The Back Road: A look back at the value of early relationships

The Back Road: A look back at the value of early relationships

Andrew Malekoff

On Oct. 27  I was inducted into my high school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. I was so pleased that a number of my childhood friends and teammates were in attendance. We were a tight group growing up together more than 60 years ago.

It was a challenge to encapsulate what life felt like for me so long ago and to tie my childhood past to the ensuing years.

While my remarks that night were designed for my old friends, I also wanted to deliver a meaningful message to the hundreds more who attended the dinner. Following is a condensed version of what I said:

“Being notified that I was to be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame was a wonderful surprise. I was flattered to be named in the all-around category. It’s true that I wrestled and played lacrosse in high school and college, as well as rugby for some years thereafter; but I think it is fair to say that I have been most closely identified with football at Columbia High School (Maplewood, N.J.) and then at Rutgers University.

“I moved to Maplewood from Newark in 1961. I was the new kid in the fifth-grade class at Clinton Elementary School. I didn’t know anybody, but I was fortunate to have been accepted by a great group of kids who became my lifelong friends. We had so much fun in the schoolyard playing every sport and game imaginable.

“I can still visualize us hopping the fence to Underhill Field to watch the high school football team practice. Who knew that in no time at all, a few of us would practice on the same field, sweating it out in the late-August heat?

“But, back to the schoolyard; nothing we did could be called organized sports. There were no grown-ups to tell us what to do or how to do it, we just figured it out as we went along. Whoever showed up was included. We even organized games against kids from other schools, sometimes in other towns. We planned and networked well and none of us had an MBA.

“My introduction to more organized sports was when I was 10 years old. I signed up for a wrestling clinic in town. Bear in mind, the only wrestling I was aware of then, was what I watched on television on Saturday nights. Those were the days when Bruno Sammartino ruled.

“I knew nothing of freestyle wrestling. I thought the wrestling clinic would be the same as on TV. I couldn’t wait to apply a “suplex” on some kid. When I was given my first chance, I grabbed a folding chair to strike my adversary, just like on TV. Someone snatched it from me before I could do any damage and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Years later, by the time I joined the high school team, I understood it was a different kind of wrestling. What I wasn’t prepared for was the strong odor in the wrestling room with thirty or so teenage boys sweating profusely in a closed area, some wearing rubber suits to cut weight and the heat turned all the way up. Not even a Kryptonite folding chair could beat back that wall of body odor.

“It’s funny, but when I think back, I remember the practices more than the games or matches. Those were moments together with no fanfare when we bonded. Football practice in the summer heat before the start of school was brutal.

The morning after the first day of full-contact, every inch of my body ached. Some guys dropped out after that. Who could blame them? It was a war of attrition.

“My first year on the junior varsity team our coaches were Coach C. and Coach L. – good cop and bad cop. Coach L. was a screamer who bullied and taunted us. He dared anyone to knock him off the two-man sled during tackling drills. He would situate himself atop the back of the sled, gripping the two iron posts, whistling each guy to take a turn tackling the sled.

“One practice, I carefully observed his body language after each guy hit the sled. I saw that he relaxed momentarily before he whistled the next guy to go. When my turn came, I didn’t wait for his whistle; I timed it to hit the sled when his body was at rest and I sent him flying in the air and flat on his ass. Needless to say, it was a cathartic moment for the team.

“All these many years later, it is clear to me that many of my early experiences helped to influence my decision to later work with children and teens in the field of mental health. I knew the importance of positive peer and adult connections; and, that for too many kids they didn’t come so easy. So I made a career of helping to change that.

“In closing, I dedicate this honor to my childhood friends and teammates, for whom I feel everlasting gratitude for always including me in their games; and, especially, for their friendship.”

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