Joel Peckham’s “Phys-Ed” is both story and essay about masculinity, boys’ competitions on-field and off-, knocking a man down, identity, fitting in, family, sons & fathers, sex, beer, and rock ’n’ roll. He tumbles these subjects in our minds and sieves them for his truths, covering as much guy-territory as any piece in this anthology. In the tradition of the personal essay, we see Peckham struggling to answer the questions he poses himself. In the tradition of the story, he brings the tale back to its beginning. –ed.
No one taught me what to do. I clamped my fist and eyes, and reached back, flailing, pulling as if I could tear the curtain of the New England sky down on us all.
I remember fear, the cries of gulls and Beneventi’s high-pitched girlish giggle. The cold stinging rain and the sense of waiting. And Kozak shoving me on the shoulder, then the chest, then backing away like a boxer, bouncing on his toes – his bright red hair, the stubble on his chin, the rise and fall of his Adam’s apple, but not what he was saying. There was a soundless roar, something building in the back of my head, my fingers closing to a fist.
Every school has a bully. Mine had two – Sean Kozak and Ian Beneventi – and they were at it again. Torturing me. We’d been running an obstacle course, a kind of fitness test, and Beneventi and Kozak took turns harassing me as we ran around the cones, Kozak trying to sweep my feet from beneath me, Beneventi sprinting up and shoving me, trying to knock me down. I remember their laughter – the same sounds I’d heard many times in middle school when Kozak would wind up his long, skinny arms and slap me in the middle of the back or Beneventi would kick the back of my heel so it would fly up and I would stumble into the kids in line at the lunch counter. One time, Beneventi pushed me down a steep flight of concrete steps. I remember him laughing in the echoes. He didn’t even try to slip away but stood there, proud, beaming.
On the obstacle course, I was making it more difficult. I was chubby but had good balance and was quick when scared – and I was scared – but it was also weirdly fun, like the thrill of driving too fast on a dirt road in the dark. Kozak was slow, too big for his body, and I hopped and cut, leaped and scurried to the finish, first in the class, just a little winded and surprised.
When the other kids began to disappear behind the large green doors, Kozak and Beneventi blocked my way. Mr. Holt, the ex-military phys-ed teacher, gave us a long look, sighed and shook his head. I still remember that – the dark square, the flash of his blue tracksuit, the click of a door closing, and the finality of death, my death. Except for Eric, I was alone. Little Eric Ross, trudged toward us, terrified, his hands pushed deep into the pockets of an oversized blue sweatshirt He took his place like a second in a duel, stopping two feet behind me, saying nothing. Kozak sized me up, gave a push on my shoulder. Pushed again. Looked over at Beneventi. Smiled brightly. Happy.
I got lucky. I was terrified, and it was more a spasm than a punch. But then there was the crack of cartilage, and through Kozak’s trembling hands, so much blood.
When I start to think we are driven more by fear and anger, more the product of our terrors than of our love, I think of Eric’s arm around my back.
“Holy shit, Joel, what the hell was that?”
And I wept. We wept. Then laughed. Then wept.
“We’re fucked,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m fucked.”
“Tell it again,” my son would shout from the back seat, asking for his favorite story, one of the few from my childhood I ever told. Sometimes I would add a detail to fill in a scene or amplify a point, but it was basically the same each time. Sometimes he’d ask me to demonstrate the punch, that stiff-armed windmill angling right to left, the sideways tilt of the fist, slicing awkwardly down. And he would laugh in surprise and delight that such a punch could ever land and that I threw it. I’m not the kind of father who would teach his son to box in the basement or watch mixed martial arts on Friday nights. But I’m still built like the defensive end I was in college, and though I’ve gained a little weight, I work out each day. My arms and shoulders stretch the fabric of my work shirts and the muscles in my back still fold and flex. I’m vain enough to want to look and feel strong. Because the truth is, I am all bluff. I have thrown two punches in my life, and that was one of them. I know this story makes me a hero to him, that the point about my fear is mostly lost. How I was backed into a corner, how I didn’t have a choice. Not like Eric, who came to my side willingly, insanely driven by some code of loyalty I did not deserve.
