When I was a kid my dad never wore a seatbelt. I asked him why and he answered my question with a question, “Do you really think a car crash would kill me?” I suddenly had a vision of my dad flying through the windshield like the human bullet, whirling through floating glass beads in a romp-ish dance, backlit by a makeshift truss of mangled car headlights as he shook insignificant dust particles free from his tanned leathery skin. No, I thought, no car crash could kill my dad.
I knew my dad was the strongest man on the planet–he was a Samoan descended from a matai, a chief–we are descendants of a mighty people. He’d been fighting full grown men since he was my age. My dad could beat up your dad, I’d tell the kids at school— that’s literally his job. He goes to work like your dad, but at night he fights drunks at the club, just like Superman did. If Superman were bald, tatted up and Samoan. I told close friends I would grow up to bounce clubs too. Not that my dad— Ron— ever liked the comment— but I knew I was destined for it.
My dad inundated me with L.A. stories of him and his Californian friends ditching his barbed-wire, burnt-down-in-a-drug-fire high school. They surfed grimy seafoam and flotsam sea-trash, they rode motorbikes down the Pacific Coast Highway. They played football, and as a Samoan, he dominated on the field. They tagged over rivaling gang tags around their turf, busted down doors and mobbed gang-lords at nightclubs, and then would hide at home for days after. My dad always sighed a half-chuckle, shaking his head.
“I’m glad we moved so you never have to live in that mess. I was a bad kid.”
I would deny the statement; you sounded pretty cool to me! His stories had teeth; they were vivid, gripping.
In the sixth grade I picked up football like my dad. Twelve-year-old me, however, was white, wobbly, and fat as bread dough. I was vigorously optimistic about my first year in tackle football. I played a couple years of the simulative practices of flag football, children blocking with arms crossed like choir boys.
The first week of tackle football practice is famously called “Hell Week,” in which you attend two-a-days to earn your football pads. I was thick before football and had never run burpees, wind-sprints, or consecutive scrimmages. By the weekend, I was on knees and elbows sucking air between belching vomit, prostrate like a sinner in prayer.
I was a flat-footed fathead under the tutelage of old-school Samoans; my coaches all played football in college and planned to raise up the next crop of Samoan youth in football. The expectation to instill the youth with experiential wisdom is not uncommon for most cultures but for Samoans it is a key tenant, a cyclical journey to return with a boon for your family wrapped up in a word that is Malaga. Football, we were taught, was the meal-ticket we would punch in for our future. As Coach Kingi would recant, “I’ve got a big empty head. If I didn’t have football, I wouldn’t have gotten an education. Use your skills as a warrior to make it as a scholar.”
When I got my pads the coaches held hitting drills to determine first string positions. The first hitting drill situated two teammates on their backs roughly five yards apart. On whistle the two would scramble like upturned turtles, sprinting to knock each other down. I lay on my back, sucking on my mouthpiece, carefree, assuming my Samoan genes would somehow kick into overdrive and take care of the drill.
The whistle blared, I tried to crunch up. The football pads were unwieldy, the new pants spun of spandex so thick they had no give— I got stuck. Before I got to my feet my teammate sprinted through me like an ax splitting wood. I bounced off the AstroTurf, air walloped from my lungs. I looked up at a cloudless sky, clutching my stomach rolls, snorting and writhing with the spastic coilings of a snake caught in lawnmower blades. My team jeered and chuckled while I shook out my death dance. It was a deafening tally of squeals before breath returned.
I finally sat up. Oh my god, I would never allow myself to be trounced like that again, with blushing fury I struck a vengeance pact to smite anyone across from me on each and every play. I would continue to train late after sundown every football practice; running sprints, doing push-ups, slamming pads. Cue the cliched training montage here.
I wanted to tell my dad about football, my new coaches, my life, but he was often drained after work and I didn’t want to bother him. One frigid night he returned with a gash on his arm; Ron told me a story about a group of oiled up, drunk bodybuilders and their respective girlfriends he had to kick out. One of the bodybuilders tried to smash a bottle over my dad’s head, but he slipped it, wrapping the man’s shirt over his head, shoving him out of the club. The girlfriend, on the other hand, sank her teeth into my father.
Ron turned his forearm in the dim light of our house lamp, stretching the folds of the skin to examine the notched scabs where her canines marked his flesh. I recoiled.
Ron worked two jobs: one at Heritage, a Treatment Center for delinquent youth, and one at Harry O’s, a Greek-owned, Irish-themed club in Park City. In between the 7 to 3 PM weekdays (and occasionally grave shifts) and 7 to 3 AM weekends he attended UVU as a full-time student. My dad was constantly dozing any time he had a moment to sit; it wouldn’t be surprising for Ron to start snoring mid-conversation before shaking awake and apologizing profusely.
It was clear; life was a collision of unwanted hardships, a battle of survival. If my dad would kill himself for his family, I would repay him by killing myself in football; I would become a gridiron menace to make good on his sacrifice.
