I looked at his bloody hands and wondered why he bothered to tape them in the first place. The stripping wrapped around his knuckles like a boxer, snaking its way through his fingers. It climbed over the back of his ruddy skin and finished around his hairy wrists, a brace for the many blows he had given.
The man-made wrap showed the brutality of the game he held in such high regard. A chaotic mix of blood, grass and dirt covered the synthetic white of the tape. The contrast was beautiful and I wondered why these shredded strands of tape and skin made me feel so violent and why I wanted his game to be my game.
Maybe it was the non-filtered Camel smoldering between his fingers.
Where I came from, people who smoked cigarettes were the same people that bloodied faces. People that inhaled smoke, blew it through their nostrils and asked “what are you lookin’ at?” were the same people that threw jack-hammer fists on Saturday nights without fear of getting hit themselves.
Whatever it was that made me want to pick up a club and charge across an open field and sport bloody hands like his, I knew it came from the land of things unseen – a place where hopes and dreams remained untouched by human frailty. The place that only exists in the minds of children before the failures and setbacks of life push it from them.
Standing in the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room – surrounded by legends, observing one of the game’s most ferocious warriors – made me feel like I was back in the fourth-grade. Although I was 17-years old at the time, I saw this man through child-like eyes and my imagination took me back to a time filled with night-walks, tree forts and sleepover stories about people that smoked cigarettes between calloused knuckles in smoke filled bars.
My mother called them “bad men” but I didn’t think they were so bad. There was something incredible about a man that walked through life tethered to nothing. Right or wrong, a man that stood on his own two-feet and dared you to make him step back was formidable. But what fascinated me most about bad men, the thing that made me stare in disbelief, was their complete and absolute lack of the one human emotion no ten-year-old could ever get his hands around: fear.
Bad men didn’t curl behind their blankets thinking a beast was in the closet, waiting for you to sleep so they could feast on your bones. Nothing made them cover their window with a t-shirt on a moon-lit night, trying to keep Tree-Man from surveying your resting flesh. And the unknown was nothing more than a foe that had not yet been fed a straight-right-hand. Bad men didn’t worry about child-eating beasts. The closet was their playground. Sharp teeth were meant to be shattered, claws were nothing more than the price one paid while shattering and the dark merely fueled their rage, wanting to look the beast in the eye. Bad men were never afraid and how bad could that be?
The man dominating the room raised the stub to his lips, took a drag, slowly let the smoke drift from his lungs and spit a rogue piece of tobacco between his missing front-teeth. I wondered what it was like to smoke a bloody cigarette after doing battle on the gridiron. It had to be painful, running wind-sprints in a burning building, rock-climbing in a smokestack or fighting a man twice your size in a smoky bar.
Painful or not, I was sure this haggard, grimacing face belonged to a bad man and his badness embraced the game of football like mother on child.
The locker room was busy. Players were stripping down, throwing their jersey’s and pants into an expanding pile in the middle of the room while bagging their undergarments. Chatter was contagious, passing through the stalls like dominoes. Victory covered missed assignments and faded physical beatings, allowing the guilty to laugh at their hardships and mock their misfortune. Badgering teammates needled each other, a smiling sign of acceptance, and then applauded their own skills in the same sentence.
Winning covers a multitude of sins and I smiled myself, drinking in the joy of spilling oneself in a worthy cause and discovering that this sacrifice was good enough to smile, to needle, to forget and forgive.
A musty smell, laced with analgesic, filled my nostrils like the joyful voices did my ears. My eyes went back to the man that had captured my imagination, the bad man, the man that had little regard for shredded hands and bloody cigarettes.
As I watched his mood I noticed he refused to engage in much of anything around him. He didn’t smile or laugh at the chatter. His domino remained upright, oblivious to the post-game machinations embraced by his teammates, oblivious to victory.
Although his shoulder pads were off, hanging in his locker along with his helmet, his pants were still on and he wasn’t in a hurry to join in the business of leaving. A white towel hung around his neck and his hair hung in great, sweaty clumps plastered to his forehead. The intensity in his eyes, staring at a stain not five-feet in front of him, gave me Goosebumps. His brooding stood in stark contrast to the others; he was the black stripe of a yellow-gold team.
I hoped his eyes wouldn’t turn on me and catch me looking at him. I was sure I’d turn to stone and I kept my flickering lids in check, making sure my posture never squared up to his. I tried to focus on some of the other greats, tried to listen to their chatter, tried to do anything but look at the bad man. But it didn’t work. I was ten again and felt like climbing out of the tree-fort to go on a night-walk with my greaser friends.
Suddenly, with the boldness of a child, I turned to my brother, Craig, and told him I was going to introduce myself to his smoky teammate. Craig, whom had been drafted by the Steelers that April, was cutting tape from his shoes and I thought I’d inadvertently clear my intentions with a “grown up” statement.
To reinforce that I was not asking his permission, with a deep breath, I started to move away from my brother’s locker. I took a step and felt a hand wrap around my wrist with a firmness that surprised me. I turned and saw Craig shaking his head back and forth.
“Ronnie,” he said, “do you see those two thirty-two ounce cups above his locker?”
I turned back and saw the plastic mugs over the bad man’s locker, condensation dripping down their sides. “Yeah.”
“He doesn’t talk to anyone until those beers are gone.”
“Really?” I said, thinking it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. “He doesn’t talk to anyone?”
“Nobody,” said Craig.