Eric and I had only a few years left together. I sometimes wonder if we would have remained friends and if we had, if I might have made different choices, aspired to different things. That was before I found my way to the gym and girls. Back then we were both nerds who liked Doctor Who and Star Wars.
To our surprise, Kozak and Beneventi never killed either of us, though we were certain death waited every day as we left the bus for the five months until summer, lurking behind an open locker, in a boys-room stall or the bus stop. Sometimes I would wake screaming from nightmares of Beneventi and Kozak taking turns punching me bloody in front of the entire school. But the days passed without incident. And when the summer was over, all of them were gone, Eric to private school and Beneventi to Xavarian, a Catholic trade school in Braintree. As for Kozak, his family moved down the road to Canton. I wouldn’t see his face again for two more years.
When I think of them now my memory is kinder to Kozak. Beneventi was vicious, rabid, and skittered through the hallways of our lives, never moving in a straight line, pitching from side to side, pinching girls, knocking books from skinny arms, inflicting pain for its own sake. He liked hurting people and did so randomly. I don’t know what his limits were or if he had them, and when I try to imagine the man he’d become, I shudder for the people in his life: his children, if he had them. What pleasure did the man seek out, what damage did he do once he had access to the weapons and resources of adulthood? I don’t think a kid like that can change. When a child learns to take pleasure in the pain of others, he is close to lost.
Though I didn’t know his family or his life outside school, I imagine much of Beneventi’s need to be a cruel and violent kid stemmed from his need to prove something to himself. We all felt that. Whatever differences I had with the other boys, each one of us was measured, sized up against each other and our fathers and the action heroes we watched on Sunday afternoons – men with guns and blunt-force, monosyllabic names like Clint and Chuck and Bruce, tough guys who drove tough cars, speaking only when they had to. Women and sex were not pursued but part of their environment, their gravity. They were powerful and cool, seething with pheromones. You came to them when you had to, sought them out, or backed away, hid from them in fear, sometimes both. And except for Schwarzenegger or Stallone whose voices we’d mock when headed to the restroom, these men weren’t “ripped” or “jacked.” They had chest hair, grit and scars.
Still, though I was aware of those big-screen gods, I didn’t need them for a model. Mine lived at home. Most memories I have of my father in those days smell like cut grass on a spring morning. They form like puffs of breath in the cold. He is huge, stalking the sideline of a football field or brooding in the dugout, his ice-blue eyes staring under a baseball cap pulled low. He is tense, like a coiled spring, and when a player makes an error or an official a bad call, he explodes, leaping up suddenly to blaspheme like a sailor. “Godddamnit, Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with you?” Or he is standing on the pitcher’s mound, flannel sleeves pushed up, darting baseballs toward me in the early April cold. “Head down, Joel, you can’t hit what you can’t see. Come on, stay in there, I’ll only hit you if I want to.”
Or he is standing above me in late autumn. I am lying on my back on the dewy grass at Ames Street playground, strapped loosely into shoulder pads, helmet, football pants. My hands grip the earth. I can feel the other boy’s helmet touching mine, hear his breathing rise and fall, see the gray sky broken into squares by the grid of my face mask. The drill is fairly simple. Two boys, one a blocker, one a tackler, lie down on the ground between two tackling dummies. A runner takes a football five yards back and at the coach’s signal, must run through that corridor. This drill is a one-on-one test of quickness, strength, ferocity. You must scramble to your feet and beat your “man” as the other boys watch, nervous and quiet.
A quick bleat of a whistle, then my father’s voice, starting soft and low. “Down.” Then a bit louder, drawn out slowly. “Set.” What I always remember in that brief pause is terror, fear, shame. How much I hated football. How badly I wanted to get up, walk away, tearing off my uniform as I strode toward the chain link fence, leaving shoulder pads, arm pads, elbow pads behind me in a trail, to swing open the gate and slam it hard behind me in a satisfying clank.