Many call football a contact sport. But that doesn’t fit. Soccer is a contact sport. Basketball is a contact sport. Football is a collision sport, if it can be called a sport at all. I would do battle daily, smashing my head into the other guy’s head until my face bruised black, the bridge of my nose grew swollen and disjointed. I was unfortunately thick and flat nosed and ugly NOT like my dad, so I grew my hair long and wily and manelike, like my dad did when he was a teenager, just like the toa, Samoan warriors of old.
After practice I remember going with other Polynesian teammates to watch our cousins play for the Hawaiian Warriors on the TV at Sweets, a popular Hawaiian barbeque spot in Provo. Before each game the team performed the Haka, which I learned from my father, who learned it from his father.
The players lined up, crouching, eyes wild and hungry. One player led, chanting;
Kia rite! Kia rite! Kia mau!
The players would cry, Hi, in unison, expelling breath from their bellies, words hotly seething like furnace bellows. My face would glow with sweltering pride. They beat their flesh and bared teeth like dogs.
Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!
Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru
Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā
Ā, upane! ka upane!
Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra!
The Haka is the dance of the Maori warriors, cousins of the toa, the Samoan warriors. My dad recanted me with stories of the Haka, of Maori facing white colonizers on the beaches, throwing down a feather and stomping on it, declaring war, driving the English back to their boats. The Haka is a prayer to your ancestors, to fight with you, to lend you their strength. He taught me the Haka, telling me to remember your ancestors before who led you to this moment, those who have protected you, those who kept you safe. I wondered if my ancestors would be pissed that they died for a muffin-topped white-boy in the Utahn suburbs, and sometimes that thought made me itch with embarrassment. But I still performed the Haka.
We would perform the Haka as a team, preparing to smash the kids on the other team. We would also pray to our Heavenly Father before games for our good health, but also for might and for strength, to, again, smash the kids on the other team. God was always on our side.
My team marched our way into the final game of the season. This game I got a full sprint going on a kick-off and I knew a tackle was coming. I was cutting through blockers like a knife through hot butter, bodies repelled back like a magnetic field, blockers breaking position to hide from my culminating momentum-- I sensed their fear. I saw the boy catch the ball and at the zenith of my speed I dipped low to the ground, belly almost touching grass, I drove through the boy lifting him off the ground, I sent him fitfully jumbling across the turf like a sled on ice. My team surrounded me, whooping and hollering, until the other player didn’t stand after the hit. Oh, no, I thought. I recognized what was happening. It’s the death dance.
The boy twisted and spasmed in the grass and his legs flattened out and his toes curled and his chest rose and fell in jerks without rhythm. I got queasy. I kept saying sorry.
There are usually moments in plays like this in which the downed player is finally helped to their feet and the audience can cheer in relief. The moment never came. Medical professionals stripped his helmet off and waited for him to regain consciousness. When the boy did he moaned and moaned, moaned and cried like an animal. One of my teammates pointed, whispering loudly. “He pissed himself!” By the time medics had carried him off the field, the crowd was silent. No thumbs up, no play. Just silence. I heard parents mutter sporadically. I saw players shift their feet, incapable of finding the right physical gesture to emote. I heard Coach Kingi mumble quietly to the other coaches, “Holy shit. What a hit.” But no applause, no sense of camaraderie, no glory in winning the hitting drill.
I tried to tell myself this was the game we all chose to play, if you didn’t want to get hurt, then you shouldn’t have joined a sport of hurting– but that image–the silence, the noxious staleness of the moment gnawed at me.
I couldn’t sleep for a couple of nights. I would lay in bed, dizzily held captive to a slow-motion memory of the hit.
The year came and went. I had no penchant for football after seeing the harm I did. I played sick. I ditched. I didn’t know how to tell Ron that I wanted to quit football.
So, I didn’t. I buzzed my hair short. I knew I was not Samoan, not on the outside, not on the inside. I was not like my dad. But I would still try to repay his efforts.
I played football and I played my part. I mimicked the performative, public personas of my Samoan cousins, aunties, and uncles, I talked football with my father, I sunk into a copy of the world I had created as a boy. I played football every year from the seventh grade into my junior year of high school. Football was penance for failure. I deserved the beatings. I felt searing guilt for being incapable of fulfilling my destiny in the face of my culture, my ancestors, God— worst of all, my father. I felt like wrecking, and I did so every game.
It wasn’t until a drive four years later that the memory of that game returned with urgent force, collapsing the world that I constructed during those sixteen years.
I was driving my dad to one of his final classes the month before his master’s graduation. Ron, as usual, sat in the passenger’s seat with his seatbelt off. I began to pull through a four-way stoplight in the right lane just adjacent to the University proper when we were blindsided by a truck; reports from the police officer later stated it was a teenager driving his grandfather’s car without a license or permission.
There was an ephemeral beat where I saw the truck in my peripheral vision; then came the crash, then my father and I went cartwheeling through a haze of dancing glass.
