I wrote this in January sometime, and I know it’s long, but I don’t have much to say here and I like writing.
Summers usually sucked balls during my childhood given that I had an abundance of time and a lack of things to do with it. I hooked up with schoolmates here and there, but had little friendships to speak of and spent most of the time during the day doing odd jobs that my father assigned me and talking to my dog, Herschel.
Herschel was a yellow lab who gained his name during a rare broadcast of a USFL game when a certain College Football superstar ran through an unholy amount of men to score a touchdown and our fat little whimpering puppy scrambled madly across the TV room at Barb’s house. Barb was the woman my mother left my father for, but that’s a different story. At this point, we’d just gotten the puppy and my older brother and I were bandying about all the usual simple and inane puppy names with Barb’s kids when we saw that historic run.
My brother looked at the TV, then down at the dog, then across the room to each kid and we all kind of nodded when he said, “Herschel.”
My father, of course, scoffed at the name and assured us that we’d have a dog that never came when we called, but strangely I never experienced that issue with Herschel or later, Pistachio.
In the Summer of ’88, before I began my 8th grade year, I was 13 and too young to get a job at any businesses and too old to simply lay around and watch cartoons all day. Hell, even my G.I. Joes were feeling a bit dated. My mother had recently made her move to Dallas and the prospect of flying down there for a couple of weeks was more than a reprieve from boredom, it was heaven. Sure, Big “D” in the middle of Summer was akin to hanging out at the Gates of Hades, a very, very humid Hades, but I was bouncing off the walls for it.
Mom also told me that, as a surprise, I was going to be attending “The Herschel Walker Football Camp”. Mom was always pretty good at getting good deals across her lap and while I had no idea how she’d wangled this one, I couldn’t believe my luck. The fact that I sucked at football and had only marginal interest in it didn’t matter, I was going to hang out with Herschel Walker, and that was going to top my Lifetime List, let alone my Summer.
My brother, of course, did his best to deflate me by pulling me aside and making it clear that football camps with celebrity names on them were run by somebody else, and said celebrity would usually drop by for a solitary hour during the week to shake hands and maybe take pictures with the lucky kids, of whom I would certainly never belong. I sagged upon hearing this, but did keep in mind that my brother had never actually attended any celebrity football camps, let alone any football camps, and he did have a penchant for talking out his ass.
I flew down to blisteringly hot Texas from comfortably dryheat Montana and was nervous as hell. Groundbound and slow, I was an offensive lineman by default since I was too slow to do anything else and could, at best, be asked to get in the way so that the fast kids could score touchdowns. When I got to the camp, I was kind of expecting mom to hang with me, introduce me around and then after I’d settled in and made friends with everyone, she could slip out quietly. Sadly, she had to work. And not just “clock in, clock out” either, at the time she was instrumental in the budding organ donation industry and was sometimes flying to Denver, Chicago and Portland in the middle of the night with a cooler full of lungs and kidneys. It’s not like she could just call in sick.
In the barely dawn the day the camp opened, I sat outside the locked gates to the Dallas Cowboys Practice Facility with a kid named “Phil” who looked like both his parents were Soviet-bloc Olympic Powerlifters and he was relegated to shorts fulltime because no pant in the world would fit his thigh. The humidity gave the morning that cold/hot feel, which to a nervous and dorky Montana kid is really quite gross, and I contemplated sneaking out of there and going across the road to the shopping mall to spend the day at the video arcade. About the time that I was formulating a story for Phil about how I was at the wrong camp and was really there to brush up on my Galaga skills a truck came rolling up and out jumped exactly what you’d expect, a nerdy looking skinny white guy with a polo shirt, a whistle around his neck, a clipboard and high-wasted shorts perched above his knobby knees that revealed more than his Presbyterian wife probably knew on their wedding night.
After that, it didn’t take long for the other 40-odd kids to come rolling up, piling out of Cadillacs and luxury sedans with windows tinted so dark I half expected Arab Shieks to come piling out, ready for their gridiron tutelage. We’d barely begun our signins, checking our names off a list and making sure we’d paid the ungodly amount of money they were asking before setting us off to one side where we were told to group up according to position. I never asked how my struggling mother came up with the fees for that camp, but I did notice a red star penned next to her name on their list that was also next to the names of the only two black kids that were at the camp, both of whom were wearing other football camp T-shirts that mentioned something about “inner city youth camps” or something similar.
