Number 32

“Why do you still wear that?” my wife asks.

She eyes (not without a bit of loving dismissiveness) the gold-plated number 32 dangling from the metal chain looped around my neck. I was wearing it when we met in college. But back then it was dangling from a gold-plated chain. I’m not sure she liked it then either. After college, I took it off, put it away and didn’t give it a second thought. However, about a decade ago, I rediscovered it in a tiny jewelry box, in a container, in our attic. And, I had this uncontrollable urge to wear it again. The gold-plated chain was nowhere to be found. So, I strung it on the dime-store metal chain I found in the same container and looped it around my neck. I’ve been wearing it since.

She thinks I’m reliving my glory days. Number 32 was my football number. But I’m not. Seriously, I’m not. I was a good football player. Good enough to play Division III college football. But not great. And, it’s not like there’s a bunch of touchdowns for me to remember. I played on defense my entire career (starting in fourth grade).

Well, there was one touchdown…

It’s fall. It’s Friday night. And, it’s the start of high school football in Ohio. I’m a senior. We’re at home. We’re down. And, it’s the fourth quarter. But we have the ball and we’re driving. I’m on the sideline standing next to Coach Haag. Confusion breaks out in the offensive huddle. The play clock is ticking away to zero. Jesse Koeling (our quarterback) yells to the sideline “We’re a player down!” Coach Haag shoves me onto the field and yells “Get out there!” I hustle out onto the field, step up to the line and take the slot position. I’m a wide receiver wearing extra wide linebacker-like shoulder pads and a neck ring. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know the play. Jesse gets under center, eyes the defense, calls out an audible (which I do not understand) and says “Hut!”. He receives the snap and takes a three-step drop. I run straight down the field. That’s all I know what to do. The defense busts through our offensive line. Jesse scrambles left, then right, then left again. I keep running straight. Jesse’s comes within the reach of one, then two and then three defensive players. I keep running straight. I’m twenty (maybe thirty) yards down field when Jesse flings the football. It’s a Hail Mary. The safety and a cornerback start converging on me. So, I look up. The ball is in its downward arc. It’s coming to me. To me?! The safety jumps for it. The cornerback jumps for it. I don’t. I keep running straight. The ball bounces off the safety. It bounces off the cornerback. And, then it bounces into my hands. I catch it! And, I keep running straight all the way to the end zone!

That was my only touchdown. It was awesome!

But that’s not why I still wear a gold-plated number 32 around my neck.

We humans. When we’re born, we’re asked to participate in time. We’re pulled out of the mystery and deposited into history. So, we build things. We build families, friendships, homes, communities, cultures, governments and on and on. But, given that we are just one infinitesimal piece of the current iteration of all things, our participation in time, as we move through it, is primarily one of letting go and making room for what’s next. What we build and who we love will not last. We’re born into a swirl of churning impermanence. Being alive. Being vitally alive means being heat-achingly aware of our collective impermanence and still finding the wherewithal to keep on building, while simultaneously (and graciously) letting go and making way for what’s next. That’s our task until we’re pulled back into the mystery. And, you know what, wearing a gold-plated number 32 around my neck kind of makes that task less taxing.

I wore the number 32 when I started playing football in fourth grade. I wore the number 32 while playing football in middle school and high school. And, when I was being recruited to play in college, Coach Carr called me up and said “One of our seniors is giving up the number 32 so that you can wear it.” So, I went to Earlham. And, I wore it there.

The number 32 is a reassuring source of constancy in my life. At the start of each day, when I ritually bow my head and loop the chain around my neck and feel the morning-coolness of metal against my skin, I’m reminded of the thresholds I’ve crossed, the trials I’ve endured and the costly promises I made that committed me to a particular way of life. That gold-plated number 32 sits under my shirt and atop my xiphoid process. And, when I reach for it (which I have the occasion to do) and hold it between the folds of my shirt, I feel time. It pulls me out of the immediacy of my context, enlarges my consideration of all things, and helps me become a more gracious participant in time.

The other day, when we were in the truck, my gold-plated number 32 came up again in conversation. And, my wife gently ribbed me with another “Why do you still wear that?”

I just smiled.

Then my son asked “When do I get that?”

I took a long hard look at him on the back bench via the rearview mirror and feverishly wiped clear my mind’s mantel full of moments to remember (with both arms) and set that moment right in the center.

He wears #32 in soccer.

+++++

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Thanks. — shawn

the blue collar professor

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Shawn Humphrey

Shawn Humphrey

the blue collar professor

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