Recently my twelve-year-old son, Darius, matter-of-factly informed me that he was playing football in the fall.
“No, you aren’t,” I said.
“But, Dad, I’ve already signed up at school. Hunter’s playing.”
I told him I didn’t care what his friend Hunter was doing: “You’ve got a good brain, and I’m not letting you mess it up.” I explained what a concussion was and how no helmet can protect against it; how I’d had four concussions playing football and didn’t remember any of those games or practices; how I still got headaches and lost sleep at night and forgot the names of my students and colleagues. “Is that what you want for yourself?”
Darius wasn’t convinced. For two weeks we pushed against each other. My wife, Rachael, even began to take his side, insisting he would only resent me. “You can’t stop him,” she said.
“Watch me,” I replied.
Fortunately Hunter didn’t end up playing after all, and Darius let the matter drop. I was satisfied with how I’d handled the situation. Maybe I’d instilled in my son a healthy fear of brain damage.
But what I never said was that my reservations were not just about the injuries. I also worried what football might teach him about what it means to be a man.
When Darius was little, he would shout, “Tell it again!” from the back seat, asking for his favorite story about me, one of the few from my childhood that I ever thought to share with him. Sometimes I would add a detail or two, but it was basically the same each time I told it:
One day on the schoolyard in middle school, when the other kids began to disappear into the building after phys-ed class, two bullies who had taunted me all year, John and Alan, blocked my way. Mr. Holt, the ex-military PE teacher, gave us a long look, sighed, and let the school door click shut behind him with the finality of death — my death. I was alone except for my friend Eric, who trudged toward me looking terrified, his hands deep in the pockets of an oversized blue sweat shirt. He said nothing, just took his place two feet behind me, like a second in a duel.
John pushed my shoulder and looked over at Alan with a smile. I was chubby and shy and plagued with zits but had good balance and was quick when scared — and right then I was scared.
I swung first. It was more of a spasm than a punch, ending with the crack of cartilage and blood dripping through John’s trembling hands. So much blood.
Sometimes, after I’d finished the story, Darius would ask me to demonstrate how I’d hit John. I’d act out a stiff-armed windmill punch, and he would laugh in surprise that such a blow could ever land, and also that I’d once been the pudgy nerd, the outcast. Today I’m still built like the defensive end I was in college. But the truth is, I am all bluff. I have thrown two punches in my life, and that was one of them.
The point of my story was mostly lost on my son: how afraid I was; how I felt I didn’t have a choice, unlike Eric, who stood by me willingly, driven by some loyalty I did not deserve.
Whenever I start to think that we humans are motivated more by fear and anger than by love, I think of Eric, who had my back against two much larger foes. After the punch he put his arm around my back and said, “Holy shit, Joel, what the hell was that?”
My father, Joel B. Peckham Sr., was a three-sport athlete in high school and an all-American baseball player in college. In the Massachusetts town where I grew up and where he coached baseball, people either loved or hated him — sometimes both. Carved into the metal stalls of the school bathrooms, amid the phone numbers of girls who would do things and the names of boys who wanted such things done to them, were angry invectives like “Coach Peckham sucks!” and “Fuck Joel Peckham!” I loved my father, but I got it. This was in the 1980s, when our tough-guy movie heroes were Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson; my father was old-school tough, with a value system lifted from the black-and-white westerns of the 1950s. He had no patience for those who chose to do wrong when the right choice was clear. He didn’t seem to care much whether people liked him. (He once told me, “If everybody likes you, you probably have no character.”) In addition to being a high-school guidance counselor and baseball coach, he assisted the football and JV basketball coaches, and when those teams didn’t win, anonymous letters would come to the school saying my dad should take over coaching them. It sometimes hurt his friendships.
