Tag Archives: Sports

Novice wrestling

When I was in high school, all I really wanted was to be part of a team. I’d grown up playing on most of the community youth sports teams, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer. While I didn’t expect to be a varsity captain or anything, I still thought that I’d at least find something I was good at, or good enough at, to go through tryouts and find my name posted up on the bulletin board outside of the gym, telling me that I’d made a team.


But basketball was out of the question. I went to the first day of tryouts and knew immediately that it wasn’t going to happen. There were something like sixteen hundred boys in my school, and so the sheer amount of bodies in the gym that day, all of them there with their eyes on one of the sixteen spots available, it was a wake-up call, that even though I wasn’t horrible at basketball, I wasn’t really that good either.

And so the coach had us line up and shoot lay-ups, and I missed the first lay-up. I told myself, that’s all right, I’m tall, I’m fast, I’m sure they’re not too concerned with that one lay-up. But some assistant coach blew a whistle and pointed in my direction. I looked at him like, what? What do you want me to do? And he just barely lifted his eyes in my direction and blew the whistle again, this time pointing to the locker room. I’d been cut.

But hockey, I’d been playing hockey since I was in the second grade. There’s no way I wouldn’t make the ice hockey team. I mean, just think about all that it takes to get your equipment ready and have your parents take you to all of those hockey practices and hockey games and summer hockey camps. I thought, I must have an advantage over the majority of these guys.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the ice hockey coach told me and a group of five or six other kids after the second ice hockey tryout. His first words weren’t all that encouraging, and I looked around at the others in my company, all of us scrawny, awkward, obviously inferior to everyone else still skating on the ice.

And then it was like, OK, no basketball, no hockey, what else can I do? Volleyball? The volleyball coach actually approached me, seeing as how I was so tall. I guess he had this idea that, even though I told him I’d never played volleyball before, that it was OK, that he’d train me, that by the time I made it to senior year, I’d be some sort of spiking machine.

But those tryouts too ended in the volleyball coach kind of just shaking his head from side to side, one of those, “Listen, I’m really sorry I put you through all of this,” speeches where I could tell by his lack of eye contact that he probably did actually feel a little bad about suggesting that I try out in the first place.

So what was left? Freshman year came and went and I hadn’t made it on any sports teams. Was I destined to go through high school without ever knowing the camaraderie associated with team athletics? One of my friends was on the junior varsity wrestling team and, while he laughed when I asked him if I had what it took to try out for JV, he suggested that I attend the first day of novice wrestling.

Novice wrestling was the only sport in my school that had zero cuts. It wasn’t varsity and it wasn’t junior varsity, but it was still technically a sport. And so I showed up, me and a hundred and fifty other kids that looked as if they’d also never played on any team sport in high school. Everything about novice wrestling was exactly how it sounded, novice. We had to wrestle in this small, old gym, tucked away behind the pipe-room of the main gym. I didn’t even know the school had a secondary gym. It was one of those neglected rooms that looked like it hadn’t really been considered in decades.

Our uniforms were similarly relics of a bygone era. While the varsity and the JV squad wore these modern looking spandex outfits, we each wore a very outdated crimson wrestling singlet, made of whatever fabric they used before the invention of spandex, with bright yellow piping around the neck, arm and leg openings. I looked ridiculous. I was six foot five, but only a hundred and sixty pounds, so my uniform didn’t really hug the sides of my body, it hung, loose, making my torso look like a popsicle stick.

With a hundred and fifty person team, it was unlikely that I’d actually see much action. We basically went to practice every day, and then when we had meets, the coach would give us all turns, placing us into different weight classes, maybe we’d get to grapple, maybe not.

I remember the first time I actually had a match. My opponent was about five foot one, and he made his entrance onto the wrestling mat, slapping himself in the face, making weird yelling sounds, I guess in an attempt at intimidation. I didn’t really get it, and neither did the ref, who blew his whistle immediately and penalized him for unsportsmanlike conduct.

We got into position and the ref blew his whistle again to start the match. And my opponent ran off of the mat and vomited by the edge of the gym. I just kind of stood there, not really understanding what had happened. And then the ref blew his whistle again and raised my hand in the air. I won.