Before each game, from Pop Warner through high school and college, I would throw up in the locker room. It was my ritual, standing over the commode in uniform, helmet tucked beneath my left arm, right hand gripping the top of the stall’s partition. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good. I was fast off the line, undersized for a lineman but explosive, with what a coach would call a good motor. I started on offense and defense in high school, was a captain my senior year, making the Associated Press all-star team that season. But part of what made me good was terror. In that pause between the drawled out “Set” and “Go,” I felt the adrenalin build, spidering along my spine, fanning across my shoulder blades – fight or flight. And despite my fantasies, flight was not an option.
My father was a three-sport athlete in high school and an all-American catcher in college. In the little Massachusetts town where I grew up he was a legend. People loved or hated or feared him, sometimes all at once. Carved into the bathroom stalls in anger that read like lust amid the phone numbers of girls who would do this and the names of boys who liked that, I’d read my father’s name etched into the metal in rust: “Joel Peckham sucks! Fuck Joel Peckham!” I loved my father, but I got it. He wasn’t a man you “liked” and he didn’t seem to care very much. He once told me, “If everybody likes you, you probably have no character” – still, I believe, one of the wisest sentences ever spoken. He had no patience for people who chose to do the wrong thing when right was clear. And for him, it was mostly clear. He inspired strong reactions. With jet-black hair, a square chin, and a presence that could push air out of a room, he seemed larger than he was, too large to be a high school guidance counselor and baseball coach. Even when he was assisting someone else – offensive coordinator for the football team or jv basketball – he seemed outsized, like a very large man forced into a skinny suit. When those teams didn’t win, anonymous letters would come in saying he should take over. It sometimes hurt his friendships.
To his credit, my father was not self-consciously macho. A trained counselor who read poetry and who drove through the 1970s in a VW bus with an enormous sunflower decal on the side, he never seemed to need to prove his manhood or pressure others to do so. Though he could be brutally harsh on his players, I can’t remember him ever emasculating them. Unlike my other football and baseball coaches growing up, he never told a child that he threw or hit “like a girl,” never called anyone a “pussy,” “homo,” or “fag.”
There were no shortcuts with my father. Where other boys could prove their manhood by hitting the gym and working their abs, lying about sexual adventures, telling dirty jokes in the locker room or by ruining someone’s dental work in the visitors parking lot opposite the high school, I had to live up to something more abstract and complex, something bound up in concepts of power that involved visceral sexual appeal but also intelligence, raw emotion and emotional restraint.
My father combined a potent combination of explosive anger and tenderness. What mattered to him wasn’t about being a man, but being a Peckham, being part of his family, living up to the expectations he set for himself and for us.
I often think my image of him, the myth of my father, was driven as much by those around me as by anything I saw in him. The image of my father as a man, as “The Man,” like all images, was based on what people saw in the glimpses they caught in the high school corridors and on ball fields. Images and symbols are representative though, and as such they both expand and reduce their subjects. When a man comes to represent something, he immediately grows in stature, becoming an object of lust or fear, admiration or envy. But he also shrinks, his personality simplified for easy definition and use, a cartoon of himself, reduced to his most repeatable characteristics – a steady gaze, a lifted chin, a slow swagger, shoulders squared.
My best friend, Neil, loved to impersonate his tilt of the head when he talked, his wide kick of the infield dirt when angry, his heavy Boston accent: “Jeeeeeesuz Joel, what the hell ah yah doin’?” And I laughed with them, at him, but uncomfortably. As much as I told everyone who would listen that I was “nothing like my father,” and to stop calling me “Jo Jo,” short for Joel Jr. (“Joel, it’s Joel”), I secretly enjoyed being a junior, being this man’s son, The Man’s son.
Even when I try to focus on the complicated, fragile elements of his personality, I feel myself watching him as if he were in a scene from an old noir film. Identity slips and changes, not over time, but in a moment, like a halfback turning on a dime. And masculinity as a concept, as cultural currency, as a way of understanding how boys and men should find their way through the world, is fluid and messy while seeming, at the same time, rigid and inescapable. There’s little evidence to prove any biological basis for traits we often identify as masculine, but masculinity feels essential to the person experiencing it even as he struggles after its unattainability. Certainly it seems obvious that the fact of male biology – the testosterone, the adrenaline rushes, the requirement of penetration to achieve sexual intercourse, the phallus etc. – all seem to naturally lead to traits of strength, power, violence and anger. But I’m always nervous about things that seem, ideas that move from assumption to assumption with only the appearance of reason and logic. It’s an unsafe structure on which to build a man.
