Driving during rush hour, stuck in traffic, I noticed an advertisement written across the rear window of the rickety Ford Bronco in front of me. Written in uneven press-on letters, the ad urged kids to “Join Team Predator!” Below the text, two boys in silhouette had their muscular arms wrapped around each others heads as they engaged in a battle to the finish.
In middle school I was required to learn grappling as part of the physical education curriculum. Our coach for this manly sport was Mr Mancini, a middle-aged Italian Stallion whose chest hairs poked out over the collar of a tight tee shirt, similar to a rock album cover showing pubic hairs escaping a bikini. Mr Mancini wore cotton shorts that stuck to his body like bike tights, displaying his prominent bulge. If you sat on a bench in the locker room and Mr Mancini stood near you with one foot resting on the bench, the bulge was at eye level. It would sit there staring at you like a silent but intimidating enforcer in a mafia movie.
This was the scene as I begged Mr Mancini to let me out of wrestling. I didn’t want to wear that ridiculous one-piece outfit that made you look like the guy who didn’t make the cut in tryouts to join The Village People. I didn’t want to wear that headset with the chin guard that pulled against your mouth like a dog muzzle. I was a trumpet player who couldn’t afford to have an arm broken. I really didn’t want some aggressive, bigger kid rubbing against my butt like a farm animal in heat.
Mr Mancini looked down at me as I breathed through my mouth, trying to avoid his aftershave, which smelled like breath mints. His wide grin and calm aura were enhanced by the success of his big soccer-practice innovation -- a revolutionary bungee cord that was attached to a soccer ball on one end and affixed to a kid’s ankle at the other. The user could kick the ball and it would spring back, eliminating the need to go chasing after it. Basically, it was a rip off of the Pitch-And-Catch trampoline used by kids to practice their baseball skills. Mr Mancini sold a bunch of these low-tech wonders until kids suffered ankle injuries. At which point the product was recalled and Mr Mancini lost his dream of joining the entrepreneurial elite.
But that setback came later. Right now I was trapped with Mr Mancini during his yet-to-be-dashed ascent to glory.
“This will be good for you,” Mr Mancini said as he leaned in closer to reinforce his previous point that wrestling would “help make me tough.” His lumpy bulge swung slightly to the side, as if nodding in approval at the boss’s claim. Though, like me, it could also have been recoiling from the aftershave odor, which became stronger the closer Mr Mancini got.
I said nothing and looked away as Mr Mancini’s face creased with displeasure below his thick helmet of blow-dried hair. I gazed at his hair-blackened forearms: I didn’t want to be tough, and I didn’t want some guy who barely knew me trying to convince me that fighting was good for me. Being tough certainly didn’t help that kid in our school who always wore all black, was constantly getting into fights, and as a result had no friends.
“Get dressed,” he said, “I’ll see you out on the mats.”
Two dread-filled minutes later I emerged from the locker room with a small bulge of my own. My stretchy, one piece suit clung to my body like a skin graft gone wrong. For a kid who didn’t wear underwear, the polyester suit was pure hell.
Mr Mancini stood on a red rubber mat in the center of the gym. He was lording over a group of six normal-sized kids and Billy, an early-adopter of weightlifting who was rumored to have been held back a year. Mr Mancini clapped his hands and the regular kids spread out across the mat. Billy stayed in place.
Mr Mancini looked at me. “Tom, you’re with Billy.”
I froze for a moment and looked at the emergency exit door in the corner of the gym. I could sprint past Mr Mancini and race home to safety, but I’d just be hauled back in here again tomorrow. So I lowered my head and walked up to Billy like a death row inmate meeting his executioner.
“What position do you want?” he said in a deep voice.
I looked up at Billy and saw a mop of curly, black hair that covered his forehead and hung down the side of his head like a dachshund’s ears. His black eyes were cold and dull and his shoulders were thick. If you dressed him in a goat-skin outfit, Billy would have made a convincing caveman. I didn’t stand a chance and knew I needed an unorthodox plan to handle the approaching melee.
“Doesn’t matter,” I replied, a plan forming in my mind, “I’ll take the bottom first.”
I dropped down onto all fours and felt the cool rubber press against my knees and palms. I stared past Mr Mancini at the wooden bleachers folded up against the wall. Billy dropped down behind me. He pressed up against my butt, reached under my stomach, and put a sweaty hand on my ribs. With his other hand he gripped my right elbow tightly.
I turned my head and said, “Promise you’ll respect me in the morning.”
Billy didn’t say a thing.
Mr Mancini stood with his hands on his hips and his chest thrust outward as he looked around the room like a Roman Emperor surveying a crop of third-rate gladiators. Clapping his hands, he shouted, “Ready, set, start!”
Billy yanked upward on my chest and shoved my arm inward, expecting resistance. None came. I went limp and crumpled to the mat. Billy grunted, reached under my shoulder, and flipped me onto my back. Then he threw his body over my torso like a war hero protecting his buddy from sniper fire. His armpit dug into my chin, pressing my head back into the mat. I lay perfectly still and stared at the metal rafters under the roof, waiting for the idiocy to end.
Mr Mancini marched over as Billy released his grip and said “this is bullshit.” He groaned and then rolled off me. Behind Mr Mancini the other kids ground and tussled, pulling on each others arms and legs, attempting to win glory. Some kid yelled as his limb bent unnaturally, a reassuring affirmation of my choice to stick with non-violent resistance.
Mr Mancini stopped an inch away from my head and leaned down as I lay perfectly still. His gold chain arced down toward me, daring me to reach up and rip it off, reducing his net worth by $5.99. His thick eyebrows scrunched down and his lips pressed together.
“You’re not even trying!”
“Yup”, I replied, “And that’s how it’s gonna be until you let me outta this.”
We locked eyes for a moment before Mr Mancini lurched back up. Hands on his hips, he looked off into the distance, shaking his head like a disappointed father in a made-for-television movie. Exhaling loudly, he glared down at me.
“Okay fine,” he said, “Just go.”
I rose up off the mat and headed toward the locker room, taking with me a valuable lesson about never giving controlling people what they want. Keep refusing their self-serving sales pitches, and they’ll eventually have to stop pushing. So maybe I was wrong about Mr Mancini. He turned out to be a pretty good coach after all, helping me to become tough in a way I doubt he ever could have understood.
published 24 September 2011