The next day on morning announcements, after they showed the highlights from the basketball game, they read a list of novice wrestlers who had won their matches. I almost felt silly hearing my name called. Some of the other novice wrestlers in my homeroom laughed knowingly. But it wasn’t that bad, because another guy in my homeroom had wound up facing off against a girl wrestler. He pinned her to the ground and won, and everyone was on his case, making up an exaggerated story about how the match went down, how yeah, he won, but just barely.

Being part of a team was cool, but wrestling wasn’t really what I was after. Besides, I kept getting ringworm, and one of my teammates had to go to the hospital because his testicles got twisted around each other in the middle of a match. I did novice wrestling for a year, got my athletic letter, and then threw away my wrestling gear. But every once in a while I’ll have a dream like I’m back in high school. I’m in my adult body, and I’m just totally dominating every single sport. I’m blocking jump shots and scoring game winning goals in overtime. What are you going to do, right? You can only try so hard at sports.

I’m really good at Ecuadorean volleyball

A huge part my Peace Corps experience was learning how go entire weeks at a time with absolutely no expectations of doing anything at all. Before my wife and I got shipped off to Ecuador in 2009, I pictured myself hard at work, building things, educating people, everything you’d imagine when you think of overseas volunteer work. But after two months of orientation with all the other volunteers-in-training, we were each assigned our own town where we’d live and work for the next two years. We had a party to say our goodbyes, and then we they basically told us, OK, go to the bus terminal, get out of here, shoo.


And that’s when reality kind of set in, as we bumbled our way through the city, realizing that it was going to be challenging enough just figuring out how to get where we were supposed to be going. Once we arrived at our site, my wife and I quickly found out that there wasn’t exactly a pressing demand for assistance from a couple of gringos who not only spoke very rudimentary Spanish, at best, but also didn’t know anything at all about everyday life in rural South America. Which isn’t to say that we didn’t get anything done, it just took a really long time to settle in.

We were each assigned an Ecuadorean counterpart, someone who would show us the ropes and help us get to work. And they were really cool. I mean, imagine you’re at work one day and someone drops off a foreigner who can’t speak any English, telling you, “Yeah, you’re going to have to buddy up with this guy for the next two years, get him up to speed.” So I have nothing but gratitude for the kindness and patience given to us by a couple of total strangers.

But yeah, it also meant that my Peace Corps service wasn’t going to be anything like I thought it would be. For the first few months, anyway, on a good day, we’d work for maybe four hours. And when I say work, I mean we followed around our counterparts and tried not to look confused. Smiling helped.

Eventually our Spanish got better, but until then, there was a lot of time to kill every day. Most people in our town came back from their farm work after lunch, and everybody just kind of hung out until it got dark out. And since we didn’t have any Internet or cell phone service or TV, we just hung out too. Groups of people would walk down the street and call us over, we’d go with them, and yeah, that was it, we just absorbed everything, like by osmosis, placed in this alien environment, our brains had to piece together what was going on.

Gender lines are pretty old school where we lived, and so my wife wound up socializing with the women while I gravitated to where the guys hung out. Which, as long as it wasn’t raining, meant the volleyball courts. Yeah, I didn’t expect volleyball to be a big thing in Ecuador, but basically every aspect of social life in our town centered around either drinking, cock fighting, or volleyball.

I’d stand around and try to wrap my head around the peculiarities of this local version of what I knew as volleyball. For one thing, the net was high, like about as high as a basketball hoop. Teams were three on three, and instead of using a volleyball, they used a number five soccer ball, which is much bigger and heavier.

At first I just kind of hung out on the sidelines, but out of pure curiosity, the guys started letting me stand in when the action naturally wound down as the sun set. I’m around six foot four, pretty tall here in the US, but I was by far the tallest guy in the province of Cotopaxi. So people would laugh as I’d wave my limbs around uncontrollably, trying to bounce the ball or set up a teammate for a volley.

It was bad. At first I couldn’t even handle the ball. It was really all I could do to try not to flinch as my soft wrists would bruise almost on contact. But after a while I began to get better. A lot better. Once I got the fundamentals down, I started using my height as an advantage that no other play possessed. Now I could spike the ball, or by sticking my hands straight up, I could block the opposing team’s shots from ever crossing over to our side.

