Last week, I spoke at a southern California high school “success club.”
I’ve been so busy with projects of late, including gearing-up for my debut podcast, that I waited till the last moment to prep for my talk on how to “make it,” which was ironic, considering how scattered their respected speaker was on that particular day. Here I am driving 90 miles with a legal pad on my passenger seat, scribbling notes regarding how to organize one’s life for a successful career. I’m going back to a high school with nothing learned. Three decades later, I’m still cramming.
And I did feel a little creepy too, a middle aged man, changing clothes in their parking lot…
A theme of my speech was the basic premise of not rushing into anything without practice, following through and repetition. Being prepared for anything that might come.
As we were subtly taught as kids by watching the Wizard of Oz, the Scarecrow couldn’t figure it out for Dorothy. She had to go on the difficult journey and experience it for herself, and I too have certainly had to navigate through many personal episodes with flying monkeys and angry apple trees. Many dreams have turned into nightmares, often simply because I thought I knew it all, and then entered the game before I was properly equipped.
Whether in your career, your personal relationships or in matters of love, if I were to sum it all up with one common line it would be “put me in, coach!” Yet, too many times you could subtitle it all with – “too soon.”
One example I offered the students was from way back when I was their age, a young teen in need of direction out of my personal “Kansas,” and looking over the rainbow for a way to fly into fantasy. For years I dreamed of being a fighting Springfield Spartan football player. My 5’1” 92-pound body didn’t quite match my dreams. As a 14-year-old sophomore I made the varsity team, but the truth is, everybody made the team. Just a release form and a parent signature got me in with our hometown celebrities.
For Saturday home games we all dressed in our Spartan silver and blue and stood on the sideline in front of the packed stadium. I dug being around all the guys, even though I was mostly getting them refreshments and bandages. I loved to get my uniform dirty, making me feel a part of the action, so each week I convinced our place kicker to let me hold the ball when he practiced kicks. I’d dig my knee into the ground, and bring my muddy uniform home to my mother to wash, thinking she would believe I was a budding gridiron star.
I spent every game on the sideline with my best friend Steiny, who was as short as I was, but round and heavy. Standing next to my scrawny body, together we looked like the number “10.”
One day our team was annihilating Lower Merion High 37-0. Our coach, Mr. Patton, started to put in replacements for the starting squad. He yelled out to the air, “someone get in there for Chaz Schute! I need a Cougar! I’m lookin’ for a Cougar! I need a Cougar to go in there!”
That was my position. A Cougar is a defensive back. I had never played the position, but that’s the one I wrote down in the program. I thought: “This is my big chance.” I looked out of my big cage helmet and directly caught the eyes of Coach Patton and said, “I’m a Cougar!”
He grabbed me by the facemask, asking ”What’s your name, son?”
I gritted my teeth, partially to look tough, but also to stop my lips from quivering and replied, “Shoemaker…and I’m a Cougar!”
Much to my disbelief, Coach Patton sent me in. I could hardly believe I was finally going to be in a Springfield Varsity football game!
Steiny started yelling at me, “Shoe, what the hell are you doing? You can’t go in there. We’re the schlepper water boys. Are you out of your fu*king mind?”
It was too late. I was going in. My over-sized pads sat awkwardly on top of my bony, narrow shoulders. They were so much bigger than my upper body that I looked like a human crucifix running onto the field. I was so nervous, I couldn’t get my chinstrap on because I was shaking like a leaf, so I stuck it up in my helmet.
Over the PA system I heard echoing through the stadium something I had waited my whole life to hear, the booming voice announcing the player coming on to the field of battle: “Now entering the game..” He seemed to pause ten minutes, and finally said it as if it were in the form of a question, like on “Jeopardy:” Craig – Shoemaker…???”
I thought to myself, “After this day, everyone will know the name Craig Shoemaker.”
Steiny made one last plea for sanity, shouting; “Shoe! Get the fu*k out of there!”
I went into the huddle and tapped Chaz on the shoulder. He looked down at me and announced he wasn’t thirsty. I let him know why I was there, as if I was in the army and needed to show my papers.
“I’m a Cougar. Mr. Patton sent me in.” He shrugged his shoulders and left the field.
I was lost. I wasn’t even sure where to stand. Luckily, my lttle league coach was in the huddle and told me where to go. The only thing I knew about this Cougar position was the stance. I had that down. Two hands extended out and one foot in front of the other with knees bent, a jungle cat ready to pounce on its prey.
Lower Merion’s starting split end was still in the game. I went right up to him, perched in my stance, daring him to try to catch a pass on “The Shoe.” I gave myself an internal pep talk. “I’ll show everyone. I’ll make an interception and run it back for a score. Every one will know me then. I won’t have to make up stories, and my uniform will be dirty for real!”
They hiked the ball. Boom! This guy was by me like a cheetah, and I suddenly had prepubescent arthritis. I tried to stay close to him, but my equipment out-weighed me and I ran in slow motion. My helmet spun around my head. Time stood still as the football sailed through the sky. I watched in panic through the ear hole of my helmet, as I read “Spalding” floating over my head. I made one feeble leap and flailed at the guy as he caught the ball. I didn’t lay a finger on him. I watched in horror as he galloped away for a 62-yard touch-down. I lay there, face first in the mud, listening to the crowd scream “Boo” as we lost our shutout.
I got my wish. My uniform was dirty, and by Monday morning everyone knew my name.
Mr. Patton played the film of my play: back and forth, back and forth. Fast motion. Slow motion, forward, reverse…the team howled with laughter and I went along with it. Yeah… I laughed too. I did “the stance” for the team, and they laughed even harder. I liked that. I went from an anonymous tackling dummy, to the guy who put a smile on people’s faces. Soon I started working even harder at being funny – trying to get them to laugh WITH me.
And so was born a new dream. A stand-up comic dream, a business that allows you to make a fool out of yourself with the excuse of just doing what a comedian does.
At least that’s what I told the high school success club…