Hardluck case or not, I was there, and when I realised that there were only 2 pasty-white fat kids in the “lineman” group and about eleven thousand in the “running backs/linebackers” group, I took my chances and promoted myself to “linebacker”. I knew that I could run about as fast backward as I could forward, but what I didn’t have to mention to them was that both were probably outpaced by a lethargic and pregnant cripple. I just wanted to have someone to talk to, and was prepared to explain the intricacies of my elaborate ankle injury that I was sure to get sometime around the time that we were doing timed sprints or any drill that singled out the slow dorks.
About the time that we were split into our groups and got out onto the field for our “chalk talk” the man himself showed up. Herschel Walker looked to me like the kind of human that scientists study when they want to look at muscles without all that bothersome fat in the way. He walked in and among us during his chat about his High School, College and Pro careers and with every emphatic gesture with the football he was holding, I was fascinated by the way the knots and bulges on his forearms all teamed up together to help him tell me that I should follow my dreams and that yes, I really was good enough. He told us about the 3,500 situps he does every day and how he barely goes in a weightroom, preferring instead to do more natural exercises and running.
I was glowing and instantly excused myself from all weight training sessions for my high school career while also worked on the speech I’d give my brother on how fit I was getting avoiding those troublesome weights. Thinking of my brother though, reminded me that this pinnacle of football talent was sure to make his escape soon, and when he broke us out into groups and we started doing some stretching, I knew it was goodbye.
Instead it was just a lot of grunting, as even the dorky white dudes with clipboards bagged out of the abdominal workout that Mr. College Football put us through. Herschel cheerfully explained that holding your legs a few inches off the ground for what felt like days was a great way to warm up, and I took it as implied that vomiting now meant you were lighter and faster when the drills started. I looked around me at what should’ve been rich white boys, soft from a life of leisure, and instead saw rich white boys (and two underprivileged black kids) whose bodies were all hardened by a life of physical activity. Even the fat ones had a healthy frame underneath the lard and I was once again pretty sure that I was the most unfit kid at that camp.
Knowing it was unlikely they’d yell at me, though I hadn’t ruled out them contacting my football coaches in Montana and telling them to work me extra hard for my laziness, I took it a bit easy when I realised the eggs and toast mom had stuffed me with were coming up the back of my nose. It was barely an hour in and I lay on the soft Astroturf while the sun slowly cooked off the humidity and prayed for a quiet death. Then, just like that, it was over, and I prepared myself again to bid a fond adieu to the camp’s namesake.
But he stayed, and we ran, and we ran, and we ran. The vomit feeling passed and I felt a huge swell of relief that the laps we were circling were really quite small, so when I got lapped repeatedly almost no one noticed, and when all the other highly competitive boys who were galloping along and finished in a mad sprint, I joined them. After we all crossed the finish line in an elongated group and stood there panting and heaving I felt about as good as you could for a guy who just got his ass kicked by everybody in the sprint, and also still had 2 laps to go. Herschel, who had jumped in and lead the sprint, smiled at me proudly and the purity of it told me it wasn’t for my clever cheating. I looked around again, waiting for him to get “the signal” or something to alert him that he’d spent more time with us than he was contractually obligated to do.
He stayed though, and ate lunch with us, sharing stories of High School football glory with some of the other boys, namely Phil and the two black kids whose names I forget but am sure were announced during televised broadcasts at some point. The majority of the stories came from the boys too, and I tried to listen for the polite mentions of the time that their father had saved ol’ Herschel in ‘Nam or in vascular surgery, but it appeared that he had actually never met the boys before. I remembered the starred names on the list and figured that it was a secret sign for Herschel to be extra nice. Clearly I was missing my chance and he’d forgotten to be extra nice to me too, so I tried in vain to squeeze my way onto the table with the rest of them. No dice, but when we broke lunch to go back out for our afternoon session I did manage to walk next to him on the way out.
“Hey Herschel!” I dorked at him, “you’ve got a place of honour in my family you know!” I was extremely pleased with myself for how I’d worded it, it came out perfectly.
He paused and smiled contentedly with me, “Yeah? Howzat?”
“My dog’s name is ‘Herschel'” I announced proudly, grinning from ear to ear.
His face dropped. “A dog?” he crinkled his eyebrows at me, “No kids?”
“Well my parents… are ah… divorced and… I uh…” I idioted at him.
“I’m just messin’ wit’ ya!” he giggled. His smile lit back up and his eyes twinkled at me while he tousled my hair.
