There’s a gash under my left eye, my right thumb throbs like a son-of-a-bitch, and I keep seeing stars. My whole body hurts. I have a red beard—if you can call it that—after a week of uneven growth. On the plane ride home from Florida to Boston, people look at me like I’m some kind of pirate and wonder where the patch is for my battered eye. After all, at 45, I’m too old for this.
I’m thinking back to my college days as a Division III rower. I was a determined, if not great, athlete. Will, our coach, used punishing winter training regimens to build boats capable of beating superior crews on sheer grit and determination. We cut lengths of old pipe, painted them black, and sank one end in industrial-sized tomato soup cans, which we had salvaged from the dining hall and filled with cement. Once it had set properly, we turned it over and sank the other end into another soup can filled with cement to create a device we affectionately titled a “bear bar.” On cold winter days, 30 guys would pile into a dormitory lounge, move the couches out of the way, get out the bars, and crank up the Rolling Stones full blast.
Will, in cowboy boots, sporting a thick beard and chewing tobacco, presided over the afternoon ritual with a sickening delight. He established two simple rules: “The bar never touches the ground” and “It ain’t over till I say so.” We did a rotation of exercises, fifty seconds on and then ten seconds off—just enough time to prepare for the next set. A deep squat to a military press was followed by a triceps curl with the bar behind the head, a lat pull to the eyeballs, and a jumping lunge with the bar overhead, getting up high enough in the air to switch legs forward and backward simultaneously, ideally without crashing over sideways.
Fifteen minutes in, steam would start to rise off our bodies. A half an hour and some guys would begin to falter. Will encouraged us to get in pairs, staring into each other’s eyes for strength. During particularly grueling workouts, he’d get a bar himself and start doing lunges in his blue jeans, his piercing blue eyes jumping out of his head as if he were possessed. When he’d finally call practice, bodies would drop to the ground like they’d been shot.
On Saturdays we’d escape the bear bar and head for the cemetery on the edge of campus. The road through the old gravestones wound about, flattening out in a false peak, only to reveal its steepest section just before we reached the top. Will would sit at the top of the hill, perched on the back of his pickup truck with a clipboard in his hand, spitting tobacco juice and keeping score.
One Saturday, I had a memorable exchange with a younger teammate. Snow from a recent storm was piled high on either side of the road. The day was crisp and clear and the sun shone brightly. The bitter cold had turned patches of damp pavement into glare ice, making the final uphill stretch particularly treacherous as lactic acid and oxygen debt locked our muscles in place, requiring keen mental focus to command our legs and arms to keep pumping.
I knew that Jon had been out late the night before, but I still expected him to excel at the hills since he was the best runner on the team, often beating me at the long runs, which were my specialty. We battled out the first couple of hills, snorting on the way up and swearing at the searing pain upon reaching the top, only to blow off steam and mentally reset for the next one. Then I noticed that he would stay with me for one hill and even as I sprinted up the next repetition, he would lag way behind. He was working hard on every other piece; taking a break while the rest of us pushed through the lactic acid build-up. As the captain of the team, I was trying to reinforce the coach’s demand for consistency of effort and it started to gall me that Jon appeared to be dogging it; I was busting my ass on each repetition and he should have been too. On the next hill I finished first. As I came down, I saw him bringing up the rear of our group.
“What the hell are you doing?” I barked in his face, pushing him into a snowbank as he tried to complete the hill. He came up swinging, landing a couple of crisp shots to my jaw before our friends separated us.
Up on the top of the hill, Will smiled from the back of his pickup truck. He later told me about the Olympic gold medal crew that had reached the dock after victory and broken out in a brawl. The process of developing underlying trust as a team involved spilling your guts along the way, even showing raw emotion. He had made clear from the very beginning that the whole process upon which we had embarked was certainly about rowing, but was really about a lot more.
Will liked to say that he was really an educator and an artist who happened to choose boats, oars, and men as his medium. The measure of his success was how well our crew rowed; but he firmly believed that excellence on the water had less to do with technique and strength and more to do with the development of the soul. We worked hard, not so much to condition our bodies—though that was a necessary part of it—but to condition our minds. The payoff was that this development of the mind could be applied to any situation in life later on, whether on or off the water. To Will’s way of thinking, the fight on the hill was a sign of progress—a sign of growing faith in one another.
More than two decades later, there was something in the baboon part of my brain, and in the very fibers of my muscles, that remembered Cemetery Hill. There was no conscious thought, no plan, no discussion. It just happened. Now, at 45, there’s only one person who could suck me into an all-out war.
Wedged into my seat on my way back to Boston, I try to figure out how I ended up with a welt on my face and a nearly broken thumb. Then it comes back to me. I had jammed my thumb badly diving for a loose ball. Then I had gone up hard for a rebound and had gotten an elbow in the face, opening a gash on my cheek. I must have screamed instinctively, though I have no memory of doing so, because two guys playing tennis nearby ran over to see what had happened. The vision in my left eye remained blurry even after I got back up. Seamus had offered to call the game off. I was determined to continue. But the stakes of this match had just increased significantly.
