The football spirals toward me and snaps my thumb backward. “Owww!”
“Suck it up,” Gideon orders. “Your hands were in the wrong position.”
Again I line up next to my coach, sprint seven steps, plant my left foot, pivot right and raise my hands for the ball. It jolts my thumb back even harder, and I collapse to the ground, rocking in pain.
“Get up so I can take a look,” he orders. It’s a good thing we hold our practices in the middle of a downtown park — we’re just a block from Northwestern’s emergency room.
Gideon goes to work on the muscles of my thumb, pressing down on my age spots as though they’re buttons on an elevator. My hand appears bleached and veiny next to his. “It can’t be that bad since you caught the pass,” he mutters.
“I caught the ball?”
He rolls his eyes and continues his therapy. After a minute, my thumb moves without pain. I’ve never recovered so quickly. This guy is a healer!
“DB, you’re hurting yourself because you’re not bringing in the ball properly,” he warns. “Catching is a verb.” He snatches an imaginary football from the air. "You can’t just let the ball hit your hands and expect to catch it. You need to aggressively grab it.”
Technically, Gideon is a personal trainer, but having a fitness trainer sounds fluffy and indulgent. This is serious. My flag football career is on the line.
My parents met and fell in love over a bridge table. For 60 years, the game remained their Saturday date, their social glue and the source of innumerable friendships. Flag football is my bridge game, minus the romance. I did date a teammate, briefly, but Mike and I broke up sometime after he observed that he had never met anyone so competitive without the talent to match. He meant it kindly, as though perhaps I should be knitting (or playing bridge).
Mike moved away. I kept playing.
That was more than two decades ago. Since then, Chicago’s recreational sports leagues have exploded. Thousands of young adults now flood the public parks most weekends for grown-up play dates. I’ve played for seven coed flag football teams, six of which eventually disbanded as teammates got married and had kids. My current team materialized after my friend Jenny and I finished our game one fall Saturday in Montrose Park. Among the dozen or so squads still in action, we spotted five young men who appeared to lack the required contingent of three women for a coed team.
“You guys need some girls?” we asked. (There aren’t many settings where that question is socially acceptable. Or legal.) And so we joined the Mongrels, led by our quarterback, Mark, whose athletic talent actually exceeds his fierce competitive drive. In our 14 years and six championships together, Mark and other teammates have married and had children, yet their priorities have remained intact. Flag football on Saturdays. Bring the kids along.
I’m now old enough to have grandkids. Not long ago, I began to wonder if my teammates might find me more useful as a babysitter. While Courtney still had quick reflexes and Panos made acrobatic catches, I was setting personal records for missed flags and dropped passes. Willpower alone was no longer working — my aging body wasn’t cooperating. It clearly was time to give up my passion and retire.
I hired a personal trainer instead.
Under the golden-hued ceiling of the health club I had just joined, Gideon Akande seemed to shine under a special spotlight. In between teaching classes and training clients, he bounded around the gym offering encouragement to jump-roping women and iron-pumping men, spreading his contagious energy with a style befitting his regal Nigerian heritage. One day as I was trying not to fall off the elliptical, he bounced in front of me.
“I see you here all the time — you’re really dedicated,” he praised.
“Thanks,” I sputtered, feeling self-conscious next to his cast-iron body. Had this guy never eaten a Cheeto?
We introduced ourselves, and he complimented my name. My namesake, Daphne, was a Greek nymph who eluded her pursuer by turning into a tree. I learned that Gideon had played varsity football at the College of the Holy Cross. Perfect. He would be my muse.
I should have looked up the meaning of Gideon’s name. It means “one who fells trees.”
The first session with a personal trainer is a fitness assessment conducted under highly unflattering fluorescent lights. Within minutes, this near-stranger knows your weight, height, measurements, fat percentage and exactly how many hours ago you shaved your legs.
The most important question he asks is your goal. I suppose most people have standard answers. Recover from an injury. Run the Chicago Marathon. Eat less pie. I hesitated to share my goal with Gideon, but as we stood in the cramped space of the fitness office, the lights illuminating my scrawny, 5-foot-3-inch frame, I revealed my secret dream to my new trainer.
