Read an Excerpt
What I Know About Balance I Learned on the Track Team
I can describe my entire childhood in one run-on sentence: I weighed back then what I weigh now and I was four feet shorter and my last name was Butterworth.
Can you visualize it? It’s not a very pretty picture.
Like everyone else, I quickly observed that our school had a group of kids who really ran the place. They were the cool ones. In the school I went to, just outside Philadelphia, the cool kids were the athletes. I naively grew up thinking all athletes were cool, but that is not necessarily so. It could be that you went to a school where the band was tough or the chess club ruled. But in my hometown it was the jocks, and I wanted to be just like them. Yet there weren’t many coaches anxious for me to join their team.
I can remember, however, the first time the football coach laid eyes on me. He took one look at my size and began to drool with animal anticipation. “Butterworth,” he barked, “if I could just get you on my offensive line, my strategy would be simple. I’d have you hike the ball and roll over. The defensive line would be lost for hours. They wouldn’t even know what field they were playing on! We could score at will.”
Naturally excited at the prospect, I went home to tell my parents the good news that the football coach not only wanted me, but he wanted me badly. I recall being heartbroken when my folks said I couldn’t play football. “I don’t want to see my ‘little Billy’ [my first oxymoron] getting hurt,” my overprotective mother said.
I was no medical doctor, but I honestly believed that, because of the way I was built, it was physically impossible for me to get hurt. There was so much padding on my body, it would have been a miracle if someone could have found something hard enough to break–unless there is an ailment known as strained cellulite.
But football was out of the question.
I was crushed.
So, in a complete admission of failure, I joined the marching band. It was a Fat Kid Fraternity, where the common bond was the pain of rejection. There I was, taking up the entire back three rows of the marching band, watching the cool kids instead of being one.
But that all changed one day after a social studies class. “Butterworth, I want to see you after class,” my teacher announced as the bell was about to ring. I slowly walked to the front of the room like a man being led to the gallows, wondering what I possibly could have done. I was stumped, for I worked hard to keep my nose clean at school.
Mr. Warren greeted me warmly. “Butterworth, have you ever considered going out for the school’s track team?” he inquired.
I was stunned. Gee, kids make fun of me all the time, I thought. Now teachers are asking me to stay after class for a little one-on-one heckling. But I maintained a positive demeanor. After all, this man was responsible for my grade in social studies, so I didn’t dare come off disrespectful in any way. I swallowed hard and squeaked out the only response I could think of:
“Sir, I don’t think I’m very fast.”
Mr. Warren held back a chuckle. “Son, I wasn’t thinking of having you run.” He paused while I let out a sigh of relief. “There are other parts to a track team,” he continued.
“There are the field events. I think you’d be very effective in the weightman events.”
“The shot put, Butterworth. The big steel ball that you place under your chin. You don’t throw it; you put it.” He illustrated the motion by bringing his hand from his chin out to its full extension.
“And then there’s the discus, Butterworth. You know–the plate- or saucer-looking thing that you throw. Surely you’ve seen the famous statue of the discus thrower, haven’t you, Butterworth?”
My face turned ashen.
“Relax, Butterworth, relax. They wear clothes now when they throw it.”
“Ask your mom and dad if you can come out for the team,” Mr. Warren suggested. “We’ve got a place waiting for you.”
I went home that evening with absolutely no expectation of a positive response. I felt that my parents were anti-sports and track would be treated no differently than football. I was braced for more despair. It was painful enough being a fat kid, but add to it parents who protest the coolest activity in school, and you’ve got all the ingredients of a defeated childhood. So imagine my complete surprise when I threw the question out and was met with encouragement.
“That sounds like a great idea!” my parents replied. They liked the idea of a noncontact sport. I could throw the shot put and the discus to my heart’s content. (Although I do remember having to sign a form promising my parents I would not try to catch these implements after they were thrown.)
Overnight I was transformed from a member of the marching band to BILL BUTTERWORTH–ATHLETE. I liked the way that looked and sounded. I finally felt cool.
In the northeastern part of the country, where I grew up, track is a two-season sport. Winter track takes place indoors, and spring track is outside. I quickly discovered that if you are a weightman, winter track means going into a tiny–and smelly–room off the boys’ gym and lifting weights. This continues until spring, when you are finally allowed to go outside. Weightmen love the spring.
All humility aside, there were certain parts of this weightman scene in which I excelled. Mainly, I had great form. I knew how to slide across the circle, crouched low, and then, at just the precise moment, explode with great intensity (and a primitive grunt) in order to throw the shot put a mile. In the same way, I knew how to spin around through the circle for the discus throw, like a spring unwinding. I knew how to uncoil and, once again, explode at the optimum moment of release.
Yes, my form was outstanding…especially without the implements.
It was when I actually had to throw the darn things that it all unraveled. You see, I had no strength. Even with my perfect form, great slides and spins, and intense explosion, neither the shot put nor the discus went any distance when I threw it.
I was the only guy they measured with a ruler.
But I refused to become discouraged. I was one of the cool guys, and that’s what mattered most. I even remember the day I discovered how they keep score in a track meet. Points are awarded to those who come in first, second, or third. I did a little mental math and realized that I was the fifth man on my own team. That meant I would never score any points unless the opposition forfeited and malaria worked its way through our squad. But a chance to score points came up in a rather unusual circumstance.