In most childhood memories I have of my father, he is stalking the sideline of a football field or brooding in a dugout, his ice-blue eyes staring from beneath the brim of a baseball cap pulled low across his brow. When a player commits an error or an official makes a bad call, he shouts, “God damn it, Jesus Christ, what the hell is wrong with you?” Or he is standing on the pitcher’s mound, flannel sleeves pushed up, flinging baseballs by me in the early-April cold. “Eye on the ball. You can’t hit what you can’t see. Come on, stay in there. I’ll only hit you if I want to.” Or he is standing above me in late autumn during a football drill. I am lying on my back on the dewy grass in my shoulder pads, helmet, and football pants. My hands grip the earth beneath me. I can feel another boy’s helmet touching mine, can hear him breathing. I can see the gray sky through the grid of my face mask. When the whistle blows, I will have to scramble to my feet and beat my opponent to the man with the ball. I hear my father’s voice, starting low: “Down.” Then a bit louder: “Set.” In that brief pause before the whistle, I think how much I hate football. I want to get up and walk away, leaving my uniform and pads in a trail behind me as I stride toward the chain-link fence and slam the gate with a satisfying clank.
I played football in youth leagues, high school, and college, and before each game I would throw up in the locker room. It was my ritual, standing over the commode in full uniform, helmet tucked beneath my left arm, right hand gripping the top of the stall. It wasn’t that I was a bad player. I was undersized for a lineman but fast, with what a coach might call a “good motor.” I started on both offense and defense in high school and was a captain in my senior year, making the all-star team that season. But part of what made me good was terror. I wasn’t afraid of getting hurt; I was afraid of failing — failing my father, certainly, but also myself, because I had absorbed his expectations. In that pause between set and hike I could feel the adrenaline spidering along my spine and fanning out across my shoulder blades: fight or flight. And flight was not an option for Joel Peckham’s son.
To his credit my father was not self-consciously macho. A trained guidance counselor who read poetry and had once driven a VW bus with an enormous sunflower decal on the side, he never seemed to need to prove his manhood. Though he could be brutally harsh with his players, I can’t remember him ever emasculating them. Unlike my other coaches, he wouldn’t tell a boy that he threw or hit “like a girl,” never called anyone a “pussy” or a “homo” or a “fag.” My sisters were expected to display the same level of toughness and intensity that I was. In some ways, though, this only made life harder for me. There were no shortcuts with my father. While other boys could prove their manhood by hitting the gym or lying about their sexual escapades or telling dirty jokes in the locker room or ruining someone’s dental work in the visitors’ parking lot, I had to live up to a more complex standard — one that involved both power and restraint. It wasn’t about being a man; it was about being a Peckham. Our father had the same expectations for himself that he did for us.
My best friend, Neil, loved to impersonate my dad — the tilt of his head when he talked; the way he kicked the infield dirt when he was angry; his heavy Boston accent: “Jeeeeeesus, Joel, what the hell ah yah doin’?” I laughed at Neil’s impression, but uncomfortably. Though I told everyone that I was nothing like my father, I secretly enjoyed being his son. There were worse things than being the only male heir of a man whom everyone feared or admired. I also knew that Dad was both much more and much less than everyone thought he was: riddled with insecurity, afraid of failure, requiring affirmation to solidify his place in the world.
I watch football on television. I love the drama, the strategy, the tension. There is beauty and grace and, yes, violence. I watch alone or with friends, drinking beer and eating junk food. The spectacle is mesmerizing, entertaining, sometimes even artful. Though most of the time I hated playing the game, there were moments when I enjoyed it. I still remember the thrill of contact, the pleasure of knocking an opponent on his back and holding him there for a second, making him look me in the eye before I let him up again. I can gleefully recall hitting another player with a forearm across the face mask or catching him cleanly in the chest. Sometimes I’d hit a kid so hard that he whimpered as he dropped. I didn’t know most of my opponents, which made the violence impersonal. And it was part of the game, which made it morally unobjectionable. And the truth is that it felt good to hurt someone. I was proud to be good at a game whose players were so tough. I liked working out and seeing the muscles on my shoulders and chest grow. I liked how my T-shirts fit tight around my arms. I was ripped, stacked. I was a monster.
People argue that violent sports like football and hockey can teach boys how to control their natural aggression, but that idea has always been suspect to me. Training a young man to release and even enjoy aggression in one setting and then expecting him to practice reserve in another is a dangerous game in itself. I know what it did to me. More and more I’d feel that heady rush, that dizzying surge, off the field: When my father would tell me to clean up my room. When I received a bad grade on a paper. When the Red Sox lost. When I got dumped by a girl. When I felt embarrassed or scared or threatened in any way. And the more I felt that adrenaline, the harder it was to control myself when an everyday situation became fight or flight. I’d have to sit down, my hands balled into fists, and work to clear my vision, to think.
