Growing up on the practice field

Indiana State alumnus Donovan Wheeler, ’91, GR ’08, recalls ‘getting his face smashed’ by assistant football coach Sean Payton — and considers it just one of the many wonderful things the university did for him.

I don’t remember the down, and I don’t remember the score. I only remember that I wasn’t playing well, and I was pouting about it, wallowing in a miasma of self-indulgent woe. I behaved like that too often when I was younger.

Actually, I behaved like that too often well past my youth. I wish I had been wise enough to realize that the reason I wasn’t catching any deep balls or picking off opposing passes was because I wasn’t any good. However, weeks before, early into the season, I had lived the dream game: picking off a rifled throw just before a would-be receiver snagged it, making a lateral direction change after catching a soft flare-pass and running a couple kick-offs back deep into enemy territory. I walked off Indiana State’s Astroturf field convinced I was a football god, and I spent the next 10 weeks angrily trying to figure out where all that magic had gone.

The “season” I’m referring to wasn’t the one played out by the actual Indiana State University tackle football squad. True I was “on” that team in a manner of speaking, serving as an equipment manager, but that’s sort of like a cameraman working for Spielberg saying he starred in “ET.” My season was the series of weekly manager-trainer games which we support staff would throw together every Friday, after the real team wrapped up their light, half-pad pregame practice.

I had signed on as one of three Sycamore equipment-nerds (as liked to call myself) in the late summer of 1990. I volunteered for the job through a series of unplanned decisions which somehow all worked out. It started when I went to work for Debbie Nelson, the Indiana State athletic director’s secretary.

Once immersed in the unique culture of the university athletic department, I “networked” my way to a job in the Sports Information Office, and then, seeing the opportunity for a resume-builder, I realized that if I simply offered to work as a football manager, they’d actually take me.

My start with that team wasn’t easy, beginning with my wrong turn into the wrong locker room on day one, followed by some bad dummy placement for a set of offensive line drills, further followed by slow-on-the-hop ball-spotting during scrimmage drills….

By the end of that first day, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into. Every misstep earned either a condescending scowl or an outright verbal explosion, but eventually I worked hard enough to bring most of that to an end. Surprisingly, I kept my mouth shut enough to earn the praise of some (if at least the right) coaches, and I settled into the kind of routine you need to succeed. The dummies were in place before the first lineman put on a pad, the ball was spotted before the huddles had formed, and I knew which way to turn.

By early November, we members of the “polo-shirt crew” stepped onto the field for our last friendly game of two-hand shove. Lacking both the endurance and requisite 40-times for a productive game up and down all 300 feet of Memorial Stadium’s turf, we always opted to work sideways, playing from sideline to sideline and using the goal line and one of our sidelines and the 30-yard-line as the other.

By that point in the season, after having walked off the field once in utter frustration, I wasn’t even in the mood to play. I remember it had been freezing all practice, and the wind had been stubbornly hitting us from the north, racing over the locker room facility, past the scoreboard mounted on top of it, whooshing across the field assaulting us with a solid 40-degree wind-chill. Had it not been for the instant sentimentality that comes with the last home game of every season, I doubt anyone would have wanted to play that day, but the last day it was … we played.

I lined up at scrimmage and quickly realized I was one of at least nine or 10 receivers. Worse yet, I was slow off the line, I didn’t cut well, I was smothered everywhere I went. Consequently, for the first 20 minutes of the game, the closest I came to the ball happened during the huddle. I was cold, tired, irritable. I just wanted to head back to my apartment and settle in with some Ramen noodles and cable TV.

“Hey guys,” a familiar voice stopped us, and we all turned. Facing us, half-walking to the coaches’ office was the quarterbacks and receivers coach, Sean Payton. “You guys mind if I play?”

For the longest half-second in history, we stared at each other trying to read each others’ minds. Long before Payton became the guy calling plays for Jim Fassel in Super Bowl XXXV and even longer before he called that irritating little onside kick and won Super Bowl XLIV, he was still an intimidating figure: an All-American quarterback at Eastern Illinois, a charismatic and engaging personality everyone gravitated around. For the latter reason more than the former, everyone assuaged their fears and welcomed him onto the turf.

