Fourth Down and Goal to Go

 

Say it isn’t so. They say that truth is stranger than fiction and perhaps it is, but on what night had I come so far from the essence of my being? Where was the world I’d become a welcome part of?  Was fate, a mere hologram of my past, leading me down a road less traveled? And hadn’t I written that path off eons ago? In 2007, as the new year approached, I gazed across a vast ocean of men and women. From my vantage point it seemed there was no hope of rescuing the existence I’d come to call “my own”.

In the days of my youth I’d come to realize there was something different within me. I clung to my mother and followed her footsteps. If she cooked, I stood on a chair next to her pretending to be a great chef. If she sewed, I took a needle and thread and learned to darn. When she decided to become “crafty” I took ceramics and crochet classes. I wanted nothing more than to be just like her–it felt right. But when my mother tidied the house, well, I was in heaven. “Let me vacuum, please mommy…” Like “Stomp”, the sound of the particles flying through the vacuum hose was musical.   Christmas was quickly approaching and my wish list written for Santa was long. My mother, with spirited intent, had taken me from my kindergarten classroom to Alexander’s Department Store, at the open air Connecticut Post Shopping Center. There, wrapped in red velvet, on a gilded chair, nestled in mounds of plastic, artificial snow, with crystal white tinsel trees surrounding him,  was Santa Claus.  Behind him the small cardboard sign read, “Breck Shampoo $1.99/gal.”

“Go on, Chipper, tell Santa what you want.” She would vacillate between my two nicknames, “Chip” and “Chipper”. Her hands prodded me to sit on this stranger’s lap, an act I never felt comfortable doing, and ask for something on my list.  My greatest wish  was an enormous stretch, but, if anyone could accomplish this Santa could.

“Well,” he rumbled, “Whadda ya want sonny?” My ear, less than experienced, knew the timbre of  this voice seemed less than sincere. My eyes honed in on his beard. Was this Santa or an elf? “I want a Regina upright vacuum cleaner. Pink please.” Santa lowered his eyes, looked beyond his fake bifocals and blurted, “Little boys don’t play with vacuum cleaners. They play with footballs.” I was crushed and humiliated, like the time the bully in Stop& Shop had taken my gum balls. I was a boy but suddenly felt like a girl. Patting my shoulders, in a “buck up kiddo” kind of way, my mother scurried me off fluttering her fingers.

“Chipper, go look at the candy counter. Pick something out and have the lady put it in a bag.” I pulled my now limp, unenthusiastic body away and went to the counter. The wide range of candies, gum drops, caramel turtles, fireballs and coconut nests should have made me feel better, but they did not. Inspecting the white dots resembling snow on a mountain top, I stared at the Nonpareil.  I saw my mother talking to Santa, hand in reprimand motion, her index finger pointed my way. As she walked away, I thought Santa mouthed the word “bitch”, but could not be sure. Knowing my mother, she’d said everything she’d had to except “Merry Christmas”.

My brother, Dennis, had graduated from The University of Notre Dame, one of the most, if not the most, hallowed of American football institutions. Consequently, I was raised with the expression, “Win one for The Gipper”. Yes, when our mother wanted us to see anything through to fruition she would become Knute Rockne. “Now come on Chip, finish going potty…You need to win one for the ‘Gipper’…”  Really? Even on the toilet? Having visited the campus multiple times, and knowing the history of the university itself, the words stirred pride and spirit. No one can deny the fact the passionate speech from the legendary Knute Rockne to the ‘Fighting Irish’ rallied the hearts of Americans from sea to shining sea.

Dennis’ son, Matt, played football at Yale as an offensive lineman.  I never quite grasped how his father, who worried if his son bit into a hot dog too hard, (random cartilage you know), would allow him to head into such an arena. Driving to New Haven my mother and I spied a man leaning against the large wrought iron fencing that protects the Yale sports fields. Approaching and ultimately passing, we realized it was Dennis, peering through, with binoculars, as Matt’s team practiced. “Turn around,” my mother said.

“What in the hell are you doing?”she asked, “People are going to call the police.” My brother fumbled, nervously laughing. “I’m watching Matt practice…in case he gets hurt…Don’t tell Marsha.”  As we pulled away my mother, smirking, said, “And he used to tell me I was overprotective of you…that kid should have gone to Harvard.” I just giggled. You couldn’t blame Dennis, after all, he is tied to our mothers genetics.

