Sunday, June 18, 2006

The Mustache Story

The mustache story must be understood in the context of my experience with athletic coaches. I know that good hearted coaches exist, just as I know that straight talking politicians exist. I have caught glimpses of both, but that is a minute portion of my overall experience.

An early memory is playing in the 95 lb. football league in suburban New Orleans about 1961. My coach was eager to retain a player who was moving on to the 110 lb. league. Even though the kid was tall and skinny as a rail, the coach tried to get him to cut his food intake. He made the kid run lots of extra laps in hopes of sweating enough weight off of him to get him back into the 95 lb. league. To my father’s eternal credit, he came to practice and chewed the coach a new orifice after I carried the tale home.

It was taken for granted in that era that coaches should humiliate and physically punish their charges. Wind sprints until we puked and the like were par for the course. They were expected. My junior high team (7th – 9th grade) started the football season in August of the New Orleans summer, 90 degrees and 90 percent relative humidity. We were sweating by the time we tied our cleats. Practice lasted for several hours each morning. The coaches used every means of control possible. Verbal abuse, kicking, pushing, laps, and the like were common. One coach carried a length of broomstick that we referred to as the green weenie. He had taped one end to give him a no slip grip as he beat our backsides. One form of discipline that I really hated was how water was controlled. Sometimes we were allowed brief breaks to fight among ourselves to get a few gulps from an outdoor faucet. We ran to the faucet and attempted to drink while the other players fought to push in for their turn. If someone was strong enough to stay at the faucet for more than a few gulps, the coach would shove him away and declare that too much water would result in cramps. What I really dreaded however, was watering by rag. The coach would dip a dirty rag into a bucket of water. Those he felt had performed the best were allowed to suck on the rag first. He moved the rag amongst us until the weakest or most inept players were allowed only to chew the saliva laden rag in hopes of moistening their mouths.

Although such things were miserable to endure, they were temporary. That cannot be said of my knee injury. It occurred as I ran downfield during a summer scrimmage. I was blindsided by a running block. I spun completely around while standing on one leg. Unfortunately the long cleats we wore in those days kept my foot and lower leg from turning with the rest of the body. The pain in my knee was perhaps the worst I have ever felt. As I thrashed on the ground the head coach shouted at me. “Get up Schnake. Get up.” Each time I tried to rise, I collapsed in agony. Finally the coached walked over and kicked me onto my back. “Looks like you’re going to have one of these”, he chuckled as he pulled up his pants leg to expose a huge scar on the side of his knee. “Get him off my field” was his next comforting statement. Teammates dragged me to the side of the field. I propped my leg on my helmet since I was unable to straighten the leg as I lay there. Later when practice ended, I implored the coach, “How can I get home, I rode my bike?”

“That’s your problem” he called back, as he strode off the field.

I managed to hop on one leg to the school parking lot where someone’s mom gave me a ride home. I wore a cast for a few weeks. Ten years later, after my leg buckled under me a few times, I had surgery to remove torn cartilage. Now at age fifty five, I wear a brace to minimize the grinding of bone on bone in what is left of my knee.

But I could still swim! In fact I was better at swimming than any other sport. I started about age 12 and continued through college. Most swimming coaches were profane and loved to see us exhausted, but the opportunities for outright beatings and for injuries were fewer. Perhaps that frustrated my college swimming coach. He was very eager to assert his authority. He was a junior member of the coaching staff at a small university (Carnegie-Mellon) that was well known for academics. Athletics were an afterthought. He loved to have us sit shivering in our Speedos as he glared down at us and gave fiery “pep talks”. He also laid out the rules. I had grown a sparse mustache and pair of long sideburns. “No hair on your face”, he declared. “Shave or you are off the team.”

It is important to realize that this was in 1968. Attached is the cover of a Beatle’s album released in 1967, “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”. You can see wax figures of the early 60’s Beatles to on the left side of the cover. They were called “mop heads”. By the late 60’s Beatles had mustaches and side burns. It is hard to remember, even for me, how shocking their hair and facial hair was for that generation.
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My coach was not alone in deploring my appearance. Our culture was convulsing. Hippies were suddenly a big item in the news. Long hair and facial hair were more than a fashion; they were a political statement.

I really loved swimming, but I also loved my new found freedom at college. How could I have both? I decided to do something that was very uncharacteristic for me, I went to the authorities. In this case, I made an appointment with the Dean of Men. Perhaps he would be willing to hear my case. As I walked into his office I suddenly realized I was fortunate beyond my wildest dreams. It happened that the Dean was a black man with a mustache. I made my case. He listened intently. “I think we may be able to help”, he said.

I attended my next swim practice with my mustache still feebly sprouting from my upper lip. The coach called us together for a shivering session. He paced back and forth. He could not conceal his rage, and he spoke with difficulty.

“Some anonymous coward has gone behind my back.” he shouted. “Whoever it was didn’t have the guts to oppose me to my face. He talked to the Dean, which is just about as high as you can go in the college administration. Now the Dean is telling me that I can’t make rules about hair, beards, and mustaches. But I see a way to deal with this. If you, the team, vote to adopt the rules, then they won’t be my rules. They will be the team’s rules.”

I marveled that the coach spoke as if there was any mystery about who had spoken to the Dean. I was the only team member with a mustache and sideburns. No one else had questioned his rules. How could he not see that it was me? Why wasn’t he speaking directly to me instead of in generalities? I decided to clear things up.

“Coach, I told you I didn’t like the rules. I am the one who spoke to the Dean. Why would you say I am a coward?”

It was years before I realized that he knew full well it was me. Perhaps he was trying to humiliate or intimidate me. Fortunately, I thought he was just a bit slow on the uptake. So I laid things out for him clearly.

The coach still held the vote. It was unanimous, against him.

The team captain pulled me aside and berated me for embarrassing the coach in front of the team. I was amazed. Wasn’t I the one that had been called a coward? How could he be the one who was wronged?

I swam on that team for all four years at Carnegie-Mellon. Eventually I was elected captain of the team. I tied the school record for 200 yard freestyle. But I always sensed that our coach would have preferred to see me quit. In 1972 Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the Olympics. He had a mustache.
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