The story below, excerpted from That Book about Harvard: Surviving the World's Most Famous University, One Embarrassment at a Time, is my memory of events that actually happened. I've changed Coach Mac's name for reasons that will soon become obvious.
* * *
Coach Mac always found unique ways to inspire us during our workout sessions. Easily the most unforgettable example of Coach Mac's motivational tactics occurred a few weeks earlier in the weight room. We had a professional cameraman recording our lift for a recruiting video that day.
Coach Mac was even more insane than usual when he was in front of the camera, and I was prepared for something absurd as the team gathered around him for a quick motivational speech before we began our back squat max-outs.
"It's time to decide what kind of man you want to be," he started. "Do you want to be a man who's weaker than a fart in an astronaut suit? Or do you want to be a man who stares adversity in the face and tells it to fuck off?" I thought about it for a moment and decided I didn't really want to be either of those things.
"Do you want to be a man who can't give his own son a piggyback ride because you have chopsticks for legs? Or do you want to be a man who squats 400 pounds five times with enough testosterone left over to impregnate a woman just by looking at her?" Coach Mac continued, the intensity in his coarse voice growing. "Now when you get in that squat rack, you've got to be a real man. Not some boy who worries about his arithmetic test or whatever you guys study at this goddamn place."
He then pointed at the cameraman. "Turn that thing off."
Oh god, here we go ...
"If you want to be a beast at lifting, at football, at anything in life, you need to have big balls! Look at me! I may have a small dick"—Coach Mac pulled his shorts down to his knees, completely exposing himself—"but I have big fucking balls!" He cupped his package with both his hands, proudly presenting it to his audience like a magician who just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. A round of gasps escaped from the players, but the loudest screams came from members of the women's volleyball team, who were stretching a few yards away. Coach Mac pulled up his shorts and nonchalantly tucked his motivator back inside. "Now follow me, I've got a surprise for you guys!" he said, as if him whipping out his dick in public wasn't a surprise.
Coach Mac led us to a squat rack wedged in the corner of the weight room, facing the mirrored wall a few feet away. The weight room was a beautiful facility, a large, well-lit room with high ceilings above rows of brand-new bench presses, squat racks, and Olympic lifting platforms. Decals of the Harvard shield were stamped on the platforms' glossy wood and "HARVARD CRIMSON" was imprinted in enormous block letters across the far right wall, in case you ever forget which team you were on. (That was one thing I learned quickly about the university: they use every opportunity to remind you that you weren't at any old college—you were at fucking Harvard. Even our waffle irons at breakfast were molded in the shape of the Harvard shield.) The weight room was located within steps of Harvard Stadium and only varsity athletes were allowed to use it. "Regular" students were granted access to their own weight room in the basement of the Malkin Athletic Center ("The MAC"), located across the Charles River and closer to the Yard. So while the athletes enjoyed the expansive, asbestos-free environment of the varsity facility, the remaining 95 percent of the student body was given access to a weight room with the ventilation and spacious quality of a utility closet. Judging from the number of Harvard students who actually used the weight room, it could have been smaller.
Coach Mac's big "surprise" was that he was going to squat 400 pounds five times to help inspire us. But I suspect this was more for the camera, which was rolling again. A couple of us began sliding 45-pound plates onto the bar that was suspended five feet in the air while he ran over to the stereo and turned on "Hells Bells" by AC/DC, the song he claims was playing on the radio when he lost his virginity. Before stepping up to the bar, Coach Mac performed a couple of neck rolls and then took a deep breath.
The first two repetitions went smoothly, as Coach Mac gripped the 400-pound bar that rested on his upper back, and steadily squatted down and then back up to a standing position. The third rep, however, was a major struggle for him, as his quivering knees barely produced enough force to power the weight up from his crouching position. It was clear that Coach Mac was not going to be able to complete the final two reps, so the entire team cheered for his effort as a couple of the guys rushed to help him get the bar off his back and onto the rack.
"No!" he barked. "Don't you fuckin' touch me!"
A few of the seniors on the team quickly tried to talk him out of it, explaining that he could really be injured —maybe even killed—if he didn't put the weight down. But Coach Mac's mind had been transported into some alternate universe. He stood in a trance as the bar applied relentless pressure on his back and knees. Sweat poured down his face, which now matched the crimson color of his shirt, and a vein popped in his forehead. He stared at his reflection in the mirror for a moment with pure hatred in his eyes. Then he spoke to himself.
"You ... fucking ... PUSSY!"
Coach Mac then spat in the reflection of his own face. As his loogie slowly trickled down the mirror, he performed two perfect squats in rapid succession, threw the weight back on the rack, turned around, took one step towards us, and collapsed flat on his face.
We had heard from other varsity teams that Coach Mac had pulled this motivational stunt before, so we let his massive body lie motionless on the ground for about a minute. It wasn't until his body began to spontaneously twitch that we decided to act. I made a movement to the telephone to call for help, but someone told me to stop. Coach Mac was waking up.
"Coach, are you OK?"
Coach Mac groaned and slowly rolled over onto his back. His eyes were
looking in two different directions.
"Did I make it?" he mumbled. "Did I make five reps?"