Whenever the opportunity arose, I’d proudly say, to whoever was listening,  “My nephew plays college ball,” then add, “For Yale.”  Each time the reaction was as if I’d said he was the “Gipper” himself.  Matt had a phenomenal run playing in college.  And though he was involved in a relationship with my self-procalimed nemesis, I never felt toward him the way I did the game or the NFL, perhaps because I knew the man behind the uniform. He never cared his uncle was gay, I was just “Uncle Keith”. Matt, even as a child, was a step ahead of society. Football and I had a love/hate relationship, but my nephew, well, that was another story.  It was love, unconditional love, all the way and still is. Matthew Thomas Proto holds, for me, the often misundertood and misguided gift of ‘true’ masculinity.

So how did football fit into my life? Frankly it didn’t.  In 1972, Roger, classmate of mine at Mary L. Tracy Elementary School, posed a question. “Who do you want to win the Super Bowl?” The question was simple, and clearly part of his routine day, but I had no answer.

“Who’s playing again?” I’d asked in an attempt to buy some time and hope for name recognition. “The Cowboys and The Dolphins.” I had little experience with Dolphins other than “Flipper” but Cowboys, well, that’s another story. I was a fan of the show “Bonanza” so a cowboy seemed a safe choice.

“Cowboys,” I said resolutely as Roger marked my vote. Shaking his head a little, I knew I’d made the wrong choice. “Wait, I think the Dolphins.” Hadn’t I the right to change my mind or was that restricted to a woman and once again I’d blurred the lines. With his Number 2 pencil he started to erase my vote when a rapid thought came to mind. What if I choose both? Then I won’t be a loser. I told Roger, who ticked off both little boxes. Suddenly, as with Santa, I felt like a girl, except the girls knew which team they wanted to win. My choice, to me, screamed, “Sissy!” Had I just bet against myself? It seemed I’d done that all my life.

A pacifist, if my cheek is slapped, I turn the other, a learned behavior from my Catholicism.  Slap the other and I want to kick the shit out of you but know that’s unacceptable.  So how could adult men, held in high esteem for  aggression, be paid millions of dollars to do it?  To me it seemed, at best, socially irresponsible.  But at the end of the day what do I know? The stadiums are packed, the economy depends on it and men become “real” men. And beside all that, what’s one more concussion in the world?

On occasion I’d make valiant but unsuccessful attempts at seeking the same enjoyment as my family during Sunday afternoon football games. I’d “crack open” an ice-cold beer with my brother Randy and my dad, pour it into an iced, cold glass and watch the foam create the perfect, thick head. Touching the cool smooth glass to my lips, I’d pour it back and take that first swig, hating every moment. The taste of fermented yeast flowing along my tongue and tastebuds was repugnant.

“God this tastes like pee! Ugh!” It was eveident I hated beer. Holding the glass up, turning it, I examined its color palette.  “You know… the amber and creamy colors are so pretty. Mom, you should have dra..peries…made…” The conversation slowed to a halt as I looked at them looking at me. As usual Randy shook his head. Was this not “manly” conversation for Sunday football?

“You know, Chip, I think you’re right. That would go well with the sofa but what about a rug?” She propagated my inner being, though years later, when my homosexuality was formally aknowledged,  would ask, “Was it me? Did I play a part in this?”  I’d giggle, assure her she did nothing “wrong” and say, “No mom, it was always there, you just watered it a little bit.”

The game droned on endlessly. “With only thirty seconds left it’s a long-shot to win.” Long-shot? That thirty seconds lasted twenty-five minutes at least. If only we had the capability of “football time” on vacation. “Come on Keith, we only have three minutes before we have to leave.” That would equate to two extra days of beach and sun, not to mention shopping for new, cute swim trunks.

I was ever ashamed of my very “Non-American”, non-masculine behavior.  I detested a game…a game… and what it symbolized–the emasculation of people like me. In some way, on some unspoken level, perhaps there is some excitement found in intimate contact with others while being watched by millions of adoring fans.  I’m just exploring the notion that sports, primarily contact sports, might elicit a bit of sensuality even among men. For shame!  The very terms “wide receiver” and “tight end”– who thought of such titles?