What I as a heterosexual white American male can say about masculinity, is that the ideal man is a myth we create and recreate every day out of our fathers, celebrities, leaders, the very language we use. We construct the concept through association and opposition. What’s not feminine (read soft, weak), and what is most like the powerful and attractive men we see or know at any point in time, is masculine. So masculinity is mythological, which is not to say that it is in any way unreal – any more than my image of father was unreal. When I say that, I feel sorry for him. It must be exhausting to have a real, flawed, human being under all of that.
Sometimes I believe we’re all animals trying to be human, expected to be angels. The few who are asked to be gods bear a heavy burden. For psychological purposes the myth is real in the same way hope, longing, love and greed are real. It operates as a fundamental part of our psychology, as part of what we want, and know we are supposed to want, have, and be.
Most of what I learned about being a man back then came from watching my father, and my sense of inadequacy came from a belief that I could never live up to the man I saw in him. But that wasn’t the only source. Very few boys really see or understand their fathers beyond their own image of them. For all the public service announcements about how parents should talk to their kids about sex, alcohol and drugs, we learn most about what we know or think we know about the adult world, not from our parents or television, but from each other: from our friends, to whom we can confide desires and longings, from whom respect and admiration are more easily won.
Peer pressure is more powerful than parental expectation because our friends are usually not asking us to do things that are difficult. At parties, in locker rooms, on buses on the way home – places where adults enter only briefly – kids propel each other, encourage each other to go down that alley, get in that car, turn off those lights and do things we are curious about. Actions that lie beyond the line of what is allowable – sex, drinking, breaking curfew, cheating – take little courage and even less encouragement, just the suggestion that we might not be caught and might not be alone in those desires.
When others participate – when a group becomes a mob – individual ideas, words and thoughts, consciousness and conscience, fall away. Everybody’s doing it. No one is responsible. To a young man or woman, crossing that line feels like freedom, feels illicit and taboo. Tell any child about the one thing they can’t do, on pain of eternal damnation, excommunication and family shame, and it will become all the kid can think about.
I’ve been an athlete all my life. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, I watch the games on television. I love the drama of team sports, the strategy, tension, beauty and grace. Yes there is violence, a barely contained surge. It’s mesmerizing, entertaining, sometimes even artful. There are rules and chaos, power and finesse. I played the game from six years old to twenty-one. I could say I hated it, and I did much of the time. I could say I played because I felt I had to, or was afraid how my quitting would upset my family or my friends. And I can tell you about the nausea, fear, and sometimes rage that drove me off the line, crashing into bodies, through bodies. But I know my reasons for playing were more complex. There were times when I enjoyed it. I still remember the sheer thrill of contact, the pleasure of knocking a stranger on his back, then holding him there for a second, making him look me in the eyes before I let him up. I find myself gleefully recalling the times I hit another player with a forearm “shiv” across the face mask or came in through the line clean to square up on a running back. There is joy in feeling your momentum carry you through another person, hitting him so cleanly in the chest that you barely feel it. Sometimes when I hit someone hard enough he’d whimper as he dropped.
The ugly truth is, sometimes it felt good to hurt someone, to beat someone that fundamentally. And the fact that most of the time I didn’t know my opponent made the violence impersonal. The fact that it was part of the game and within the rules, morally unobjectionable. I liked being good at an unquestionably tough game. I liked working out and seeing the muscles grow on my shoulders and chest. I liked how my T-shirts stretched around my arms. I grew guns. I was ripped, stacked.
I was a monster.
For a kid who was mercilessly picked on in junior high by boys and girls for being fat and shy, for a child so completely in the shadow of his father, the respect I felt from peers for being captain of the football team – the sudden interest of girls, the pats on the shoulder at the barber shop – were confusing but also thrilling. It didn’t matter that the girls I liked – dancers, writers, “theater chicks” – weren’t impressed by any of it. It hardly mattered that I couldn’t wait for the season to end and spent most minutes on the field checking the clock, wishing seconds could tick by faster. It didn’t matter that I felt like a fraud. At least I belonged.