We did not roll. We flew, spinning like a whirling dervish across hot tarmac. Suddenly the car jolted to a stop; smoke blew geyser-like from our hood. I looked over; the truck impacted the car on the passenger side. The car door was thrashed inwards and the roof was crunched half a foot lower on Ron’s side. I looked at my father.
Ron’s eyes were dazed, and for a split second I didn’t recognize him as the man I made him up to be. Ron knocked his chest with his fist a series of times, and his eyes darted back and forth; the blow had knocked the air from him. Ron started to breathe in fits before turning to me. For a second I refused to believe it. My dad was hurt. My dad looked scared.
His bald scalp was bloodied, and I could see a chunk of his scalp had been scraped off in the crash. Red started to fill the forearm of his shirt sleeve, a gash now flowing freely below. “Are you okay?” I looked down at myself. I felt fine, no immediate pain. His brows lowered, his eyes softened. I realized my father’s fear was not for himself, but for me.
I tried opening my door and found that the doorframe was warped shut from the crash. Ron turned back to his door, pressing with his good arm, but the door simply creaked. My dad faced the door, using both arms, blood dripping down his soaked sleeve, and heaved. The bashed-up door rolled open and Ron grabbed my hand, single-handedly pulling me free from the wreckage.
I turned and saw the truck had rolled over my car, crunching and collapsing two cars in the lane to our left. One passenger from the two cars–a fit, middle aged woman in lycra shorts and a sweatshirt–pulled herself free. The other remained incapacitated in their truck. My father pulled the door from the truck open, assessing the scene. I had forgotten my father was trained in CPR for his position at the treatment center. I always assumed his job was to enforce rather than to protect.
The other driver was a twenty-something college kid— swollen face, bloody lips, eyes rolling in his head. My father shook his shoulder. Are you alright? Are you alright? No response. Ron scanned back and forth across the street; we were in a precarious position, stuck in the middle of a four-way stop near a freeway exit during rush hour, and a few cars were already callously funneling around the accident, trying to get home or class on time. Hold his neck steady, my father commanded, we’re going to carry him to the sidewalk. We carried his limp body across the broad road between moving traffic and the blaring horns of impatient drivers who could not yet make out the wreckage. My father laid him down, and began registering vitals–checking pulse, freeing the airway. I stood over this boy on the grass—and I saw that old football crash flash in memory like the shutter of a camera. I felt dizzy— just for a moment— then my dad turned to me and told me to kneel beside the boy.
Ron affirmed that he had a clear pulse and was breathing easily, but was unconscious. He instructed me to keep the neck even and still and to keep track of his pulse and breathing. I started to feel a surge of fatigue; my feet were sore, and my hands were swelling, but Ron pushed on, urging me to focus.
“You can do this, Spencer. You’re fine.”
The other crash victim pointed towards the street at the truck; although it was leaking, it was limping its way away from the crash. Ron didn’t turn around. He called the cops, and then rolled my car out of the road by putting it in neutral. He called lycra-lady over, and the two pushed the remaining cars out of the road.
The guy shook, groaning. I was ready for him now; ready for a death dance, a rattle. Nothing came. His eyes were unfocused and distant, eyelids drooping. I waited for sickness to overtake me again, but I planted myself and the illness was kept at bay. I’ve lived to see many concussions. This was nothing new. I could handle this hit. I didn’t cause it.
I kept his neck aligned; I shook him awake. What’s your name? Stay awake, I’ve got questions. Is your neck stiff? How does it feel? Can you move your hands, your feet? Stay still! Keep the questions rolling, Spence. You’re gonna be fine, dude, you’re gonna be fine.
Ron ran out to the street and then ran back, returning with a silver plate in his hands; apparently the truck’s license plate grated off in the crash.
Police arrived to sort the accident out, and I had a long time to think while we waited for a ride.
I believe I saw Ron for the first time that night; not as a Samoan, not as a man, not as my dad, not simply as a doer and survivor of violence, but human. I saw Ron, a person whose lingua franca was fighting; fighting was all he had known and fighting was what he was good at, and now he fought to hold his family together. I was not my father, and for that I think he was grateful. I think that’s all most parents want; to free their children from their personal fetters. Families and their picked-up and passed-down frailties and fortitudes are durably bonded, for better and for worse.
I quit football. When I told Ron, his response was, “Good. You’re smart. Just focus on school."
After the accident I became a CPR and aquatics instructor at the Provo Rec Center; whether my job choice was subconsciously affected by the accident, I couldn’t say.
Ron would have issues with the fine motor skills of his right arm for months after the accident. This provided me a period in my life where I could drive for my dad, write for my dad, live, in some small part, for my dad.
I never grew my hair out again. I didn’t need to.
I did not know what it meant to be Samoan. I still don’t think I could define it. I can only be certain of two things: I no longer pretend I am Samoan, I am. I no longer pretend I am my father, I am his son.
(Design: Josh Fowlke) (Editor: Rachel Swan)