By any objective measure, I think you could say that throughout my life I have been an above-average athlete—assuming, that is, that you include all of the certifiable non-athletes in the worldwide population. On the playground, I was never picked first, but also never last. As I grew, I was good enough to make the team, but never a star.
Ninth grade at Goddard Junior High was suitably representative of my athletic prowess. In my only year of tackle football, I was a backup tight-end—140 pounds of grit, squeezing into the huddle and whispering: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on this play.” To give you a sense of the intimidating figure I cut on the gridiron, the coaches nicknamed me Woo Woo.
Perhaps more impressive was the fact that I was one of only a dozen or so guys who made the Goddard basketball team. Less impressive was the fact that I began the year as a starter (!) but ended it as a third-stringer at the end of the bench. On the track team I was a high-jumper with neither technique nor natural ability, also pressed into service as our last guy in the 440-yard dash. In that race I never finished better than fourth.
In spite of that manifest mediocrity, as a kid I was full of aspiration. Jerry West was my guy, and I dreamed of one day playing in the NBA like him. I once I even wrote him a letter asking what I could do to become a better dribbler.
But I never mailed the letter. I knew without posting it what my idol’s answer would be: “Practice.” Even at that young age, I knew he would urge me to spend hours doing drills with both hands, honing and then mastering skills that could eventually find their way into a real game. It would take work and focus and determination—none of which I had. Rather than mail the letter, I turned it into a paper airplane. (True story.)
That airplane does not fully explain why I never made it to the NBA (or onto the varsity at Glendora High, for that matter). But it is emblematic of my athletic career. Perhaps because I had so many other interests as well, I never chose to dedicate the time and effort necessary to be really good. To this day I am more enthusiastic about playing the game than working at it. You want to have fun? Hang out with me. You want to get good? Find a different training partner.
My true talents (and lack thereof) emerge in just about any sport I try. For instance, around the time I was not mailing letters to Jerry West, I remember golfing with a friend who was a ranked junior golfer. During one backswing, I had him laughing so hard that he hit his ball about two feet . . . straight out of bounds. It’s not as if I don’t have skills, is what I’m saying. But as you can plainly see, they’re not the sort of skills that help you (or your playing partner) shoot a better score.
However—and this is key—there was one critical time in my life when my athletic inclinations aligned with my actual skills in a beautiful way:
I was in graduate school. My friend Chris told me that they were offering free aerobics classes in the church nearby. The price was right, the time was convenient, and there was this added bonus: the teacher was a total babe. So Chris and I went to her class a couple of times a week, presumably to try to stay in shape. We weren’t the most determined aerobicizers in the Southland, to be sure, but we did keep the class laughing. They could have gotten a better workout without us, but with us making cracks from the back of the room, they definitely had more fun.
Plus, I ended up marrying the teacher. They didn’t call me Woo Woo for nothing.