I was looked up to.
Until I entered the locker room, that is. Because I couldn’t pull it off completely. Couldn’t speak the words or play the role. For every rousing half-time Knute Rockne-esqe speech I heard, for every prayer for strength made in a circle on one knee, there are, in those dank spaces slick with condensation, those bright metal surfaces, tile, concrete floors, and steam smelling of sweat, a thousand words no mother wants to hear directed at her child, or worse, come out of his mouth. It was in the locker room where I’d hear what every girl in school would and would not do and with whom and how many times, where I’d listen to my fellow captains scream at each other in the middle of a loss: “Are we just going to bend over and take it like fags, like women?” Where overweight kids and freshman were called bitches as in, “You’re my bitch today, fat boy.”
If hidden video cameras were put in football locker rooms across America and the footage played back for every mother to watch, football would no longer exist. As I say that, I also know that moment is not so very far off. Every child with a cell phone has a chance to blow the cover off, open the door. It will happen.
I wish I could say that, having been bullied, I stepped in to stop the bullies. But it was years before I developed the courage to act, to do the right thing without worrying about how those actions implicated me. That kind of courage, the kind Eric had, the kind that seemed not only to be about loyalty but about integrity, was beyond me because, like most young men, I didn’t have an identity. I understood myself in terms of who I wasn’t and who I wanted to be with no real sense of who I was. I’d look in the mirror and see bad hair, bad skin, a nose that was too pointy and ears that were too small.
Looking at photos from those days, I’m surprised that even under all that hair goop I was a good-looking kid, even handsome. By fourteen I’d lost the weight and my complexion was just a little mottled, no more than your average teenager. As my face thinned out, my mother’s high cheekbones and my father’s square chin emerged. And with my letterman jacket on I could have passed for Emilio Estevez in The Breakfast Club. But no matter how much I worked out, how many trophies I accumulated, I was still the fat kid who wanted, more than anything else, to fit in and measure up. It was bad enough that when everyone else was screaming along to the Beastie Boys or snaking to Def Leppard, I was humming along to Elvis and the Beatles. I actually enjoyed the books I read in English classes and was writing a poem to impress Danica Connors, the dancer and lead in the school musical, with her short, punk haircut, razor smile and lean, strong arms. I didn’t want any trouble. I was satisfied I wasn’t the target any longer and, for once, had a chance of almost being cool, of having a girlfriend, maybe “getting laid.”
Like most boys around of sixteen, I wore my virginity like the embarrassing and uncomfortable clothes our mothers picked out at the bargain racks in Filene’s Basement. I was desperate to get it off me as soon as possible. The way the other guys talked about girls so openly and easily, frightened and fascinated me. I tried to tune it out, while at the same time listening intently, hoping to pick up some of what I thought they knew. When they’d look my way, I’d blush, throw on my football pants, grab my shoulder pads, walk toward the practice field. I handled my discomfort by avoiding it – moving through spaces quickly, keeping mostly to myself. But silence gets read, too. It wasn’t long before a rumor got around that I was gay.
“Well, people talk. I mean, it’s kind of strange,” my friends would say. “You don’t talk to girls, or talk about them. You hang out with those theater kids and everyone knows your buddy, K., is a fag.”
“Look, I like girls. They just don’t like me,” I’d say, and try to laugh it off. Even my sisters worried a little, awkwardly asking me if I thought this or that girl on the gymnastics team was cute. So I loaded up on bad advice: “Girls don’t want you to be nice to them,” I was told by friends who knew less than I did. “They don’t want poetry and flowers. They like it when you’re an asshole. Be an asshole.” So in the hallway between classes when a pretty girl walked by in a short skirt, I blurted “Nice legs, Natalie.” Then later in the cafeteria, “Amy, you could bounce a quarter off that sweater.” My head felt light, blood pounded, and I tried to smile and laugh like the popular guys. The girls would blush or stare, confused, or shake their heads and walk away. By the end of a week, my buddy Freddy Kaplan pulled me aside: “Jo Jo, what the hell is wrong with you? You’re acting like a creep.” So I dropped the act, embarrassed, ashamed, and even more confused.
