As an intimidated sophomore defensive end, I missed a lesson from an upper classman I wish I hadn’t.

I never liked Bob Klesath. Well, that’s not really true. I liked him I was just terrified by him. Bob was a senior. I was a sophomore. Bob played defensive end and tight end in football, a sport he got pushed into by the basketball coach and then realized he liked it quite a bit. Because of the pain.

See, Bob enjoyed inflicting it. He enjoyed intimidating people. On the football field he could do both without getting called for a foul. He could be mean and nasty and it was encouraged, even applauded. Not like the basketball court where everyone could see if you threw an elbow or poked an eye or snuck in a punch. I played the same positions Bob did in both sports and while I didn’t mind sticking my nose in there and thumping someone the damage and the pain inflicted weren’t the goal, they were part of the game. Bob didn’t care so much about the game; his goals were the other things. Through them he always kept me off balance. I could never figure out where I stood with him.

One minute he would be hammering on me and the next minute he’d grin and you knew, or thought you knew, he was really just kidding. I liked stability. I knew the rules and my personality said they should be followed. Again, within the rules plenty of banging could be had but I wanted to keep it clean. Bob enjoyed dirty. If he had to hold or trip or clip on offense in his mind that was okay. He was less about how things should be done and more about them just getting done, regardless of the rules. This ran counter to what I believed. I was about fair play and prevailing honestly, within the accepted rules of the game. Bob constantly had me guessing. Maybe that was part and parcel to his technique because Bob wasn’t really a very good football player.

Like I said, he was goaded into playing by the basketball coach, a guy who constantly drilled into his players that they be mentally and physically tough. Bob was easily 6’5” and 230. He was a big guy and yet he truly didn’t know how to block correctly. He was clumsy at times and perpetually, literally off balance on the football field. I, on the other hand at a swarthy 6’2” 160 (if I lied), had to use every technical tactic available to avoid being manhandled by the “Bobs” lining up on the other side of the line. To be fair he made the best of his abilities despite his limited experience and because of his size and tenacity he prevailed. He prevailed on a 3-6 team however. This says as much about our high school’s football program as it does about Bob.

As a lowly sophomore, while I was good enough to travel with the varsity I rarely played except on special teams. I watched a lot from the sidelines and although I wasn’t good enough to play I knew that the guy at my position got beaten, sometimes badly and often. He was frequently out of position and looked faked out completely, never overpowered so much just out smarted or out-played. My bleeding heart felt badly for him even though he terrified me. Like the time I actually got into a blowout game on defense.

I ran onto the field late in the game with the other team on our 10 or 15 yard line. To this day I don’t know why they took Bob at 230 out in that situation and sent me at 160 dripping wet in. My recollection is poor although I know it didn’t really matter, the other team had us well in hand. What I do remember is running onto the field and Bob screaming at me through his mouth guard. I think he screamed, “You watch that guy!!!!” and pointed at the other team’s halfback. Well, I watched him alright. I watched the quarterback ride him into the gap just inside of me and while I waited for the play to develop and them to get to me he folded the ball into the halfback’s belly and he burst through the line within arm’s length and scored without hardly being touched.

Now, time and knowledge and yes, justification, leave me asking where our inside linebacker was in this whole thing. To this day I don’t know. It’s highly likely that because the defensive end (me) didn’t fulfill his assignment that the ‘backer was picked off by the tight end or blown out by a pulling guard. I have no idea. It was then and still is to this day, a blur. I stayed out on the field for the P.A.T. try and trotted to the sideline. I expected Bob would probably kill me. He didn’t. He ignored me, probably more hurtful for a wet behind the ears sophomore than if he had clobbered me. Like I said, he always kept me unsteady.

We never became friends, Bob and I. I suppose in his way of thinking, that wouldn’t have really been right, me being an underclassman and all. Besides, in the midst of that losing varsity season the Junior Varsity and Sophomore teams (where I played all the time) beat some of the best teams in our part of the state and with each varsity loss we were seen as the future and the seniors more a part of the past. I never liked that and I never stopped looking for Bob’s approval even though I realized that apart from the fact that he could beat me silly as a result of the 100 or so pounds and 6 inches in height he had on me I was probably a better football player than he was. It’s funny how that works out sometimes and continues to work out that way even today.

Back then I never really learned the lessons that Bob had to teach me and in some ways it’s been to my detriment. I still get too hung up on the rules and the analysis rather than just battling it out using the tools I have. I excel in technique, controlled, within the accepted norms, when what I really need to do is get in there, slug it out and by force of will compete; even if maybe I don’t win all the time. There’s no doubt that even with all my study of the game and attention to doing things “right” that when I went up against Bob in practice (and the coaches rarely allowed that to happen, I’m sure to preserve my brains) I was going to lose. Part of it was physical but the real, true way that Bob owned me was mentally. I looked across the line at him or saw him in a drill and I knew what was going to happen. And if I slacked off or didn’t go hard, Bob would likely chew my butt or make it hurt a little more. He exhorted, no really commanded, me and the other underclassmen, to go as hard as we could. “You’ll never make us any better if you don’t come at us. How are we going to get a good look if you’re half-assin it?!” I tell you, we went hard out of fear.

So, maybe you’re wondering if I became Bob Klesath when I was a senior? No. Did I chew underclassmen out if they didn’t go hard as part of the scout team? Yes, but I didn’t make it hurt more if they didn’t. I never learned the sweet art of intimidation and in a sort of sad note, probably never excelled nor went as far as I could have with the game had I taken that page from Bob’s playbook, studied it and taken it to heart. So, in the end, I guess what I’m here to say is “Thanks”. Thanks Bob. I’m a bit past 50 and I think I’ve finally learned what you tried to teach me 35 years ago. Yes, I’m a slow learner. You scared the crap out of me, Bob and you were the antithesis of me, for what has amounted to a fair piece of my life but I’m finally getting it. I just hope you don’t read this and show up on my doorstep and pound me.

I’ll bet you’ve had some Bob Klesaths in your life. Who intimidated you? Who kept you in line by fear? What did that teach you, good or bad? I’d be interested to know. Thanks.