“You’re allowed to drink beer in here?”
Craig smiled and let his grasp relax. “This is the NFL, Ronnie. The tub is right over there.”
“No way,” I said, letting the words out slowly, wondering what my high school coach would say about smoking, drinking and football.
Craig stripped down, tossed his silks into the mound and grabbed a towel. He looked at me while wrapping the towel around his waist. “Sit on my stool and don’t go anywhere, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Craig, this is one of the best days of my life.”
He looked at me with a protective love only an older brother can muster and winked. “Mine too.”
I sat down and shook my head, feeling more comfortable, feeling like I belonged. I was the brother of Craig Wolfley and his brothers were allowed to come into the locker room and sit on their older brother’s stool. I was the brother of the team’s starting left-guard and even Chuck Knoll wouldn’t ask me to leave. Even though it was my first time in the Steelers locker room, I was allowed to listen to the chatter, witness the camaraderie of the best team in football and know that they drank beer in the locker room and smoked unfiltered cigarettes.
The thought of cigarettes snapped me from my euphoria and my eyes looked toward the bad man. His eyes were no longer fixed on a stain but had now settled on me. Although he was 30-feet or more from my brother’s locker, his gaze felt heavy. I suddenly looked away, feeling like a mouse that had just been spotted by a great and terrible bird. My thoughts became erratic and my heart started pounding. I wished I was a mouse so I might scramble down a hole.
But I was Craig Wolfley’s brother and I belonged here; he said it was fine if I came into the locker room after the game. My brother said it was okay. He would never put me in a situation that would hurt me or jeopardize my well being – and there were others. There were other brothers sitting on stools, laughing at the chatter. Some even shook hands with legends and called them by name. Some ran through the crowded room with little regard for bad men, bloody Camels or thirty-two ounce beers. I was in the right place and Craig said it was okay. This thought gave me comfort, comfort and strength, and I dared to belong.
I flicked my eyes back toward the bad man under a furrowed brow. A cloud of Turkish tobacco hung around him. This sideways glance was nothing more than a blink but the image was burned on my soul for as long as I walk this earth: smoke, bloody hands and dark eyes focused on me. I had become the stain.
Fear rushed over me and I wanted to run. Brother or not, the others knew some rule of protocol that Craig had failed to tell me. I had dared to look at the beast, dared to notice his mood, dared to watch his ritual and now I would pay the price for my boldness.
What made a man, even a bad man, terrorize his teammate’s brother? What awful force of rage made a man focus on stains and brothers, looking through them, forcing them to carry his heavy burden? What kind of monster refused to join in victory’s chatter and forbid others to speak to him until he had finished sixty-four ounces of Iron City beer?
I lowered my eyes, waiting for his accusations, rubbing my hands, wondering what kind of shower Craig was taking. Every second that passed was excruciating. The weight of his attention was breaking me down and panic welled in my lungs.
“You Craig’s brother?”
I froze, unable to breathe.
The voice was low and gritty, like the words were filtered by gravel. I heard this man interviewed a thousand times and there was no mistaking his voice. The bad man was about to show me what happened to little boys that dared to belong in places they didn’t.
“You Craig’s brother?” he growled, dumping more gravel from his throat.
“He…yes,” I said in a quiet voice, barely looking up.
“He’s a tough player, good guy” he said, rising from his stool.
I turned at his rising, convinced he wasn’t going to attack me after all. Not even bad men complimented your brother and then drove you into the ground for merely breaking protocol. “He’s my brother.”
A faint smile creased his lips as he walked toward me, holding the last twenty-four ounces in his left-hand. “Name’s Jack, Jack Lambert.”
My mouth dropped and a new kind of fear washed over me as he held out his right-hand. I shot upright and embraced his shredded knuckles without reservation, trying to be pleasant while maintaining some adolescent dignity. “Ron Wolfley,” I said, terrified of saying something wrong.
“Glad to know ya,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be seein’ ya around.”
I nodded, thankful the encounter was over, grateful I only had to say my name.
He turned and walked back to his locker, pouring down the last of his Iron City beer. He placed the empty mug on the shelf in his locker, sat back down on his stool and started another cigarette.
It was done. I had survived.
I sat on Craig’s stool and started to look around at my surroundings, my burden now melted. Although I had been in many locker rooms before, I was seeing this one for the first time, seeing this one through the eyes of the accepted. Mr. Lambert had shook my hand, said he was ‘glad to know me;’ I told him my name and he didn’t tell me to leave!
I smiled at legends, laughed at their chatter and reveled in their victory. I stood, walked, fumbled through Craig’s locker, kicked errant jerseys and pants toward the mound, helped myself to a Gatorade and no longer cared what was taking Craig so long.
I didn’t want to leave that place. It was where I belonged. It was what I wanted. To play like Mr. Lambert played, to throw myself into the unknown, to laugh at Tree-Man, to not care if my hands were bloody, to leave sweaty clumps of hair on my forehead, to not have front-teeth, to be filled with intensity, to feed my aggression, to embrace the hand of a teammate’s brother and make him feel welcomed. These were the things of kings and no profession on earth could be so right.
My mother only had it half-right. Bad men did exist and they did smoke cigarettes and bloody people’s faces. But there was also a place where their badness became goodness, a place where the wretched walked, played and delivered body blows in front of an approving throng. This place welcomed bad men. And best of all, this place allowed them to leave that badness between white lines.