Existing in middle school was hard enough. I didn’t need the extra punishment of public failure. But, at least it led to a life lesson, for whatever that’s worth.
It was flag football season, and that was a big deal at my middle school. For the boys, it meant glory, bragging rights, and status, which garnered attention from the girls. For the girls, if they played, it also meant glory and bragging rights, especially over the boys who lost. The status for them was slightly different, more acceptance from the boys, but not much from the girls. For the girls who didn’t play, they would use flag football as a filtering system to scout out their potential boyfriends and the ones to avoid.
Since life in middle school thrives on relationships, even thin ones, maybe especially thin ones, flag football was the main way to live happily or die forever—at least that’s what we thought.
Because team selection was randomly assigned, I ended up on a team that was a mix of jocks and nerds. Myself, I was a bit of a jock and a bit of a nerd. Right in the middle. Never destined for sports fame or intellectual admiration. Just average as average could be. Our team was also right in the middle, in terms of ability. We were expected to win a few games, but not enough to make it through the playoffs.
Everybody knew the athletic stars and somehow—by random chance or rigging; I’ve always favored the conspiracy theory of the middle school administration fixing the team selection for their own purposes—all of the best players got assigned to the same team, with Chong as their not-very-secret weapon. He was a thin Asian boy who could run faster than a rabbit. In fact, he could do everything—throw the football, catch it, hike it, block other people. And doggonit, he was smart, too. Some people are just blessed.
Not surprisingly, Chong’s team went undefeated up to the championship game.
We lost our first game. But, then, by hook or by crook, we started winning. To the amazement of everybody, including ourselves, we actually ran some good plays—throwing the ball to the right spots, running it through the openings, and making effective blocks. We became the talk of the school, because we made it to the championship game, too.
We were so happy. A million smiles and high-fives flowed through our team. Kids that I didn’t even know wanted to talk to me and my teammates.
Everybody wondered if we could actually win the championship. Although I don’t remember any money changing hands, kids did voice their opinions and quite a few thought that we could do it.
The day of the championship game arrived and we were all nervous. Some of us, like me, showed it by our jitteriness. Others showed it by their stoic postures.
As I walked onto the field, I looked back at the crowd. There were several groups talking, with some individuals occasionally pointing at some of the players—usually at Chong, never at me. I was always hidden by my averageness. Even though I couldn’t hear the conversations, I knew that they were assessing players and trying to gain status by saying who was friends with who: “Chong’s in my biology class. We talk all the time,” I imagined them saying.
After the toss of the coin, both teams ran some good offensive plays. But, that day, defense was stronger. The score remained tied at 0 to 0 for most of the time. Then, they kicked a field goal. Guess who kicked it? Chong received high fives from all of his teammates, as we grunted our disappointment.
Not to be outdone, one of our teammates returned the kickoff ball all the way back to their end zone. We were suddenly up 7 to 3 with only a minute left in the game. The crowd on the sidelines was stunned and the students who favored our team were ecstatic. Kids were jumping up and down, while cheering wildly.
All we had to do now was hold Chong’s team off from scoring and glory, fame, and attention from the most popular students, especially the girls, would be ours. The rest of the school year would be socially as comfortable as a soft pillow.
My stomach was in butterflies with anticipation and elation.
But, then, Chong and his team started charging down the field. Play after play they got a first down. Before we knew it, they were within ten yards of our end zone. But, they only had one play left before the timer ended the game.
One play. That was it. One play.
As both teams went into their huddles, everyone knew what their play would be: the quarterback would hand the ball to Chong and he would run it into the end zone. We had to stop Chong. Everybody had said it.
Being average, our team captain assigned me to defend against one of the wide receivers. He wouldn’t get the ball. Not in a million years. Even the students on the sidelines knew that. So, I wasn’t nervous.
They snapped the ball, the quarterback took a few steps back, and, sure enough, he slid the ball into Chong’s hands. That speedy rabbit was going to try and run it into the end zone, just like everyone had expected. I could see it clearly as my wide receiver took a path across the field instead of straight and I followed him closely.
Then, it happened. As we moved past the backs of the players, I saw their big guards push our players to each side, making a pathway wider than anything Moses could have done. It was a clear opening and only ten yards from the end zone. Chong would have been able to walk there, it was so devoid of players.
Yet, that was right at the moment I crossed into the opening while following the wide receiver. I had to decide quickly: Do I stay and stop Chong or do I continue to do my job and follow the wide receiver? I had to stop Chong, I concluded.
So, I stayed in Chong’s pathway and let my wide receiver run away. He’d never get the ball, I reminded myself.
Chong and my eyes met. We were locked in a split second stare down. I put my arms out to the sides, and growled. No way was Chong getting past me. Even Chong knew that. So, instead of crossing the line of scrimmage, he tilted his head up and spotted my wide receiver, who was standing in the end zone by then, jumping up and down, and calling for the ball.
Chong threw it, and, of course, it was a perfect spinning throw. It was so pretty. Time slowed down as all of the players’ heads swiveled to watch the ball arc across the sky. My heart sank. It was heading in the direction of my uncovered wide receiver.
That was my job. My only job. “Just stay with your guy,” my team captain had said. “Don’t do anything else.”
After the boy caught the ball and the time ran out, Chong, the boy, and their teammates burst into joyous roars and made a massive dog pile on one another in the end zone, as most of the crowd clapped, danced, and cheered uncontrollably. Our team, however, walked slowly around, lost and downtrodden, before they started to veer toward me as if I were a magnet for humans with twisted, angry faces.
I thought I was going to throw up.
My rising star with the team flamed to the ground faster than an asteroid and it left a pit in me so big that it took years to fill back in.
But, I didn’t die forever and, after that, it was seared into my mind to always do my job and do it well. That has definitely paid off in life much more than any victory would have done.