Old Boys Become Young Men

Football Coach’s Words Inspire Small School to Lone Section Championship

Nonverbal Communication from Coach Roggeman

A pregame speech from head coach Buck Roggeman was a sermon from a football god.

A grown man with traps that stretched neck-to-shoulders and a chest that looked as if it could press a car, his words sailed on scripts from ancient times.

He told stories. He recited poems. He invoked myth.

Sometimes he wouldn’t talk for minutes, simply walking around the locker room in silence looking into our teenaged eyes—asking us for more with a look, demanding we play harder and smarter, more cohesive, with a nod.

*

He had studied at Stanford. English and linebacking. Buck was not a nickname but his given name. His brother was Rock. His father a football coach. For all we knew, his mom was Joan of Arc.

He told us that when he was a player, “Before games I’d wish the earth would open up and swallow me whole. . . because I knew how much would be required of me during the four quarters that were about to begin.”  

We were the Breakers, he told us, named after sets of crashing waves that had, for eons unmeasurable, shaped the land upon which we lived—carving the central coast rocks of California long before any of those Padres (the mascot of our rival, Carmel) ever walked the missionary road to establish their message.

He told us no matter what—whether we were big or small, strong or quick, whether we could throw or catch or kick or just hit—that there was a place for us on this football team.

“Can’t say that about soccer or basketball, men,” he’d told us. “Not about tennis or rock climbing. But you can say it about football.”

Coach Roggeman told us if we trusted the person next to us to do his job—and if that person trusted us to do our job—it did not matter what the other team did.

It did not even matter who the other team was. Not if De la Salle somehow came to stand on the sideline opposite us. Not “if Walter Payton comes back from the dead!”

Seriously, he said that.

*

“Anybody. Anytime. Anywhere,” he’d bellow off the walls of the locker room and into the air of the Friday night lights. “Nothing outside of us matters.”

And we believed him. It was all about our team, and we dug it.

We 28 high school football players became a Greek Phalanx of strength—individual shields interconnected to form a whole a heck of a lot greater than the sum of our small-town parts would have otherwise—a unified force moving forward with impenetrable purpose.

*

We would have been a good team without Coach Roggeman. But it was only with his leadership, with his words, I believe, that we achieved something great. The league title and that section championship in the rain were definitely cool—but all these years later, it is something else we remember.

He spoke to us with an eloquence that made it clear we were equal travelers on a worthwhile journey that deserved all we could give.

Though we were boys playing a game, he made us feel like we were men going to battle.

And so we were.    

We All Just Wanna Be Big Rockstars

It was dark and cold and we were groggy when the bus pulled up to the hotel. “What time is it?” asked Big Tim, his red beard and cowboy boots.

“Four-thirty,” said Emory, brown eyes under a large hoody looking at his phone. ”In the fucking morning.”

*

The Manchester Wolves we were, an Arena Football team of 22 souls leaving New Hampshire bound for Wisconsin to take on the Green Bay Blizzard in a building right next to Lambeau Field—where Brett Favre had become a legend playing the game like a boy and Reggie White had reigned as the “Minister of Defense.”

No one knew our names like those guys; we were not famous yet. We traveled the road of minor league American football together, a group of ballplayers playing for room-and-board, $300 bucks a game, and a dream.

*

We boarded the bus in the silence of half-sleep and took our seats, white dudes from the Midwest and black guys from the south, our Polynesian fullback with his ukulele, and a kicker from Mexico who grew up on soccer fields.

Atnas, our receiver from Mozambeke who was raised by an adopted family in Vancouver (and was a citizen of our northern neighbor) sat next to me, the quarterback from California.

“You bring your speaker,” I asked him as I sipped coffee from the Radisson’s coffee shop, the hotel where we lived two to a room and hung out at the lobby bar where we’d sometimes get a drink or two for free.

“’Course, Jonny B,” said Atnas, though my name was Jonathan and my last name started with a G. ‘Jonny B Good’ he called me—and when we connected on a deep post or corner route for a touchdown the P.A. announcer called him ‘Air Canada.’