When I finally had sex, I didn’t tell anyone – possibly out of embarrassment or disbelief at how upsetting, anticlimactic, and utterly clichéd it was. My first experience amounted to an awkward and somewhat frantic five minutes in my father’s steamed-up Chevy Cavalier by the softball diamonds at the Sacred Heart playground parking lot. I even kicked the car horn as I struggled out of my jeans and my girlfriend helped me with the condom. She was a good girl, waifish with long hair that flew about her shoulders in the lightest breeze. She went to my church and wore a tiny cross on a silver chain that seemed to float across the pale skin just below her neck. We’d been together almost three months when I told her I loved her and maybe I convinced both of us I did.
“So have you done it yet?” other boys would ask.
“ ‘Hah?’ That means no. What’s amaatta Jo Jo, scared? Can’t get it up?”
That wasn’t the problem at all. The fact was we were both excited all the time, and scared but in the way of thrills and shocks, making any excuse to sneak off into basements and empty rooms, trying to figure out whose parents would be out and how late they would return.
We were conspirators and it was fun at first, like an adventure. There was laugher too. “It’s like magic,” she’d giggle as she reached for me and felt me grow beneath her palm. I thought she was magic too: her body a mystery, charged, sweet and unsolvable. I was restless and relentless and sometimes she’d laugh, saying how just once she’d love to watch a movie with her bra still clasped. She’d paw the air like a puppy scrambling over the top of a dune and pant, “I hardly have anything there to grab.”
I’d joke, “Well, it isn’t like you ever try to stop me.”
It was true; she’d wait breathlessly and moan a little at my touch, fingers in my hair, pressing on my arms. “There’s no stopping Joel B. Peckham, Junior.” She’d poke me in the bicep or chest and smile, dancing off.
I didn’t know, still don’t know if she liked the thought that I might be unstoppable. I wasn’t really. I was not the type of boy to push through a door that wasn’t open, run through a stop sign. And yet, I know how sometimes it can be almost a relief to simply let things happen, let the tide wash over you, let nature take its course. It’s so confusing, desire and fear and expectation. When you want what you don’t want. When your body responds in ways beyond your conscious control. When you come to the edge and back off in relief only to wonder and want to go back, longing to fall.
She put herself in my hands and let them travel where they wanted. So I was the one to try to take things just a little further than before, stopping when she asked or lightly pushed my hands away, but waiting for another time, another night, another chance to take a chance as if it were a game I could win by simply playing long enough, wearing her down over time – until there was no further we could go and I found myself inside a girl in a car in an empty parking lot.
When it was over, we buttoned up our jeans and I started to apologize for being clumsy and too quick – that I’d get better. I just needed practice. I heard her start to gulp for air, like she was having trouble breathing. Then she started to cry.
I never asked her why she was crying. I didn’t ask her if it hurt, or if she wanted this, or if the girls at school had made her think she should. I think that was the first time I looked at a girl who wasn’t one of my sisters and felt something other than fear or desire, the first time I thought maybe she was just as subject to the pressures and doubts and needs as I was. It scared me. All I could say over and over was “I’m sorry. We don’t ever have to do that again.” And I meant it.
“No. It’s not your fault,” she said. “We did this together.”
In that moment though, it didn’t feel that way. And though we dated six more months, we never did have sex again. I never even tried to go there. But you can’t take it back. We messed around, but it had become serious and frightening, things became mechanical, hesitant and somehow dark. The laughter stopped.
I didn’t tell anyone about those five minutes in the car. When asked by other boys if I was still a virgin I was quiet because everyone knew I’d had just one girlfriend and I didn’t want to hurt her. And I didn’t want to lose her. I don’t think I would have told those boys about it even if things had gone differently.