“Chip, just watch, it’s exciting. It’s what a lot of boys dream about.” Only not this boy, not that way. How could I have told her I did dream about it, just in a different setting? How could I admit that the best part of the game, for me, was the way the players asses were so well-defined by their uniforms. High, tight, and round, like the perfect orb set in the perfect Charleston garden, and, with the heightened art of “manscaping”, not a stray weed in sight. How could I tell my father that watching these men get into position, knees bent, back neutral and buttocks pointing toward heaven was my favorite moment of the game?

Perhaps in sports there is an unspoken, accepted slice of my own life, a life less accepted. Admittedly I feel an overwhelming sense of excitement during the games, but it is vastly different from the rush of adrenaline pulsing through everyone else’s veins. Though not a fan, the homo-eroticism of the players does speak to me– and millions of others. Must it always be about simply performance and statistical averages? I think not.

The finger of guilt was pointed directly at me and by me. I feared hushed voices would use  adjectives such as “abnormal” or “deviant” to define my life, words I cared not to acknowledge. Curiously, when I came out, my homosexuality and the idea of two men touching one another was difficult, actually, “sickening” for my mother to envision. But the game was on every Sunday and or Monday.  I supposed watching men position their hands, between another man’s legs, from behind, on national television is more widely accepted than if done in privacy. After all, what substantiates the definition of ‘real man’ more than having a “real” man’s hand on your ‘real’ man’s ass after a good play?

My dad explained. “It’s a congratulatory thing with guys, it’s okay if someone does something good. You see what I’m saying?”  Dating David Beckham on the down-low would be a “congratulatory” thing–congratulations to me. When I congratulated my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Moran, for a job well done on our elementary school play, as “real” men do, was I sent home with a note.

“Why mommy? I just did it the way dad said men do after a good thing.  I patted his hiney.”  I was confused. Mr. Moran was even more confused when my little hand innocently molested him. Years later, meeting my former teacher in a gay bar, he tipped his head left and proclaimed, “I always knew I’d see you in a place like this.”

At what point does “manly”‘ behavior imitate gay behavior and exactly how are those grey areas delineated?  I always distanced myself from the hypocrisy and ask the really important questions as my family, watched the game.  “What does everyone want for dinner, rib roast or pork chops? Any ideas for a side dish? How about dessert?” My mother taught me to cook and bake at an early age and Sunday football was the perfect time hone my skills.  Football had become the symbol of society’s interpretation for “true masculinity” and I found it contemptible. And then, all in one evening, in the year 2007, my world view turned around.

When combined with close friends and my partner, Rob, Provincetown is a lively location to usher in a New Year. Everyone had left Connecticut ahead of me so I was on my own. Before making the pilgrimage my attire must be selected so there is no time wasted in getting to P-town, heading to dinner and then out for the evening. Clothing is my football game. From the closet, a rich burgundy silk chemise by Dolce and Gabbana, is hiked to me. I take it, run to the right, and score.  People’s addictions come in many forms. Mine comes in the form of fabric and is, I am sure, no surprise to anyone. I collect, or rather obsess, over shirts. Carrie Bradshaw lovingly nurtured her shoes–my shirts are my signature. The luscious silk, seamlessly and lovingly draping the shoulders I’ve broadened, justifies me. To the naked eye my choice holds no deep meaning other than it is a shirt. To a man such as me, it is heaven on earth, my identity and my spectator sport.