Coach Danton Barto—a good ol’ boy from Missouri who didn’t grow up in the projects, but “right across the tracks from the projects” as he’d told us in our first team meeting—climbed the stairs and boarded the bus, hot as my coffee. “Fuckin Gameday! We leave 2-3. We come back 3-3. Period.”

*

We’d lost our first game and it had been a struggle to get back to .500. Tough to even our record after initial defeat.

Coach Barto’s words hung in silence as the bus pulled out of the hotel parking lot, bound for the airport to arrive at the opponent’s stadium only a few hours before kickoff.

Atnas scrolled for a song on his IPOD, a process that took time as he searched for the just the right tune. The song began to play.

“Nickelback?” I asked, curious, as Atnas turned it up loud enough for the whole bus to hear.

“Oh, Jonny B,” Atnas said over the music. “This a good song.”

The beat drummed and the guitars joined in and the singer came on with lyrics about yearning to be a rockstar.

I’m through with standin’ in lines to clubs I’ll never get in / It’s like the bottom of the ninth and I’m never gonna win / This life hasn’t turned out quite the way I want it to be. . .

*

As the first hint of dawn showed to the east, a couple heads here and there began to bob to the words, shoulders beginning to sway.

A voice from the back began to sing along. It was Emory—our team barber who’d ‘line us up’ the night before the game but didn’t quite know what to do with my strange long hair.

Cause we all just wanna be rig rockstars. . .” belted Emory. “And live in hilltop houses drivin’ fifteen cars. . .”

“Give it a rest, Em’,” a voice shouted. “We tryin’ to sleep.”

But Emory didn’t care. He and his sweet voice kept on singing.

And, then, something magical happened.

Another voice joined in. Then another. And another.

Soon, the whole team was singing along—sopranos and altos, blacks and whites and browns—the whole bus alive with music.

“I need a credit card that’s got no limit / And a big black jet with a bedroom in it / Gonna join the mile-high club at thirty-seven thousand feet. . .”

Big Tim let out a big ol’ “Yeehaa” and things really got boomin’.

 “’I’m gonna dress my ass with the latest fashion / Get a front door key to the Playboy mansion / Gonna date a centerfold that loves to blow my money for me. . .”

The bus was rockin’. We were alive as team—riding the minor league road together and singing about making the bigtime.

 “Well, hey, hey I wanna be a Rockstar. . . hey, hey, I wanna be a rockstar. . . !”

*

The song ended with laughs and cheers, high fives and fist bumps. Coach Barto said we didn’t sound half-bad.

After the song, Atnas turned off his IPOD, and the rest of the drive to the airport was quiet. But a new energy filled the bus, something tangible and good, something cohesive and strong. Something we’d grasped at all year but hadn’t quite yet felt.

*

The bus pulled up to the terminal, the door opened, we stood from our seats and exited.  In the cold air, our breath steamed as we stood around to pick up our duffel bags of pads and cleats and helmets from the storage compartment below the bus. Those who got their bags first waited for those who got their bags last.

The pre-dawn darkness had become the light of another day, gameday, the latest in the long list of gamedays that comprised the career of our lives.

Then each player boarded the plane—a single part of a whole that summed to something a lot greater than who he was—to compete together against whatever force materialized to oppose us.

*

We battled hard that night in Green Bay, bloodied and victorious. We returned to the hotel the next morning 3-3 on the season. And in the lobby bar that evening we were finally even—on every level.

All-American Boy

I was quarterback of the football team, valedictorian of the class. You found my name in the yearbook under ‘most likely to succeed.’ And, looking back now with white hairs in my beard, I still don’t know what that word means.

*

I’ve never made more than $47,000 a year. I am not married, never have been, and have no children I know of. My truck approaches 300,000 miles. I have never spoken to Siri.

But I’ve crushed beers with good friends and smoked grass with the wind. I’ve ran with the shamans and howled at the moon. I’ve danced naked with hippies and brawled with barroom bigots.

I’ve taught university English for not much and been paid to play football for less. I’ve written a book that got published and waited tables for tips. I have laughed and cried and loved and lost.    

*

Something has changed in the years since high school. All those straight A’s in rectangle classrooms, all those Xs and Os on the gridiron, they evolved into some ‘circular language of meander.’ I turned off the scoreboard and experience became my game.  