* * *
Size was everything to Coach Mac, and he had made my life a living hell from my very first day on the team, when I fell short of my weight goal by 10 pounds.
Coach Mac had several different techniques to help me gain weight—all slightly insane, all damaging to my self-worth. Sometimes he would use a subtle approach, using passive-aggressive comments to hint at ways in which I could get bigger.
"Kester, do you know why I eat so many bananas?" he once asked, stuffing a piece of the fruit down his throat.
"I don't know. Because they're delicious?"
"Have you ever seen a small fucking gorilla?"
Other times Coach Mac would try to be discreet, like when he would sneak up to me while I was bench-pressing and stuff powdered donuts in my mouth. He would also sit with me after almost every practice, tossing handfuls of protein bars at me the way a kid might throw peanuts at a depressed animal in the zoo. It was at one of these feeding sessions that Coach Mac first suggested I try a supplement called "creatine," a performance enhancer that was gaining popularity with athletes seeking to gain muscle.
"It will help you pack on weight, and it isn't even illegal yet," Coach Mac explained, handing me a giant bottle of the white powder. "Just mix it with water and drink it before and after every workout. Personally, I like to add a couple scoops to my coffee every morning. Nothing like caffeine and creatine to get your day going. It's like killing two birds with one sledgehammer!"
"Isn't this kind of dangerous?" I asked. "What are the side effects?"
Coach Mac snatched the container back from me and inspected the label on the back. His eyes grew wide. "Oh dear," he said gravely. "It says here that 'side effects may include getting fucking huge, with occasional bouts of manliness.'" He shoved the can of creatine back in my arms. "Stop being such a Sally and take out your tampon. Get with the goddam program."
"Getting huge" became an obsession of mine, as it seemed like the only way I could impress the coaching staff and start making an impact on the football team. The season was coming to a close, and at that point I hadn't even stepped on the field in our games. The lack of playing time didn't bother me so much, as this wasn't uncommon for a freshman, but it was a little humiliating during practice when I was repeatedly asked to stand in for the new tackling dummies because they were expensive and the coaches wanted to reduce their wear and tear. The physical abuse I endured during practice, coupled with Coach Mac constantly haranguing me to get bigger, made it easy for me to gulp down my creatine twice a day. I have to admit that taking the supplement made me feel like a superhero, not because it made me super strong, but because my acidic pee could burn through titanium steel.
Even with the creatine, I just couldn't put on the amount of weight the coaching staff wanted to see. The pressure of getting bigger developed into a serious complex of mine, and I developed what could best be described as a state of "reverse anorexia." I soon found myself standing in front of a mirror every day, judging my body like a 16-year-old girl living in upside-down world: Oh hey, slim. Have a good dinner tonight? Yeah, you would turn down that extra dessert. Look at you with your tiny size-38 waist. Want another celery stick, skinny? I hate you.
The stress of getting bigger and stronger was only intensifying my growing sense of isolation at Harvard. Every student seemed to have a defined purpose there, using his or her remarkable talents to enhance the prestige of the university. In turn, the university provided the students with exceptional resources to help them cultivate their talents, creating a mutually beneficial environment where both the students and the school would prosper from the other's excellence. Upon entering college, I assumed that I too would benefit from Harvard's seemingly magical ability to turn awkward teenagers into well-adjusted, high-achieving adults. I figured I would take my seed of potential, sprinkle a little Harvard on it, and then watch it blossom into a spectacular flower that would make my parents proud and my friends jealous.
I had considered myself an intelligent guy and talented football player, but it didn't take long for Harvard to teach me that I simply wasn't as good as I thought. It seemed like every guy on my team was bigger, faster, and more talented. The same could be said about the brains of my classmates. It was truly depressing to discover that my self-worth was built on what now seemed like a fraudulent foundation. I realized that back in high school I crushed my football opponents not because I was insanely talented, but because half of them had asthma. And those bubbles I filled out so expertly during the SATs? They were just that: empty bubbles. The only thing I had actually accomplished to this point in my life was getting accepted into Harvard, and now I was stripping that feat of its merit.
As a "student-athlete," I wasn't living up to either aspect of my identity. If I couldn't excel in the classroom or on the football field, then what was my purpose at Harvard? How was I contributing? How did I matter? With so many daily reminders that I sucked, it became very difficult for me to justify my place at such an accomplished university. I was failing calculus and struggling at football, and the only person in the entire school who thought I was cool was a 14-year-old who tucked his T-shirt into his underwear. It felt like I was coming up short in every facet of life at Harvard, and my confidence began to wilt. Succeeding at this school no longer seemed like a goal I could achieve on my own, causing me to slip into a mindset of desperation that was rapidly weakening my values. I didn't like who I was becoming, but I couldn't stop the transformation.
I had a coach who was upset that I wasn't more like a gorilla, but if you asked my crush, who had seen my hairy chest, and Professor Phlegm, who had seen my grades, they would say I was pretty damn close.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from That Book about Harvard (c) 2012 Eric Kester. Published by Sourcebooks, 1935 Brookdale Road, Ste. 139 Naperville, IL 60563. (630)961-3900. All rights reserved.