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Riding the pine involves a little-understood way of life

Here is a test to find out if you have ever played football. I mean really played. Forget all the Tom Landry stuff about defensive rotations or finding the seam. You can rip off that stuff from John Madden's video chalkboard and fabricate anything you want about your own athletic career. I've done it, so don't try to pull anything on me.

My question is this: How can you tell during warmups which players will end up sitting on the bench? Think carefully. If you have played football at any level above Pop Warner, you can now fill in the correct box, put down your No. 2 pencil and wait for the proctor to tell you to turn to the next page.

The answer, of course, is simple. The guys who will end up on the bench are the ones who are "grabbing mud." The guys who are lying on their bellies during push-ups and squirming around, trying to make their uniforms dirty. The guys who lunge for everything during warmups, diving straight out in the air, only to land far from the ball with a little smile forming around their mouthpieces. Ah, grass stains.

To understand why they're doing this is to grasp the essence of bench life. Bench life is a state of mind. It's like sitting in a duck blind without a flask of brandy and a muddy retriever to keep you company. There's a good deal of hanging out, interrupted mostly by jaunts onto the field to carry off wounded teammates. There's also, sad to report, the terrible moment at the end of the game when you must run to the locker room, only to hear little kids shout, "He didn't play. Look how clean his uniform is. He's no one!"

Philosophical questions follow: If I am not dirty, am I actually a football player? If I am a player, but do not play, do I exist? A bench person will do anything to avoid such quandaries.

I know this is true because I became a bench person at Temple University. In high school I never considered bench life. In fact, I don't even remember sitting on a bench anytime in high school—unless the game was safely in hand. But then came college, where they had some pretty good quarterbacks, and I was on the pine. I was a sophomore and buried deep down in the depth charts. If a sniper had slipped into the stadium and shot everyone wearing a number under 20 except me, I still would have been third team.

Of course it was disappointing, especially when you began to think that, well, maybe you belonged on the bench. Maybe you had found your spot, partner. Maybe, just maybe, the days in the sun were over. Gone forever the rushes of adrenaline, the wide nostril flares and backside slaps from teammates. A serenity enters. Siddhartha watching the river of football.

Television lies to us about this. We have grown accustomed to players on the bench looking up into the camera and raising their fingers, grinning at the viewing audience and bellowing, "Hi, Mom!" But these individuals are starters. They have inevitably just scored a touchdown or knocked someone's teeth loose. A true benchman would never wave at a camera. For one thing, he instinctively knows he is not entitled to such demonstrations. If he waves to the camera and shouts, "Hi, Mom!" so that his mother, sitting in a living room in Ohio, can turn to the neighbors and say, "That's my son, the scrub," he knows the coach's response upon seeing the replays will be: "What do you have to be so happy about, son?"

Besides, raising a hand to wave would interfere with a benchman's contemplation and possibly disturb the cocoon of warmth that he has arranged for himself by stealing the starters' jackets, towels, mittens and hand warmers. Such a coarse demonstration of enthusiasm would go against the intricate sense of destiny that a true bench denizen develops. The outcome of the game, you see, is a matter of indifference to a benchman. Hoboken, as our fourth-string senior center and master bench person at Temple was nicknamed, liked to exclaim: "I don't care what the coach says. Win or lose, it ain't my fault."

Such thinking breeds humility. Indeed, humility is the center of a benchman's existence. I learned very quickly, from Hoboken, my position on the team. "You can eat some orange quarters," he told me, "but not too many. The coaches will scream at you. Grab an orange when there's a big play out on the field. No one will see you and you can stick it in your mouth and pretend it's a mouthpiece. They don't care what we do as long as we don't get in the way. And be ready to look real disappointed if we fumble or something. Act like you might want to impale yourself on the down marker if we lose. That sort of stuff."

Benchman reality: Give the world any face it chooses to look at, but keep your feet dry and hold on to as many blankets as you can.

To be a true benchman requires discipline. For example, a benchman must always appear ready, despite the fact he hasn't played since the geese went south, despite the fact that he no longer wants to play. Occasionally—and this is very delicate—he must throw off his jacket and run toward the field if the coach requires a replacement for the kickoff squad. If the benchman does it with the proper amount of delay and stumbling, a tactic that Hoboken mastered over the course of four seasons, the coach will grab him and send him back to the bench. But only after the benchman makes his point: he's tuned in, he's willing.

"Plus you get to grab some water on the way back to the bench," Hoboken noted. "Hell, my ankles aren't even taped. I'm not wearing thigh pads. Too uncomfortable."

A benchman is also constantly reminded of the fleeting nature of sports. He has only to look at his own career to see how quickly the mighty fall. At the end of the last game of the season, Hoboken put it in the proper perspective: "You think anyone except a couple of the diehards will remember who won this game three years from now? How about a month? You think the alumni won't have a cocktail hour, win, lose or draw? Why should I care? If this is really a team, we'd all get to play, wouldn't we? What am I, the mascot? Statistics? Records? Don't make me laugh. I just spent four years playing a game I never got to play. How crazy is that?"

Hoboken walked off the field. He raised his hands and waved to the crowd. Rumor has it that he's in sales now. For that matter, so is the quarterback who started that day.



Joseph Monninger's fourth novel, "Second Season," is being published by Atheneum.