Spreading my Wings

Picking up where I left off with last week's post, easily the biggest step I took my junior year came on the football field. I had made huge strides from freshman benchwarmer to starting on the JV team, but my third year saw the jump to varsity. I was fortunate in two respects. First my JV coach, Dave Butler, was elevated to head coach of the varsity team. Second, he hired the school's long-time wrestling coach, Danny Nigro, who happened to be my aunt's brother-in-law and thus knew me well, to be the defensive coordinator. Understanding that I did not have the speed to play linebacker nor the size to go up against offensive tackles at end, Danny decided to switch me to nose tackle, where I would go head to head with smaller centers. The move worked perfectly as I thrived in my new position.

Of course, the difficult part of playing nose tackle was that I often found myself on the bottom of piles with several guys on top of me. Furthermore, from hitting the blocking sled repeatedly in practice, I injured both shoulders- most likely tore both rotator cuffs-and kept aggravating the injury all season. During one game at the Old Rockpile, War Memorial Stadium, the same field where O.J. Simpson ran wild before the Buffalo Bills moved to Rich Stadium in 1973, I pried myself loose from a heavy pile with intense pain in my shoulder and my entire right arm was numb- it felt as if it was barely hanging to my socket by a thread. I took myself out of the game for a few plays until the sensation returned to normal and the pain subsided somewhat, but then finished the game. Not wanting to risk losing my position, I did not tell the coaches how bad my shoulders hurt, nor did I ever seek professional medical treatment, including an MRI. Even now almost 30 years later, my shoulders were never the same e.g. to this day I cannot throw over-hand without pain piercing my right shoulder (although side-arm or underhand is OK).

The highlight of my junior season came when we played one of our league rivals, Timon of south Buffalo, at Rich Stadium. It was incredibly exciting to receive the opportunity to step onto the home turf of my beloved Buffalo Bills and play on the same field as future Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith and Andre Reed (Thurman Thomas was still in college at the time). Unfortunately, we lost the game 8-0, but it was a valiant effort by our defense that kept the contest close and allowed the game's only touchdown after our QB threw a bad interception that was returned inside our 15-yard line. Despite the loss, I was thrilled to have played in the massive stadium, even though only a fraction of the 80,000 seats were filled with fans, and very proud of the way I and my defensive team-mates battled, though are offense let us down.

One other sports note- I mentioned in last week's post that I bowled on the JV team my sophomore year. Well, my junior year, I moved up to varsity and in fact bowled so well that I was selected to the All-Catholic second team. I'd be remiss if I did not mention that bowling was decidedly "uncool" at Canisius- it had the reputation of being a sport only for nerds. Students would make derisive jokes during morning announcements when results of the bowling team was conveyed. However, during my junior season, when I bowled particularly well and my name and scores were announced on the PA system, my classmates would say stuff like "all right, the kegler!" and "nice game Pete." Excuse me if this sounds overly boastful, but I like to think that I single-handedly changed the perception of bowling among my classmates because as the starting nose tackle on the varsity football team, I was definitely not some un-athletic nerd.

My favorite teacher junior year was Miss Koessler, the school's main Spanish teacher. She was a very effective instructor, she cared deeply about her students, and most memorably, she stepped out of the box occasionally. One day she brought authentic Spanish food for the students to taste and participate in some Spanish culture. I also vividly remember an assignment she gave the class, in which students were paired up and had to write and produce fake commercials speaking Spanish. She teamed up with the school's audio/visual director to lend us school video equipment so that we could film ourselves and assist in editing the videos. I teamed up with a friend named Vic, and one of the commercials we did was a hilarious one promoting bowling that we filmed in my parents' attic where I had plastic toy bowling pins set up. Vic recorded me throwing a strike and then I turned to the camera and excitedly shouted some phrase in Spanish about how fun bowling is or something goofy. I think we got an A for our effort and certainly plenty of laughs for the bowling video when it was shown during class.

Lastly, on this stroll down memory lane, was a major milestone and fantastic experience: my junior prom. I did not have a girlfriend to ask, in fact I was so painfully shy when it came to the opposite sex, not much of a problem on a daily basis since I attended an all-boys high school, that on the occasions when the football team's cheerleaders (most of whom belonged to CHS sister school Nardin Academy) hung out in the foyer, I walked past them in silence almost afraid to make eye contact with them- unusual behavior for a starter on the varsity team (many of the players went out with cheerleaders and I'm sure some of them were having sex). So when it was time to ask somebody to the prom, there was really only one girl to query. I had been friends with a girl named Angela for nearly two years- we met because my mother was friends with her mother- although we did not see each other often. She was very much a tomboy- in the half-dozen times I had been with her prior to the prom, she never wore make-up and dressed in very casual, non-sexy attire. We met for the first time at a family outing at Darien Lake Amusement Park and had unintentionally bumped into each other and hung out at a school dance, but neither of us cared to dance so we just talked. But on the night of the junior prom everything changed when I went to her parents' house and she came downstairs from her bedroom. She looked stunning- like a whole different person- when she came down those steps wearing her prom dress, make-up and hair done up nice. I was instantly smitten- and the best thing about it was that we were already friends. If she always looked like that I probably would have been too intimidated to talk to her.

