ren·e·gade | “re-ni-gād”
Renegade. Noun. A person who deserts and betrays an organization, country, or set of principles. A person who abandons a religion or set of beliefs; an apostate. A person who behaves in a rebelliously nonconformist manner.
Renegade: Adjective. Having treacherously changed allegiance. Having deserted a faith, cause, or religion for a hostile one. Having rejected tradition. UNCONVENTIONAL
Origin. Late 15th century: from Spanish renegado, from medieval Latin renegatus ‘renounced’, past participle (used as a noun) of renegare, from re- (expressing intensive force) + Latin negare ‘deny’.
“A long, long time ago, a renegade was a Christian who decided to become Muslim. That definition is now outdated, and these days a renegade is anyone who breaks laws or expectations to do their own thing or join the other side. Although it may sound cool to be a renegade, renegades or renegade-type actions are generally frowned upon.”
Most people in America love and feed off the game. And then, there are those of us who actually played the game at the highest levels who have spent our lives getting as far away from it and its culture as possible.
We all have our own reasons.
I have former teammates who grew up in Texas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, for instance, who now live in states like New York, Michigan, Idaho, and Washington.
The one in New York lives up state, in a little town very close to the United States Military Academy at West Point, well up the Hudson River from New York City. I visited him during the summer of 2017. It was the first time I had ever been there. It’s a beautiful part of the country. And it’s a long way physically, mentally, and metaphorically, from Texas.
It’s almost a different country. And we talked about how he got there. How did he go from Texas to upstate New York? It seemed a world away to me. But he seemed very happy; much happier than I remembered him from our playing days. Hell, who am I kidding? He seemed much happier than I remember any of us being in our playing days. He married a girl from a different part of the country. From the Dakotas. They have two children.
“Good for you brother,” I said, and what went unspoken was the love one has for his old teammates, even stronger almost thirty years later than it was back then. And I was glad and relieved to learn that I am not alone in this secret club of ours. The ever-increasing lines on our faces, the lower tones in our voices, the perspective that comes with having families, it all led us to openly speak the truth out loud after all these years.
When you said the things you said over our brief lunch that day at some diner on the side of the highway in that beautiful spot along the upper Hudson River, I was so relieved it was difficult for me to explain it in words.
Were there others? Did I have other teammates who felt the same way? As I would come to learn, there were.
Another teammate from Oklahoma now lives in Vermont. “How did that happen?” some people might ask. He was a football player in college and now he’s a musician playing classical piano. And he doesn’t miss Oklahoma. He travels back maybe twice a year to see his mother. “Vermont,” he says, “is like another world.”
It was the second time I heard one of them mention the phrase, “another world.”
Another one from the Dallas area now lives and works in Michigan. “How did you end up there?” I asked him.
“My wife is from up here. And I love it. Sure, the winters are cold and all that. But you become accustomed to it. I’m not kidding you, but you actually look forward to it.” He laughs.
And football? “There’s not a single person up here who knows I played, except my wife of course.”
And there was yet another who grew up and played high school football in Arkansas now lives in Washington state. He lives west of Seattle, out across Puget Sound, near the naval base at Bangor, close to Olympic National Park.
I’ve been out there during my military service. I’ve taken the ferry from Seattle across the bay to Bremerton and back. And like we all say, it’s almost like a different country, beautiful and isolated; peaceful and bucolic. Like many other places, I tell people words cannot capture it; you cannot really appreciate it unless you have been there.
And then there is Dr. Michael Oriard, a man I recently made acquaintance with and a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University, who was an All-American at Notre Dame and played for the Kansas City Chiefs before retiring at age 27 in 1974. He had prepared for life after the game though; he earned his Ph.D. from Stanford and began teaching in 1976.
In 2004, he became the Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, a position that he held for nine years before retiring in 2013. Michael Oriard served as a distinguished professor at Oregon State for 37 years. And this all happened after his days playing the game were finished. Allong the way he published several books, including “The End of Autumn,” a memoir about his time playing the game.
In 1982, he wrote, “Football has been so often hysterically attacked and outrageously applauded that we can lose sight of what it really is: a much more varied experience than either extreme implies. I would be a hypocrite to deny its possible benefits to those who play, but a fool to ignore its potential harm. It brings pleasure in pain, glory and tragedy. It is like a potent medicine: used carefully and wisely, it can invigorate and heal; used incautiously it can become a deadly poison. Football has had too many different meanings for the many thousands who have played it and the millions more who have watched it for me to arrive at any pet conclusions about its value in America. If it were packaged for purchase on supermarket shelves, some would argue that the wrapping should read: “Warning: the surgeon general has determined that football playing is dangerous to your health.”
