True confession: I used to be a runt.
Vince Lombardi came to Green Bay in 1959, two months before I turned five. I was one of those kids growing up in Wisconsin while Lombardi evolved into a legend. It was a great time watching that juggernaut play in the NFL championship game six times. They were the NFL champions five years. And then, of course, there were the two new “bonus” championship games with the upstart AFL. I was clearly one of those fans that passed into the realm of being a fanatic. (I started a club called the Packer Juniors; I forced six of my friends and my younger brother to join. Part of what we had to do was memorize the numbers for the complete 1967 roster. I still know who was on that team better than last year’s championship team.)
Of all the Hall of Fame players on those teams, my favorite was fullback Jim Taylor. He was one of the first to make himself in the weight room. I loved watching him run over people who were often bigger than he was. Even better, I loved reading about how much it hurt to even try to tackle him. Even then it was clear to me that his success was largely due to effort and determination: things that he had control over and that he could do on purpose.
I went to a grade school that was so small that we had combined grades in the same room. My younger sister was a classmate of mine when we were in 4th-5th and 5th-6th grades. When it was time for me to attend the 7th grade, the school district had just opened a new middle school. Instead of the class of 15 that I was used to, it was now close to 500 mostly total strangers. This was my first exposure to the locker room. Bloody welts from wet towel snapping and amputated fingers from Dutch (stable) doors were the least of my concerns. The place seemed full of six-foot giants and eighth graders who were shaving. I grow more hair now in my ears than I did back then in places where I kept checking hoping to find it.
By the beginning of 8th grade my body was not cooperating in my desperate desire to do as Jim Taylor did. I weighed a not too good for football 105 pounds. In the only game we played, I did not get in until halfway through the third quarter. They put me in as a middle linebacker and even though in less than eight minutes I made two tackles and intercepted a pass, they took me out at the end of the quarter. That turned out to be the beginning and the end of my football career.
By the time I was a junior, I might have been big enough to play as one of the smallest guys on the team; however, given that there were 850 junior and senior boys in the school, and given that I was in complete stealth mode as far as the coaches’ radar went, I didn’t bother.
My ignominious high school career peaked while I was looking at the results of the physical fitness testing posted on the field house wall. This was the ranking of the collective scores from events such as push ups, sit ups, pull ups, half-mile run, softball throw, 60 yard dash, and I don’t remember what else. Out of about 430 guys in my class, there I was sitting pretty in third place. (This was just back of our starting quarterback who a year later would turn down a NCAA Division I-A offer to play football in order to accept a similar offer to play basketball.) There were two other guys looking at the results at the same time I was. I was feeling rather accomplished to be in such esteemed company until one of those two guys got to my name. With a very puzzled look on his face, he looked at his friend and asked, “Who the hell is that?”