In the car, traveling the straightforward yet endless journey to Cape Cod, I listened attentively to “The Supremes”, paying careful attention to every note their voices toll.  In my mind I visualize the elaborate gowns and adoring fans. As I drove, I held my right arm outward, as Diana, the ultimate diva, would, wrist engaged, and snapped my thumb and forefinger ever so “Supremely” to the song,“In and Out of Love”.  Arriving, I found my friends sipping cocktails and reveling in laughter. After dinner we walked Commercial Street to  ‘Wave Bar’ with its tremendous cinema screen and multiple smaller screens surrounding the dance floor. Inside there is a formidable pulse. The community comes alive to music videos and clips from campy, cult movies such as “Mommie Dearest” or “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”.   Whitney, Cher, J-Lo and Madonna play to a crowd of men and women, and are considered more iconic than the Empire State Building, which after one visit has limited appeal. Entering the club, an unfamiliar rabble rousing echoes.  Wait, what’s going on here? As unfamiliar as this was it was just as familiar. The falsetto baritone voices of the crowd, both men and women, were chanting as arms up, fists clenched, pumped the air.  “Woo! Woo! Woo!”  The excitement was not directed at the usual iconic ladies but the New England Patriots.  Tom Brady, the 6’4” quarterback, sweaty and in all his glory, stood facing the camera, the telltale black lines beneath his prowling eyes appearing like his make up was on upside down.  There, upon the king sized screen, his body,  those buttocks and stunning face, validate he was now elevated to the coveted position of  “Wave Bar Diva”.

My friends and I were minuscule pieces of an overcrowded puzzle with one corner piece missing.  Nowhere in sight was the normal couture one might hope to find. Neither a D&G tee shirt, Prada loafer, nor anything Armani Collezioni is evident and if they were they eluded me.  Hugo Boss and Tom Ford must be on vacation.   I make my way to the upper platform where someone of my stature, a mere 5’7″ can gain a better vantage point.   Quizzically I perused the crowd.  Nothing.   I saw waves of men with beer bottles in hand and Old Navy and American Eagle tops and sweatshirts on their backs as well as the women.   Baseball caps topped the normally coiffed or shaved heads of the men like whitecaps topping the waves of the sea. Can it be?  My God, has the Gay world lost all sense of self? Off in the corner, standing alone was a young man in A&F. It was a faint glimmer of hope on the body of someone who, like me, was simply searching this testosterone filled universe for an ounce of what once was.  I had fallen, perhaps through a void in the heterosexual atmosphere, into a parallel universe, one with no rhyme or reason. When had it become suitable for gay men to gather in multiple numbers and cheer on the NFL?  I’d somehow landed on the outside of my comfort zone. Through the surrealism my brain had a wistful thought. Who to ask?  Tapping the man next to me on the shoulder, I motioned him to lean in. Prepared for a poignant query about the nail-biting quarter of the game, which could leave the Patriots undefeated for a full season, he gives me his ear.

“Hey, who do I write to about the team’s uniforms? Don’t you think the game would be more interesting if Ted Baker designed them?” This stranger was not amused. The recoiling of his body answered the question without a word ever being spoken.  Though a valid thought to me, my inquiry was unappreciated and met with great disdain.  Apparently I had sullied the game, his attention, and all that is sacred as a spectator. I retreated into my head to hear “The Supremes” sing “In and Out of Love” once again, while sheepishly snapping my fingers to the internal beat.

The clock was counting down to the end of the game.  Joy filled the room. The rush was palpable, permeating everyone’s being, including mine, as the Patriots positioned to take their place in history. Exhilarated, the announcer declared,  “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… the Patriots are undefeated for one solid season!” History has been made. “Woo! Yes! Tom I love you…Woohoo!” The crowd was shouting out in unison with hands clapping and fists pounding toward the heavens in joy.  “Now get those boys to the showers and keep the cameras rolling,” one spirited fan screamed excitedly.  I never remembered my father shouting that in our living room.  At last, some semblance of rational behavior had returned to “The Wave”.   But the celebratory feeling in the room was intoxicating.  Looking back over the evening, I too felt the shock of electricity as Tom Brady got into position, caught the hike and threw the ball far and wide while rocketing his team to glory.  And this time it had nothing to do with “the position”. For a few shining moments I understood the passion and the glory of football.  Could it be that I, Keith Proto, the sissy boy from his childhood, actually enjoyed this? I was more puzzled at the thought than I had been when I walked into the bar and witnessed the multitude of flannel. Had I misjudged the game and been prejudiced in my thinking? And had I been that politico, who’d erected a wall to prove a point and what might that point actually be?