I saw this in others, too. As a freshman I looked up to a senior named Jason, who, unlike me, seemed born to play football. He could be surprisingly kind, especially to the younger players, but he also brooded and simmered. I was a little scared of him, with his Mohawk haircut and thick arms and huge hands made for gripping and tearing. One cold and rainy Saturday, in a game against our crosstown rivals, Jason went wild, busting through the defensive line to make tackles, veins like cables bulging at his neck. He’d spring up from the ground howling with fury. Later I heard that he had done a line of cocaine off a locker-room bench before the game, and I believed it. He was like a character out of a Mad Max film, raging his way through the game, accruing penalties and warnings — and cheers from the sidelines.
A couple of years later Jason got into some kind of financial trouble and torched his car for the insurance money. It was not a well-executed scheme. When he was caught, he took his father’s service revolver and shot himself in the head.
I don’t blame football for who Jason was or the violent way he died. I didn’t know him well enough to say what pushed him to make the choices he made. But I can’t help but feel that football was part of a larger culture of violence that made Jason’s destructive impulses burn brighter and more intensely. It certainly didn’t seem to help him learn control.
For a kid who’d been picked on in junior high for being fat and who’d grown up so completely in the shadow of his father, the attention I received for playing football was confusing but also thrilling: the respect from peers for being on the team, the pats on the shoulder from men at the barbershop, the sudden interest from girls. It didn’t matter that the girls I liked — the dancers, writers, and “theater chicks” — were not impressed, or that I couldn’t wait for the season to end, or that I spent most of my time on the field wishing the game clock would tick faster. It didn’t matter that I felt like a fraud. At least I belonged.
Until I entered the locker room, that is. In those dank spaces of metal, tile, and concrete, everything slick with steam and smelling of sweat, I couldn’t speak the language. For every rousing halftime speech, for every prayer made in a circle on one knee, I heard a hundred words that no mother wants to hear spoken by or directed at her child. (If hidden cameras were put in football locker rooms across the U.S., and the tapes were played for every mother to watch, I believe football would no longer exist.) I heard crude talk about what certain girls would and wouldn’t do and with whom and how many times. I heard the chant “No means yes; yes means anal!” and the joke “How do you make a woman orgasm?” Pause. “Who cares?” When our team was losing, my fellow captains would scream, “Are we just going to bend over and take it like fags, like women?” Fat kids and freshmen were picked on and called “bitches” as in, “You’re my bitch today, fat boy.”
I wish I could say that I told the others to stop all this talk or that I questioned it; that, having been bullied myself, I stood up to the bullies on the team; that I at least knew there was something wrong with what I was hearing. Instead I turned red, got quiet, and wondered if this was who I was supposed to be, if this was how guys were, if this was normal. It was years before I developed the courage to speak my mind without worrying about the consequences.
Like many high-school virgins, I wore my virginity like the uncomfortable clothes my mother picked out for me from the bargain racks at Filene’s Basement. The way the other guys talked about sex so openly both frightened and fascinated me. I tried to tune it out while at the same time hoping to pick up some of what they knew. When they’d look in my direction, I’d throw on my shoulder pads and walk off toward the field. Eventually a rumor went around that I was gay: I didn’t talk to girls, or about them. I hung out with theater kids.” And everyone knew my friend K. was a “fag.”
“Look, I like girls,” I’d say. “They just don’t like me.”
Even my sisters worried, asking if I thought this or that girl was cute. Friends who almost certainly knew less about dating and sex than I did offered bad advice: “Girls don’t want you to be nice to them. They like it when you’re an asshole.” So I tried it. In the hallway between classes, when a pretty girl walked by in a short skirt, I blurted out, “Nice legs.” And later, in the cafeteria, I told another, “You could bounce a quarter off that sweater.” But the girls only stared at me in confusion or shook their heads and walked away.
