The Weakest Link

Let us return to the topic of football. Being a subject taught in public schools, football is chock full of opportunities to learn valuable information that one can later pull from the reserves and apply to life's situations. For example, iced dirt tastes better than room temperature dirt. One learns this when playing football in sub-arctic weather.

A deeper truth concerns the fundamental construction of chains, and we will delve into that momentarily. But first, a secret. I feel it is safe, now that thirty years have elapsed since my high school graduation, to release the following information to the world: I was a member of an elite special force.

The world is practically overrun by elite special forces these days. We have the Green Berets, the Navy Seals, the Marine…the United States Marines, the Thunderbirds, the Blue Angels, the Webelos, Starsky and Hutch, etc. As for me, by years of hard training and a high tolerance for physical and emotional strain, I achieved a not-necessarily-coveted position on the B string of the Tecumseh Savages High School football team.

Though not a sportsman by nature, I had an early run-in with T-ball as a member of the Orange Sox in second grade. I also played T-ball or baseball - I forget which - in the fifth grade on a team so obscure, so cloaked in secrecy, that we had no name and no uniforms. In fact, we showed up for games in street clothes and taped our numbers on our shirts with masking tape.

But this was mere dabbling. By the seventh grade, I grew tired of Herb Moring spraying my coronet mouthpiece with his anti-bacterial spray can, ditched band, and went out for football. I managed to make the second string, and held that position through the ninth grade. Then, as the tenth grade rolled around, I found myself on the high school team; a sophomore with towering juniors and seniors all around me. I soon realized what, as a member of this elite special force, I was being called upon to do.

For decades now, it has been popularly thought that what first string football players need for practice, in addition to jumping jacks and leg lifts and laps around the field, are scrawny youths to play against. This is, of course, absolute rot. Small saplings - or better yet, large oak trees - would be as well or better suited. The mutant monster types that they select to play on the first string, when turned loose on those of us who are a third their size, rather wreak havoc upon our poor bodies and minds. I have written on this subject before. The James Wegers and the Steve Nievars and the Tim Scarberrys and especially the Garion Fullers of the world play football against underclassmen like there is no tomorrow. These gentlemen invent new ways of striking their opponents with maximum force. They find the weaknesses in the football player's armor and exploit. They consider the masses of the B string as disposable fodder, given for their pleasure and the occasional experiment in methods of reducing the human population.

It is therefore no surprise that the young man who masters the technique of survival through an entire season of this kind of abuse is a man who can face the world with one of those scornful expressions often found on the face of James Bond. One does not remain a member of an elite special force for the duration of a football season and not emerge a man tested by the furnace, casually brushing the flames from his sleeves as he walks into the sunset.

But it is not my intention to speak of my exploits. You will recall the idea of learning proposed in the opening paragraphs. And you may then imagine that the conclusion I am about to make is that football teaches one to be tough, confident, and with an eye towards future endeavors. Not so. Not for me at any rate. What I learned from football was the truth about chains.

Let us now shift our attention to the cause of much trouble in the world; the football coach. Not until the young, innocent lad of fifteen or sixteen has sat at the feet of a football coach has he been exposed to lies of the deepest sort. Specifically, the lie about chains. The chain lie is the most commonplace lie in the locker room. It is the one they first teach to aspiring football coaches in football coaching school. It is the one that all coaches use on their team from the first day of practice till the halftime pep talk of the final game of the season. Some have even pulled it out in post-season victory speeches. It makes "It's not whether you win or lose but how you play the game" sound like a mere fib. It is as follows: "This team is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain."

Rubbish! Absolute poppycock. This lie is even worse than the ones they tell in the classroom about what it will be like once you get out into the real world and that algebra will factor heavily into it. The problem is simple. Football coaches are not necessarily out to deceive the young, it's just that they don't know any better. You see, football coaches never played on the second string. They were the first string quarterbacks and wide receivers, and a good number of them were convincing linemen. They know all about the glory of football. They know the feeling of pounding upon the underclassmen throughout the week of practice then coming up against worthy opponents during games and saying, "Boy, these guys are pretty tough." They know nothing of being beaten to a pulp during the week by guys three times their size, all the while being belittled by their coach, the upperclassmen, and the cheerleaders, then freezing their butts off standing on the sidelines and watching their persecutors go on to fame and glory in front of their very eyes.

And they know nothing of chains. All this weakest link of the chain stuff is fine in philosophy class, but it does not relate to football. Everyone who watches football as a spectator, which is to say elevated above the playing field, knows that you may have a fairly ordinary team of buffoons who routinely get penalized for holding or being off-side. But all it takes is one extraordinary athlete running, throwing, or catching the ball in epic, photogenic ways to win a game. Be assured that the multitude of second and third string guys standing around on the sidelines, stepping on the coach's toes and tripping on camera cables do not factor at all into that particular hero's chain, members of an elite special force though they may be.

I suppose that coaches, watching the game from the sidelines the way the elite special force B string does, only see the tight end, the quarterback, a few loose running backs and wide receivers, and the back side of a referee blocking the rest of the field, and therefore have a skewed view of the proceedings. But when one thinks about it, this is no excuse for telling the chain lie. Just watch a coach the minute one of his first string goofballs incurs a penalty for roughing the kicker. He throws his headset on the ground in a fit of rage, turns ninety degrees westerly, and immediately runs into one of the multitude of elite special force second string guys who spills Gatorade on his shirt. He may think that guy to be the weakest member of the team (and he will certainly tell him so), but does he consider that guy a link in any chain? Of course not. He knows that a football team is not a chain, but eleven one-link chains rattling around out on the field, clanging into eleven other one-link chains, each one trying to be the biggest one-link chain in the stadium. And on the sideline are innumerable small one-link chains clanging into each other in attempts to see their persecutors go on to fame and glory in front of their very eyes.

This is how I came to learn the truth about chains. How I came to learn the truth about algebra, once I got out in the real world, is a secret. But you might expect that from a member of an elite special force.