Without warning, on the screen was a video compilation of Cher, Madonna and Whitney singing in unison their most prized musical hits. Fantasy hairstyles, theatrical makeup and intricately choreographed moves swept over the crowd.  The fluidity of their bodies and ease of style swiftly captured us and once again, thankfully, came the shrill cries of glee for our divas. These men and women, who had dressed as they should for an evening with the Patriots, readily flounce back to where nature intended. You can outfit my people in fluffy fleece, but thankfully you cannot take the fleecy fluff from them. Fate knocked not a moment too soon. In swished a Prada ‘Pea’ coat, perfectly fitted, well-proportioned and accented with ebony buttons.  Under it a pair of ‘7 for all Mankind’ jeans and a ‘Boss Orange’ slim fit sweater clung to a svelte body.  My very own Tom Brady had arrived.  He hiked his couture to the dance floor and began going for the goal, a replication of our divas, with exact precision.  Pinching myself to ensure I was not dreaming, I caught his pass and ran the distance. Touchdown! I actually existed in the parallel universe of this night and enjoyed it.  My parents would be so proud.

Days later, Adam, a young, gay man of twenty something, came in for a haircut. Adam is fresh and full of forthright, direct opinions about life He is never shy and never retiring. He surprised me with his youthful insight on my night.  Having played high school football he shared my disdain, not for the sport but the single-minded illusion which comes with it.

“They, (the fans, parents, players), have only one voice; it’s a one-sided ideal,” he said, “Football equals masculinity and masculinity equals football. It’s fucking bullshit.”  I knew it. With the help of my young friend I’d patched an old wound.

You can be a fan of  couture or bake brownies on a Sunday afternoon while the game goes on.  You can even be an avid enthusiast or modest spectator of, dare I say it, football and still be gay, it’s okay. There is more than one voice and whether masculine or feminine, booming or soft, it can be heard. Most importantly, after years of feeling an outsider in American society, I surprised myself in learning I’d misjudged a truth. I’d become that person, the Erector of the wall of segregation, thinking it offered protection, only to realize it caused more harm than good.  It wasn’t the sport I found contemptible but the reflection of me, in the mirror of societal expectation, during the years of my youth.  I chose not to embrace myself because of the fear of rejection, and sadly, at the time, that included my family. I’d misjudged them and their love for me.  My father and brothers, playing defense, would never have let that happen, and my mother, though a tough sell, had proved it when she rushed and tackled Santa for me. The feelings of self-imposed exile had been hiked to me, caught and then fumbled as I stood in the vast stadium of life, unable to run with the ball.

Couldn’t December 29th have come sooner?  When I’d looked across the vast body of men and women at “The Wave”, indulging in sport spectatorship, I saw what lay before me. Doctors, lawyers, waiters and waitresses, sons, daughters, accountants, realtors, teachers and car salesmen and many others, including myself, felt a fevered energy.  We were all in one room, in one town, with one common denominator—we were gay.  This is what Keith, the little boy, dreamed of. There was no shame and certainly no emasculation. There was an abundance of testosterone, which may or may not have been imported, and we were living.  One minute the Patriots (well, Tom Brady) had all eyes on them, the next minute Whitney did. It was quite the balance. Of course the odds of me sitting before a screen watching a football game are slight, though I’ve discovered Rob is an avid fan so by default… There still exists a wound, and neither tight end, wide receiver, nor quarterback hold any real interest for me. Well, perhaps the tight end.  But that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the energy of others when during a game. The position I’d chosen to play was defensive end. It came from being exiled by the incongruous standards of society.  And, at the end of the day,  doesn’t it feel good to get a pat on the ass, like “real” men do, after a good play?

At last my mother, if she were alive, could say, “Win one for the Gipper,” and I would understand.  My young nephew Christopher approached and asked me to throw the football with him. He isn’t a “sports kid”, going out for the team, and never has to be. But Chris understands the joy of fun, and knows how to have it. I had a moment of hesitation. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, or that those old feelings were invading me, but I wasn’t sure if I was talented enough to throw properly. I drew back the little oblong blimp, once my nemesis, and threw. Chris caught it, time and again. We talked and threw, talked and threw and had a “man” to “little man” moment.  Keith had come along way from the little boy on Orchard Road. And being the “real” man I am, did it with the “Supremes” still playing in my head, arm extended and fingers snapping. “Woo! Woo! Woo!”  I’d finally caught the ball and made the run, all with a fourth down and goal to go.

 

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