“I want to be a football player."
Gideon didn’t hesitate. “Then let’s get to work.”
I was ready to play catch, but Gideon insisted we complete workout kindergarten first. Assuming that he hadn’t earned his unworldly muscles solely by genetic grace, I agreed to heed his example. And so followed many weeks of lugging iron weights, prostrating as a wooden plank, balancing one-footed on a spherical rubber contraption and performing other fitness “essentials” that humans have managed to survive without for roughly two hundred thousand years.
Finally, finally, we graduated from the gym to the outdoor practice field where we could play football. Lake Shore Park is just a few blocks east of Michigan Avenue, nestled amid tall hospital and condominium buildings from which residents can view the action on the field, as if from a press box. Coming from my office for our first practice, I took the train to Chicago Avenue and ducked into a Northwestern hospital restroom to change into my training uniform: sports bra, T-shirt and boys’ long gym shorts. (Spandex hot pants, just . . . no.) I crossed the street to the field, laced my cleats and waited for Gideon.
“What are those?” He nodded toward my hands as he hopped off his skateboard.
“My gloves!” I held up my hands to show off my men’s size small, Nike football gloves, well-worn from many seasons of use.
“If you can’t catch a football with your bare hands, you shouldn’t be playing.”
Reluctantly I removed the gloves, and we went through our warm-up exercises. As I jogged and skipped, Gideon did handstands on the grass. Capitalizing on his inattention, I casually shaved two yards from my final set of skips.
Gideon bounced upright. “DB, don’t ever think you can get away with laziness around me. You want to be a football player? You need to finish every drill.”
I opened my mouth to object.
“That’s it,” he barked. “Thirty seconds of mountain climbers. Now!”
As I dragged my body through half a minute of running-in-place push-ups, my lungs straining, arms aching and face hovering three inches from the dirt, I began to understand the galaxy-sized distance between wanting to be an athlete and becoming one.
“Parallel bars,” Gideon ordered next. Enough with the drills — we had been training for months and I wanted to play football. Nonetheless, I jogged to the parallel bars near the tennis court, gripped the bars and hauled my torso upward.
One arm struggled forward, then the other. I could feel my face contorting through every inch of movement. I made it to the end and collapsed. Success.
“You were in a different world there,” Gideon observed afterward. “What were you thinking about?”
His eyes popped.
“No, really,” I said. “Haven’t you seen The Miracle Worker? Anne Sullivan taught Helen Keller how to speak and write. And now you’re achieving the impossible, too. You’re teaching me to be strong.”
“DB, you’re crazy. But you’re welcome.”
“So now we catch?” I begged.
“Now we catch.”
Gideon set up orange cones at successively longer distances. We practiced post patterns, in routes, out routes, hitch and go routes, fades and curls. He taught me to accept the ball with my fingers, then snatch it tightly and tuck it under my arm. As he prepared me for real-life games, he quizzed me on Mark’s tendencies as a quarterback and noted my habits as a receiver.
“You’re slowing down at the end of your routes, DB,” Gideon observed one day. “Mark’s going to throw the ball based on the rate you’re moving. If you slow down, that’s an interception for the other team.”
I have played and watched many hundreds of football games. I once won a radio trivia contest to explain the Chicago Bears defense. But it wasn’t until these training sessions that I fully understood football as a careful choreography. Every player’s job is to get to the right place at the right pace, before the defenders catch on.
Although I was building my endurance and running crisper routes, I still was dropping passes. A new football season approached, and it wouldn’t take my teammates long to notice that I was more fit yet no more useful than before.
“Keep your hands together!” Gideon yelled after yet another pass sailed through my hands. He had just healed my thumb, so I had no more excuses.
“They are,” I whined. We were standing 10 yards apart, and, as he had instructed, my knees were bent, my eyes on the ball, forefingers and thumbs outstretched to form a triangle.
“No, they’re not.” He pulled his iPhone from his duffel bag. Was my trainer going to start texting in the middle of our lesson? Was he bored with me? Or, worse, was he giving up?
