Don Rogers: Careers that couldn’t be

Don Rogers

I know, I just know, I’m going to grow into the next Merlin Olson, the Hall of Fame-bound defensive tackle for our Los Angeles Rams.

Why else would a skinny little fifth grader be such a terror in after-school pickup games I’ll someday remember mainly for torn earth and grass, and each breath murder in the smog?

Later, only thanks to bananas stuffed down just before final weigh-in — 81 pounds, whew! — do I get to play Pop Warner the final year I’m eligible. The first-string offense has to double team me during practice if the coaches let me loose where the big boys line up. Curiously, the same coaches fail to take advantage of the opportunity here during games. Instead I’m a sort of outside linebacker contained to a zone on defense, and an end on an offense that doesn’t pass. Seldom used either way.

But, ah, NFL glory will be mine. Why else would I be so keen?

I just know in my gut, with every fiber, this is destiny, only a matter of time. They’ll see.

• • •

High school, still skinny, still little, still ablaze with belief. But OK, I am too light for football. Fine.

So I’ve redirected my furies into basketball. I’m the smallest on my suburban LA high school team, the only one under 6 feet. I’m told I play the game like football and with all the touch and finesse and grace of Merlin Olson. This is not meant as a compliment.

A “scrapper,” I rough up the star guard in practice, coach concealing a smile behind his whistle. I’m that fly you can’t swat and can’t escape. I cover the other team’s scorers when I go in games. Sometimes I start.

I no longer care about growing into Merlin Olson. No, there are far more important matters now, more disturbing, so disturbing that sometimes I can hardly catch my breath: Why can’t the girl I must surely be destined to spend my life with acknowledge my all too moony, staring presence? I work up the nerve to say … Hi. She’s cool, terse, well, chilly, if she can’t ignore me entirely. Then she warms to some friend or boy she knows or turns shy and moony with a guy she likes like I like her.

This is very confusing. Desire doesn’t seem to match up with destiny.

But if not, why not? Why the desire in the first place to be what I cannot, to be with who won’t have me?

This isn’t logical. Life isn’t fair. It makes no sense.

• • •

Now I fight wildfire, and I’m pretty good at it. Well, if by good you mean the ability to beat dirt forever, read a fire while exhausted, at least enough to know where to go if everything blows up, that sort of thing. I’m acing my off-season college courses in fire science. Have the whippet body well suited to the work. Advancing nicely, love the woods, the lifestyle, all that, even down to the smells of dried grass, burned brush, saw gas, fire camp tubs of fast-cooling scrambled eggs, fusees struck alight in the dark.

I know now — at last — I’m quick, not powerful. More persistent than talented. I don’t shine so much as endure. I don’t quit. I can handle smoke.

And I’ve learned that what I love is under no obligation to love me back. But it does occasionally show some favor. Sometimes the stars align when I meet a woman I like. No one is more surprised than me.

I begin to see a pattern to it all, a faint hint of an outline, anyway. Of course life’s not fair by my notions, I know now, but I think I’m beginning to see how this all will work out, God’s plan.

I fall in love and am fallen in love with. Amazing! Dare I imagine a happily ever after, more or less, within reason? And purpose seems to be unveiling her fickle self, lining up at last with my actual gifts.

I can’t be Merlin Olson. I don’t want to be Merlin Olson. I want to do this.

• • •

Well, not so fast. Should have known better.

A twist of a knee, on a basketball court no less, changes everything. I continue on a bit longer, on the way to one fire whipping fiber tape around the fast-swelling joint after jumping out to close a gate. But a final ugly wrenching during smokejumper training declares the end. Surgeries eventually follow. What now?

Gloom, doom, lots of fog, until a ghostly path emerges, this one sketchy line amid a spider web of game trails going who knows where? I breathe deep and take it.

What the hell? I wind up doing what I learned I could not, even while fully convinced about the NFL.

Oh yeah, I was taught well. My teachers were most persuasive. Strings of F’s, raised eyebrows, concerned smiles, long pauses and not a few sighs over longhand essays and every other writing assignment. Things said and left unsaid. I was incapable, would obviously never learn. Some don’t have it. Some things are just not possible, can’t be taught. You understand.

I believed them, too. Still kind of do. Yet here I am, three decades into a career centered on words and stories, writing for a living. I’m doing precisely what I knew, just knew in the gut, I had no business bothering to try, no future in.

So what does that say about the stories we tell ourselves?

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299.

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