April 2, 2002

The Not Very Fast and Furious

I peaked athletically at age 12. This was one of two realizations that I had over break while converting my trophy shelves at my parents' house into bookshelves. The other realization, of course, was how pathetic it was that I waited until I was a 21-year-old fourth-year in college to make this shelf conversion. I mean, what kind of miserable, self-congratulating, living-in-the-past loser still not only has, but actually displays, his 1987 Instructional Baseball League trophy, a trophy he received not because his team won the championship or because he was named an all-star, but because he merely registered for the league? It was one of those awful "participation" trophies—you know, the ones that are given to certain kids to delude them into thinking they are not as unathletic as they really are—and I had it front and center on my shelf as if it were the Holy Grail. The thing was sitting right over my bed. Thank God no girls ever came up to my room in high school. I would have been the laughingstock of the school if people found out about that trophy. Come to think of it, maybe it's because I am that guy who keeps his elementary school baseball trophies above his bed that no girls ever came up to my room.

It's true though. My body reached its athletic zenith when my mind probably couldn't have even spelled "zenith." Professional athletes always talk about the desire to go "out on top," and for me, that should have happened in the year 1992. My baseball team had just won the division, my travel soccer team had just won its fifth tournament in as many tries, my basketball team was battling for a playoff spot, my improving tennis game was about to put me on the high school team (I was still only a seventh grader), and I had just been named "Gym Floor Hockey Player of the Year" (my most treasured achievement). I broke the school record in sit-ups in a minute, quarterbacked my intramural football team to an undefeated season, and ran a mile in less than six minutes (while certainly nothing to rival Allan Webb or even U of C's own Tom Haxton, this last accomplishment was at least a little impressive considering I was 4'5" and had the stride of a Lilliputian centipede; it used to take me at least two strides just to cross the thickness of the starting line). I was the first one chosen in after-school kickball and the last one remaining in recess dodge ball—even Billy Madison would have succumbed to one of my side-arm pegs. It would be four years until I received a driver's license and twice that long until I went through puberty—kind of explains why I was 20 before buying my first Mach 3—but I had already become an athletic God, self-proclaimed of course. It wouldn't be long, I thought, before ESPN's Sports Century would be honoring me with a one-hour special, NCAA coaches would be offering me scholarships, and Phil Knight would be making weekly house visits.

The guys who thought Coke II was a good idea weren't as wrong as I was in this prediction. I have never been featured on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic, ESPN Asia, ESPN Europe, ESPN Taliban, ESPN Neptune, ESPN Asgard, or any other of ESPN's seven million affiliates. Phil Knight has never been to my house. And not only was I not given a scholarship to play soccer here at the University of Chicago, but I wasn't even invited to training camp: I had to walk-on. Whereas I once could be seen playing point guard, center midfield, pitcher, and quarterback all in the same afternoon, I now have to beg people just to let me be the scorekeeper for their intramural euchre team. That six-minute mile I ran in 1992 has now become my 40-yard dash time. I am now so slow I can place an order at the Hyde Park McDonald's, "run" to my car to turn off my lights, and actually have my order ready when I return. Yesterday, Heinz 57 Inc. called to ask if I would appear on their next ketchup bottle.

The worst part is that its not like there is anything disastrous to blame my downward spiral on. I never tore my ACL. I didn't have Mary Pierce's dad as a father or Dominique Monceanu's mom as a mother. Hell, at least Earl "The Goat" Manigault had heroin to blame for his fall from athletic grace. I've got nothing. No career ending injuries, no psycho parents, no drugs. I just became bad. Or maybe, I just became lazy. Saturdays in 1992 where I played three soccer games and two baseball games, had a relay race in my neighbors pool as a "break," and then met my friends for two hours or so of pick-up basketball were not unique. My Saturdays in 2002, where watching SportsCenter is the most athletic thing I do all day, are not as healthy. In eighth grade I was on the school soccer team, the school basketball team, and the school tennis team. As a freshman in high school my team involvement shrunk to two. As a senior it dwindled to one. Is this a sign that even before coming to Adam Smith U—I mean, the University of Chicago—I knew the benefits of specialization? I don't think so. I mean, I wanted to play more sports but my body just could not take it. When you require an three-month "off season" of acupuncture, massage therapy, and morphine after every game, playing more than zero official sports becomes less and less feasible. It used to be that all the post-game treatment I needed was a Gatorade and a ride home from my parents. Now, even when I go on a 10-minute jog, I carry with me more Ibuprofen than a Hemingway on suicide watch. Ben-Gay? I have "Ben" there…a lot. I even have a six foot Sam's Value Size bottle of Glucosamine, the compound used to treat achy joints. My mother takes Glucosamine. Do you know how embarrassing it is to have to take the same arthritic-relief medicine as your soon-to-be 55-year-old, menopausal mother? What's next for me, a little Hormone Replacement Therapy where I get extra amounts of estrogen? One thing is for sure though. Unless they start handing out awards for "The 21-Year-Old Menopausal Man of the Year," I think I have seen, and of course thrown out, my last trophy.