My friends Todd and Carm and their dates met us at Angela's parents house with the limo that the three of us split and we all rode to CHS (unlike the senior prom, which was held offsite, the junior prom was staged inside the old gym/auditorium, under the sun, stars and other symbols still festooned on the ceiling from the long-ago masonic lodge days. Most of the prom was a blur except one moment stands out- Angela and I slow-dancing to Cheap Trick's "The Flame," which was then a huge, new hit song. Shortly afterward I was in the bathroom when one of my classmates spontaneously said, "Good going Pete- you have the prettiest date at the prom!" I sheepishly thanked him because I was surprised as anyone since I had never seen Angela like that before.

After the prom, the six of us piled into the limo again and we instructed the driver to take us to a house party thrown by somebody in the class. I honestly don't remember whose house it was, but there were kegs of beer. At that age I had never been drunk and I did not like the taste of beer, so in the roughly one hour we were there, I slowly nursed two small cups. We did not stay long, however, because we had made plans to drive up to Niagara Falls, walk by the cataracts, and stop for a late meal. After the trip to Niagara Falls, the limo driver drove us home. By a geographical fluke, Angela and I were the last two in the car. Exhausted after a long night of celebration, Angela fell asleep on the back seat. Being the perfect gentleman that my mom raised me to be, I did not try any funny business with her even though in her unconscious state I may have gotten away with it, instead I just silently admired her beauty and watched her sleep as if she was an angel come down from heaven. I woke her up when the driver arrived at her parents' house then rode home alone but now feeling like I was in love.

That summer we hung out quite a few times. I remember attending at least one of her softball games, spending some time in the basement of her parents' home where she played an electric bass guitar and taking her out to eat at the iconic Tonawanda water-front hot dog/ice cream stand Old Man Rivers. Perhaps the most memorable day I spent with her was at her parents' summer cottage at Allegany State Park. Their cottage was near a beach and the two of us walked to the lake to swim and lie in the sun. She wore a one-piece bathing suit and again I was stunned as she had a very attractive body, which she usually hid beneath baggy clothes. I truly felt like I was in love and a few times went in to kiss her on the lips, but she seemed utterly uncomfortable with getting physical.

Finally, lovestruck and not wanting to wait anymore to tell her how I felt for her, I called her one day on my lunch break (that summer I was working at an upscale Buffalo water-front restaurant where my uncle was the manager, tasked with sweeping the bar area, polishing the brass rails, separating empty beer bottles from a basement bin to recycle them, and mowing the grass on the front lawn and around the massive parking lot) to inform her that I loved her. I was not expecting her response- she immediately stated that she did not feel the same way towards me and that we should not see each other anymore. I was devastated for I thought she was everything I was looking for in a girl. She was smart, athletic, modest and naturally pretty without feeling the need to wear a lot of make-up or revealing clothes. Also precisely because we had a platonic relation-ship for two years before the prom, I was totally comfortable with her in a way I was not with other attractive girls. Her sudden break-up with me left me so crushed and heart-broken that I did not even try to have a romantic relationship with another girl for two years (and that was a long-distance affair with the best friend of my cousin's girlfriend, who eventually became his first wife, all three of them residing in Edmonton, Alberta, over 2,000 miles from Buffalo, and that relationship did not end well at all either).

I long wondered why my love for her went unrequited, why she had dumped me so abruptly. It pained me for a long time, but I finally got my answer many years later when I found out that Angela was indeed gay and that she had gotten married to another woman (for anyone reading this, don't suspect that I am "outing her" in any fashion- she has been very open about her sexual orientation, even appearing on the national cable reality show Long Island Medium, in which she asked the well-known medium, Theresa Caputo, to communicate with her deceased grandfather and inform him that she had gotten married to a woman- of course, whether you believe in Ms. Caputo's "powers" to interact with the dead or not, she told Angela that her grandfather was proud of her, which brought her much relief). Ahah! After all that time it finally made perfect sense. For so long I tortured myself asking why Angela did not love me the way that I loved her, why she was so uncomfortable when I kissed her on the lips, and why she so suddenly ended our relationship. I had always blamed myself- that I did something wrong, or just was not attractive enough, when I finally realized it truly was her not me. I needed to stop beating myself up thinking it was my fault when in reality there was nothing I did "wrong"- she just wasn't into me because she was not into any guy romantically. I can't express enough how much of a relief knowledge of Angela's orientation was to me. I could put to rest that I could have done anything differently to "save" our relationship, for there was nothing to save. I became happy for her that she had found her apparent soulmate, and for me I could at long last let her and our ill-fated relationship go. The only sad thing about our divergence now is that while she found a loving, supportive partner to share her life with, I never came close to finding mine.

#football #nosetackle #OldRockpile #OJSimpson #RichStadium #JimKelly #BruceSmith #AndreReed #ThurmanThomas #AllCatholic #juniorprom #NardinAcademy #tomboy #smitten #CanisiusHighSchool #CheapTrick #NiagaraFalls #OldManRivers #lovestruck #LongIslandMedium #AlleganyStatePark

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© 2017 by Peter McNeela.