Traveling through Wisconsin recently, I had a serendipitous encounter with my old college roommate. We met at a local watering hole for a cold one and reminisced about old times. I hadn’t seen him in 15 years, but it was like we had never lost touch. We had a great time, and as we were leaving, I said, “Don’t be surprised if you show up in my next blog article!” He laughed at the idea, and I began to have second thoughts when I recalled that campus security personnel were featured in more than one of our escapades. My old roomie is the principal at one of the schools in town, and I was afraid that if these stories got into the hands of his students, anarchy might ensue.
Our talk did awaken some memories of our college football days, however.
Coming out of a small high school in Wisconsin, I was a highly sought after three-sport athlete. By highly sought after, I mean I had zero scholarship offers and zero interest from any of the Wisconsin colleges that I would have happily played for. Instead, I chose a small teacher training college in New Ulm, Minnesota, for three reasons: 1.) I wanted to be a teacher and a coach, B.) They assured me that I could continue playing football, basketball and baseball, a rarity at most larger schools, and iii.) I could afford the tuition.
My dad drove me to Minnesota in August of ‘78 to report for fall practice. When we pulled up in front of my dorm, the football coach was sitting on the front steps waiting for me. How he knew I was about to arrive, I’ll never know. He walked toward me as I got out of the car. He shook my hand and said, “You’re Madson? I thought you’d be bigger.”
“Nice to meet you too, Coach,” I thought to myself.
Our football coach was a formidable character who had played semi-pro ball before taking the head coaching job at our school. He was of medium height but stocky and muscular with a square jaw and close-cropped hair. (Think Sgt. Hulka from Stripes.) He had one other characteristic that made him even more menacing. He had a lazy eye which meant you could never quite be sure who he was looking at. Everybody was cautious not to rile him up because nobody wanted to be on the receiving end of one of his tongue-lashings. He was an organized and demanding coach but all the players respected him. Behind his back we called him Goose. To his face, we called him Coach.
During my freshman year, we had a team dominated by seniors. A lot of them were pretty good players. As a freshman from a small school, I was an unknown entity. During our two weeks of fall practice, we rookies were subjected to some hazing from the upper classmen, most of it good-natured. Each of the freshmen players was forced to stand on a chair in the lunchroom and sing his high school fight song at the top of his lungs. We had to carry trays in the lunchroom and lug equipment to practice. Best of all, some of us were invited to participate in a wildly entertaining locker room activity called Wop Wop! The rules of the game were simple: You threw a soaked, wadded up towel at a person from a few feet away. Any part of the body from above the waist to below the chin was fair game. If the person ducked or flinched or even blinked, the towel thrower could take another shot. If the person didn’t flinch at all, he got a chance to throw the towel back.
One day after practice, one of the senior offensive lineman, known simply as Baino, called out to me after I got out of the shower. Baino was the hairiest human being I had ever seen. When he took his practice jersey off, it still looked like he was wearing a sweater.
“Madson!” he yelled in his deep voice. “We’re gonna play Wop Wop!” I had done nothing to attract this unwanted attention; however, I had no choice but to comply. I didn’t say a word. I stood there grimly with my shirt off, a mere six feet away, and waited while Baino rung out a soaking wet towel and wadded it up into a tight ball. I He reared back and threw the towel. It hit me right in the middle of the chest with a loud THWACK! I didn’t so much as twitch or blink when it hit me. I saw a quick look of surprise, maybe even fear, cross his face – unexpected since Baino was the best Wop Wop player on the team.
By rule, I now had the chance to throw the towel back at him. At this point I don’t think he or anybody else on the team knew that I was also a left-handed pitcher. I picked up the towel, re-wadded it and balanced it in my left hand. With a shortened pitching motion, I wound up and threw that towel back at Baino as hard as I could. It hit him squarely in the middle of his hairy chest with a gut wrenching thud. He tried not to move but the force of the throw staggered him and he stepped backwards into a row of lockers. By rule, I was supposed to be able to throw at him again, but while a handful of his buddies started laughing, he turned and walked away. I couldn’t tell if he was angry or impressed, but I was never asked to play Wop Wop again!