It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.
 -Vince Lombardi

In 1978, the summer before I entered the fourth grade in central Indiana, all I knew about football was what my neighborhood buddies taught me in pickup games - touchdowns, offsides, “smear the queer,” grass stains that never washed out. That and what I gleaned from NFL telecasts on Sunday afternoons, when gladiators battled in colossal stadiums filled with thousands of screaming fans. In our backyards we named ourselves after our favorite pros and tossed around a slippery plastic ball, trying to keep it from skidding into the sod where septic pipes drained with ooze. I played with Johnny Marley, Paul Graham, Fritz and Karl Fentz, and sometimes the Fentz boys’ cousin, Keith Ramsey, a thick-necked, city-bred bully who once gave me a wedgie so mean, so absolutely thorough and textbook perfect, he tore my underwear and bloodied my back, his fingernails gouging beneath my waistband. Moments later, back on my feet, on the verge of tears with anger and embarrassment, I felt a shred of fabric flutter behind me as I ran and juked and spun.

Despite its punishment, the game had plans for me.

A few weeks before school started, Johnny’s dad handed my mother a flyer, inviting third through sixth graders to register for a full-contact little league. “This sounds good for you,” she said. “How about we sign you up?” I agreed mostly to make her happy because I knew she wanted me to get tougher. Indeed, since my father was no longer living with us, she’d been changing a lot herself.

The autumn games would take place on Saturday mornings in Fortville, Indiana, a small town in the corn and bean fields northeast of Indianapolis. The five o’clock practices would be held beside my elementary school only two miles away, in a vacant lot with sagging goalposts and dusty, pebbled turf. I was the only boy my grade in the neighborhood, so none of the local kids would be on my team. Carpooling wasn’t an option, and my high school-aged brother, Alan, had yet to get his license. But my mom’s mother lived next door to us and worked the early shift at Western Electric, and she agreed to drop me off for practice if Mom could pick me up.

My mother worked days in the city at a Stouffer’s Hotel restaurant, about 30 minutes from my rural school on Hancock County Road 300 North. She could make it by the end of practice, she said, if she drove straight there after work. My job was to make a snack for myself before getting into Grandma’s car. It was a latchkey kid’s promise, necessary for years to come: those afternoons I’d live on bowls of Cheerios or vanilla ice cream eaten straight from the carton. Hardly the “Breakfast of Champions,” I know, but enough to get me out the door.

All we needed to do now was to purchase the football equipment, a task that proved to be more difficult than both Mom and I expected. We had assumed that finding gear would be as easy as back-to-school shopping, as if outfitting a kid for football was like picking out notepads and pens. Shortly before my first practice, we roamed from one sporting goods store to another with a list from my new coach, a man I’d met only by phone, his voice hoarse from yelling, it seemed. It took two or three nights of searching, learning by trial and error. Each trip was a lesson on laces, stiff snaps, and elastic straps. All the equipment fit together like heavy armor wrapped around my body, layered and locked into place for a knight heading off to battle. We sized up shoulder pads and black cleats, mesh jerseys and tight white pants, then the nylon belt stumped us for a moment as I cinched one around my waist. As its tail dangled nearly past my knees, a salesman sauntered over and said, “Don’t worry, ma’am. Just cut and singe the end.” I remember how Mom laughed at the solution, exclaiming something like “Of course!” If common sense was for sale, she joked, we’d better buy that too.

Little by little, our car filled with shopping bags, everything but a helmet. I must have tried on a dozen or more, each size and model too tight. But somehow none of the stores could produce one large enough to fit my oversized, oblong skull. My forehead ached with red marks, and my ears burned from failed attempts. When Mom finally asked one salesman to measure the circumference of my head, he circled a tape measure through my thick brown hair and grumbled under his breath. Then he double-checked the markings, raised his eyebrows, checked again. I immediately felt self-conscious. I was afraid it would come to this.

“He needs at least a seven and a half,” the man said, his face strained with what seemed like annoyance. “We’ll have to special order it and custom-fit the pads.”

Mom stood beside me in the mirror in a dark blue dress with her Stouffer’s nametag, a uniform she wore to work every day in a little league all her own. She was beautiful with long black hair, red lipstick, and painted nails. Whenever she smiled, I was happy - I could see “the bright side,” as she called it. Yet when she agreed to the salesman’s solution, my shoulders sank with embarrassment. How could a nine-year-old, I brooded, have a bigger head than most adults?

Practice would start in a couple of days, full of kids I barely knew, and I would show up without wearing a helmet - a loser on the very first play. I dreaded the idea. I hated my big head. I felt like quitting the team. It was enough to make me regret seeing that stupid flyer in the first place. I should just stick to the backyard, I whined, no helmets, no strange men. Whenever things got too rough behind the house, I simply walked inside.