On the advice of a more knowledgeable friend I dropped the act, and I eventually found a girlfriend. She had long hair that flew about her shoulders in the slightest breeze. She went to my church and wore a tiny silver cross on a chain around her neck. We’d been together almost three months when I told her that I loved her — and maybe I’d even convinced myself that I did.
“So, have you done it yet?” the other boys would ask. To them my silence meant no. “What’s the matter, scared? Can’t get it up?”
That wasn’t the problem at all. The fact was we were both eager to sneak off to a basement or empty room, always trying to figure out whose parents would be out and how late they would return. We were co-conspirators, and it was fun at first. There was laughter. “It’s like magic,” she would say when she’d feel me grow beneath her palm. For me her body was a mystery, and I was relentless in my attempts to solve it. Sometimes she would laugh and say that just once she’d like to watch a movie with her bra still clasped. I’d joke, “Well, it isn’t like you ever try to stop me.” And it was true; she’d moan quietly at my touch, her fingers in my hair or pressed against my arm. “There’s no stopping Joel B. Peckham Jr.,” she’d say, and she’d poke me in the chest and smile. I didn’t wonder if she might be scared or might want to be the one to initiate foreplay. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to give her the opportunity to take control. I didn’t know — and still don’t — if she liked the thought that I might be unstoppable.
I wasn’t. I wouldn’t even run a stop sign in my car. And yet sometimes it could be a relief simply to let the hormonal tide wash over me. It was all so confusing, the way my body responded. I would come to the edge of going too far, then back off, only to try again later. Maybe I was just being the “man,” and she was being the “good girl” who does what she’s told. Whatever the reason, she let my hands travel a little farther each time before lightly pushing them away, as if it were a game that I could win simply by playing long enough. And we did play, until there was no farther we could go, and I found myself inside her in my father’s steamed-up Chevy Cavalier at the Sacred Heart playground’s parking lot. It was an awkward and frantic five minutes. I’d even kicked the car horn as I’d struggled out of my jeans.
When it was over, as we buttoned up our clothes, I apologized for being clumsy and quick. I’d get better; I simply needed practice.
Then she started to cry.
For the first time I looked at her without desire and saw that she was just a teenager like me, as subject to pressures and doubts and needs as I was. All I could say, over and over, was “I’m sorry. We don’t ever have to do that again.”
“No, it’s not your fault,” she said. “We did this together.”
But it didn’t feel that way.
I didn’t tell anyone what we’d done, possibly because of how anticlimactic it had been. And though we dated for six more months, we never had sex again. I never even tried. We messed around, but our fumbling had become mechanical and hesitant. The laughter had stopped.
One cold December night in my freshman year of college, I was doing homework in my dorm room when three senior offensive linemen showed up on my threshold. I didn’t hang out with these guys or go to their parties or rush their fraternities. Though we were all on the team, I saw myself as different. I had longish hair and read books for enjoyment. I wore turtlenecks and leather jackets. I was shy and prone to look away when I spoke to people. But I was still playing football, seeing it as something I had to do to avoid disappointing my family. I had never not played football, and part of me was afraid to find out who I’d be without it.
I was nervous to see the three seniors. One of them had already threatened me while we were showering, saying he was going to hold me down and “shave those fucking goldilocks right off.” I’d played it off as a joke, but I knew the threat was only a couple of shots of liquor and a little boredom away from becoming a reality. And I knew that no one in that locker room would have stepped in to stop it if they’d found us struggling on the concrete floor. Most freshmen players had gone ahead and shaved their heads at the beginning of the season — no big deal — but I liked my hair and didn’t like being told what to do. So it stayed.
As their enormous bodies literally darkened my door, I scanned the room as if for some escape route. My roommate quickly excused himself to use the bathroom. I was on my own with four cinder-block walls, two futons, and three large, drunk linemen blocking the only exit.
“Hey, Jo-el,” one of them said, drawling my name into two syllables. “We’re going to Montreal. You’re driving.”
Route 133 from Middlebury, Vermont, to Montreal was just two winding lanes through mountains, the landscape dotted by small towns and farms. Yellow signs warned of moose crossings. Flatbed lumber trucks bore down on us, shaking the windows as they passed. It was about a three-hour drive but seemed longer. In the back of the van two of the players, whose names I can’t remember and might not have known even then, laughed and said, “Joel’s gonna pop his cherry.” The guy riding shotgun held a map and told me to relax: they’d pay the door charge at the Club Super Sexe and buy me all the Diet Cokes I could drink. I was their designated driver.