As I was growing up, my parents saw to it that I was in church every Sunday. At the time, we went to a church that I would describe as “socially active.” By that I mean they had sporting events for every taste. They had church flag football in the fall, church basketball in the winter, and church softball in the spring. But they went far beyond those conventional contests. We had all-church boccie ball, all-church canasta, all-church darts–we had all the bases covered, so to speak.
One spring the question was raised: “There’s a certain sport in which we’ve never participated. How about an all-church track meet?”
I was beside myself with exhilaration. “Yes, yes, we must have an all-church track meet!” In my head, I couldn’t help but conclude, I’ll finally score some points in a track meet. I’ll mop up on these church wimps!
The day of the all-church track meet arrived on a lovely spring Saturday with the trees budding and the birds singing. Since our church was hosting the event, we held it at the local public high-school track, meaning I was right at home in the shot put and discus circles. It was my turf.
As the weightmen arrived, it was quickly apparent that I was the only one with any formal training in these events. I used this to my advantage, going through what every athlete knows as his “pre-meet psych-out” of the opposition. I began by demonstrating my form in the circle (without using the shot or discus) and sat back to listen to the oohs and the aahs of my competitors, who had never even picked up a weightman implement, let alone worked on the form necessary to be a champion. I put on quite a show.
Then the time came to actually compete. As usual, my form was impeccable. And, as usual, the implements went nowhere. What transpired was the height of embarrassment for a seasoned track man like me. These guys–these church guys–who had never even seen a shot put or a discus before threw them like they were born with one in their bassinet. When the dust settled, the results were all too familiar.
I hadn’t placed in either event.
My teammates came over as their events concluded. I was sitting on the side of the circle, utterly dejected, contemplating if life was worth living.
“How did you do?” they asked. “Did you win the shot put?”
I just looked down and shook my head.
“Second or third?”
“How about the discus? That’s really your event, isn’t it? Did you win?”
“Second or third?”
“No.” With tears in my eyes, I looked up at my teammates and choked out, “I can’t believe it. I didn’t score any points!”
The awkward silence was suddenly broken by another teammate who had just run over from the track. He had heard the end of our discussion, and he quickly chimed in, “Well, ‘Mr. Butter-worth–athlete,’ this must be your lucky day, because it looks like you’re gonna get another chance!”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the next event over on the track is the 440. Bobby is supposed to run it, but he just pulled a muscle in the 220. The rules state that each member of the team can compete in three events. You are the only guy on the team to compete in just two, so you’re going to run a 440!”
At this point, my teammates were anxiously taking off my shoes and replacing them with running spikes. These shoes were light as feathers, with the spikes on the front of the sole, making you feel as if you needed to stand on your toes. Once I had the spikes on, the oddest feeling crept over me… I felt fast!
It made no sense. Here I was, the size of a mid-Atlantic state, and I had the feeling that I was speedy. Something was wrong with this picture.
But the whole thing happened so quickly I didn’t have time to think. Before I knew it, my teammates had me over to the track, and I had received my lane assignment (I was in lanes four, five, and six, as I recall). And the next thing I knew–bang!–the gun went off, signaling the beginning of the race.
As I took off from the starting line, I was suddenly overtaken with panic. I realized there were a million questions about this race that I had neglected to ask, most notably, What is the strategy for running a 440? Balance is like any other endeavor in our life. It’s not going to happen if we don’t get intentional about it. We need a strategy, or a plan, put in place if it’s going to work.
I looked over to the sidelines, making eye contact with my teammates. It was one of those magical moments when there is a silent communication among men. No words had to be spoken, for the question was clearly written all over my pained face. In response, a teammate yelled a strategy to me. It was a brief sentence, yet it is one I can still hear today. As a matter of fact, I still wake up at night in the middle of a nightmare, hearing these same words. He yelled:
“It’s only a lap!”
I let that sink in for a second. It’s only a lap. I have now come to equate that phrase with others like “It’s only terminal.”
Nonetheless, I had precious little time to mull this over in my mind. I quickly ascertained that the keyword in that strategy was the word only. It’s only one lap around the football field. That’s all, I reassured myself. With that in mind, I settled on the strategy that would take me through this race.
It must be a sprint, I concluded.
So I took off. Most of us have seen this type of race conducted at our high-school tracks. The starting point of the race is the part of the track by the fifty-yard line on the home side of the field. That will also serve as the finish line so that the winner can break the tape in front of the maximum number of cheering fans.
For the first 110 yards down the track toward the goalpost, I ran all out. In doing so, I was just behind the runner who was in the lead at that point. It never dawned on me that he was saving a little energy for the rest of the race. I pushed a little harder, and by the time we were 110 yards into it, I was tied with him for first place!
This did a lot for my confidence. I decided that I would set another short-term goal (my first goal had been to run 110 yards and still be standing). This second goal was a greater reach for me: be the sole possessor of first place by the race’s halfway point. I gave it everything I had. Frankly, people still comment to me that they have never seen a fat boy move so fast. The tonnage was really hauling.
Sure enough, by the time I crossed the fifty-yard line on the visitors’ side of the field, first place was all mine! I was moving on sheer adrenaline at this point. I recall thinking to myself, This is unbelievable! All that time slaving away at the shot put and discus circle, when the truth is I’m a runner! This was quite some time before the release of the film Chariots of Fire; otherwise, I am certain the orchestra would have swelled with the movie theme at this point in the race. I would have thrown my head back, run barefoot, and started speaking with a Scottish accent!