What good was playing football, I thought, if it made me feel like this? It’s taken me years to answer that question - for Mom’s sake and my own.

A few days later, I stepped out of Grandma’s car for my first little league football practice, dressed in full pads but still waiting for my special-order helmet. I couldn’t participate in the scrimmages or tackling drills like “bull in the ring,” but I had to do the calisthenics and run the wind sprints with everyone else. And one time as I walked through the blocking assignments with an overeager assistant coach - somebody’s dad I didn’t know - he pulled my jersey by the collar and barked out orders I hardly understood. “That’s your man, Muse!” he said. “Stay low, drive your legs.” Then he told me to step away from the line so my teammates could pummel each other.

I detested the special treatment. I hated sticking out. I wanted the anonymity of the boys around me, their names on white athletic tape stretched across their helmets. Of course, I didn’t need to be identified because I was the easiest of all to spot, the big-haired kid on the sideline, his teeth clenching a rubbery mouthpiece.

After the sporting goods store finally called my mother, we made plans to go after my next practice, so I changed my clothes in the backseat as she retraced her route into Indianapolis. When we entered the crowded shop, an aroma of leather and plastic hit me, a smell both intimidating and thrilling - a reaction I have to this day. As the salesman emerged from the backroom, my stomach shrank when I saw the box. I was moments away from fitting in, I thought: my new helmet would set everything straight. But when he pulled it out by its ear holes, all I felt was humiliation. It looked nothing like what I’d hoped for, far from fierce or even sporting. Instead, it was bulbous like an insect’s head, goofy and gleaming like a Saturday morning cartoon, fitted with a thin gray facemask - two skinny crossbars with a clip-on T. The helmet appeared to be twice the size of what my teammates wore. If I showed up wearing that thing, I was certain, I’d be a second-team wuss.

Although it was only my first week in organized football, I understood what every little leaguer knew, especially if he was stuck in the trenches on the offensive or defensive line: you had one chance to make a first impression when confronting an opposing player, when you knelt with one hand on the ground, your knuckles fisted before the snap of the ball. That moment was a crossroads for personalities, reputations you carried off the field, when you either stood like a little boy or became a badass who stood his ground. Though I had yet to play an official down, I knew exactly what was at stake, and wearing the right kind of helmet was essential for my success. I needed more than a proper fit, more than just fitting in. I needed Pittsburgh Steeler “Mean Joe” Greene’s cage of iron fury.

The salesman raised the helmet above my head as if to crown me like a warrior king, but as he dragged it over my ears, I felt only fear for the battles ahead. “You’ll be fine,” my mother said as we stood before a full-length mirror. My head wobbled as the salesman tightened my long, uneven chinstrap.

If there’s any image I can recall clearly from those first fragile days in a new sport, it’s the little boy I saw in the glass that day, wearing shorts and a green Adidas t-shirt. He had chicken legs and a pudgy torso, a noggin like a prize-winning pumpkin, and his mom smiled alongside him, refusing to let him quit. At the time I never thought to consider if my mother needed the same, someone to tug her uniform into place, someone to lift her spirits. All I could do was think about myself like most nine-year-olds, I’m sure, my world hardly bigger than the size of my skull or the boundaries of backyard games.

In my forties now, I still think about my first helmet whenever I try on ball caps. Labels often read “One size fits all” but never “Guaranteed to fit Jeff.” Each time a hat disappoints me, I’m right back in the fourth grade, a little boy fidgeting with self-consciousness and a desire to walk away. Yet somehow I made it through little league football and then playing in high school and college, even as my helmet grew and grew to a whopping size eight. To be honest, I can’t pinpoint how I did it, but I can tell you who was there: in the stands through every season, my mom bundled up and cheered. And sometimes Alan and Grandma went along - and if they couldn’t, they always cared - but I can’t remember a moment during any game when my father ever watched me play.

At 19, I began to understand that what troubled me wasn’t the size of my helmet, but rather what swirled inside its shell, a kind of awkwardness I’d known since youth. The thought came to me one evening after practice during my sophomore season at DePauw University, a small liberal arts school about an hour west of Indianapolis. DePauw was prestigious and Ivy League-beautiful, a haven for wealthy Midwestern students, and I squeaked in thanks to good grades and plenty of financial aid. I wouldn’t have considered attending the college had I not participated in its summer camp for high school players, and I liked the Tigers’ head coach, Nick Morouzis, a wiry man with a rousing voice. He wore big glasses and smiled a lot as he doled out constant praise. I even appreciated his tough-love critiques as attention from a spirited mentor.

