I was never any good at football. I played because my dad had been a football star in high school. All-District and All-State, he was even offered a college scholarship.
Me? I weighed 135 and was 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
Tennis was my sport. I was pretty good. I started playing when I was about 12 and would later make the tennis team.
But in the early and mid-’70s, tennis didn’t impress a football-obsessed Southern dad. And few others.
I quit the football team in the 10th grade and tried out for tennis. But prior to leaving football, I made every practice and was often used as defensive tackle fodder out on the Ashdown High School practice field, which was inside the running track next to the stadium.
During special teams practice and other position drills, the rest of us would stand in the shade by a wire fence, which abutted a neighborhood.
Specifically, it abutted Mr. Peck’s in-town homestead.
He was perpetually in his backyard. And if he saw the football boys availing themselves of the shade of his trees, he would often approach and ask us questions.
“What are you boys going to do with your life? What are your plans? Have you thought about tomorrow?” All were the types of questions he would often ask.
During 10th grade football practice you weren’t thinking about your future, you were just hoping the defensive tackle wasn’t going to break any of your bones or send some of your teeth flying.
“Mr. Peck, what’s that building?” someone asked.
“That’s a greenhouse, son. Ain’t nothing smarter than a man countin’ on himself for his next meal,” he said. “A fella can grow his vegetables in there in the winter. Store-bought food is never as good as what you raise yourself.”
My family had gardens, and my mom and grandmothers canned. Mr. Peck’s greenhouse was the first I’d ever seen. The other guys on the team humored Mr. Peck, but I could tell they weren’t interested in much he ever told us.
The whistle blew and the coach called the entire team out to run sprints. I thanked Mr. Peck for explaining the greenhouse. He smiled at me and I ran off, trailing the rest of the team, preparing for the next defensive tackle pummeling.
My buddy Scotty drove up one day at my house in his first car. He was behind the wheel of a ‘67 Mustang and he had a girl in the passenger’s seat.
Scotty didn’t play football. He had a job at the Piggly Wiggly.
It was clear to me I wasn’t headed to the NFL and I was tired of being beaten to a pulp just to try and be who my dad wanted me to be.
“What are you boys going to do with your life? What are your plans? Have you thought about tomorrow?”
Mr. Peck’s questions took turns in my head.
The next day, I went to the coach and told him I was quitting the team. He nodded, but never looked up from his desk.
I went to the Piggly Wiggly and applied for and got a job. I got a car and a girlfriend. I joined the tennis team.
Later, I got a job at the local radio station and decided to go to college instead of working at the nearby paper mill.
None of my fellow football teammates went to the NFL, but they were good and had winning seasons.
But so did I.
Mr. Peck taught me to look beyond the moment. His over-the-fence advice outlasted the bruises and soreness of football practice.
I appreciate that he took the time to talk to a bunch of teenage boys.
I wish he were still around so I could show him my greenhouse and let him know that thanks to him, I still have all my teeth.