Tom Matlack recalls his days as a college athlete and the time his son kicked his butt on the basketball court.
On the plane ride home from Florida, still licking my wounds, I thought back to my college days as a Division III rower. I was a determined, if not great, athlete. Will, our coach, used punishing winter training regimens to build in us the grit and determination it would take to beat superior crews.
We’d cut lengths of old pipe, paint them black, and sink the ends in industrial-sized soup cans filled with cement to create a device we affectionately titled a “bear bar.” On cold winter days, 30 guys would pile into a dormitory lounge, move the couches out of the way, get out the bars, and crank up the Rolling Stones.
Will, in cowboy boots, sporting a thick beard, and chewing tobacco, presided over the afternoon ritual with sickening delight. He established two simple rules: “The bar never touches the ground” and “It ain’t over till I say so.” We did a rotation of exercises, 50 seconds on and 10 seconds off—just enough time to prepare for the next set. Deep squats, military press, triceps curl, lat pull to the eyeballs, and a jumping lunge with the bar overhead.
After a half hour, some guys would begin to falter. Will encouraged us to get in pairs, staring into each other’s eyes for strength. During particularly grueling workouts, he’d get a bar himself and start doing lunges in his blue jeans, his piercing blue eyes jumping out of his head. When he’d finally call practice, bodies would drop to the ground like they’d been shot.
On Saturdays, we’d be spared the bear bar and head for the cemetery on the edge of campus. The road through the old gravestones wound about, flattening out in a false peak, only to reveal its steepest section just before we reached the top. Will would sit at the top of the hill, perched on the back of his pickup truck with a clipboard in his hand, spitting tobacco juice and keeping score.
One Saturday, I had a memorable exchange with a younger teammate, a guy named Jon. Snow from a recent storm was piled high on either side of the road. The day was crisp, clear, and bright. The bitter cold had turned patches of damp pavement into ice, making the final uphill stretch particularly treacherous. Lactic acid and oxygen debt locked our muscles, requiring keen mental focus to command our legs and arms to keep pumping.
I knew that Jon had been out late the night before, but, being the best runner on the team, I expected him not to show it. We battled out the first couple of hills, snorting and swearing at the searing pain. I noticed that Jon would stay with me for one hill, but as I sprinted up the next he’d lag way behind. He was working hard on every other stretch. It started to gall me that Jon was dogging it. On the next hill I finished first. As I came down, I saw him bringing up the rear of our group.
“What the hell are you doing?” I barked in his face, pushing him into a snow bank. He came up swinging, and landed a couple of crisp shots to my jaw before our teammates separated us.
Up on the top of the hill, Will smiled from the back of his pickup truck. He later told me about the Olympic gold medal crew that had reached the dock after their victory and started brawling. He had made it clear from the beginning that the process upon which we had embarked wasn’t just about rowing.
Will liked to say that he was really an artist who happened to choose boats, oars, and men as his medium. The measure of his success was how well our crew rowed, but he firmly believed that excellence on the water had less to do with technique and strength and more to do with mental toughness.
We worked hard, not so much to condition our bodies—though that was a necessary part of it—but to condition our minds. The payoff was that mental toughness could be applied to any situation in life, on or off the water. To Will, the fight on the hill was a sign of progress—of growing faith in one another.
More than two decades later, there was something in the baboon part of my brain, and in the very fibers of my muscles, that remembered Cemetery Hill. Wedged into my seat on my way back to Boston, I recalled how I ended up with a nearly broken thumb and a welt on my face. I jammed the thumb diving for a loose ball. Later, I went up hard for a rebound and got an elbow in the face, opening a gash on my cheek. My son, Seamus, had offered to call the game off, but I was determined to continue. The stakes had just gone up.
We had played one-on-one basketball all over the country for years. During one of our first battles, in Laguna Beach, a whale breached just a few feet off the shore. We’d played in Boston, Maine, New Jersey, and New York. But the games in Florida took on on a new texture; they weren’t just for fun anymore.
Over time, we had agreed to complex rules of engagement: two out of three games to 15 points; use of profanity is a one-point deduction (this rule cost me more points than I care to think about); shots made from behind the arc are worth two, three if you are down by six or more. I get one time-out per game (usually I spend it lying on my back with a shirt over my eyes). You have to win by two.
Halfway through the first game, I felt sure I was going to have a heart attack. But as I peeled off my sweat-soaked shirt, I realized that I would have to pace myself. The court was slick after a tropical shower, making the ball heavy and footing tricky.
I still have four inches and 50 pounds on my opponent, so my strategy is to always go inside as hard as I can. I am way too reliant on my right hand, so over time, I’ve developed a behind-the-back move to my left. I’ve been working on a pull-up jumper and reverse layup to the left as well. I have him worried enough about it that once in a while I can glance left and burst right for an easy bucket.
At my age, I don’t have the legs to win a three-game match; I have to win in two or it’s lights out for the old man. I always work hard to win the first game and then settle in for a second-game slugfest. If the score is tied late, I launch balls from behind the arc, trying to deliver the dagger shot the easy way.
I won the first game 15-13. I was ahead in the second game, moving to the hoop with relative ease. Frustrated, Seamus pushed me in the back once, and then a second time, as I tried to make layups.
“Don’t do that again,” I warned him.
The next time I got the ball, I set up sideways with my left shoulder forward, dribbling the ball low to the ground in a posture faintly reminiscent of Magic (a player I am not even sure Seamus would recognize). I glanced left and went right, finding a clear path ahead—and got another push in the back.
I waited until Seamus had the ball. He has a better shot and 10 times the energy—but he seemed afraid of his old man. He still doesn’t quite know what it means to play hard—really hard—when it counts.
I let him go past. As he approached the basket and jumped for his layup, I pushed him. Hard. Maybe a little too hard. I heard the crunch of shorts and sneakers hitting the ground, then the rip of flesh scraping the pavement.
He bounced up with rage in his eyes. If I were anyone else, he would have punched me in the nose. He looked down and muttered to himself, called the foul, and took the ball.
After that, it was over quickly. Despite all those bear bars and years of running up and down courts, I was unable to score another basket in game two. It was then that Seamus realized: he was better than his dad.
Game three was closer. I got a little run going with two short-range jumpers. But then he found a different gear and couldn’t keep up.
At 14-6, he grabbed a rebound, sprinted to take the ball back, and pulled up to shoot. I didn’t have the legs to contest the shot. The net snapped with authority. My run was over. I sat by the edge of the court with my shirt over my eyes, sucking wind and the last of my water bottle.
On the walk home we didn’t talk. Finally, he noted that I should expect to get older and fatter every day for the rest of my life, while he expected to get taller and stronger.
I heard him tell people that he had not only beat his dad but had beat him up. It made me smile to hear my boy swagger. It reminded me of winning rowing race after rowing race—events so insignificant to the rest of the world that they wouldn’t even make the local paper—and how my friend Jon, the one with whom I had done battle on Cemetery Hill, had become my most loyal supporter. Jon knew what it took to win. And now Seamus did, too. That night, I fell asleep with renewed love for my coach, my friend, and my son.
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Tom Matlack, together with James Houghton and Larry Bean, published an anthology of stories about defining moments in men’s lives — The Good Men Project: Real Stories from the Front Lines of Modern Manhood. It was how the The Good Men Project first began. Want to buy the book? Click here. Want to learn more? Here you go.