Saturday, June 24, 2023

Fear, Motivation & Going Too Far

I played football in high school. I wasn't all that great, but I was good enough to play a fair amount. I think my most redeeming qualities were knowing what to do and being willing to give and take a big hit. Anyway, we played in a tough league. Three of the schools were from the Richmond school district in the SF Bay Area. Things may have changed, but at the time, Richmond was a bad place. I think it may have been the murder capital of the world while we were in school. (The murder capital of the world is the city with the highest number of murders per capita.)

The three schools were De Anza, Richmond and Kennedy. We dreaded going to those schools to play.

Kennedy -- When we played there my junior year, the game was played in the afternoon either because they couldn't afford lights or because it wasn't safe to be there at night. Probably both. The game was also played early enough in the afternoon that the Kennedy students were still in school. I suppose the idea was that the students would be too rowdy if they were allowed to attend the game. The field was surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire and you had to pass through a gate to get in. There were a handful of parents from our high school there, and no more than ten students on the Kennedy side of the stands. Despite the low turnout, we still had a couple D batteries rain down on us during warmups.

Richmond -- My freshman year, we beat them by a score of 42-6. As we walked from the football field back through their school to where the bus was parked, one of their players came running out of their locker room with a baseball bat, intent on bashing our heads in. The only thing that saved us was a coach who grabbed him and held him back, shouting, "You don't want to violate your parole!" After that, every time we traveled to Richmond, the police would escort our bus from the freeway to the school and literally onto the field. We'd get off the bus at the 50 yard line.

De Anza -- De Anza was the scariest. They had metal detectors on all the doors of the school to make sure students didn't bring in weapons. The halls were covered in tags from notorious East Bay gangs. On one trip to De Anza, we were holed up in the guest (i.e. women's) locker room, and there appeared to be a bullet hole in the clock on the wall. Seriously, a bullet hole. In the women's locker room. This was not a safe place.

And could De Anza play ball? When we played them my junior year, they were ranked in the top ten in the Bay Area. (Just for context, the #1 team was De La Salle, in the middle of winning 100+ straight games in a row, earning them the title of the best team in the country.) As if that weren't enough, the reigning California state champion 4x100 meter relay team also played for the De Anza football team: Running Back, Running Back, Wide Receiver, Wide Receiver.

We were VERY intimidated when we were getting ready to play them. Our coaches knew it too. We had a good team that year, but they knew we needed a little something extra to motivate us.

In an unusual move, Coach had us fully dressed with pads on before we got on the bus to go to De Anza. We gathered around him in the locker room. His pep talk started slowly and quietly. He talked about how good they were and how they thought they were even better. How nobody thought we could win this game, the rich white kids from the hills going out to De Anza. But he believed.

He told us all we had to do was believe in ourselves. We had to knock them down and don't let them up. And when we've got them down, rip their hearts out...

As he said "rip their hearts out", Coach reached into a helmet and pulled out a bloody heart, presumably a cow heart from a butcher. His eyes widened and spit bubbles formed in the corners of his mouth as he talked faster and faster about what we needed to do. Then, he attacked the heart like a crazed, starved badger. He ripped at it with his teeth as the blood dribbled down his chin, that crazed look in his eyes urging us to do the same to De Anza in the game.

The reaction from the team was a mixture of "Raaaaah. Let's go get 'em!" and "What was that?!? What a joke!" as we filed out of the locker room and onto the bus... for a 30 minute ride to the game, followed by warmups and eventually the game. In retrospect, the timing was maybe a little off, but it maybe worked. We won.

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