Since college I’ve rented nineteen little rooms in abodes across four countries of the world and five states of Americana. I’ve lived for free—those summers in grad school in my tent, that winter in the Sierra Nevada surviving van-life to ski 121 days in a row. Travelling the west in a sixty-year-old ‘canned ham’ before the leak in the roof got so bad I traded it for a bicycle and rode on down the road.

*

I’ve still never made more than $47,000 a year—but I’ve “clocked-in” for less hours in my life than any thirty-something I know. And that means freedom. And who know what lay ‘round the bend.

Today is Tomorrow’s Yesterday

All we have is Now.

Future is a made-up concept. For when we get there, it will be Now.

The same holds true with Past. When we were there, it was Now.

Anxiety at what will come tomorrow robs us of today just as regret at what happened yesterday robs us of today.

Today is today, today.

Now is Now, Now.

How much of our lives do we spend trying to predict a future we cannot control, trying to alter an unalterable past?

Though not always easy to do, mustn’t we admit that ‘living right here now’ is rather easy to understand?

That giving complete attention to — and complete acceptance of — the present moment, to Now, gives us the best chance for joy.

Ends to Beginnings and Beginnings to Ends, On End

A new year has turned old and soon it will end so another can begin.

We have learned. We have done. We are the same as we were or we are different or we are some combination of the two.

Maybe we’ve grown taller. Maybe we’ve grown wiser. Grown a belly or a mustache or debt.

Perhaps we’ve gotten back in shape or quit smoking the vape. Maybe we started smoking the vape.

*

But in the video tape of our lives— the single moments that make a day that link to 365 making one-whole—where are we? Better off, we hope.

Life is not linear and time ain’t straight. Circles, wise men tell me, may be the best way to look at things.

Friends come and friends go. Love is lost and treasure is found. Or is it the other way around?

*

Humans have contemplated the ends and beginnings of time since the beginning of time. Things unwind to form again.

Flowers bloom and then the sun shines hot and then it snows. Boys become men. And girls still drive them crazy.

What is life? The meaning of it, I mean. To have a good time. To gain enlightenment. To imbibe the ferment. To put our child handprints in fresh cement?

*

We will all soon die, these wise men also say. So why not live, now.

And so it is Christmas

When we were kids, the day would never come—always hanging in the distance like some red and green rainbow of presents wrapped with bows and cookies covered in frosting.

It was ‘the most wonderful time of the year.’ Can it be again?

The past few years I’ve heard a lot of people down on Christmas. Too much fuss. Too much to do. Too much of the in-laws.

True, consumerism has inserted its claws, and, yes, too much eggnog is too much eggnog. But, at its core, Christmas is still a celebration of love and merriment. Of giving and good cheer. That the days are getting longer. That College Football Bowl Season has arrived. That we have a fire and family to keep us warm.

*

I go for a lot of walks. I got a lot of energy, so I bundle up and just go out. And one of my favorite things to do this time of year is to simply make eye contact with strangers passing by, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas.”

It’s way better than the mere “hello” or “good evening” we’re allowed the rest of the year. For the words, “Merry Christmas,” tap into something. Maybe it’s youth or grandma or frosting covered cookies. Whatever the case, the passerby invariably looks up, smiles, and returns the sentiment.

And, if even for two seconds, a connection has been made.

*

Physicists now confirm what spiritual leaders have long known about energy, the energy that Obiwan Kenobe told Luke Skywalker about, the energy that flows through everything on earth, through everything in the universe, the energy that joins us in the common dance to the cosmic song.

This unifying force means we don’t have to be Christians to celebrate Christmas, and I don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate Chanukah with my girlfriend. Just like we don’t have to be Druids to celebrate the solstice or fans of the New York Yankees to rock a pinstripe suit.

We’re, simply, humans. Dogs and cats and spider monkeys, too. All just floating through space trying to fill our days with more smiles than frowns, more peace than strife, more love today than we had yesterday.

I’ll drink some eggnog to that.

Freedom Found

When I boarded a plane to play American Football in Finland—letting go of the NFL dream after seasons of toil in the Canadian and Arena Football Leagues—the door of life opened wide for me.      

