I was asked recently what character I would be in the Walking Dead series, to which I pondered my answer with equal parts so and frito whilst tumbling a couple fingers worth of a deftly constructed swim of smoky caramelo.
“They ain’t written him yet,” Was my answer.
“How about Rick? You’ve got the beard and you’ve got the swagger . . .”
For one thing, my swagger is more a matter of compromised structural integrity. Add to that the fact that Rick was much too fastidious when it came to the ‘team’ concept, which is something I’ve always been dubious about. It’s been that way since I quit Boy Scouts after slugging a fat bully because he was picking on my best friend Mark Luis. The incident taught me a lot about the implicit danger in buying into something whilst eschewing common sense. I’m not damning the concept of teamwork. Just the obligatory lockstep too many peeps buy into, after which they refute all manner of that common sense and in the most egregious examples, human decency.
I played wide receiver in high school to great success. I wasn’t the fastest or the strongest but I had skilled hands on the level of a diamond cutter. If the quarterback had to throw it up for grabs- which is really all a high school quarterback ever does- I was the one he threw it to, because I didn’t miss. For a hot second- until both my knees got busted up- I dreamed of playing college ball.
I wanted to play for Penn State, for Joe Paterno. Because he was the antithesis of all the coaches I’d experienced in my young life. My high school coaches were bitter men whose locker room talk consisted of calling young men ‘pussies’ if they got injured and couldn’t play. They leered at girls who could have been their daughters and considered women to be little more than obscene parodies. When peeps ask why the #metoo movement is so necessary . . I’ve got my answer all locked and loaded.
Having moved to Lancaster county in 1986, I witnessed first hand the grip Penn State football had on a community and a state. This fervent dedication to an individual, and to his vision of what teamwork was supposed to look like was unwavering in its obsessiveness.
Working retail while going to school at night, my free time was spent with girls who, even if they didn’t follow sports, knew Penn State football. To say it was a religion is not an understatement. It was during this time that I scored a manager’s gig at K-Mart whilst learning under the roughly hewn tutelage of Joe Hewitt.
Joe was a forty something retail lifer who smoked his three meals and ate occasionally. He cursed like a sailor, but he was the genuine article. His Alma mater was Pitt University, and so when he would talk shit about State, I took it as the predictable rantings of an alumnus who was screaming and kicking at his second fiddle status.
Over time, I came to learn differently. Joe had played a couple years of college ball, and had actually met Paterno a handful of times.
“Don’t believe what they tell you about this guy, kid. He’s not a Saint, not even close . .”
Of course, Joe Hewitt was right. And of course it didn’t matter in the twenty five years between my working with him and the arrest of Jerry Sandusky on charges of rape and child sexual abuse. And if you live in Penn State country? It still doesn’t matter to many.
Because as great as head football coach James Franklin has been for a university in desperate need of good men like him, there is still an appreciable divide between the people who accept the new establishment and the old guard who still hold fiercely to Paterno. And the latter is not solely comprised of old white guys who spend their afternoons drowning in menthol smoke at the VFW. Not even close.
Paterno’s team still has plenty of people who defend him in spite of everything that has transpired. Young and old, alumni and transplants, Baby boomers to Gen-X’ers to Millenials . . an insidious religion maintains its creep, like ivy on a structure whose foundation has been blasted into memory and retrofitted to a more logical conclusion.
This mindset is far from unique to State College, of course. The horror of Penn State simply retained its relevancy inside an ever changing news cycle because it involved one of college football’s biggest brands headed up by the supposed Pope of the gridiron. Whose defenders are far less vocal today, but no less tenacious.
Perhaps the greatest misconception of teamwork is that it is inviolable, above reproach. This is its greatest power, and our greatest weakness. People want to belong to that cliched bigger than ourselves mantra, without ever stopping to consider the fine print. And it’s why I consider its vulnerabilities in much the same way I do my so called swagger. Because to think otherwise is to declare myself a buyer.
No thanks, I’ll rent.