My dominance in ecuavoley (yeah, that’s what it’s called) lasted for about a month until nobody wanted to play with me anymore. The spectacle of the tall American got old, and I found myself once again exiled to the sidelines, hanging out, losing my money at card games that I could never quite figure out how to play.

But then one day some of the guys had an idea. There was a volleyball tournament coming up in a town a couple of hours away. They didn’t really tell me any of the specifics, but for the next two weeks, I was back on the court, all of the men making sure that I’d be in good shape for the big day.

We all hopped into the back of a pickup truck and headed off down the winding mountainous dirt roads. An hour or so later, we merged onto a paved highway, and two hours after that, we were in some other small town. Any time we had to visit a neighboring community, it was like peeking into a parallel universe. Everything looked more or less the same, the town square, the simple houses, but of course it was a completely different place. Also, where I lived, I had the luxury of everybody knowing who I was. Sure, I was still an outsider, but the novelty of my presence had worn off. All of that went out the window when I left. Now my sense of being a foreigner was amplified.

We pulled up to the town jail, which I thought was kind of weird, but nobody else acted as if this wasn’t normal, and so I did what I always tried to do when I was so far out of my element that I didn’t know how to react, I pretended like I knew what I was doing, that this was no big deal for me either.

But as we pulled around to the backside of the prison, I’m sure my composure had to have been more than a little rattled. There were like hundreds of men standing around a single volleyball court, screaming, waving money in the air, drinking and fighting. I wasn’t prepared for this. It was like as soon as I got off of the pickup truck, everybody got a little quieter and started asking each other loudly, “Who the hell is this tall gringo?”

While we waited for our turn to play, random men would come by and offer me a shot of booze. I’d learned a trick to getting out of situations involving alcohol where I didn’t feel like drinking, I gave them four or five conflicting answers simultaneously, before walking away and smiling. First, I’d politely decline, then I’d say yes, but “After I’m done playing!” before rubbing my belly and acting like I was sick, and then making it look like someone else was calling me from across the court.

Finally it was our turn to play. The guy who drove the pickup truck walked over to the ref and counted out something like five hundred bucks. “What the hell?” I asked one of my teammates. “I didn’t know this was a high-stakes game. Who’s paying for this?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he reassured me without answering any of my questions, adding, “Just make sure that we win.”

I had a moment of pure panic. Either way this wound up playing out, someone was going to be out half a grand, and I was almost positive that I’d be held responsible for the outcome.

The ref blew the whistle. For the next half an hour or so, I operated on sheer adrenaline. The first time that I spiked the ball directly in front of the net, the crowd went silent. As I jumped and pounced again and again and again, they started cheering, roaring for me as I swatted the ball down, our opponents diving futilely face-first into the dirt floor, trying to at least lay a hand on the ball that sailed always a few inches outside their reach.

At one point about halfway through, I stopped for a minute to really just take stock of my surroundings. Here I was, a guy from New York playing a sport that I’d never heard of before behind a prison in a tiny town in South America. I’d just spiked the ball, and the people were going nuts, clapping, waving their money in the air to amend their wagers, shaking bottles of beer to spray me with foam in between volleys. I looked over to the side, and even the prisoners were in on the action, shouting, sticking their heads out of the bars of the windows, the cops every once in a while would wave their batons in the air threateningly, as if to maintain the illusion that there was any sort of order in place. We won. They collected the money, and we hopped on the back of that pickup immediately after and hightailed it out of town.

Let me assure you, I’m not very good at sports. I never made any of the teams in high school, and when I play basketball or soccer with my friends and family, it’s not totally unlikely that I might accidentally score on my own net.

But for some bizarro reason, I was really good at ecuavoley. So good that, after that tournament anyway, nobody would play with me ever again, because I was too good. Doesn’t that sound insane? Like I’m totally making it up? Sometimes I wonder if it wasn’t all an elaborate dream, because I’m telling you, I have like really subpar hand-eye coordination, the motor reflexes of a poorly trained chimp. But I swear, for a little while anyway, I was huge in Ecuador. I was the best Ecuavolley player in something like a five-town radius.

