I once got hit in the head — repeatedly — for charity.
I know how that sounds. It wasn’t that bad
It was worse.
When I matriculated at the University of Florida, I was almost a thousand miles from home and didn’t know anyone other than grandparents who lived nearby. Seeing as how I don’t really know how to make friends all that well, I figured I should repeat the process I’d perfected in high school. I needed to find an something where I’d be around the same people every day, performing a joint activity. In high school, it was sports. In college, I joined a fraternity; the Florida Alpha chapter of Phi Delta Theta, to be precise.
Back in my college days (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and we had to walk two miles uphill both ways to get to class), the first semester of belonging to a fraternity was spent as a pledge. Some of pledging consisted of learning about the history and traditions of the fraternity, getting to know the brothers and cleaning up after communal meals. The rest of being a pledge was doing anything and everything a brother asked you to do as fast as possible, no matter how humiliating. Not that that ever happened. Of course.
Being what I’ll euphemistically call a “big boy,” I was quickly given the opportunity to “volunteer” to help the fraternity in its charitable fundraising event. It was an offer I could not refuse. Not if I wanted to actually become a brother of the fraternity. Which I did.
So I began training to participate in raising money for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Alachua County. How, you might ask, did I help to raise money for this delightful and deserving charity?
Well, this is disappointing. I thought it was a good opening line, not something you could forget easily. Guess not. Okay, for those of you who need a little reminder. . . Let’s do this one more time.
I got hit in the head — repeatedly — for charity.
You see, starting in 1977, Phi Delta Theta held an annual fundraiser called Slugfest. In it, willing young men (for various do-it-or-else values of willing) stepped into the squared circle and proceeded to try and beat the crap out of each other. In short, we ran a boxing tournament.
A boxing tournament which consisted of the brothers of Phi Delta Theta and brothers from three other fraternities, divided up by weight class, going three two-minute rounds against each other.
What could go wrong?
Yes. Exactly what University of Florida Vice President for Student Affairs Art Sandeen was thinking in 1992 when he ixnayed the tourney for good, citing the potential for serious injuries. He was worried because the boxers apparently were training three to four months, often with professional trainers, and seemed near semi-pro levels.
Sadly for my once-pretty, pretty face, Art Sandeen was nearly a decade too late to save me.
Also? I was not one of those people who trained three to four months with professional trainers. I probably worked out maybe ten times in the months before my boxing debut. I think half of those involved another boxer, with both of us wearing actual boxing gloves.
I wasn’t all that worried for a number of reasons. All of them stupid. The No. 1 reason I wasn’t worried was because I was 19 years old, considered myself immortal and invulnerable. The No. 2 reason was because I was stoopid. The No. 3 reason was because I had no choice.
The dumbest reason I wasn’t worried was because I’d played Texas 5-Star football in high school and had come out of it pretty okay. Here’s a newsflash from the Department of Stupidity: boxing is NOT football. Not in any way, shape or form.
In the days leading up to my last-ever boxing bout, I began to notice something odd around the house. Brothers and fellow pledges were looking at me, whispering and then making the sign of the cross before walking away laughing. And no one would tell me anything.
I finally found out as I was sitting on a stool in the ring, wearing the correct boxing regalia of long shorts, muscle shirt, very heavy boxing gloves, mouthpiece and far-too-thin protective helmet.
The brother acting as my manager/corner man leaned in close and said he admired me.
Admire me? Why?
“You don’t even look worried you’re facing a champion Golden Gloves boxer.”
A . . . WHAT?
His head jerked forward. I looked back and saw a different brother had just smacked him in the back of the head.
“We voted not to tell him, idiot.”
A. . . WHAT?
My corner man pushed me in the small of the back and I stumbled off the stool, stopping in the middle of the ring.
I turned around and glared at my crowd of supporters. The corner man gave me a thumbs up and tried to smile. I don’t think he was trying very hard.
“Don’t die,” he said.
Someone tapped my shoulder. I turned to the ref. He was smiling. He said something, though I couldn’t really hear him over the big crowd of thousands and the sound of my panicked hyperventilation. Then the view behind the ref suddenly was blocked by something big, white and purple.
No. Not something. Someone. The champion Golden Gloves fighter I wasn’t supposed to know about. Though, really, how could I not know? The dude was HUGE. And RIPPED. And, most unnerving of all. . . smiling. A lot.
I was hoping for a really long string of instructions from the referee, something to give the boxing ring the chance to spontaneously collapse and save me from the next six minutes. It might have been a long string of instructions. Who knows? Not me. I have no idea what the guy said. I was barely standing upright. Listening and understanding would have required disengaging my massive fear response and engaging my brain and that just wasn’t happening.
My opponent held both gloves out toward me. I flinched. He smiled some more. The ref tapped me on the wrist and nodded toward the huge dude. Right. The handshake before the executio— bout. We touched gloves and backed away.
I tried to keep going. Instead, I hit the corner ropes and stumbled back into the middle of the ring. Again. That was getting to be a bad habit.
We were supposed to have a small bell that dinged to start the rounds. I’d heard it in every match before mine. And, yet, when the bell rang, it was the tintinnabulation of a huge funeral bell. I didn’t have to ask for whom the bell tolled.
