You do not get to choose your nicknames. They follow you around, silently stalking until they attach themselves to you, like a parasite, when you least expect it.
Sometimes they are funny and endearing. Sometimes they are malicious. Sometimes they are cool and catchy. The nickname that attached itself to me is somewhere in the middle, I suppose.
You have no recourse if the nickname that finds you is one that you do not care for. Resisting only results in the moniker taking a stronger hold, like a Chinese finger trap. Though, you do not realize this until it is too late.
My nickname found me in the fall of 2002 the Monday following the final football game of my senior year. The last football game of my life.
Now, it is important to give a little context that involves football, rest assured that this will not turn into a nostalgic reliving of my glory days on the football field. I have no illusions that my career was anything more than what it was, mediocre. I was not the star of the team or anything close to it. I had a weak knee, due to a snowmobile accident that I have written about previously, that caused me to play hesitant in a game that has no patience for hesitant players. I did what I could to fill my role on the team as a Fullback. I had a few games where I made solid contributions that would show up in a box score but nothing to brag about.
Well, I was 100% (1/1) kicking extra points as the backup placekicker.
That being said, I had an amazing time playing and enjoyed all of the time spent on the field with my teammates and coaches. What’s more, I was a part of a historic season as our team had the first undefeated regular season in 64 years. It’s hard not to have fun when your team is winning all of the time.
Everything came down to the section 8, Class 5A championship game on November 1, 2002. A cold, blustery day. The kind of day that you don’t want to play football unless there is something important on the line. With temperatures below freezing, everything hurts and the field, which was forgiving green grass a few months prior, now more closely resembles an asphalt parking lot.
A win on this day would send us to the next round, competing in the state quarterfinals.
Athletes, in general, are superstitious people. All sorts of traditions and rituals are followed as the competition approached. This was the case for the Brainerd Warriors. Before we would take the field to warm up for the game, we would slowly assemble in the dark basketball gym. This was not only a respite from the stench of high school locker room but also a chance to relax and visualize your upcoming performance. Time to mentally prepare for the game ahead and the game plan that was installed during practice.
This ritual was interrupted by the opposing team as they opted to warm up in the gym, avoiding the cold temperatures outside. This was an unwelcomed distraction, to say the least.
The other ritual is lining up at the top of the long stairs that overlooked the football field below holding hands with the teammate next you. The goal here was to be a cohesive unit and to have “one heart beat” as a team. Looking down at the field illuminated under the stadium lighting with our friends and family in the stands, it occurred to no one on the team that it would be the last time we would do so.
As a teenager, I spent so much time dreading football practice. Putting on the same smelly pads day after day. Conditioning in the unforgiving August heat twice a day for two weeks.
It wasn’t until we lost the game that I realized how much it all actually meant to me.
I couldn’t believe that it was over.
After shaking hands with the opposing team, we huddled as a team under our goal posts. Another ritual but this was the first time we had done so as the losing team. Another sobering pang of reality.
After a brief speech from our team captains, the field is flooded with family and friends offering condolences on the loss.
I am an emotional guy. I often wish I wasn’t but it is just who I am. I cry easy and the more I try to prevent it, the worse it gets.
Tears flooded my face as I realized from now on playing football would be nothing more than a fading memory.
Now, I will maintain that I was not the only guy crying on the field that night. There were many others. If any of you are reading this, you know who you are.
As I made my way to my parents and my girlfriend, crying, I saw the flash out of the corner of my eye. At the time, I paid no attention to this. There were pictures being taken by families all over the field. I hugged my parents as they congratulated me on a good season.
I walked around to teammates, doing the same thing.
It wasn’t until the following Monday morning that I would realize that the flash that I saw out of the corner of my eye was my nickname attaching itself to me.
As I walked into the high school a little before 8AM, still in shock that the season was over, one of best friends approached me, “Hey! It’s Timmy Baby Pants!”
“What?” I said. I had no clue where this was coming from, I was confused and anxious (the state that I am in about 75% of the time).
Laughing he said, “Nice picture in the paper, Timmy Baby Pants!”
“Wh- what picture?” I said. I had not seen the paper.
He calls out to another one of my “best” friends, neither of them played football, “he doesn’t know! He hasn’t seen the paper!”
They lead me down a hallway to a bulletin board hanging outside of a classroom where a teacher would pin-up articles that highlighted students performances, athletic or otherwise.
Even from a distance, I knew exactly what the picture was.
This picture adorned the front page of the sports section.
Why me? Why would they use a picture of me? I was a meaningless role player at best. What did I do to the photographer?
“Are you sad, Timmy Baby Pants? Should we call the wambulance?” one of my “friends” says.
“Did Timmy Baby Pants lose the big game?” says the other.
This is my life now.
I tried to justify. I tried to explain that I wasn’t the only one crying. This made it worse.
By the end of the day, most of my friends were calling me Timmy Baby Pants.
By the end of the week, my mom was calling me Timmy Baby Pants.
This picture is framed and on display in my house.
It has been 14 years. The nickname remains. At least yearly, the picture is posted on Facebook by one of my loving friends. One year, a large number of people even made it their profile picture. This winter I was introduced to a mutual friend at a bar and after a moment of studying my face he said, “Wait, you’re the crying football player!”
Over the past 14 years, I have surrendered. I now realize that the stupid nickname fits. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it.
Timmy Baby Pants