We were sitting around in Jimmy's* room one night during second semester and Jimmy told me I had to have a nickname. I was excited for this. I really wanted a nickname. I thought having a nickname would make me cool as shit. Maybe my nickname would be Margarita, which kind of sounded like my last name! Or maybe it would be Blade. Or Skull. Or Big Ox. Something real badass.
"Your nickname is fucking Doughboy."
"I don't wanna be Doughboy," I said. Never tell people that you don't want a certain nickname, because then either that nickname gets further entrenched, or people come up with something even worse. Jimmy chose the latter.
"How about Waste Of Fucking Life?"
"I'm not wild about that one either."
"How about Loaf? You fat fucking loaf of shit?"
And that was my nickname for much of my college career, something I agreed to for reasons that escape me.
I was not the target of bullying by my teammates at school. There were no death threats. There were no broomstick sodomy hazing rituals. I didn't have to pay $30,000 for a team dinner. I got into scraps with teammates, but that was usually as much my fault as theirs. One time, I was purposely annoying a teammate in the school grill and he jumped on top of me and started slamming my head into the ground because I was disrespecting him. And yet I still wanted to be friends with that dude after he beat my ass, because that's how the sociology of football works.
Jonathan Martin knows this. He's the test case for just how strange the bond between guys on a football team can get. Whether or not you want to put the label "bullying" on it is beside the point, because it's a lot more complicated—and potentially more fucked up—than that.
Football teams are cliquish in the same way that any sports team can be cliquish. Part of the reason I played football (okay, all of it) was because the sport seemed to present a ready-made clique for me to join. I could play football, tell people I was on the team, wear the team jacket to parties, and then they would automatically assume that I had friends, and that would make me cool! My cool teammates and I would win games, chase tail, and get into any number of KRAYZEE shenanigans, I tell you!
But that's not how your average football team works. They can be subdivided into any number of social circles. On your average college football team, cliques can form based on your year (guys who come in together as freshmen, and maybe even tour the campus together as prospects, often become joined at the hip), your race, your religion, and/or your position. The latter is especially true of offensive linemen, where both Martin and his alleged tormentor—Richie Incognito—play. Coaches love an offensive line that is cohesive on and off the field. You are encouraged to become a clique. You are encouraged to see your line as a team within the team. A band apart. A faction of the team that is even teamier than the team itself. You're even given your own collective nickname. YOU GUYS ARE THE DIRT DOGS, or whatever the fuck. You are encouraged to be brothers in arms.
You are socialized to be with these people and not other people. Those who aren't on the team are a waste of time. And that's where shit can get dicey, because a football team is just as random a collection of personalities as any workplace or student body. You're not always going to like your teammates, and they most certainly aren't always going to like you. If you're as weak-minded as I am, the latter fact can ruin you. Imagine being Martin and experiencing the horrific sensation of having to be—perhaps wanting to be—blood brothers with a guy who calls you a half-nigger.
I went to a boarding school that accepted a lot of post-graduate students, guys who had already finished public school but went to boarding school for an extra year to help improve their college prospects. I was not a PG, but I desperately wanted to be one. When there was room at the table, I sat with them at lunch. I would do that weird thing where you show up to a guy's dorm room unannounced and just hang out on the couch because you don't know what else to do with yourself. One time, my friend(?) John dared me to eat an entire jalapeno at dinner, and I did just so he'd think I was all right. The fire burned so hot that I threw up all over the dining hall floor. To a small group of guys on the team, I was known as Jalapeno after that. (Not a bad nickname! MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.)
After boarding school, I spent a disastrous semester at Michigan before transferring to Colby College, a tiny liberal arts college up in Maine. They had a football team at Colby, and I figured that the easiest way to make friends would be to join the team for my sophomore year. I remember seeing a group of freshmen guys in COLBY FOOTBALL winter shell jackets sitting on the hill when I first showed up in second semester of that freshman year. There were maybe five or six guys. THESE ARE MY GUYS!, I thought. So I spent the rest of the semester doing offseason workouts with them and again doing that thing where you pop into a dude's dorm room and just sit there like a moron. I was with the group but not of them, and I pretty much stayed that way for the next three and a half years.
