I was not highly recruited to play football. At least not among the scholarship level schools. I dreamed of playing at Rutgers because I knew they played against Penn State, the team I had idolized growing up. I knew enough to never dream about Penn State.
I visited a lot of smaller schools and liked quite a few of them. But I had only one scholarship offer and it was from a mid-sized university 5 or 6 hours away. I had hoped to find a smaller school closer to home, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I filled out one application. I was going.
Although I enjoyed the notoriety of being the first member of my extended family to go to college, and also being the first scholarship football player from my high school in a generation, I was overwhelmed. I had no idea what to expect.
The coaches from the smaller schools didn’t help any when they told me they doubted I would play before my senior year.
The coaches from the larger schools thought I wasn’t big enough. The Rutgers coach in particular said in reference to me “he’s the type of player we are trying to get away from.” (I still can’t help but to loathe the Scarlet Knights for that comment twenty-five years later.)
Not that I wasn’t grateful for the opportunity I was given. I was. But that didn’t mean I was not disappointed that things had not worked out the way I hoped. I was also pretty sure I was not worthy of a football scholarship.
I ran hard, I practiced hard, I played hard, but I was never one to lift weights much. Back then you could get away with that. I had quick feet, some speed, and a bottomless well of anger that I could tap into when it came time to win or lose. But I was weak.
I also knew that the recruiter who offered me the scholarship, had not even come to my school seeking to recruit me. Instead he was after my teammate, who was a spectacular three sport athlete and all-state player being recruited by big-time schools.
The only reason the recruiter noticed me was because my high school coach had some faith in me, and pointed me out as another potential candidate to be recruited.
On film I’m sure what the recruiter saw was that I was relentless. On more than one occasion I chased down and tackled ball carriers I had no business catching. These were the type of hustle plays you can only make when you are competitive. I guess the recruiter saw that, and found me worthy of the opportunity.
But off the field, I was pretty mellow. I only competed to my fullest in practice and games, be it football or basketball. The immediacy of winning or losing is what made me compete.
I signed my letter of intent, but I was petrified to go to UNH.
For the next six months I froze. I rarely worked out. I just clung to the people and places that had given me comfort.
Finally it was time to go. My father drove me up to school and dropped me off.
The freshmen started practice a few days earlier than the rest of the team, and I struggled against guys in my own class.
When the upperclassmen came in I was completely over-matched.
During preseason camp I was roomed with another lineman. He was captain of the team and would later be drafted by the NFL. He was kind and wise. I hoped I could be like him some day.
Our head coach had a habit of not saying much during practices. He tended to let the assistant coaches do most of the coaching. If he did speak up it was because someone had made an egregious error. If he was truly appalled he would throw his clipboard in your general direction.
One morning practice I had 2 clipboards thrown in my direction. After the second one he said, “come to my office before the afternoon practice.”
I went back to my dorm room and asked my new hero of a roommate what that entailed. He said, “Billy, I have no idea. I have seen him throw a clipboard at somebody, but I never saw him throw two in the same practice, much less at the same person.”
On the way to the meeting I called my house and my mother answered. I told her what had happened and told her she better be ready to pick me up, because I was certain I was about to be kicked off the team or soon made to quit. She told me that I was not to quit under any circumstances.
I made it to the football office and the head coach looked surprised to see me. I just quietly stood before him as he sat in a chair in the reception area. When I couldn’t take the silence any more I said “coach you wanted to see me?”
He said, ” you don’t know your plays and your bench press is anemic.” Then he nodded in the direction of the door.
He got no argument from me. I knew I was outclassed on the field, because I was outclassed in the weight room. My position coach and fellow freshmen had told me the same thing on a few occasions. All with the same disdain that had been expressed by the head coach.
So I found myself a frequent visitor to the weight room between classes and practices. The place was every bit a dungeon. Dark, with a vast array of torture devices.
Worst of all was the dungeon keeper. A man named Dino. He was as wide as he was tall, and he seemed every bit the man that was assigned to torture those who found disfavor with his masters.
But there was something different about Dino, that I instinctively picked up on. After a few weeks on campus my head stopped spinning and I began to accept where I was and became oriented. It was around this time, when I was one of the few people in the weight room, that Dino pulled me aside. I don’t remember his words. I do remember his message, and I remember it because of his tone.
He told me he knew I had never really lifted before. He said there was nothing we could do about that, but that I would be amazed at how much I could improve if I followed his program. He didn’t judge me on who I had been, or who I was, but on who he thought I could be. No disdain. No vitriol.
Because of his tone, I trusted him.
Yes I needed a “bad cop,” a father figure who wasn’t afraid to cut past my justification and my feeling sorry for myself; a leader who was going to make clear in simple terms what was expected of me. I needed my peers to do the same. I needed someone at home who wouldn’t allow me to run back to what was comfortable. But I also needed someone who could help me get past my previous mistakes and help me see who I could become.
The next Fall I started a few games, the remaining years I started all of them.
I recently got back in touch with Dino. This occurred shortly after I found a piece he posted on his website. He is a prolific writer with broad interests. Most of which I can’t pretend to keep up with. Some of which is raw and powerful; touching and humorous. In one piece he had written 20 years ago on the culture of my team he mentions a prank I pulled that led to my winning a game of brinkmanship with one of my friends.
Dino has been a bit of a vagabond as he has pursued his varied interests. He is many things to many people. To me, he is a man who said the right thing, at the right time, in the right tone. He was once the final piece of my puzzle as I struggled to find my way forward.
Recently, Dino wrote to me and encouraged me to write. His note arriving just as I was once again frozen; struggling to find my voice and the means to express it. Within a couple of weeks I have put up over 50 pieces and as such, have been fortunate enough to find some amazing people who have read my work and shared their work with me. Through them I have also been able to have some of my pieces forwarded to people I would never have been able to reach; maybe helping a few others along their path.
I even started lifting again.
Dino arrived again, to say the right thing, at the right time, in the right tone. Once again he helped me find a way forward.
I am grateful.