ISTANBUL — It’s Sunday morning. I’ve been sleeping for the past eleven hours and wake exactly how I feared — hurting all over. This is a product of my own doing. I’ve grown up my whole life watching football and have always had a burning desire to play. When the opportunity came along, albeit in Turkey, there was no chance I was turning it down.
My first practice started a bit shaky — “Stretch your calves, Aleks!” yelled Jokson, the burly team captain leading stretches at the center of our circle. As I repositioned my legs, the whole team went up in fits of laughter, thoroughly enjoying their leader’s elementary English. “Hello by the way,” I thought after this fine introduction, “My name is Alex, pleased to meet you!”
I had met Jokson a few weeks earlier. After hearing there was a university football team — an American football team! — I confidently (some would say arrogantly) strode onto the field. I started talking a big game detailing my love of football and the competitive advantages I brought by being an American and, especially, a New Yorker. Jokson was there, standing in the middle of the group. After hearing my pitch, he nodded approvingly and added me to the listserve.
Three weeks passed and my sole communication with the team was the receipt of Turkish emails over the “Sultans” listserve, none of which I really understood. I resigned myself to the fact that maybe playing this game wasn’t such a good idea. After all, I’m only a bit over five foot six, I’m not extraordinarily athletic (although I can hold my own every now and again) and I sure as hell didn’t have the time to clear my schedule every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for practice.
The plan fell through though. On a walk home one Sunday night, there was Jokson. I waved as I walked by, recognizing him only by his Sultans sweatshirt. “Alex!” he yelled — I was startled he remembered my name. After a quick conversation I left saying I was excited for Tuesday’s practice and would see him there.
Pumped about the invitation (or command) to join to practice I jogged home humming the “Remember the Titans” theme all the way back. Wow, I thought, this could be amazing.
Tuesday and Thursday were running practices. We would show up, stretch our calves, get a Turkish pep talk and then hit the track. As the practices went on I began to earn respect from the team. I had been running pretty consistently over the past three years, so I was able to do a pretty decent job keeping up with the sprints and laps demanded of us.
During those laps I was the monkey at the zoo — a real live American trying his hand at a sport invented by his countrymen, playing with people twice and three times his size. But I did make friends. We talked football, classes, relationships and party hot spots. This was cool.
The call of the minaret blared over the start of Saturday practice. It was another one of those moments which felt like it could only happen here — we were standing around in full American football pads and “Allah hu Akbar” was being sung in the background.
Time for philosophizing was short though, next thing I knew we were once again doing laps of our beloved practice field. When the pigskin finally came out I was relieved, it was time to actually start the football part of this deal. After a few route drills we set up against the defense, the coach called out the plays and there we went to our respective positions. We were ready to take on the cornerbacks in a full speed, live contact drill.
After the first pass directed my way was dropped, the next route I was given was an “in route.” Here, you start on the outside and cut straight in over the middle towards the quarterback. Already given a chance to make a play, I was convinced the ball was going to one of the other two receivers lining up with me. But, there it came, straight at my hands, and I caught it.
After two steps I was absolutely drilled by two defensemen coming in to make the tackle. With a bit of blood coming out of my helmet (I had bit my tongue) I popped back up, patted the defensemen on the shoulders and declared that we should do it again.
That was the highlight though, as concerns about my size and athletic ability proved to be legitimate. Surveying the field, I made the calculation that there was no way I could keep this up for the next three months. I decided to retire.
Dreams come and go in life and over the past week I have lived out one of mine. This is a good failure though and I can now move forward knowing I gave it my all. That is, of course, whenever I can move again.
Alex Kantrowitz is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is writing from Istanbul, Turkey this semester. Check out his Smoked Turkey blog for further coverage. Smoked Turkey appears alternate Fridays this semester. Alex may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org