Seamus and I had played one-on-one basketball all over the country for years.
In Laguna Beach a whale had breached just a few feet off the shore during one of our first battles. We’d played in Boston, Maine, New Jersey, and New York. I think we had even played somewhere near Yellowstone just after seeing our first moose. But the games in Florida had taken on a whole new color and texture; this wasn’t just for fun anymore. This was somehow more important, more primitive, with far higher stakes.
Halfway through the first game in Key Biscayne, I felt sure that I was going to have a heart attack. But as I peeled off my sweat-soaked shirt, I realized that I would have to pace myself. My strategy was to pick my spots—look for a momentary lull in the defense, and go kamikaze through that opening before returning to my slumped-over, hands-on-knees defensive posture. The court was slick after a tropical shower, making the ball heavy and footing tricky.
Over time we had agreed to complex rules of engagement: two-out-of-three games to 15 by two points and the loser’s out; use of profanity is a one-point deduction (which unfortunately had cost me more points than I care to think about); shots made from behind the arc are worth three if you are down by six, otherwise they are worth two; I get one time-out per game (which I spend generally lying on my back with a shirt over my eyes). I still have four inches and 50 pounds on my opponent, so my strategy is to always go inside as hard as I can. I am way too right-handed, so over time I have developed a behind-the-back move to my left. I still can’t shoot lefty but if I get a good enough position going left, I can get the ball to the rack. I’ve been working on a pull-up jumper and reverse layup to the left as well. I have him worried enough about it that once in a while I can glance left and burst right for an easy bucket.
At my age, I didn’t have the legs to win a three-game match; I had to win in two or it was lights out for the old man; so I’d always work hard to win the first game and then settle in for a slugfest in game two. Those second game scores had typically been 21–19, 18–16, 24–22. If the score was tied late, I’d launch balls from behind the arc. More often than not, pure desperation provided the motivation to deliver the dagger shot.
The end came after I had won the first game 15–13 on a couple of hard drives right. I was actually ahead in the second game, moving to the hoop with relative ease. Seamus pushed me in the back once, and then a second time, as I tried to make my layups.
“Don’t do that again,” I warned my 13-year-old son, a torrent of sweat running down the small of my back; his poor sportsmanship a new development, like the unfamiliar deep sound of his voice in our back hall when he yelled to announce his arrival home from school.
The next time I got the ball, I set up sideways with my left shoulder forward, dribbling the ball low to the ground in a posture faintly reminiscent of Magic, a player I am not even sure Seamus would recognize at his peak. I glanced left and went right, finding a clear path ahead.
Another push in the back.
I waited until Seamus had the ball. He has a better shot than I, with ten times the energy—but he still seemed afraid of his old man. He still doesn’t quite know what it means to play hard. Really hard. When it counts.
I let him go past. As he approached the basket and jumped for his layup, I pushed him. Hard. Maybe a little too hard. He landed on his back and I heard the crunch of shorts and sneakers hitting the ground and then the riiiip of flesh scraping against the pavement.
He bounced up with rage in his eyes. Indignant. If I were anyone else he would have punched me in the nose. But he didn’t. He looked down and muttered to himself, then called the foul and took the ball.
From there it was like skiing downhill—over quickly. I was unable to score another basket in game two, despite all those bear bars and years of running up and down courts. My son had realized that he was just better than his dad.
Game three was closer. I got a little run going with two short-range jumpers. But then, instead of hanging back on defense and letting me dictate my offense to him, he realized that he had the ability to cover me close on the outside, shadowing my every move, in a way that prevented me from getting a decent shot off. My guile had lost its power. He had found a different gear. I couldn’t keep up.
At 14-6, he grabbed a rebound, sprinted to take the ball back, and pulled up to shoot. I didn’t have the legs to get out and contest his shot. The net snapped with authority. My run was over. I sat by the edge of the court with my shirt over my eyes, sucking down the last drips of my water bottle.
On the walk home we didn’t talk. Finally, he noted that I should expect to get older and fatter every day for the rest of my life while he expected to get taller and stronger.
I heard him tell people that he had not only beat his dad but had beat him up. It made me smile, even though it made my face hurt, to hear my boy swagger. It reminded me of winning rowing race after rowing race—events so insignificant to the rest of the world that they wouldn’t even make the local paper—and how my friend Jon, the one with whom I had done battle on Cemetery Hill, had become my most loyal supporter. Jon knew what winning had cost us both. And now, so too, did Seamus. That night, I fell asleep with a renewed love for my coach, my friend, and my son.
Tom Matlack is a writer living and working in Boston. In 2008, he founded The Good Men Project, and has since appeared frequently on television and radio across the country. His essays and stories have been published in Boston Globe Magazine, Yale, Boston Magazine, Penthouse, Wesleyan, Boston Common, Tango, and Pop Matters. He is the former CFO of The Providence Journal.