LS: Bruce Cameron Column September 07, 2008

Feeling the fence

When I was in ninth grade, I decided it was my destiny to be a professional football player because I looked so fierce in my helmet. I spent a lot of time standing in front of the mirror in full equipment, growling through my mouth guard, squinting and sneering in such a threatening manner I intimidated even myself.

I went outside and stood ominously in front of a group of second-grade girls who were playing Tea Party, shocking them into subdued silence.

This is back when my mother bought clothes in sizes too large for me so that I’d “grow into” them, everything from shoes to underpants. The rule applied to my football equipment, so that as I loomed over the tea party, my clothes sagging off my skinny body, I probably looked like the team scarecrow. I couldn’t really see the girls — my helmet slid down whenever I lowered my head, so I could either keep my eyes on the sky or stumble around blind.

It was OK, though: I was going to be a professional football player and would grow into the thing by the time
I was quarterback for Green Bay.

Then I went to my first practice and learned that there’s more to football than facial expressions. What had been so effective with little girls had absolutely no impact on running backs, who flashed past me while I groped in futility, swimming in my equipment.

“Cameron, why in God’s name are you looking at the trees ?” the coach would yell, frustrated. “Lower your helmet and tackle!”

OK, sure, you try tackling somebody you can’t see. Besides, the few times I actually managed to put myself in some big kid’s path, the impact knocked out my (too-large) mouth guard. It seemed to me the far more prudent course to run away from the ball.

It was looking less and less likely that I would wind up doing this for a living.

The coach eventually learned to line me up across from Frances, a boy who stopped getting taller in third grade — as Frances explained it, his growth had yet to spurt. Before the play, I would sneer at a point 4 feet over Frances’ head, and he’d sort of paw the ground with his size-2 shoe, and when the ball was hiked we’d grapple with each other like two lovesick teens at their first prom.

I can proudly say that with me on defense, Frances never once scored a touchdown, or got his uniform dirty.

Dancing with Frances wasn’t too bad, but I loathed calisthenics. Jumping jacks are especially difficult to execute while holding your pants up, and whenever we did anything that involved a lot of squatting, I could feel that inside my uniform my jock strap was sliding off.

Oddly, Frances and I were far from the worst players on the team, which would go on that year to have a perfect season: no ties, no wins, no points. There was Glenn “Express Train” Rainy, who cried every play, and Terry “The Crusher” Crenshaw, who didn’t so much fumble the ball as hand it over to the opposing team, as if hoping the gift would make us all friends.

Compared to them, Bruce “Saggy Pants” Cameron was a fierce competitor, as was Frances “Wee Lad” Weaton.

Practice always ended with the coach shouting “to the fence!” at which the boys took off in a straggling trot for the chain-link fence at the other end of the schoolyard.

I liked the run, though. If I ran a little faster I could be all alone and unable to hear Express Train weeping.

As I raced away from the practice-field lights, the school grounds would become as dark as the inside of my helmet.

When I was close, I could feel the fence, just out ahead of me in the gloom. And then I’d hit it, and practice was over.

Ever since then, when I’m working on something, like writing a book, and I’m almost done, I start to sense what it will be like to be finished. I call it “feeling the fence.”

It’s the only part of football practice that made it into my professional life.

To write Bruce Cameron, visit his Website at


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