Fireplug and Dad

Fireplug and Dad

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Be The Best You Can Be

Fireplug and Dad

Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one.

~Lauren Raffo

I used to play football when I was a little kid. Okay, let’s face it. I was never really a little kid. I was always chunky, hefty, short for my age, pudgy, stout, tubby, round, robust, portly. You get the picture.

In fact, I was so big that I got to play football a whole year ahead of my friends. Our Mighty Mites football league didn’t have an age limit, it had a weight requirement. If you were heavy enough, you got to play. I was heavy enough at eight years old.

The only problem was, by the time I turned eleven I was too heavy. You had to weigh a certain amount to start playing, and if you weighed too much they made you stop.

Not playing would have been just fine with me. I would have been happier sitting at home reading a book.

But Dad was one of the team’s big sponsors and friends with the coach, so I figured quitting wasn’t an option. I went, day after day, week after week, and year after year… until I was eleven and weighed more than two hundred pounds. I thought that would be the end of it, once and for all. And, in a way, it was.

To make sure each kid was under the official weight limit every Saturday, the referees lugged doctor’s scales around with them to every game. All of the “chunky” kids had the honor of joining the referees before each game to weigh in.

If the scales tipped past two hundred, off went the unlucky player’s cleats. Then the helmet and the shoulder pads. Sometimes the jersey and the pants, and even the undershirt and the socks! Coach knew I was heading for trouble the day I had to step out of my underwear just to make weight. So he came up with a bright idea. The very next practice he presented me with a T-shirt made out of a black garbage bag.

“Put it on,” he grunted, pointing out the ragged holes for my head and arms. “Start running around the practice field and don’t stop until I say so.”

I’d wave at him questioningly after every single lap, while my teammates sat on their helmets and talked — in between laughing and pointing at me, that is.

“Keep going, Fireplug,” Coach would grunt around the mushy cigar in his mouth. “Fireplug” was the nickname he had given me. Although no one ever explained it to me, I figured it had something to do with me being shaped like a fire hydrant.

Every day at practice, I had to run laps in that stupid garbage bag. I’d hear it crinkling beneath my underarms as I stumbled through the stickers and weeds lap after lap. My short, stocky legs weren’t exactly graceful, and often I’d trip or fall. The other players would laugh, but not as loudly as Coach.

I used to sit in class toward the end of each school day and dream up excuses why I couldn’t go to practice. Nothing worked, and so there I’d be, stumbling around the practice field with the sound of my plastic shirt drowning out my ragged breathing.

When the garbage bag T-shirt didn’t exactly work wonders, Coach arranged for me to use the sauna at one of the local high-rise condominiums.

I rode my bike there the next Saturday. Coach handed me my garbage bag T-shirt and wedged me into a cedar-lined closet with two benches and a red metal shelf full of glowing hot rocks. He poured water on the rocks to build up the steam, and then shut the door on me with a wicked smile.

Outside the little porthole window, I could see him chomping on glazed donuts and sipping a cup of coffee. My stomach roared. Since it was a game day, I hadn’t eaten since dinner the night before. Nor would I be eating again until after the weigh-in, when, as usual, I would be too weak to do anything much but sit there and pant until Coach shoved me full of candy bars from the concession stand so I could play ball again.

I sat there swimming in sweat and wondering how long this could go on. I’d been trying my best to lose weight ever since I was ten years old. I brought a bag lunch to school and skipped breakfast, but nothing seemed to work. I tried to be strong, tried to be brave, but there I still was… teetering on the brink of two hundred pounds and hoping to make it through yet another weigh-in.

Periodically, Coach would pop his bullet-shaped head into the steamy room to see if I was still alive.

I sat there dripping in sweat and realized something was very wrong with this picture. It was Saturday morning, and there I was, sitting in a sweatbox while the rest of the team chomped on Frosted Flakes and watched cartoons. They were still in their pajamas, while there I was in a garbage bag sweat suit! Why?

Was I being punished for something? Wasn’t the running, sweating, hunger and pain enough? What more did they want? I suddenly realized that I’d been knocking myself out for something I didn’t even want to do in the first place! It was then that I decided that I didn’t have to do it anymore.

My heart fluttered and my stomach flip-flopped, but I finally stood up on wobbly legs and walked out of the sauna. At the time, it didn’t exactly seem brave. It just seemed right. It made sense. I had finally realized that there was no law in the world that said I had to keep knocking myself out just so Coach would have another strong player and my Dad could have extra bragging rights!

“Did I say you could get out of there?” Coach bellowed when he returned from the pool deck a few minutes later and saw me sipping on a cup of water and enjoying one of his glazed donuts.

I shook my head, but Coach was waiting for an answer. So I told him.

“I quit,” I said in a shaky voice that had nothing to do with heat stroke.

“You quit?” he fairly laughed, looming over me. “You can’t quit. What would your dad think? Don’t you want him to be proud of you anymore?”

But that was just it. If my Dad couldn’t be proud of me for just being me, then what was the point? I was a good kid. I stayed out of trouble, made good grades and even made him a Father’s Day card every year. Did I have to torture myself, too?

I shook my head and told Coach it was over. All of it. I wasn’t going to starve myself anymore. I wasn’t going to make myself try to throw up anymore, or run around the practice field in a garbage bag dress while the rest of the team pointed and laughed.

That was when he called my dad. But it didn’t matter to me anymore. I had finally made up my mind. It was time to be proud of myself for a change, no matter what anyone else thought.

After Coach had explained the situation to my dad, he grunted and handed me the phone. Although my hands were shaking, I was glad I wasn’t doing this face-to-face!

“Son,” my dad said quietly. “Is what Coach said true?”

“Yes,” I whispered into the phone.

“You don’t want to play football anymore?” he asked simply.

“I never did,” I gasped. Well, if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right.

Dad’s laughter surprised me. “Then why did you go through with all of those shenanigans?” he asked. “I thought you wanted to be the next big football star!”

I hung up the phone and headed for my bike. Coach just stood there fuming as I pedaled away.

I started carrying myself differently after that. Respecting myself more. I grew a little, shaped up, learned a lot, and eventually, the name Fireplug just seemed to fade with time.

Except for one night, that is. My family and I were waiting for a table in a local restaurant when Coach sauntered in. He greeted my Dad rather coolly and then eyed me with open disdain. “What’s the word, Fireplug?” he asked.

Dad looked at me for an instant, and then he finally corrected Coach. “You meant ‘Rusty,’ right, Coach?”

Coach grumbled something through the mushy cigar in his mouth, but it didn’t matter. Our table was ready and Dad kept his hand on my shoulder the whole way there.

And no one ever called me Fireplug again.

~Rusty Fischer

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