The silence was palpable as my body flew through the air. The only sounds I could hear were the rapid thump-thump of my heart pounding and the slight echo in my head from the snap of my teeth clapping together. I didn’t know what I had expected; placing myself directly in the path of a 5’10”, 200 pound moving mass of muscle and body sweating testosterone. And it was just a friendly pickup game in a friend’s backyard. What was I thinking?
Regardless of what my plans had been, John hit me like a car discarding a misplaced 13-year-old crash test dummy and left my 145 pound frame in his wake as he raced toward the end zone for his fifth touchdown on the game. As I shook my head and rose to my feet, I could hear the collective snickers on the sideline of the girls who had gathered to watch the dreamsicle play. I could taste the blood in my mouth from where I had chomped down on my tongue.
“You alright?,” he asked as he trotted back toward the other end of the field.
“Yeah,” I replied, spitting out a mouthful of saliva and blood. “I’m good.”
This is just one of the moments cemented in my mind of when I discovered I wasn’t the athletic one in my family. I grew up in a family of three boys, so naturally we all needed to be placed into sports. It wasn’t a question of pride or vain ambition by my parents to regain their former glory. It was a way to channel all of our pent-up energy in ways that wouldn’t destroy of the house and get us to socialize. My older brother is autistic and moderately high functioning, but he couldn’t play rec baseball or basketball. So that’s where I started off, playing rec baseball at the age of 8.
I could pitch just fine and started to excel there, striking out 6-7 guys a game. My confidence was peaking already. I was a prodigy, a Cy Young in the making. Soon I’d be throwing 60 to 70 mile-an-hour fastballs and gunning them past high school players who would stare in amazement, wondering, Who is this boy?
But that was the opposite of how it really went. As the seasons went on, the batters started getting smarter and I, well, didn’t. I was just a decent pitcher now, one with only two pitches in my lineup: slow and fast. To make matters worse, I was a terrible batter. You couldn’t even call me that; I was a prop that pitchers would practice on during a game, like a breathing cardboard cutout who would suddenly surprise everyone with a swing. My birthday cake had more batter in it than I did. My tactic became to move ever so slightly into the path of the pitch just to get on base. Ah, young masochism.
After 3 years of this, my parents must have recognized something. My younger brother, the athletic one, had his own baseball games on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while my older brother did therapeutic horseback riding on Fridays. This meant we were out 5 days a week with me in sports, a lot to handle for them. This coupled with the fact that I was terrible may or may not have influenced them to make the decision to pull me out. All I know is that one day, they sat me down, told me I was being pulled out of baseball and handed me a book for piano lessons. My slight moment of excitement faded like a bell curve as I realized I wasn’t going to be starting piano lessons; this was a teach-yourself-to-play-piano kind of lesson book. Yup.
A few years later, when I was 16, my family went to visit my grandparents, who live about 20 minutes outside of Ithaca. It was a brisk October day, so we took a drive down to Cornell to look at the campus and watch the leaves change. After all, I would be looking at colleges the following fall, so why not start here? Plus it was right in the middle of fall break for the college students, so no one was around. Win-win.
We drove the family van up the hills, creeping at 10 miles-an-hour as we passed by building after building of monolithic stone and brains, admiring the beauty of it all. We ended up parking in the garage outside of Schoellkopf Field and walking toward the stadium to see it in all of its silent glory. None of us had ever been to a major football game, so this was big for us: a Division I school’s playing field. The gate was open, so we slipped inside, immediately racing toward the turf with the extra football we had brought along to play with in the yard.
My younger brother and I took turns tossing the ball to one another and walking up and down the steps of the bleachers to see the view from where we were. It was a city in itself on a hill, the likes of which we hadn’t seen before. Just as I didn’t think it couldn’t get any better, my brother and I decided to line up on the field. He stood in front of me and I was under center. The ball snapped and I dropped by, five steps, just like I had watched. As my eyes swept side to side, they found my brother streaking to the right down the field toward the goal line. I tossed up what must have been a 15-yard pass, but it sure felt like a 45-yard one to me. My heart began to beat in slow motion.
And as he caught that pass in stride, we cheered like it was LSU vs. Alabama. No Ivy League rivalries for us. And pardon the quote from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, but in that moment, I swear we were infinite.