I was brought up by a gentleman to be a gentleman – as confusing as that seemed at times. While I was steadily being asked to be more aggressive, more male, more violent on the field, violence of any kind in any other arena was not tolerated by either of my parents. And there was no place for cruelty or disrespect towards women. My father had no patience or regard for men who’d brag about a conquest or even those who talked of women as if they were an adversary to be conquered. They were less than men to him. But at school my experience with masculinity was one that swung between the poles of homophobia and misogyny. And though I was constantly thinking about, dreaming about, and masturbating to girls, I was terrified of them and terrified of my fear of them – that my inability to look a girl in the eye or bear her returning glance was some hidden sign that I might be a “homo.” My awkwardness around girls was bewildering to my friends and especially to my older sisters, who did everything they could to help, including one evening after I’d been dumped again, when they grabbed me by the arms, stood me in front of Lisa’s full-length mirror, and said, “Look at yourself. You’re beautiful.”
But the problem was, I couldn’t see it. Even if I could, beautiful was not what I was going for. At a certain point, identity is not about the way others see you. It becomes how you see yourself through their eyes. You internalize the messages, the images and the voices until it doesn’t matter what “they” think or say. And there is no “you” to see or do the seeing. They have worked their way inside of you, become you.
Every time I hear another ex-player or father tell me he doesn’t want his son to play football because of concussions, I nod my head, and wonder if that’s the entire story. It’s the story I told my son, Darius, when he matter-of-factly informed me he was planning on playing football in the fall of his twelfth year.
“No you aren’t,” I said.
“Dad, I’ve already signed up at school. Hunter’s playing.”
“I don’t care what Hunter’s doing,” I said. “You’ve got a good brain and I’m not letting you mess it up.” I explained what a concussion was and what happens when the skull stops suddenly and the brain continues to drive forward, careening against bone, how no helmet can protect against that kind of damage, how I’ve had four concussions playing football, how I don’t remember any of those games or practices, how I still get headaches and lose sleep at night.
“How many times do you laugh at me for not knowing where my keys or wallet are – or when I can’t remember the names of my students or colleagues? Is that what you want for yourself?”
For two weeks we pushed against each other. Even my wife, Rachael, had begun to take his side, on occasion, telling me, “You can’t stop him. He’ll only resent you.”
“Yes, I can,” I grunted. “Watch me.” Fortunately Hunter didn’t end up playing after all, and Darius let it go. Maybe I instilled a little fear regarding brain damage and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but what I wasn’t saying was that my reservations were not just about the injuries.
Darius is discovering girls, and to our consternation, has even gone on his first date, albeit supervised. Rachael wrote out a contract he had to sign that hangs on the refrigerator. It stipulates no sexual contact whatsoever and reminds him he is not yet an adult and the activities he engages in during these public outings should reflect his age. When he nervously tried to tell his mother, in a mock casual voice, “I have a girlfriend.” Her response was, “No you don’t.”
Both of us are trying to protect him from a place that seems to be pulling boys and girls into the very adult worlds of sex and violence before they could possibly understand the consequences. It’s not just a matter of wanting to keep our perfect little boy perfect and little. We know we can’t. But what we can’t change we can resist, so that when we see another young man charged with rape or assault, I can look at the predators and victims and say, “Not my son.” More than that, we hope to offer a counternarrative, one more complex and harder to articulate than the one we see in the movies or hear about in the locker room.
There is something primal and beautiful about feeling the thrill of your own body, what it is and can do. I love how Rachael takes pleasure in my body. When she says she married a man, when she calls me her man, I like it and there doesn’t seem anything loaded or unhealthy pressuring the words. She’s responding to something visceral and honest connected to deeply-felt needs we both share – that need to feel protected, desired and cared for that may be part culture, but is also partially instinctive.
And coming up with a useful and positive definition of masculinity is nearly impossible; it requires a real comfort with ambiguity, a resistance to definition.
I have no idea what “being a man” means and no desire to define it. I am satisfied to feel it as a part of my nature and to keep an eye on it lest it become destructive. When I hear the term defined in a manner meant to excuse violence, cruelty, and misogyny, I shudder. When “boys will be boys” or “being a man” becomes code for enabling a group of people to give up the responsibilities of acting like adults and gives them license to act like animals, I want nothing to do with the idea. This allows us to stay who we are and never take responsibility for what we have been, what we have done, or for the culture we are complicit in sustaining every day.
