The sports pages contained features on up and coming rugby players who would feature in the Six Nations tournament that starts this weekend. Rugby, once a Cinderella sport, has become glamorous. Like everything else in life though, glamour is unevenly distributed. Even men, well, some men have moments like those in Janis Ian’s song “Seventeen”.
Driving down the dual carriageway on a cold February afternoon, a boy, who was about as far from glamorous as it is possible to be, was heading homewards. He was maybe fourteen, perhaps fifteen. His bag of schoolbooks weighed heavy in one hand. His sports bag hang strangely around his neck, as though it had swung around from where it should have been. He was awkward, gawky and uncoordinated. It was cold and wet and he was walking home from school in his rugby shirt and shorts; presumably preferring to get back to warmth as quickly as possible, rather than taking time to change back into school uniform.
I watched him walk across the road at traffic lights. There had been no mummy to collect him at the school gate. No-one from his family had been to see him play. He walked home alone; nobody talking with him along the way about the game and about the day; and about all the things that fill the conversation in those years. He would get home and leave his bags in the hall and grab something to eat and look at his homework and look at the television and maybe sit in his room and wonder about a world where gawky teenage boys who lived in council houses didn’t seem to have much of a place. Or maybe that is just me projecting my thoughts onto him.
I wanted to get out of my car and shout to him. “Hey, cheer up. It’s OK. Life can turn out OK. It doesn’t matter if you’re awkward and if you don’t have money and if you walk home alone. It’s OK. I’ve been there and done that. Life can turn out all right. It can, really, it can”.
Of course, I didn’t though. What could I know of his life? Maybe he was fine; maybe it was just my own memories causing a sense of unease. Anyway, it would have sounded absurd. Had I been the one crossing the road in sports kit, wanting nothing more than to be home and dry, I would have run away if some mad old stranger had started telling me about life.
He walked into the housing estate and the lights turned green and I drove on. I’ll think about him when I’m at Croke Park on Saturday, a representative of those of us who never stood smiling at cameras, those of us who had two left feet and who were always the last to be chosen.
Perhaps pain is a necessary part of being fifteen; what would we have been told in schooldays? “It’s character forming”. I wonder, though, why the pain never seems to be handed out in equal measures.