Why rowdy Spaniards were willing to don pads and helmet to smack each other around on the rock-hard fields of Iberia was easy to see: They were young, they had discovered a piece of America, and the riches were still mostly theirs alone. Why I, a career-minded American expatriate, was crouching there with them was harder to figure.
It had been 18 years since I'd peeled off ol' No. 10, up and over the shoulder pads, for the last time. The Tempe (Ariz.) High School Buffaloes had lost in the first round of the playoffs, I was a senior, and that was that. If I had known that I would be playing again in a national league in Spain, maybe I wouldn't have wept in the locker room that wet November night years ago. Ostensibly, I had two reasons for putting myself at risk with the Madrid Osos (Bears). First, I was suffering culture shock and sought an outlet. Second, I'm fond of grass, and American football is the only sport in Madrid that common folks play on grass. Only dirt or concrete is available for soccer, a sport I otherwise preferred.
So there I was playing against the Basque team in Bilbao, running upfield on a kickoff, trying to avoid being hit by much larger and hairier fellows. My position was defensive back, but in their sometimes bizarre judgment, the Osos put me on the kickoff unit as well. Something that, as I recall, was a blast when I was 13 years old. We kicked off four times in that game. Each time, huge and furry No. 99 came looking for me as I ran upfield. Three times I sidestepped him as artfully as a matador; the fourth time he clobbered me. I gradually recovered, doubled over in the huddling defensive unit. Which caused me to ask, again: What was the real reason for my being there? The 18-team league was for amateurs, though most teams had the customary handful of washed-out "ringers" from the college and pro ranks in America, and the competition level varied wildly. Many of the Spanish players had never seen an American football game when they first suited up.
As I had when I first donned a uniform at age 12, the Spaniards had probed the limits of their abilities, beginning with the initial surprise at how hard it is to move in full gear and helmet. They learned to hit harder each time. Their bodies got hard. Soon they learned the fun in plastering the other guy. "If you get the chance, plaster someone!" one Oso teammate told me before a game, making his point graphically by slapping my face. Shaving his head before another game was 16-year-old Mario Alonso Castro, who said he liked the "Americanized" feel of the protective armor. "Being big, I always wanted to be hitting people in soccer, basketball, handball," he said. "In this sport, I found what I had been missing." I hadn't been very big as a kid, and most of the time I got the worst of any collision. There was the occasional physical pleasure of besting my opponent, but mainly there was the psychological pleasure of surviving, proving how tough I was. Now I had no need to prove such things, as I was willing enough to recognize my limits. No, proving myself wasn't the reason I submitted to a Saturday afternoon practice of hitting and agility drills on my thirtysomething birthday.
On the team with me were a few 29-year-olds, but the rest were in their early 20s and late teens. Just about all of them said they found soccer boring compared with playing American-style football - which nearly makes them exiles in their own soccer-crazy country. Most folks here mistakenly refer to them as rugby players, and no more than 40 people would show up in city stadiums to watch the games. Marooned in an American sport, they truly had only each other. But the fact that they were castaways together didn't mean they always got along. As was usually the case on my junior league and high school football teams, there was division and bickering. If I was striving for the sense of camaraderie rarely experienced as a kid, I didn't find it with the Osos. I stepped into the defensive huddle for the first time late in our first game to find my teammates yelling obscenities at each other. That was the norm for most of the season.
I RAN onto the field for the first time as a Madrid Oso late in the fourth quarter. We were down by two points, and the Zaragoza Lions were threatening to score again. I was so excited to make my debut that I was 10 yards onto the field before I remembered to shed my black leather jacket. How rare, yet familiar, to have the grass beneath my cleats again; to be exiled with 10 other desperate armored men huddled deep in our own territory; to bite down on the rubber mouthguard and hustle over to the man I was to cover, No. 9; to think I could run an interception back for the game-winning touchdown. I was breathing hard before the play began. Even though the Lions ran out the clock with four consecutive plays away from me, each moment was like a dream: the cold day's storm clouds threatening; skipping out wide against No. 9, feeling both hopeful and fearful that they would dare to pass the ball our way; eager to show my opponent early on that I was not afraid of contact; seeing what it feels like to be one of the 11, one of the 22, and one of those privileged to tread on grass.
Three hours earlier, in a dark and musty locker room, I had stood in full gear except for jersey and helmet. In spite of my sense of the dramatic and the historic, I hesitated only briefly with ol' No. 10 in my hands. Only for an instant did I recall the rainy night I last wore it. I put it on again for the first time since then, up and over the shoulder pads, and the otherwise uneventful moment hinted at the reason I was there: The youthful joy of discovery. In this case, discovering the rare sensation of at once returning home while striding forward, not knowing what would happen next.