It is time to go through all of those tubs containing old tee shirts. I have somehow collected hundreds of them over the years. Some are old athletic tees that date all the way back to my first years teaching and coaching. Many are tattered and yellowed from age, others carry what I hope are grass stains. Some are covered in memories which is why I have a hard time getting rid of or “repurposing” any of them. I am drawn to one, almost forgotten, which brought back memories of the player who gave it to me. It was actually off white from its conception, not just with age, and has a prominent hole in the back. On the front there was a design including a Kiwi, the bird not the fruit, surrounded by the logo “Kiwi Country.” Underneath the logo, screened in block letters is “New Zealand.” Wow, I had forgotten all about this particularly beautiful fashion statement.
Back in the day, before charter high schools, academies, online schools or magnet schools became a way to give children and parents more choices and teachers more headaches, Riverside High School could be found on lists next to the elite public schools as it related to overall test scores, graduation rates and whatever additional standards were incorporated by the state for a given year. Actually Riverside still finds itself on those all important list of list. At or near the top in the county and state, many times, dear old RHS would find itself in the top fifty or one hundred public schools. Today, with everyone embracing private schools, charter schools or whatever this year’s “school de jour” might be, the statement that you are a top one hundred public school might be like saying you don’t sweat much for a fat guy. Before I digress to my “soap box”, Riverside’s lofty standing made it a desired destination for foreign exchange students. Over my twelve years there I was lucky to have several and all were very memorable.
“Hobby” Hobson or Hobart R. Hobson had a thick and somewhat odd English accent and the coaching staff decided to pronounce it as a cockney would, ‘Obby Obson’. I don’t think he was very impressed. Hobby was also not impressed when I began to sing “Walzing Matilda,” the unofficial Australian National Anthem. I would have sung the New Zealand National Anthem had I known it. Oh yeah, it’s “God Save The Queen” I guess. Hobby was from New Zealand and while New Zealand is in the same “down under” hemisphere as Australia and was settled by the same Imperial Power, Great Britain, I found that they were more than thirteen hundred miles apart in distance and even farther apart in culture and mind set.
Hobby seemed to be a very serious and quiet young man; much more mature than his American counterparts. He was quite unlike the Crocodile Dundee character that I was still attempting to compare him to and he really never understood why I continued to belt out “Tie Me Kangaroo Down” after his repeated denials of the existence of Kangaroos in New Zealand. Physically dark, with brown hair and a sturdy build, he looked and sounded nothing like Paul Hogan. This did not stop me from kidding him with questions about “shrimps on the Barbie” or “What did your didgeridoo?”
Hobby found that his serious good looks and exotic accent gave him an advantage when it came to man’s favorite sport, girls. Hobby was a “chick magnet” despite his quiet demeanor. They all seemed to want to take him gently into their arms and crush him passionately while lining up as if on a bill of faire at some blue plate restaurant. When questioned about this week’s “menu choice” he would just smile and add that New Zealanders were more gentlemanly than their Australian counterparts. Never having met an Aussie I don’t know.
Hobby played rugby and therefore thought he wanted to play football. Of medium height and stocky build, physically he was typical of Riverside athletes, undersized for a linebacker or defensive end and too slow to play defensive back. That sounds like a typical Riverside player, small and slow. We moved him from position to position until he settled in as an outside linebacker. He would hit you if he could get into position but there is a learning curve in football and sometimes we found him curving in the wrong direction. It began with the simple act of dressing. Did I mention that Rugby players don’t wear equipment? The game of rugby involves blocking and tackling, all without benefit of the equipment that we associate with our game of football including helmets and shoulder pads. This might explain why when “Googling” rugby I saw so many smiling rugby players without all of their teeth.
Once he learned how to dress, and made it to the field, we decided to limit him to defense because of the learning curve involved with offense. In addition to never having played football, Hobby had also missed all four weeks of preseason practice. Defense is more about alignment and reaction than having to learn a play with all the terminology that is involved. “Bunch Right-Liz-Move-Combo Veer-On Three” is akin to learning another language in addition to acquiring the technical ability required to execute the play. He did find a place to play. Despite his disadvantages, Hobby would run as hard as he could and was not afraid to cause a collision. This made him perfect for the kickoff team and he became a good “wedge buster.” Unfortunately this was not one of our better teams meaning we might not get to kick off but once due to our propensity for being shut out. As the season drew to a close we also put him on the kick off return team which gave him many more opportunities to play.
The end of football season also meant that Hobby and I did not run into each other as often. At the fall athletic banquet he presented each member of the coaching staff a wall hanging of a New Zealand map which was divided according to their rugby teams and each of their team uniform shirts. After the banquet there was limited contact until one day the following spring that I saw him in the hallway and we paused long enough to catch up on how well he was doing and to remind him that I still thought he was Crocodile Dundee despite his protests. He was dressed in typical teenage faire, which is universal it would seem, blue jeans and tee-shirt. This particular tee shirt featured his county’s name and logo and I made a big deal about how much I liked it. That is how I got the tee shirt; not that day but later in the spring, the day after graduation. After bidding the seniors a fond adieu, the next day would be spent completing those tasks that teachers must complete before we can run, cheering and dancing to the closest bar as we close school for the summer. I had completed my list of duties and had wandered to another room to try and assist another teacher. When I had assisted or interfered all I could I wandered back to my room and found the tee shirt neatly folded on my desk. There was no note but I got the message loud and clear. It would also explain why I have held on to it all of these years, hole and all.