It was easy to trust Coach Nick - he made me feel like I belonged - but on the day I needed to speak with him about Dad, I didn’t feel comfortable at all. I walked up to him outside the locker room, still in my pads and carrying my helmet, and waited as he talked to one of my teammates who was bigger, faster, and stronger. Standing off to side, I thought about all the years I’d been fighting to keep up with players just like him, lifting literally tons of weights, studying playbooks, paying attention.

“Coach,” I asked as he turned his eyes toward me. “Can I talk to you a minute?”

“Sure, son” he said, sensing my desire for privacy.

I needed to ask for his permission to miss a practice the following week, a request I’d been reluctant to make due to its unusually personal nature. My father had been in jail for a while after being arrested for drunk driving in Indianapolis, but a lawyer from the UAW union had negotiated his release to an alcoholic treatment center. My brother and I needed to visit him - family reconciliation was part of the process - but, as I told Coach Nick, I hadn’t seen Dad for a year, maybe the two I’d been college. His incarceration was embarrassing, I said. I didn’t want anyone else to know about it. Looking down at the sidewalk, I heard dozens of cleats scraping the concrete behind me.

As Coach Nick listened to my explanation, his face and shoulders softened, then he patted a fist on my shoulder pads as people on the gridiron often do. When he said, “Family comes first,” I expected as much from my favorite coach, but when he continued talking, something deeper came through in his voice.

“Make the best of it,” he said. “That’s all you can do sometimes.”

At that moment, I didn’t know what to think - a pep talk or something more? I merely thanked him and walked into the locker room toward the echo of showers and clanging metal doors. The room was filled with young men getting dressed, future lawyers and physicians and business owners. Wet hair, crude jokes, the usual on any football team. I opened my locker and hung up my helmet by its grit-covered facemask. I pulled off my shoulder pads and slipped them in sideways like I’d always done.

The following year, I recalled that conversation the night after our game against Wittenberg. We’d won 14 to 10, and I’d made a key block on a punt return that led to victory. Later that day, I drove to Indianapolis for my brother’s wedding at a northside church. I wore a black tuxedo like the older groomsmen who were gathering near the altar with Alan. But I would be the last to join the group, after standing in the lobby alone. I had looked toward the parking lot, hoping to see the headlights of our father’s car. Whether or not Dad had a license didn’t occur to me at the time, though I remember not being surprised when he failed to show up for the event. Later, when I called him, he said he had gotten lost, that he didn’t know the name of the church, that he didn’t want to walk in late. His voice cracked over the phone. Clearly, he felt terrible. I made the best of it, I guess, saying I’d get married one day. Coach Nick was right: that’s all you can do sometimes.

I realize now my father’s absence was the foe I faced across the line of scrimmage as a boy. I know, too, my mother fought there in her own way against Dad’s drinking, his excuses, his choices. How difficult it must’ve been for her when I started playing football less than a year after her divorce at 32. She not only began raising two boys on her own, but also climbing the long ladder out of poverty. How did she have any time for my practices and games?

In the late 1970s, the U.S. divorce rate was reaching its historic peak: more than half of all married couples were splitting up, many of them with young children. As a child, of course, I knew nothing of such statistics, nothing, really, of anyone else’s hardship. Instead, I felt only a sense that my family was different than the rest who lived along 300 North. Paul Graham and the Fentz boys had both parents in their houses, older couples, long married, as I recall. And Johnny Marley’s dad had always lived alone, it seemed, the elder bachelor who made everyone laugh. I suppose, though, when he handed Mom that flyer, he knew something of the toll a divorce takes. I saw his son only occasionally on weekends due to the custody agreement he had with Johnny’s mother.

Then again, how could anyone have known what my own mother was going through at the time? Who was that woman standing beside me in the mirror, smiling as the salesman adjusted my helmet? The thing is, I recall my first football season when she arrived before my practices had ended, when the sun was still high in the sky. She’d walk toward the field where my teammates and I were running wind sprints, though stop short of all the dads on the sideline. Instead, she’d take a seat on the sidewalk, slip off her high heels, and lie back on the concrete. Catching my breath, I’d look over there with my hands on my knees - till the whistle blew and I had to sprint again.

Recently, I asked her about those few evenings, if she was exhausted from her job or single parenthood. What she remembers is the warm stone, she said. How good it felt. How we’d be all right.


Growing up in Indiana, Jeff Muse played football from elementary school through college and carries the marks to show for it -- a bum knee, a bulging cervical disc, and a heart that still aches whenever he hears metal-tipped cleats crossing concrete. These days, he teaches environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, occasionally with a ball player in his classroom. He tries not to favor them. With an MFA from Ashland University, Jeff has recent or forthcoming publications in EarthLines, Flycatcher, High Country News, and Soundings Review. Learn more at