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Toilet Bowl: the Lessons of Backyard Football

December 7, 2008

"You're my boy, Blue."
                                    --Old School

All stories must have a plot, and all plots must have a setting, characters, and conflict. In sports, the athletes, coaches, owners, and fans are the story's characters. The game is the conflict, and the setting is more than the field, the court, or the stadium. The proper setting adds layers to a story.

Basketball begins for most boys on a blacktop. Travels, carries, and double dribbles are not always called. One is personally accountable for playing the game the right way. No plays are designed. The bigger, stronger, and quicker players naturally find themselves with the ball, and weaker players consistently become the last ones chosen. The ways of the universe unfold without any explanation. One discovers through experience that the angles of the universe are angels that aid an orange ball on its journey through a metal hoop. Shooters send the ball upward with a prayer, and the backboard answers it. A layup is a glimpse into metaphysics, and a bank shot is a conversation with God. Spirituality and individual doctrines rule on the playground, but then one is taken inside of a gym. The bleachers are wooden and stiff like church pews. Individual conversations with God become fundamentals, lessons in dogma, and Ten Commandments. The individual is made to be part of a team, and the game survives the harshness of winter's cold because of the gym that is a church. In the gym, one learns that rules help a society survive, and the game lives on, no matter how cold the season.

Baseball begins in the spring, lasts through the summer, and ends in early autumn. At the beginning of the season, anything and everything seems possible. The grass is green, and hope blooms eternal. Statistics matter because baseball is a game where the present constantly measures itself against the past. The shadows in the outfield and across the batter's box are the shadows of the past. These shadows disappear when the sun is at its brightest, and sons always measure themselves against their fathers during day games and doubleheaders. This test against time plays itself out every summer when boys do not have to attend school, at a time when there is only baseball, making it somewhat ironic that champions are crowned in the fall when the rest of life and preparation for life beyond the ballpark begin to bear down on the boys of summer. Baseball crowns champions at the onset of manhood, while football hits like real life.

Football waits at the end of baseball season. Every year, once the fate of the Braves is determined, I turn to football. Some years my attention shifts earlier than others. When we shift our attention from baseball to football, we shift our attention from youth to what comes after--what is left of our existence after summer, after the sun is at its highest point, and the leaves begin to turn?

Football shows us that there is a great collision of human stubbornness and the lessons of time after the summer is gone. Out of this collision, the most heroic human traits come sprinting. We are a determined species, an adaptable species, an enduring species, and a hilarious species. We are Clinton Portis, Bill Belichick, Brett Favre, and Chad Johnson. We are not perfect, but, still, we play the game.

These traits that help us survive an isolated existence, on our rock, in this universe, play out every autumn. The grass loses its green. The leaves turn and fall to the ground. The hours in which there are light grow less and less, yet linemen continue to block against time, and quarterbacks continue to stand tall until the last possible second before releasing their prayers into the air. Baseball is a game without time, giving every player hope that they can measure up to the past. Football is measured entirely by time--four fifteen minute quarters, a forty second play clock, and a quarterback's internal clock that saves him from being swallowed by a 300-pound hell hound. If one ignores time in football, then one dies. This ticking clock reminds us of our mortality. Innings in baseball always keep us hoping.

Football champions are crowned when times are darkest and the weather is coldest. Champions, in football, are survivors; the last grains of sand on an eroding beachhead. They are crowned in Super Bowls, Rose Bowls, and Sugar Bowls; but sometimes, they are crowned in "Toilet Bowls."

Every American boy has at some time played a game of backyard football, and any girl worth talking to, dating, or marrying has too. Most back yard games take place in yards where one sideline is a fence and the other sideline is marked by the first tree. The end zones are past the bush and the driveway. The boundaries are never straight, and they never meet at right angles. These games can result in vicious arguments between brothers, sisters, cousins, and that kid down the block about whether or not so in so stepped out of bounds or was actually tagged with two hands. How one behaves as a kid in these games sets a standard for how one will behave in life.

There are quitters who go home crying that the other team cheated or that they never get passed the ball. There are those that learn God has given them special gifts and it is their privilege to use these gifts whenever possible to embarrass others. There are those who learn they can stay resoundingly calm in the face of huge deficits, raging insults, and strangling doubt of those around them. These games show one who they are: a quitter, a braggart, a leader, or a follower.

Most people would let a game that teaches so many vital lessons just be. These people would not take a game and build a cathedral for it. These people will never understand what it is to play in a "Toilet Bowl," also known as the "I USED TO BE AN ATHLETE BOWL." These people do not go to extremes. These people are "summer soldiers" and "sunshine patriots," who quit living life as soon as the temperature begins to drop and the world grows dark.

Lawn Chair Boys are not those kinds of people. My friends are not those kinds of people. I am not one of those people. We go to extremes. We always have.

In the summer of 2002, "Toilet Bowl I" was played. The teams played a game of four on four football where one team ran the wishbone. The wishbone was not meant to be run with four people. The wishbone may not have been intended for any number of people to run, but the team I was on that day ran it to victory, only passing the ball maybe a couple of times. May I remind the reader at this point that no one ever runs the ball in backyard football games, but one always runs it in the Toilet Bowl. This game is not for the faint of heart. If one wants to hold the toilet seat trophy at the end of the game and carve their name into it as a champion, then one knows they will have to run the football. These are the lessons of the Henry Thode vs. Dan Brody games, or "Toilet Bowls I through V (?)."  These games were a clash in styles reminiscent to the days when Osbourne's Cornhuskers battled Spurrier's Gators for national titles in the '90s. Thode's teams regularly dismantled Brody's, except for the one year when Brody gave up passing the ball and started running out of the shotgun with Tim Ormsby, the best blind athlete since Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Still, Brody's team lost despite an MVP performance by Ormsby. I was on that team, and it was the first time I experienced a "Toilet Bowl" defeat.