I looked around to see if I should be embarrassed. Brunette and blonde ponytails bounced in sync as two women jogged on the running track. A lady wearing a fancy hat and sunglasses tugged the leash of her chow chow, who wanted to roll in the dirt but surely never would. An elderly man with a pipe watched us from a nearby bench. Nobody looked like an NFL scout.
Gideon walked back toward me, held up his iPhone and turned on the video. With his left hand, he threw the ball. We completed five short passes.
“Put your hands together!”
“They are!” I screeched.
“Come here. Look at the screen.”
Gideon clicked “play.” I would have sworn that my hands were together when I’d caught those passes, but they were wide apart in every single frame.
“Do you have any coins?” he demanded.
I decided not to question him and found two quarters in my backpack.
Gideon positioned my hands in receiving formation and inserted quarters between my forefingers and thumbs. “Now catch that ball without dropping the coins.”
Brilliant. We practiced until it worked.
Playing for keeps
My months of training with Gideon ended as my Mongrels’ new season began. As always at the start of a new campaign, I was excited, a bit nervous and happy to see my teammates after our off-season hiatus. But I also felt privy to something real athletes always have known: 90 percent of the game is preparation.
We won our first game and most of our games thereafter, defeating mystified younger opponents with our collective team experience and Mark’s pinpoint throws. As usual, Mark made sure all his receivers had a chance to catch the ball during each game. I am seldom the target beyond a couple passes; my teammates still are better athletes. But on this day, Mark gave me a gift. We played at the Lincoln Park field, with the Hancock Center and Chicago skyline our cheerleaders to the south. Nina, Tia and I were our team’s only women that day, which meant we each got to play the full game, with no subbing in and out.
Early in the game, Mark threw a pass to me and I dropped it. Shaking my head, I returned to the huddle, embarrassed at letting my team down. “Have a short memory,” I remembered Gideon saying. “Stay focused.”
Moments later, we were in a fourth down situation with a forced “female play,” meaning a woman had to be either the quarterback or the intended receiver. This is the rule for at least every third play. With our opponent’s eight defenders focused on our three female receivers, we had to score or give up the ball.
Mark drew up the play with me as the primary receiver. My teammates were to clear out the opposition, just as Mark’s choreography called for.
“Catch it this time,” Mark reminded me.
Determined, I hiked the ball, delayed briefly as my teammates ran left, then jogged forward and scooted right. Our opponents didn’t notice me until it was too late. Mark threw a perfect pass. As the ball spiraled toward me, I raised my hands and clasped them together in a triangle, then felt the leather touch my fingertips. Grab and tuck. Six points for my Mongrels! It wasn’t the first time I’d ever scored a touchdown for our team, but it was the first time I’d ever felt like an athlete. I had helped our team when it mattered.
Then Mark did something that surprised me: For the rest of the game, he kept throwing to me. And I did something unusual myself. I caught whatever he threw. A quick shuffle pass. A short pass over the middle. A fake right, go left. One particular play unfolded exactly as Gideon and I had practiced many times. I sprinted forward, planted my right foot, pivoted left, caught the ball in stride, spun away from a defender and ran upfield before a defender grabbed my flag.
From the corner of my eye, I could see my quiet teammate Ken, one of our best athletes, smile. It was the same smirk Gideon gave whenever I did something awkward but surprisingly right. I didn’t know if Ken was laughing at me or with me, but it didn’t matter. For the first time in my life, after having heard about it only in televised sports, I was in the zone. It had taken 53 years.
Yes, it was just a casual football victory in Lincoln Park. We played many games after that, with each of my teammates returning to their usual starring roles. But I may never again receive something so beautiful as what one of our opponents grumbled after my last catch of that day:
“That lady is killing us.”
We didn’t win the championship, but we made it through the playoffs to the final game. Then we all went out and celebrated because, after all, the triumph is in capturing the most from every season.
Gideon, meanwhile, entered a national competition of fitness trainers, a week-by-week elimination challenge that tested knowledge, skill and teaching ability. Out of hundreds of competitors across the United States, my coach won the whole thing. Feller of trees.
Daphne Baille directs communications for Treatment Alternatives for Safe Communities, a social justice organization based in Chicago, and is a freelance communications consultant.