Ping-pong intramurals

We had a ping-pong table in the basement growing up, and I always thought I was pretty good. I mean, I was a little kid, but I could hold my own in a game to twenty-one. I knew how to serve it just right, so that the ball sailed barely over the edge of the net. I could dive and rescue shots that would have knocked out most other opponents. And in between volleys, I could twirl the paddle around in my hand. I was good at ping-pong.


At least, I thought I was good at ping-pong. We moved out of our house when I was in the sixth grade, and for whatever reason, the ping-pong table wasn’t invited along. So for the next three years or so, I didn’t really have any outlet. I knew in the back of my head that I had the talent, but I never got to play anymore.

And so, when I got to high school, I was so excited when I heard about ping-pong intramurals. “When are sign-ups for ping-pong?” I remember asking the homeroom teacher on my first day of ninth grade. “Ping-pong?” he looked at me, confused. Come on man, I thought to myself, I could see it so clearly, when I went on that high school tour the year before, they handed us this folder of information. One of the pieces of paper listed all of the extracurricular activities. I think I may have even saved it somewhere, ping-pong intramurals were definitely an advertised thing.

But the homeroom guy didn’t know what I was talking about. And any upperclassman that didn’t outright dismiss my presence whenever I opened up my mouth was equally ignorant. And so I kind of had to slog through the first half of that year not playing ping-pong. Sometimes I’d show up for basketball intramurals, but I sucked at basketball, all I wanted to do was play ping-pong.

And then, after Christmas break, I saw it, a flyer for ping-pong intramurals. It didn’t look real at first. I wondered if someone was messing with me, trying to get my hopes up by placing flyers close to my locker. But no, word spread, apparently ping-pong intramurals were really a thing, and everyone was getting pumped.

Within a week it was all anybody was talking about, ping-pong. The hype got to be so much that administration started taking names to reserve spots. As the sign up sheet got passed around in homeroom that day, this kid in front of me laughed when I put my name down. “Ha, Rob, please, you’re just wasting everybody’s time.”

He’d never seen me play ping-pong, and sure, it was probably just a jerk high school thing to say, but I got pissed. “I’m actually really good at ping-pong. We have a ping-pong table at my house.” I don’t know why I said that, it was only partially true anyway, because I think the ping-pong table was somewhere in the garage, maybe, nobody ever went in there, we were all scared of spider-webs and mice droppings.

“I have a ping-pong table too,” the other kid said, and I don’t know why, but I didn’t believe him. I could just tell that he was full of shit. But back in high school, I don’t know, I could never come up with any comebacks, and I was really bad at playing it cool, making it look like I wasn’t hyper-sensitive and super pissed-off. But I resolved in my head to beat this guy.

And I carried that resolve to the wrestling room the first day of ping-pong intramurals. There were like twenty tables, all set up very tightly together across the gym floor. I had to wait like an hour until it was my turn, but finally the moderators called my name. I grabbed the paddle, gave it that quick twirl move, and turned my head to see where that kid from homeroom was playing.

That’s when my opponent got his first point. “Wait, that was a point? Don’t you have to volley for serve?” and this kid who I only kind of recognized from Earth Science class, he was like, “Volley for serve? What does that mean?” I tried to grab one of the gym teacher’s attention, to help clear up some ground rules, but he was dismissive, “Boys, we’ve got a lot of kids that want to play ping-pong.”

Worse, this other guy had no idea how to score. I always played where you could only score on your serve, but this guy was counting everything. Even worse than that, I found that I really wasn’t very good at ping-pong. I was holding my own for like three or four volleys, but after that, I’d almost invariably lose. I don’t know what it was, maybe the lack of space in between the tables, maybe because it had been years since I played, but the whole game was over in about three minutes, and I was booted from the gym.

“That’s it” I asked the gym teacher. “That’s it. Better luck next year.”

“Next year? Wait, you guys set up all of these tables for just one day?”

And that was it. I saw that kid in homeroom the next day and I asked how he did. “Ping-pong? I don’t play ping-pong. Ping-pong is for losers. Ha.”