I can’t remember much about that night. I know I tried to act cool but felt curious and excited. I had never been anywhere near a strip club. The Super Sexe was loud and raucous, with men crowding multiple stages at several levels of elevation. I remember being surprised that none of the strippers actually took off anything. There was no tease; they just appeared already unclothed to grind and swing around poles, their tan skin glittering with golden flecks and glistening with oil. Pulsing lights throbbed to the raunchy rock-and-roll of Def Leppard and Mötley Crüe. A naked woman whispered in my ear, offering a private dance for thirty dollars. I shook my head, and the seniors all laughed. I worried there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t get aroused. I also worried that if I did get aroused, someone might see. I thought of sex as private, and I couldn’t get over the absurdity of being in a room full of drunk, shouting men and naked women whose eyes seemed to look through me to some distant place. Eventually, inevitably, one of the seniors broke the rules and touched a dancer — who swore in French and English, spit at him, and shook her impossibly blond hair in anger — and we were out on the street.
For several hours we moved from club to club, each one sleazier than the last, as the money ran out and the booze wore off. In one dive a dark-haired, bony stripper whispered in my ear that I was “too handsome” and mussed my hair affectionately before taking a linebacker’s hand and guiding him to the darkest corner of the bar. I don’t know exactly what they did, but within ten minutes he was broke, and it was time to go home.
We got lost. I couldn’t find my way out of the city, and the others were too drunk to be of any help. So I aimed the van south and, when I hit the U.S. border, asked the customs officer for directions home. He shone a flashlight in the car, and I thought, I’m going to jail, even though I hadn’t broken any laws. I hadn’t been drinking, and the guys passed out on top of each other in back, snoring and drooling, were all of age. But I was sure I deserved to be arrested.
The officer asked the purpose of my visit to Canada.
“Um, we were . . . at the clubs, sir.”
“Big night, huh?” he said, chuckling. Then he showed me our location on the map and pointed me home. I was both relieved and strangely let down that we hadn’t been caught and punished.
To my and Rachael’s dismay, Darius is discovering girls and has even gone on his first date, albeit a supervised one. Rachael wrote out a contract for him, stipulating no sexual contact whatsoever and reminding him that he is not yet an adult and the activities he engages in should reflect that fact. The signed piece of paper hangs on our refrigerator.
We are trying to protect our son from a world that seems to pull boys and girls toward sex and violence before they could possibly understand the consequences. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep our perfect little boy perfect and little; we know we can’t. But we can offer a counternarrative, one more complex and harder to articulate than anything he might hear in a locker room.
There is something primal and beautiful about the body and what it can do. I love it when Rachael takes pleasure in my body, when she says she married a “man,” when she calls me her man. She usually says this when I’m lying in bed after we’ve made love, my arms crossed over my head; or when I play catch with Darius; or when I order everyone out of the kitchen so I can cook dinner. I feel the same way about her when she stretches in her sleep or runs her fingers through the hairs at the base of our son’s neck — her touch completely feminine in a way I can’t explain.
I have a fine son, and I want him to grow up to be a good man, and to feel free to define for himself what being a good man means. I can’t define it for him. I can only tell him what being a man isn’t: It has nothing to do with how much you can bench-press, or how far you can throw a ball, or how many fights you’ve won, or how many women you’ve slept with, or how much money you make. It has nothing to do with whether you play football or piano, whether you marry a woman or a man or no one at all.
I know that I am not his only example of manhood; that he will look to his friends and teachers and coaches for models, or to the Internet and the television. He will be surrounded by people who have made easy choices and will encourage him to do the same. There are a thousand locker rooms, and the echoes are all around us. When Darius makes the decisions that will define him, I will almost certainly not be there to help. But I can watch out not only for him but for every boy I know, and keep reminding them they are loved and that it’s OK just to be a boy for a while longer.
What I really want to teach my son is not so much how to become a man but how to become a brave and compassionate adult.