I have a beautiful son. I want him to grow to be a good man. I want him to feel free and safe, to define what that means as he grows. It’s easy to tell him being a man has nothing to do with how much you bench press, how far you can throw a ball, how many fights you’ve fought or won, how many women you’ve slept with, how many friends you have, or how much money you make. I can tell him I don’t care if he plays sports or the piano or marries a boy or a girl or no one at all. I can keep telling him what isn’t “being a man,” but that doesn’t help me define what it is. He will look to his friends, teachers and coaches for models, and he will see himself in the mirror of the internet and television screen and in the eyes of those who love and desire him. When he makes the choices that will define him, he will be surrounded by influences and people who have made easy choices and will encourage him to do the same.
What I want to teach my son is not so much how to “be a man” but how to become an adult. If he can remember courage, compassion, loyalty, and that a sense of responsibility to each other matters, he might be able to hold onto himself even when that means being hurt. That it is okay to be afraid and even angry but not to let that darkness drive you and control you. That there are choices more complex than predator and prey.
I want to tell him, be like Eric. Walk back out into the rain when everyone else ducks for cover.
And then I want to tell him, “No, protect yourself. Run.”
Canton High School Practice Field, 1985
I am a freshman playing left guard on offense for the Sharon Eagles jv squad. Despite a year of intense weightlifting, I can’t be more than a pound over 155, soaking wet. I’m tiny for the line – even one as undersized as this one, made up of 14- and 15-year-olds not yet large or strong enough for varsity. In September, the woods around us shimmer with heat. It must be 90 degrees and our pads droop, helmets slide down heavily, furrowing our brows, darkening our eyes in shadow. On days like this you don’t win. You endure. It’s a scrimmage, so the coaches prowl the field with whistles and clipboards, stepping into huddles, stopping plays, pulling one kid out, putting in another. We are interchangeable parts, pushed and pulled into different places, filling holes, gaps and passing lanes, pulled up from a pile by the shoulder pads, yanked back into the huddle to be set up once more, like dominoes.
“Okay,” my father says, looking down at his clipboard. “Forty-six counter,” a misdirection play in which the ball is faked to the left side of the line and every man but one blocks down in that direction to draw the defense away from the running lane before the halfback cuts back to where the tackle on that side has crossed the line, unblocked. At the same time, the left guard pulls his way and is the one man, other than the runner, heading toward the hole as the defensive tackle sprints across, thinking he has a clear shot at the ball carrier. If things work, if the tackle is slow to recognize the counter-action and meet the blocker coming at him square, or if he simply isn’t strong enough to take on the block, the guard clears him out, “blows him up.” It’s a sure five yards, more if the linebackers bite on the fake.
It works. At the snap of the ball I stay low, winging my right arm back as I step out, turn and fire off in one motion, exploding to my right as everyone goes left and I see the tackle come across, almost straight up and down. When I hit him I can barely feel it in my shoulder pads and arms. His legs come up. His arms fly out. He folds at the middle and I drive him through the air several feet before we hit the hard-packed dirt of the field.
The breath comes out of him. “Unh,” he says. “Unh.”
I wasn’t ever the type of kid to celebrate a thing like that. Often, I’d help the player up as if to say, “Nothing personal. It’s just my job. Sorry about that.”
But this time as I climb to my feet and the tackle rolls over to his stomach, shaking the cobwebs from his head, slowly rising to his knees, pushing himself up with his arms, I see a shock of red hair peeking out beneath his helmet, and in white block letters on a green jersey, I read, KOZAK.
“Nice hit,” my father says, barely looking up from his clipboard. “Okay, next play.”
“Dad,” I say. “I mean, Coach. Let’s run it again.” And for once I’m not angry or afraid. “Run it again.” I feel strong. I feel joy. And I know I am smiling.
Joel Peckham is an essayist, poet, and scholar. His recent publications include the poetry collection, God’s Bicycle, and a book of essays, Resisting Elegy: On Grief and Recovery. He teaches at Marshall University and lives in Huntington, West Virginia, with his wife and son. A shortened version of “Phys-ed” appeared in the December 2016 issue of The Sun. (joelpeckham.com)