And I just sat there, fuck ping-pong, fuck intramurals, fuck this kid, but I didn’t say anything out loud, I just sat there and hoped that my face wasn’t beet red.

Bill, I think I was coming off as a little too strong

Dear Bill Simmons:

I’ve been going about this the wrong way, I realize that now. And I’m sorry, for harassing you like this, constantly with the begging, “Please give me a writing job.” That was really annoying of me. At the time I thought it was gutsy. But now I’m starting to see that it was too much. You can’t just go around asking to write for Grantland. There aren’t any shortcuts to all of the sudden having your work pop up online. You’ve got to start from the bottom and work your way up. Right Bill?

Janitor in the Philippine Stock Exchange Building

Which is why, Bill, please, give me a job at Grantland, but at the bottom. I want whatever is the worst job available. Actually, no, I want you to consider the worst job at Grantland, and then I want you to make a position even lower, and I’ll work my ass off, OK, I’ll work so hard that I’ll earn that promotion to former worst job at Grantland.

And then I’ll keep climbing, turning heads as I ascend that ladder, one rung at a time. I’ll network and stuff. That’s a thing you’ve got to do, right? You’ve got to network. I’ve got to get in there from the bottom and I’ve got to approach men and women above me and say stuff like, “Hey, I really admire your work. Is there any chance you’d be willing to let me buy you a cup of coffee while I pick your brain about careers and opportunities?”

Actually, even that sounds like I’m coming on a little too strong. I should have just kept it to coffee, none of that opportunity talk. That reeks of networking. You’re supposed to network, I get that, but I also get that you’re never supposed to talk about networking or make it seem like you’re networking. Because otherwise you look like you’re too hungry. I’m hungry, but I want to come across as totally full. But secretly ravenous.

You have a pretty decent janitorial staff at Grantland? Make me the janitor’s assistant. Or even better, make me the janitor’s intern. I’ll do it for free. After we finish mopping the bathroom floors and changing out all of the hand soap in the hand soap dispensers, I’ll be like, “Hey man,” to the janitor, I’ll say, “I’m really learning a lot here. Would you mind if I took you out for a cup of coffee after work?”

And I’ll do the whole networking process from the ground up, it’ll be subtle, I won’t say anything about my aspirations as a full-time member of the writing staff. Do you know if the bathrooms at Grantland use liquid soap? Or is it that foam stuff? I only ask because the foam saves so much more space, like there’s a lot less waste. You know what? Forget I asked. I’ll save it for day one.

While I have late night access to the building, buffing floors, emptying out wastebaskets, I’ll start pitching in around the office, fixing the printer jams, straightening out the bulletin boards on the walls, stuff like that. I figure it won’t be long until the higher-ups get wind of my go-getter attitude. We’ll be riding up on an elevator, all of you professionals in your suits and me in my janitor’s outfit, maybe I’ll have like a bucket and mop.

One of you guys might say, “Hey, aren’t you the janitor that occasionally answers line three if the secretary is overwhelmed? The one that takes really detailed notes and passes them on to exactly where they’ve got to go? Do you have any interest in trying out the administrative side of this business?”

And while, no, I really don’t want to be involved in administration, I want to be a writer, I’ll still take the offer. Because up is up, right? The closer I get to you Bill, the more chances there are of you happening to come upon me right as I’m juggling like eight administrative tasks in a row. You’ll raise your left eyebrow as you marvel at my professional office skills, and then the right eyebrow will lift accordingly as you realize that not only am I handling desk work like a pro, but I’m simultaneously changing light bulbs and separating recyclables that have accidentally been tossed in the trashcan.

“Oh it’s nothing,” I’ll try to act casually as you congratulate my willingness to tackle any problem, “I used to be a part of the custodial team, so I like to help out wherever possible.”

Naturally that’ll appeal to you, as a boss, you’ll see some of you in me, maybe you’ll be the one asking me out for a cup of coffee. And that’s when I’ll make my move, I’ll slip in how I’m an aspiring writer, how it’s always been a dream of mine to write for Grantland. You’ll have to give me a chance. I’ll have already proved to you through my other duties and responsibilities that I’m up for the job.

