Poet, editor, and former Colgate University fullback Ben Evans on overcoming labels and learning to be yourself.
Five years ago I was sprinting four yards at full speed and knocking the hell out of linebackers. Today, I write poetry and edit a large non-profit arts journal, Fogged Clarity. A name, I only just realized, particularly apt for a publication created by an ex-football player who suffered more than a handful of concussions.
I played four years of football at Colgate University, starting as the teams’ fullback for three, and while the experience yielded some good memories and good friends, it also served as the source of a great intellectual conflict in my life.
Imagine, engulfed by a sea of new ideas, walking out of a lecture on Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, or a reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and then going directly to football practice. Where, after a full day of studying artists and authors who place a supreme importance on free will, the evolution of consciousness and intellectual curiosity, you proceed to participate in a regimented ritual of stretches, drills, sexual innuendo, machismo, and kicking the utter shit out of other human beings. It all just seemed rather contradictory.
Eventually, the dualistic nature of my university experience became overwhelming. I began to suffer from panic attacks and was dismissed from (and subsequently allowed to rejoin) the team twice for my irreverence. I came to feel that playing football meant I had to compromise my newfound idealism. I was different from my teammates, and at the time, I wasn’t comfortable enough with myself to embrace it. Thus, instead of feeling proud for playing football, I felt alienated from my other classmates; as if I wore a scarlet letter of brutishness, allowing all insight I shared in class to be dismissed as ignorance (if I was off-base) or luck (if I was on point).
In the end, I made it through and graduated with a decent G.P.A. and three Patriot League Championship rings. I only wish I had understood what I do now, and that I could have relaxed and enjoyed it all more.
I realize now that art, thought, and athletics do not have to be mutually exclusive, and that each pursuit has a merit all its own. My trouble at Colgate was simply a product of categorization; both my fear of it, and of other men’s need to do it. Categorization, the need to place individuals and ideas into confined spaces, is something men either love or hate. I am in the latter group. On the one hand, there is a comfort, an expectation that ensues from being labeled. If people call you a “meathead” your whole life, eventually you’re probably going to play the part, thus becoming less intellectually adventurous. If people pigeonhole you as only a “scholar,” after a while you may retreat from competition and burrow yourself into the recesses of academia.
In retrospect, I was fortunate. I was getting it from both sides, being perceived as, if not outright labeled, alternatively, a “jock,” “faggot,” “meathead,” or “nerd,” depending on which side of the spectrum I was on at a particular time. It turned out that this was a great help to me, as these conflicting labels created a categorical stalemate, which at the end of the day allowed me to just be myself.
I don’t mean to be hard on football, and I would be lying if I said there aren’t days when I yearn to step through the tunnel again. Football was a beautiful catharsis, and I believe it is important for every man to have an outlet like that at some point in his life. The football field, where the primitive is sanctioned, allowed me to purge a lot of my youthful frustration and confusion. If I were more astute at the time, I would have realized that contemplating Kantian morality and Rawlsian justice all day long (as I sometimes wished to do) could very well drive a 19-year-old mad.
Brass tacks: A man needs to be true to himself and who he is, because the cost of sacrificing individuality is far steeper than the cost of avoiding derision.