I was not a great guy back in college. I was loud and fat and obnoxious and prone to arrogance (come to think of it, not much has changed). But I was completely convinced that my schtick fit in with my teammates. I was wrong. There is a thin, almost imperceptible line between friendly male shit-giving and outright hostility, as demonstrated in the extreme by this scene:
Too many times, I fell on the wrong side of that line. Anytime Jimmy said to me, "Hey Loaf, you're an arrogant ass," or "Hey Loaf, what the fuck are you doing here?", I would counter with whatever I thought was some kind of friendly ballbusting counterpoint, like, "Go fuck your mother," or what have you. I was not sharp with comebacks. For most of my collegiate career, I was convinced I could win the clique over. I didn't want friends from other places. I wanted THESE friends. I wanted to be seen with these people. And so I acted in a way that I thought would help me become one of them.
But that never happened. I got into a lot of arguments. I got into a lot of fights. Guys played pranks on me. One night, Bobby from Jersey snuck into my room and cut the head off a stuffed moose I kept at my bedside (yep, I kept a stuffed moose in my dorm room, which is super mature). Another time, Curt gave me straight cranberry juice all night and told me it was vodka-cranberry, then everyone laughed in my face because I was acting drunk. No one ever wanted to partner with me for games of beer die (OH THE INDIGNITY). My junior year, everyone was hanging out in Joe's room and I knocked on the door to come in.
"Who's that?" Joe asked from behind the door.
"Me," I said.
No one opened the door. I pounded and pounded and all I heard was laughter on the other end. I can't even imagine how stupid I looked.
One night, Jimmy duct-taped my mouth shut when we were all drunk. He yanked the tape off my face and it burned like hell. So I leapt up and tried to attack him, screaming out I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU at the top of my lungs. This wasn't playful. I was really screaming—that kind of screaming where your voice breaks and people know you aren't of sound mind. I really did want to kill him. The other guys in the room held me back, which was an easy thing to do because I was a weak fat shit. I went back to my dorm room and threw up all over the place—a sad, angry, pathetic wreck of a boy.
This was not the way my life as a football player was supposed to be. You are taught very early on that your teammates are your family, and so when that family shuns you, it makes it feel like you're a fucking loser for not being able to fit in. The team is your world. It's everything. To not feel as if you belong in it can send you into fits of irrational depression. During Senior Week, I was drinking with a dude named Aaron and he said, "Loaf, you're about as much fun as a chem-free party." I skulked away back to my room and played Super Mario 64, alone.
There were other guys on the team, in my class, who played football but didn't necessarily hang out with their teammates at all times, and that struck me as weird. Don't you want to hang with the team? Don't you want to be one of us? What's wrong with you, freakshow? One of the defensive linemen hung out in the stoner dorm and smoked weed all day. In retrospect, he was a genius. He didn't feel the need to go to every team-sponsored gin-and-tonic party. He just did his own thing, which is what everyone should do. It's amazing how long it takes some people—myself included—to figure it all out.
There were times when I temporarily fit in with my teammates. Sometimes I made them laugh, or I told a good story (though most everyone at school had better stories to tell), or I had the simple courtesy not annoy them. I can't tell you how good it felt to sometimes have it all work... to get that kind of grudging approval from them. It's bizarre when I look back on it. It's like some kind of co-dependent relationship where you hate your stern daddy, but yearn for his approval. There is an enormous disparity between what we think being on a football team is supposed to be like and what it's really like, and I couldn't handle that disparity.
I quit the team before senior year. I wrote a nice letter to my o-line coach. I think I even called him, even though he couldn't possibly have cared that much given that I was a third-stringer. I spent the majority of senior year as a social nomad, hanging out with various established cliques, just kind of waiting for college to end. Sometimes I would see the football guys at a party, and it would be all right. I wasn't trying to be with them anymore. I was just a guy. I don't think I seemed quite as desperate. When you're off the team, you become a curious memory. Oh hey, it's that Loaf guy. I remember him. I remember I saw Jimmy at the school bar one night and we genuinely got along for a bit. Whatever real enmity had been between us was lost. We didn't HAVE to like each other anymore, which helped.
"Loaf!" he shouted.
"I gotta tell you, I never really liked that name."
"Yeah, I know. When I growing up, my dad gave us nicknames and they were all shitty nicknames."
"I'm sorry, man."
"Nah, I was a shithead."
"Well then," he said, "drink up for being a shithead."
And I did.
I still dream about football a lot. I dream that I'm back at school in time for training camp and that I have to play football at age 37. And in those dreams, I never worry about how I'm going to play. I never worry about having to do wind sprints. I never worry about the coaches yelling at me. I never worry about any of that shit. In my dreams, I only seem to worry about one thing: Will I be one of them?
*all names changed except my own
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