So yeah, sorry for coming off as too strong. I just want it so bad, to write for Grantland. I’ll do anything. I’ll start from even lower if you want. You could have me standing outside getting coffee and running errands for those guys who hold up signs on the streets advertising discount-parking rates at nearby garages. Come on Bill, I’m super serious. Give me a call.

Venti with milk and five sugars,

Rob G.

How do I know that I know what I’m doing?

I always think about people with really obscure talents, like in the Olympics, all of these sports that I’ve never heard of. How do you get to be so good at something that most of the world doesn’t even know exists? Take curling for example, right, it’s really popular in Canada, and so they’ve got really good curlers. The US has a team, but are American curlers really any good?


What I mean is, we’ve got a huge country, much bigger than Canada. Shouldn’t we have a bigger talent pool to draw from? Statistically, yeah, but curling isn’t super popular here, and so we’re kind of stuck with the people that happen to be involved in the top level of American curling.

I’m a big believer in practice, that if you keep at something, over and over again, eventually you’ll get better, and then finally you’ll be able to master whatever it is you’ve spent so much time practicing. At least, I hope I’m a big believer, because I keep telling that to myself as I sit here at my computer every day and write out blog posts and short stories. Don’t worry, I think in my head, so what if everything you’re writing out is garbage? You’ll get better eventually. And yeah, it keeps me going for a while, the idea that someday I’ll look back at everything I’m doing today, I’ll barely recognize my work in these crude, early stages of my writing career.

But whereas I don’t think that anything can happen without practice, I also kind of believe that there’s got to be something else, a natural talent within. You look at certain sports or professions, even at the professional level, there are always a few examples of an even higher level of ability. I’m talking about LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky, William Shakespeare and Mozart, whoever is truly great at curling and whoever else is similarly amazing at luge or skeleton.

You look at examples of a prodigy, someone who, at their peak, is just in total command of their chosen activity. Surely they wouldn’t have gotten to where they were without a lifetime of practice and dedication. But there’s something else, a natural predisposition to excel. And you think about it, it’s total luck.

Think about Wayne Gretzky, look at hockey. How crazy is it that somewhere along humanity’s history, a bunch of people started strapping metal blades to their feet in order to push a hard rubber disk on ice with long sticks? OK, that blows my mind that hockey, or golf, or any of these complex sports developed the way they did into international pastimes.

Right, and then you have Wayne Gretzky, he’s arguably the best player in the history of the sport, he happens not only to have this natural ability to thrive when given the opportunity to practice and play, but he’s also bestowed the good fortune of growing up around hockey, having parents that were able to make sure he had hockey equipment, access to coaching and ice facilities.

Wayne Gretzky could have been born in Africa or somewhere else where hockey isn’t played and he would never been exposed to the one thing that has made his life so remarkable. What if everybody has a similar natural talent? It’s not inconceivable. In some alternate timeline, there might be a sport where humans attach wheels to their heads and roll around upside down while trying to slide giant cubes into various holes in the ground using only their elbows.

That’s obviously a crazy scenario, but in the unlikely event that such a sport were to ever take off, how would I know that that wouldn’t be my unique talent? And that’s just too bad, I’m born in this society where headslide, or whatever you want to call it doesn’t exist, and so unable to find an outlet to use my insane headsliding talents, I kind of drift aimlessly through life, waiting tables at night, hoping that if I sit here every day and type words out on my computer, I might someday have a career as a professional writer.

I’m kind of thinking myself in circles here, the ideas that I’m trying to express are getting tangled up into fantasies of being a professional athlete, of being a professional anything, really. It’s important to stay grounded in the present. I’ve already spent a pretty good chunk of time committed to writing every day, really hoping that I’ll get good at what I’m doing, that my skills might lead me somewhere where this will have all been worth it. But it’s hard not to put aside those lingering questions. Is this really what I should be doing? Is there some other path or activity that, if I set myself out to master, might I not have a better shot at being the best?

Maybe bowling. I’ve never really given myself a fair shot at becoming a professional bowler. Or hang-gliding. I could be the best potential hang-glider in all of history. Or bull-running. Or mountain climbing. There’s no way I’ll ever figure it all out.