After that game, the "Toilet Bowl" changed, but for the better. Henry Thode and Dan Brody became co-captains of a team that would face off against Dan's younger brother and a bunch of his friends, and the game became the I Used to be an Athlete Bowl. The toilet seat trophy was traded in for a trash can trophy. Each team practiced during their winter breaks home from college. The games were held on New Year's Day, and the team huddles smelled like stale champagne, warm beer, and Taco Bell. One went into the game feeling groggy and stiff from a night of drinking and sleeping on a floor, but once one was hit for the first time, all that disappeared. These games were more hostile than the "Toilet Bowls."  Players barked at one another and made ridiculous statements, like "unless your testicles have hands, there's no way you recovered that football." If testosterone is nitroglycerine, then this football field was a mountain in need of a railroad tunnel.

The first "I Used to be an Athlete Bowl" was a blowout. Matt Brody's team did not know what they were getting into. Ants have given better efforts against my shoe. The second "I Used to be an Athlete Bowl" was closer, but the result was the same. The third "I Used to be an Athlete Bowl" was a few weeks ago, and it changed everything. First, Matt Brody's team won, and the score was a lot to a number that shall not be named.

While this game was the first we lost to "our younger brothers," the biggest difference in the game was the lack of intensity from our side. We started the "Toilet Bowl" tradition 6 years ago. We'd broken collar bones, received black eyes, sprained rotator cuffs, sprained knee ligaments, ripped shirts, and given concussions for a toilet seat and a trash can. We'd done this for roughly 6 years. I was 18 in the first "Toilet Bowl."  A few weeks ago, I was 25 and still playing, but it wasn't the same. This game went from being a straight shot of whiskey, no chaser, to being Mike's Hard Lemonade.

This year's game went from tackle to flag football. There were no practices leading up to the game. There was no trash talk. They had what seemed like twenty players on their team. We had seven. They were a team of strangers. We were a team of friends going in many different directions. Their jerseys were paid for. Ours were homemade. Theirs said "Hounds" and had the shadow of a bloodhound on them. Ours said "Washed Up All-Stars" and had the picture of a football. They seemed like they were playing in the summer, and we were playing in late autumn. The joke on our shirts became prophecy, as these boys of summer measured up to our past.

One could blame the lack of intensity on our team's part on a lot of things. It probably was not a good strategy for our team to switch from tackle to flag football. We were the bigger, stronger team, and one reason we always ran the wishbone was because no one on our team has an arm, but I think the lack of intensity was something else altogether.

Our friend Billy was home for the last time before heading to Baghdad with the U.S. Army. God watch over him. Our friend Stevo was back for a couple of weeks from his Peace Corps stint in Panama. May God guide his work. Our friend Adam hadn't been in town for a while; he works with a program to develop young leaders across the world. God lead him. Our friend Dan was visiting from Pittsburgh, where he's going to graduate school for chemistry. God help him heal us. Our friend Drew just got married to our friend Megan. God give them happiness. Our friend Billy works for a bank. God let him invest in people. Our friend Mike is finishing school. God show him the way. Our friend Tim was in from New York where he works at a law firm. God let him fight for justice. Our friend Henry was away showing boys how to be men on real football field. God make him a mentor.  Our friend Jay was working.  God provide for his family.

We got it handed to us a couple of weeks ago, but for once, I was okay that we were just happy being there. We don't see each other like we once did, and when we do, I'm just happy being there. To paraphrase Tim Burton's Big Fish, the way something looked to a person at one point in their life is not how it will always look.  The seasons seem so much bigger than the games these days, and with friends like this, winter doesn't seem so cold.  Our backyard cathedral has made us ready for the world, and all our flights can be traced back to a field in Sheraton Hills, Fredericksburg, VA.



beamaw said...

I'm so proud of all you big, old, slow guys who "used to be atheletes!" To me you will always OWN the Toilet Seat.

December 8, 2008 at 11:54 AM
Langston said...

Great post, but its missing one thing.

Our friend BH is a writer and a teacher. God help him use his gifts both with instruction and creation of literature.

December 8, 2008 at 10:31 PM
Anonymous said...

Backyard football as a kid you pretend to be Payten Manning or Clinton Portis. As an adult you play as yourself even if you suck. Your never picked last becuase everyone already knows the teams without being told. Your prolly a little hungover but it doesnt matter; you wake up with excitement to play in what you already know is going to be a legendary game. As a player in almost every "Toilet Bowl" (mist one do to being stationed in Arizona at the time) The game is about respect for you friends and this last one was about family. Growing up together and seeing each other for maybe a very long time. All these players are old enought know that have jobs careers that take them to other states or even other countries; like myself. To win a battle not just on the field and backyard game but to win in the classroom (3 of the guys), in the courtroom, on a real football field or on the battle field. Well at this point I just want to say good luck to everyone see ya next year well get em in "Toilet Bowl 5."

December 9, 2008 at 6:47 PM
Anonymous said...

i am proud to know all of you. as bryan's father it has been rewarding to see all of you grow into mature young men who are making a differnce in the world. i wish each one of you the best in the coming months and years. i am excited to see how God will lead you. i hope you will drop by the house so bridget and I can see you. that was always a joy for us. i am proud of all of you. stay safe, continue to make good decisions and reach out and help your neighbors. reading this article and reading the comments make days like this very special to be a dad. thank you

December 11, 2008 at 8:36 PM

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