My face felt hot and my voice had felt amplified across the entire group of boys. I was quite sure a bigger dickhead had never graced the floors of the Dallas Cowboys Practice Facility in Irving, Texas since it’s inception, and no doubt one never would. The vomit feeling was now back and we hadn’t even done any drills. As we took the field and broke back out into our groups I realised with a crestfall that would never be able to cheat my way through ALL the drills, and I may as well wear my Giant Dorkus Malorkus title resignedly.
Herschel then broke from his usual position of running back and put us through some linebacker drills, holding blocking dummies for us to bash into and then run around, and even doing some of the drills with us when there were uneven numbers. By the time the day ended and mom came to pick me up, I could actually still smell his sweat in my nostrils and was prepared to describe it to my naysaying older brother.
The following days at camp were much the same and as we neared towards the latter end of camp there were many titterings of the upcoming excitement. On Thursday, we were going to meet some actual Dallas Cowboys! I tried to act as excited as everyone else, but honestly didn’t think it got any better than their star running back and kick returner who was running, eating and sweating with us all week. We got a nice break from our usual physical punishment during the morning for a magical and wondrous visit from… Steve Pelluer!
That’s right, Steve Pelleur! Right here at the Herschel Walker Football Camp! Wow! Steve Pelleur!
“Who the hell is ‘Steve Pelleur’?” was clearly NOT the appropriate response, I said nothing and did my best to pretend to be as excited as everybody else.
In fact, I was actually a bit annoyed at the rest of the boys for making such a fuss over a dude with a last name that was so hard to remember how to spell when they had the nicest, most down-to-earth athletic superstar training with them every damn day. I decided then and there that, star quarterback or not, I wasn’t going to like this Steve Ploor. I was going to remain loyal to Herschel. In fact, when I got my chance to get something signed from the glorious Steve Puhlyoor, I chose instead to hang out at the other end of the table and tell Herschel the story about my puppy scrambling madly toward the television while his namesake made an incredible run for the New Jersey Generals.
Ol’ Herschel liked that story and I think he was glad he didn’t ask again why we hadn’t named any kids after him. He did get a bit confused as to my lack of explanation as to why the puppy was running toward the television, ribbing me good-naturedly, “I didn’t think dog’s eyes could see television screens?” As I nearly buried the needle on the Dorkometer and attempted to explain that the puppy’s food bowl was near the TV stand, I was graciously interrupted by the announcement that it was Picture Time. For only the second time in the entire camp, I deliberately and uncharacteristically defied the rules and lined up on the opposite side of where I was supposed to, so that I could stand by my friend Herschel and NOT Steve Pahhlure.
The day wound down and it was the Cattle Call for parents began, with Herschel being approached by a loud and brash 3-piece suited Texan, proudly driving a Cadillac that sadly didn’t have bullhorns mounted on the front. Herschel graciously thanked the man for saying hello and laid genuine compliments on his boy, who turned out to be Phil, for his speed. I knew the compliments were genuine as Phil was the only boy to not only beat the two black kids in the sprints, but also catch Herschel during a rousing game of “Smear the Queer” where we got points for even laying a finger on the Pro Bowl Running Back while he evaded us all over the practice field.
Thankfully, no one pointed out the derogatory name of the game, and I’ll never forget Herschel’s face as he gleefully avoided our stumbling chubby hands only to say “JEEZUS!” when Phil came out of nowhere and knocked the ball loose. Playing against kids or not, Pro-Bowl Philanthropist or not, Herschel put a little extra foot on the accelerator after that, and gave Phil a hairy eyeball the rest of the drill, asking him while they walked off the field, “You SURE you’re only 14?”
The parents came and went, and the football stars glad-handed and then showered while I wandered out the closing gates and waited in the parking lot for my mom’s red Nissan truck to appear down the distant road off the highway that led only to the practice facility. After enough cars left that I knew I was looking rather pathetic, I wandered over to the administration building and sat on the curb in the shade.
Pathetic or not, I still had to keep an eye out and wait for mom. Car after car left until there were only 2 or 3 there. Slowly trickling out, the dorky coaches in their too-tight shorts and clipboards wandered out and climbed into their air-conditioned oases. Hope and despair weren’t heavy on me, but I admit I wasn’t sure how to feel when the last vehicle started up and started driving out of the far side of the parking lot. Built to hold thousands of vehicles, the parking lot and accompanying drive here huge, and as the little black and red blazer pulled up onto the road I couldn’t even see the driver.
