Anyone who has toured a house for sale in the past few decades knows that walking into a child’s bedroom is a little like entering a trophy shop. The trophies might be neatly arranged on shelves and tabletops, or strewn haphazardly across the floor; and they might be measured in feet, rather than inches, in height. But whereas trophies by the dozen would once have suggested the home of an Olympic champion—or the lair, at the very least, of a college All-American—today they largely signify participation.
This trend is entirely consistent with our modern doctrine of childhood equality—or, put another way, with Woody Allen’s observation that 80 percent of life is showing up. But for those of us whose childhoods ended before the invention of self-esteem, this can be poignant as well. The history of my youthful athleticism is not without its thrills and agonies, its frustrations and occasional triumphs. But for all the heartache and glory, all the bruised bones and victory laps, I have exactly one (1) trophy. Some ribbons and medals as well, to be sure, but just one trophy.
I should begin by explaining that my sporting life was largely dictated by family dynamics. I was a passionate baseball player as a boy: an intimidating left-handed pitcher, competent fielder, and reliable batter. But because my older brother had been that rare specimen—a Little League washout—and was the family trendsetter in these matters, when my turn came, I was forbidden to play Little League baseball. In the meantime, my brother had found success as a swimmer at our local club, and so my fate was sealed.
As it happens, our club had the best swim team in the county, and our coach (female, by the way) was a chlorinated Vince Lombardi. So this meant that summer vacations from school were almost entirely consumed with crack-of-dawn practice sessions and hours of laps, and Saturday mornings were wasted at meets, which we invariably won.
All of this might have been worth the effort if I had given a damn about swimming, but I did not. I will concede that my aquatic career had its ostensible rewards: I was, briefly, the butterfly champion of our league in my age group, and I later earned money as a lifeguard. But while my body was thrashing its way across a series of pools in the Washington area, my soul belonged to the nearby baseball diamond.
This involuntary commitment to competitive swimming was followed, a few years later, by an equally compulsory tenure as a high school football player. Once again, I revealed myself to be a workmanlike athlete—in one Sidwell Friends-Landon School grudge match, I fractured the leg of a Landon lineman—but my gridiron career was prompted largely by desperation. So hopeless a student was I that my only chance for college, or so my parents concluded, was a football scholarship.
And yet, between these two dispiriting poles, there was one brief interval of joy. For some unknown reason, at age 11, I was given a respite from swimming and sent to the boys’ day camp run by the Georgetown Preparatory School. I knew no one, had never heard of the Jesuits, and, as a likely lone Protestant, was initially intimidated by the hearty Latin instructors and middle-aged priests who served as counselors.
To my surprise and delight, however, I found I excelled—almost effortlessly. Those hundreds of hours of laps paid off at the pool, I boxed successfully and learned to play rugby, batted and pitched to my heart’s content. Stocky and asthmatic, I had no speed on the track; but I could throw the javelin and shot put a credible distance and held my own on the rifle range and tennis court.
In the company of boys, of course, athletic prowess counts for a lot, and I acquired a nickname and something of a campwide reputation. Better yet, the counselors were a genial lot and liked to quiz me about history and literature and current events. They gave me, in fact, an unexpected measure of pride, made more pleasant by the evident mystification of my mother and father at my sudden prestige. And one momentous afternoon, when the season had ended, I returned home to find the camp director in our living room: He had come to deliver the infinitesimal trophy I seemed to have won—“Athlete”—which remains the principal artifact of that memorable summer.
As trophies go, it isn’t much—largely plastic, light as a feather—and I once had to plead with a metal shop in Los Angeles to solder the slight figurine, which had split into two. But as my alluring wife likes to point out, there it sits to this day, on my bureau, 54 years later.