He was one of those unprepossessingly rock-solid country boys whose solidity you don’t appreciate fully until he’s put you in a headlock and hit you in the face several times.
Which is what happened that night. We changed out of our uniforms at the field house, and then the entire football team gathered in the parking lot in front of the school auditorium and watched Mike Franks clean my clock.
Even then, I figured I’d pretty much got what was coming to me for behaving like a grade-A jackass. This point was driven home to me the following Monday, when I walked into the biology class taught by one of our assistant coaches, Dwight Lawler. Coach Lawler, of course, knew all about the fight, and as we filed into class, he motioned me over to his desk and cheerfully offered up some folk wisdom.
“Kelly,” he said. “Never let your mouth write a check your ass can’t cash.”
Something else happened that Monday as well. At some point during the day, I stopped for a drink at a hallway water fountain, then turned to find myself face-to-face with Mike Franks.
“Hey, man,” I said after a moment’s pause.
“Hey,” Mike replied, clapping me on the shoulder as we passed. And that was that. Not that we became great pals, but the fight was already in the past. Indeed, I suspect that if I ran into Mike Franks at my favorite watering hole this afternoon, he’d let me buy him a beer and thank him for teaching me a lesson that has stayed with me unto this very same day.
Which brings me to the point of this rather embarrassing story: Somehow, we have forgotten how to disagree. We have become overly sensitive, too quick to take umbrage at the slightest offense and too willing to escalate past the point of no return whenever our too-fragile egos are threatened.
It happens in friendships, partnerships and marriages, when people lose sight of the things that brought them together in the first place. It happens in politics, when the desire to win an office or prevail on an issue overwhelms principle and makes the personal destruction of an opponent seem permissible. It happens every time some kid loses a fistfight and decides that the only proper response is to return with a gun and take the life of the person who bested him. It happens because we are too full of ourselves, and too devoid of concern for others.
It happens. But it shouldn’t. We’re getting our collective clock cleaned every day, societally speaking, and we need to take a lesson from it before we slide irrevocably into the sad purgatory reserved for the terminally self-absorbed.
Mark Kelly is the publisher of Weld. Write him at email@example.com.