He saw me though, and just as the engine whined to pick up steam on approach to the highway, the brake lights shone and the truck slowed, pulling at the last second into the far end of the parking lot and then cruising across the empty expanse toward the admin building. Not even wanting to think in terms of desperation, I told myself that it was just somebody that forgot something off their clipboard, or worse even, their entire clipboard, though I was incredibly thankful of the chance to have someone to at least talk to.
The modest little truck pulled up right in front of me and the window came down and a glowing smile I’d come to know quite well came peeking out. Herschel glanced around and asked cautiously, “You alright? You got somebody comin’ to pick you up?”
Mercifully, I stayed on the lower end of the Dorkometer and explained that my mom usually came and got me, but she was in Organ Donation and I never really knew when she would have to fly out with somebody’s guts in a cooler. He fished around in his console for a minute and came up with a quarter, then paused and fished out another one, “Just in case.” He flashed another smile that I took to mean he was then departing and I wandered inside to find the pay phone. The darkened office hallways were quite foreboding, but I was pretty sure that I could see a phone symbol through the darkness and if there were indeed monsters waiting to eat me, I’d at least die happy knowing that my new hero had given me a couple of his hard-earned quarters.
I paused, pondering going to the toilet, possibly for no other reason than it was the only room with a light on and I wanted to feel it’s comforting glow before wandering into the bowels of the dark building, and then I heard his higher-pitched-than-you’d-think voice coming down from the foyer, “Hallooooooo…”
“Over here,” I called back, wanting him to know I was okay and that, thus far, there didn’t seem to be any monsters.
He came wandering down and told me in a quiet voice that made me think he might’ve been worried about Dark Monsters too, “Just wanted to make sure you remembered the number and got through and all.” I could tell that he didn’t want to be interfering with familial matters and certainly didn’t want to pry about why my mother had abandoned me, but was also not terribly impressed with me being left high and dry for over an hour.
“Would your mom send somebody to get you, or would you need a ride somewhere?” he asked quietly.
My heart about leapt out of my chest, and I was about to fake an entire phone call where mysteriously the entire department of the Southwest Organ Recovery team was on an emergency when we heard another lighter-pitched voice from the foyer, “Hallooooo…”
“Mom!” I yelled excitedly, my little heart not remembering that now this meant no car ride with my hero but possibly now knowing that I could show him to her like some sort of dog that followed me home.
I came running out of the darkness and hugged her while she apologised profusely and started to explain that, yes actually, she was on a call and was going to get Cyndi to come and get me but then Cyndi took a call and so on, when out of the darkness stepped an incredibly large and muscled black dude. Mom didn’t make any pant-shitting noises, but I bet she was close.
That 1000-watt smile lit up the hallway when he held his hand out, obviously pleased and relieved that I wasn’t bereft of a parent who cared. “Hi,” he said pleasantly, “I’m Herschel.”
Mom looked down wide-eyed at his extended hand before blinking and taking it, “Hi!” she dorked at him, “I’m… I’m… Judd’s MOM!”
“Pleasure to meet you,” he said softly, “we were just about to call you.”
“Oh…” it began to dawn on her that this walking Legend of Sports was judging her for leaving her child alone in the blazing Texas heat. “Well I had a call… and Cyndi…” she began.
His smile interrupted her stuttering and he said, “It’s okay, he told me. I’m just glad you made it.”
Walking abreast, we pushed open the doors to the foyer and went back out into the heat like 3 new friends about to embark on a new adventure.
My mom’s shiny red truck was purring next to his purring black and red blazer and he asked, “So, organ donation huh?”
Mom blinked, starstruck, and then slipped into a more professional mode with “Uhhhhhhh… yeah!”
He smiled at me and then tousled my hair before mom came back with the Dorkometer still turned up, “Herschel! Are you a donor?”
His head tipped back in a laugh and he pulled his wallet from those impossibly tiny pockets in workout shorts, showing her his Texas Driver’s License and the box that was indeed ticked as “Organ Donor”. Mom smiled and nodded her head dorkally and said with a non-asked-for approval, “Oh good!”
He drove off while I told mom about waiting and waiting and how he was the last car and had driven back in and he’d given me a quarter and then came in after me when she’d showed up. We ambled down the highway while the both of us sat and glowed, and after a bit mom said with growing defiance and complete righteousness, “You know… there are some people in the office that think he’s not worth the money or that he might be just another overpaid sports star, but I’ll never hear a word against that man again!”