The only real boxer in the ring sauntered forward, bouncing lightly on his toes, his glove-encased sledgehandmers held out easily in front of him. I gulped around the mouthpiece inadequately guarding my teeth, held up my gloves, left hand forward, in front of my face, and moved forward.
To misquote the greatest pugilist ever, Muhammad Ali, I was floating like a brick and stinging like a flea.
I moved closer, jabbed at him with my left hand, and missed. I saw his shoulders bunch and knew he was going to jab at me. It flashed through me: I knew what he was going to do. My right hand moved to block him. His glove hit mine and knocked it back into my face. (“Stop hitting yourself. Stop hitting yourself.” flashed through my head.)
Then his right glove came to say hello.
I never saw it coming. Though I sure felt it when it hit. I dropped to one knee on the canvas, my head ringing. I put both gloves down to support myself, shook my head, and looked up at the ref. He started counting.
If the referee got to 10 before I stood up, that was it. The fight would be over. I could have done it. I could have stayed there, knowing I got in the ring, that I’d done my part to raise money. I could have stayed down.
I shook my head slowly. Screw it. I’d had my bell rung before on the football field. I could take a bit more punishment. And maybe dish out a little.
I stood up, shrugged my shoulders back, tilted my head right and left, looked the referee in the eye and nodded. He gripped my wrists in his hands, shrugged and let go.
Stomping forward, I closed with the only real boxer in the ring. We traded jabs and I actually hit him a couple times. I’m almost positive he noticed. I even landed a kind-of, maybe-if-you-squint upper cut to his chest.
He hit me with a hard left jab, followed by an even harder right to the face. I staggered back, barely keeping my balance, mostly thanks to backing up against the ropes. My opponent wasn’t even looking. He was turned around, waving at someone in the crowd.
There was no reason he should have been taking me seriously. I knew that. Still, it pissed me off. I lowered my head and charged.
See, I knew how to hit people. It’s just, I knew how to hit people on the football field where you’re not allowed to punch. I lowered my shoulders and kept moving, ducking low and smashing into him just as he turned around to face me. My shoulder hit him hard in the stomach and I felt him double over. I bent my knees, lifted and pushed.
He would have gone over. I know that. If only those stupid ropes weren’t there. Or if we were engaged in fake professional wrestling where it was okay to do what I’d just done. In boxing, what I’d just done was called cheating.
The referee stepped in and separated us, sending us both to our corners. He let the other guy go by himself. Me, he pushed back, his ringers poking at my chest, lecturing me about correct etiquette when trying to pound someone else’s face in while in a boxing ring. I nodded, feeling confident now that I’d gotten a couple good hits.
Then I looked away from the referee and saw the other guy. He wasn’t smiling any more. He looked pissed. I mean, really pissed. At me. He stood still in his corner, arms at his side, and glared.
The referee stepped back toward the center, opened his arms wide, and then brought them together, telling us both to start boxing again. The other guy stomped forward, slowly bring his hands up. I took two steps and stopped, making him come to me. I kept my gloves up to guard my face, my forearms tucked in to guard my midsection.
He moved forward, I circled away. He smacked me in the head and sides a couple of times, and I could tell he was getting frustrated. That was good. Because I had a plan: keep running away while running out the clock.
It worked. I made it to the bell, which I only knew had been rung because the referee stepped into the middle of my prolonged retreat and pointed the two of us to our corners.
I sat on my corner stool, breathing heavily. Running away is hard work.
The mid-round break did not last nearly long enough. Far too quickly, I had to stand and go back into the ring, hoping I could just keep running away long enough for him to get tired. He did not get tired.
Probably about thirty seconds into the second round (I can’t be more precise as time had gotten a bit wobbly about then), I thought I’d take my shot. I jabbed my left hand, hit him (I think) . . . and then my world exploded.
I blinked and realized I was looking up into the ceiling, the ref’s concerned face leaning over me. He was counting. I rolled over, pushed myself onto my knees and stood up. I felt like a Weeble. I was wobbling, just not falling down.
The referee leaned closer and started babbling nonsense at me. I’d thought he was an English speaker, though, right then, he seemed to be slipping into glossolalia. I think I might have been able to keep going if it weren’t for the twins.
Apparently, the entire crowd was made up of twins. One twin had been sitting behind the other twin. When I looked out into the crowd, the twins leaned in opposite directions, suddenly doubling the number of people in the stands. I mumbled something about why all twins. The ref shook his head.
He stepped away from me and waved his hands over his head. The ref walked over to the only real boxer in the ring and lifted the boxer’s gloved hand up as far as it would go. We had a winner and it wasn’t me.
I flopped back onto my stool, then was grabbed from behind and lifted up. They needed the stool for the boxer in the last match. I climbed through the ropes, fell to my feet and . . . something something. The next bit isn’t all that clear, though I am pretty sure I changed clothes and got taken back to the fraternity house. I do know that, later that night, I was sitting on the couch in the living room by myself while a party raged around me.
I heard later it was a good party.
So . . . What did I learn by getting hit in the head — repeatedly — for charity? Not much, really. Never “volunteer” if you can help it? Boxing is hard? My head hurt? Life isn’t about lessons, but about living?
No. What I really learned is that I’m lucky to still be alive with only minimal brane issues. Other than the ones I started with. And also that sometimes we get lucky enough to live through the stoopidity.