How prescient he was. How much he foretold the future. How far ahead of the game he was.
Indeed. This is the paradox.
One thinks that maybe the multitude of students Mike Oriard taught and mentored over those 37 years in Corvallis had no idea he ever played football.
After all, why would he mention it? Why would it be relevant? Why would it matter?
And these are just a few. Me, my former teammates who live thousands of miles away from the places where they grew up, and Professor Mike Oriard.
We happy few. We band of brothers; just like Henry V, but in a slightly different and much less popular way.
In the inception — in the very earliest of days — this is how it happens. This is how boys like my former teammates, Michael Oriard, and me, are created. It doesn’t take much, and the seeds are firmly planted.
Parents of sons, pay heed now.
The father (and perhaps, the mother too) was a very good athlete; hence there is a high likelihood that he and/or she passes those genes on to the son.
So what does Dad do? He starts tossing a football or baseball to the son when the son is maybe two years old. Or whatever the thing may be. Basketball, soccer ball, hockey puck, name it.
And the son — who can barely walk and can’t even speak yet — can catch the ball.
How is this possible? Well, because the father gets excited, and the two-year-old boy senses this, and it goes from there. The two-year-old boy learns how to get praise.
And then the son can throw the ball. And then, the son can kick and punt the ball. Or hit the baseball, or whatever the thing may be. Etc, etc., and so on and so forth.
Parents, pay heed.
I know the father does this because my father did it with me, and I confess that I did it with my sons. I didn’t realize it at the time. At the time when you are a young father, it just seems like the normal thing to do. This is not an indictment of fathers — including me — it’s just a recitation of objective facts.
And you soon observe that the son is pretty good at the thing — throwing the ball, kicking the ball, hitting the ball, shooting the ball — whatever it may be, because after all, again, he is after all, the father’s son.
And then one day, the son looks around and learns that he’s being praised for being able to throw the ball, and catch the ball, and kick the ball. He is getting lots of affirmation for being the kid who is really good at, for example, throwing or catching the ball, or hitting the baseball.
And all of this gets very deeply embedded in the son at a very early age.
Pretty soon, if you are the son, you don’t even think about whether you like it or not; you just do it, because it has almost become your entire identity. It is how you gain personal value. Nothing else matters. You are in the pipeline now. Your dreams are no longer your own. Forget what other interests or talents you might have. These things do not matter. After a time, you don’t even speak of them. It’s not part of the plan.
People like you because you’re good at throwing or hitting the ball. The pretty girls in school like you. Other parents like you. And at a very young age, the sport takes over your life. And there’s really no thought or discussion about you doing anything else.
And that’s how it happens.
That’s how it happened to me, and it’s probably how it happened to my father. And it’s how it happens to so many other men.
How many people were better-suited to do something else, something they were more naturally-suited to doing, that they would’ve loved much more, but didn’t get the chance because of the game?
Actually, I need to rephrase that.
How many people were better-suited to do something else, something they were more naturally-suited to doing, that they would’ve loved much more, that they did not do because of the culture surrounding the game? How many secret dreams were put on hold? How many avocations were delayed? How many careers were never taken up? How many dreams were simply forfeited? How many desires were never followed?
The lucky ones are the sons who figure all of this out, usually at an earlier age than their fathers did; before it’s too late. Like I did when I was in college.
The realization comes to them at a time where they can still escape and do something else beyond the game; something much more important and lasting than the game. And they escape just in time, before the game and its culture can cause irreparable and life-altering damage to brains, bodies, and lives. And this group are truly the fortunate sons.
As I explore and examine these questions, I will use one case study, a man named George Sauer; a man not unlike my father and me. A man who was actually an AFL All-Star teammate with my father in the late 1960s.
In 1969, George Sauer won a championship ring with the New York Jets in Super Bowl 3. The Jets quarterback Joe Namath was named the MVP, but George Sauer caught 9 passes for 147 yards, the long of 39 yards setting up the Jets’ final score.
It was his fourth season of professional football. He got the ring. He reached the pinnacle. There was nothing more left for him to accomplish. In football.
So he quit and dropped quickly out of sight.
He was 27 years old.
His long and circuitous odyssey after football is a case study for those of us who are kindred renegades from the cause; renegades from the culture of the game.
To be continued.
Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His forthcoming book, Cathedrals in the Twilight, will be published later this year. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, the Human Development Project, and elsewhere.