For, by boarding that plane, I chose to use my athletic talent for freedom, travel, and adventure—and enough money—rather than the anxiety and exhaustion of the road to riches.

I would never sign an NFL contract. But I would enjoy playing football again. Less pressure, more fun. Less money, more experience. Less linear, more cyclic.

My folks didn’t get it. Neither did my friends. With the pay cut, my agent stopped representing me. People told me I was crazy. Maybe I was. But maybe it’s good to be a little crazy.

*

After a bus ride and three separate planes and 24 hours of travel, I made it to Finland. And not even Helsinki but a town of 50,000 a couple hours north called Seinajoki. I remember descending into the one-runway airport, and all I could see was trees all the way to the horizon. I wondered if there were reindeer down there. Or gnomes. I also wondered if I’d made a mistake.

Team officials greeted me at the terminal where a very small press conference and photo shoot was held. They then drove me to my “house”—a small, spartan apartment to be shared with three other Americans, three blokes from England, and a huge Scandinavian fellow who looked like something from those “World’s Strongest Man” competitions I used to watch in the 90s. The Americans had thick southern accents, the Brits spoke a hard cockney, and the big Finn gestured with hands and broken English but, somehow, we understood each other just well enough to laugh and live and play good football. 

The club gave us a shared “auto” to get to and from team events. Little van type thing that us football players crammed into knees to chest. We bonded as a group on our drives and in our workouts, practices, and games across the bucolic country the natives call Souma and the rest of the world knows as Finland.

*

The team also gave me a bicycle, a bicycle I could use to escape on solo explorations. And I loved that thing. I’d pack a bag with books, my journal, my camera, a couple beers and homemade sandwiches and just go. On days off (three a week!) I rode that old bike everywhere, to places even the homegrown players hadn’t been. Through the cafes and night clubs of the cityscape on to the outskirts of town where old barns and ancient churches dotted the scene; to old battlegrounds where the tiny Finnish forces fought off the invading Soviets and their largest army on earth in the early battles of World War II; old villages where “Little People” were rumored to once live; and at night I could catch glimpses of the aurora borealis in the skies to the north. 

Yet my favorite thing about Finland was the forest streams and rivers that interlaced the landscape. Even in summer it would usually rain for an hour or two in the afternoon, and water was everywhere. The landscape was lush, with ferns bigger than I ever thought possible. I found great spots along the water to take photographs and write and think and not think and just be. After three seasons of toil in North American pro football leagues, I thought I was finally finding some happy living in my career.

*

Riding around the forest one day, I got caught in a downpour. Serious cloudburst that caught me by surprise. Instantly I was soaked through, but I didn’t want to go home. Wanted to keep going. Further.

I was close to one of my favorite streams that led to the big river. A beautiful cascade of water over rock through the woods. It was to that spot I rode on my old bike, the trail becoming muddier as I pedaled. When I got to the stream the water was cresting the banks and flowing fast, the swift sound of water an Om in my ear. 

I dismounted my bike while it was still rolling and ran down the bank. I saw a path of rocks that led to a big boulder in the middle of the current. I hopped and leapt over five or six rocks and managed to not fall in the white water before reaching the smoothed boulder of my aim.

The water flowed by me on all sides, fast and white and free. The trees surrounded me like guardians and the rain fell harder from above. Other than my bike, there was no sign of man anywhere. Perfect and natural, out on my own a million miles from home I looked up and outstretched my arms. My face turned to a smile that grew to a laugh that led to uncontrollable tears. I felt deep connection to the universe, and I knew I was in the right place.

Snow Valley: Last of the Ski Bums

Mike the mustached ski bum lives the good life in his mountain village of Snow Valley, but times are changing. Old Arlo Sweetwater is dead and SkiCorp — led by evil Valeman — has weaved its web into the valley.

With help from wise Miss Minerva and that mystical foreigner known as the samurai, Mike and the lowly ski bums must quest into the big city to uncover a long-buried truth.

But, will they return to the mountains in time to save Snow Valley — indeed all Snow Valleys — in this modern battle of the ancient fight?