After a series of inauspicious downs, the initial excitement of adding Payton to the team having long since passed, I suddenly got involved in the game in one abrupt play. I lined up on the left side, ran for the “end zone” and turned right — across the middle — once I got there.

Square in the center of a throng of people, I turned to Payton, put my hands up — forming the diamond shaped target he taught his own receivers to make — and waited. Payton’s eyes scanned the field quickly. It was, honestly, amazing to watch him move a small army of defenders to one side of the field or the other simply by looking one direction. When he saw me, he planted his forward foot and let the ball go.

“Oh sh–,” I whispered.

Given how frigid the day had been and further given that none of us were gifted gridiron specialists, the best pass anyone had put in the air had been a soft duck, arcing at least at a 30-degree angle. But the ball Payton let fly was the kind All-Americans throw. It was spinning tightly, barely rising from the level of his hand at the release. If I had been given the chance to look at it from the side, from a small distance, I swear I probably would have seen streaks of brown and white following it. But I wasn’t off to the side, I was directly in front of it, and the distance between the ball and my face was shrinking by the millisecond.

The ball hit my hands, but they never had the chance to clamp down and secure it. Instead, the pigskin bulldozed past them, tossing them to either side like two fence gates smashed open by a getaway Dodge. It finally stopped an instant later, squarely on my nose.

I dropped to my knees, bringing my hands (those useless, disappointing hands) to my face. I couldn’t see clearly, my eyes were gushing enough water to fill up a cistern and at least a five-gallon bucket’s worth of snot started leaving my nose.

The cacophony of laughter echoed around me, and when I glanced up I saw the trainers doubled over, holding their stomachs as if the humor might cause their intestines to explode. That’s the moment Payton approached me. He offered me his hand (his much more reliable hand) and pulled me up.

“Are you okay?” he asked, but thanks to his own laughter, his question rattled out with a machine-gun rhythm to it. The surrounding laughter not only continued, but seemed to grow completely unabated.

It’s a better than safe assumption that a man who coached an NFL team to a Super Bowl holds no memory of the day 20 years before, when he clobbered the bratty kid who held headphone cords and repaired facemask clamps, but that cold day remains an emblem of one of the singular advantages college gave me.

Indiana State is a university where a kid from the sticks in places like Spencer, Ind., can sit in a room and learn from professors who mastered their craft at Harvard (Dr. Tom Derrick) and Yale (Dr. Brendan Corcorran).

It’s a place where distinguished authors, who write textbooks used in public schools and college campuses across the nation can show why they literally “wrote the book” on writing and composition (Dr. Robert Perrin).

College, and specifically small colleges like State, bridge chasms which otherwise keep people from humble prospects forever locked into their own cultures, their only known ways of life.

Indiana State University gave me the chance to make something of myself. Thus, when I listen to the critics who are in a hurry to dismiss my school because of its open-admittance policy and “they take anybody,” I shake my head. Those poor souls are completely missing the point. The quality of a school doesn’t lie with whom they accept; it rests with what they give to those who come.

Indiana State did not offer me an easy degree the day I walked through the door. Instead, they effectively said, “We believe you’re worth taking a risk for, and we’re willing to give you a chance to be someone no one else believes you can be.”

The rest was up to me. I was young, yes, but I was old enough to grasp the basic concept of responsibility and carry the awareness that this journey through college was my “American Idol-esque” shot at a better life. I took it, and I worked harder than I ever thought I could to earn it.

It’s true that I owe much of what I’ve become to my aforementioned hard work and effort, but if Indiana State hadn’t given me that initial golden ticket, none of that work would have mattered. There are very few moments in my life that I would be willing to live over, but I would happily re-do every day I spent at Indiana State, especially the day I took Sean Payton’s forward pass on the face.

(Donovan Wheeler is a contributing writer for the craft brew website, Indiana on Tap, and an Advanced Placement English teacher in Indiana.)

One Comment

  1. Great memory, Donovan! I really enjoyed reading your article. Indiana State is a wonderful school and I’m sure there are many more memories like yours where something happened to a student while attending ISU that made a difference in someone’s life. We truly are a school that believes students can succeed if they put forth the effort. Success is in your future…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *