At the ripe old age of 16, I was convinced my life as I had planned it was over. A few weeks before, I had made the Penn High School varsity football team as a full-back. However, before the big opening game, I suffered a crushed vertebra during a run. I was not a particularly talented athlete, but I had a huge neck and strong legs, so I could run people over like a locomotive with my helmet if I got up enough speed. Unfortunately, I met my match with a 235 lb. linebacker whose left arm came crashing down on my neck just at the point of impact, and I fell in a heap.
Lucky for me, the injury did not result in permanent paralysis, but the doctor told me I might not be so lucky next time. So I had to make a decision to count my blessings and quit football or to take my chances and perhaps never walk again. So I chose walking. Now the truth was, I never really liked playing football. The only reason I did it was so that I could be a popular jock. I believed this would enable me to date cheerleaders, because cheerleaders only dated jocks, but now that plan had to be scrapped. My life as a start football player and babe magnet had come to an end.
As I stood in the hallway, watching my former teammates weakly nod to me as they walked by, it was clear to me that I was no longer one of them. And since they were my only friends, I was feeling pretty isolated and depressed. What I really needed right then was sympathy, I wanted to hear things like “Man, that is so unfair! You could have been one of the greats!” or “Don’t worry man, we’re playing this first game for you!” But the only words my teammates uttered were, “Hey, how’s the neck?”, or “Too bad, man.”
But then my speech class teacher, Bill Ribblett, approached me with a serious look on his face. Speech class was required in high school at that time, so all of my classmates begrudgingly shuffled their way up to the front about once a week to give some kind of presentation. It was torture for most of us, and I complained about it just to fit in, but quite frankly, I secretly enjoyed it. One of the few gifts I was given was a deep base voice when I was in junior high school, so out of surprise more than anything else people tended to listen when I spoke. However, I tended to mumble when I had to give a presentation, so I was hoping that speech class would help me.
As Mr. Ribblett approached me, I fully expected him to commiserate with me over my life-changing misfortune. He said “Mr. Hardy, I hear you’re not playing football anymore.” I replied, mournfully, “No sir, I’m not.” And he smiled and said, “That’s great!” I was appalled. Shocked. Here I was looking for a little compassion, and he tells me that the end of my life as I knew it was great?! I incredulously shot back “What’s so great about it?” He put his hand on shoulder and walked me down the hall to his class. “Well, I’m having tryouts for the Fall school play, and I need several male characters. I think I might have a part for you if you come to tryouts.”
Anyone reading this does not have to be a fan of the TV show “Glee” to know what high school football players thought of guys who were in the choir or the theatre. In the early 70s, these were not real men. They were guys who were to wimpy or chicken to go out for sports. Sissy boys. It was bad enough that the entire football team had written me off as their friend, but to add insult to injury by being in the school play was out of the question. I would never live that down. So I laughed and said “No way, I am not going to try out for a stupid play.” And Mr. Ribblett looked at me with his steely blue eyes and said “Don’t worry, I understand. I mean, to get up there in front of all those people and perform takes a lot of guts. And obviously you don’t have any.” And he left me standing in the hallway.
There are few things worse than a football player admitting he has no guts. In my mind it was even worse than any names people might have called me for being in a play. I mean, after all, Tarzan was an actor, Charlton Heston too. And God help the man who called them sissy boys to their face. Determined to show my courage, I showed up at tryouts the next night for the play “The Silver Whistle.”
I don’t remember much about the tryouts, but I do remember morning announcements when the chosen cast members were broadcast for all the school to hear. I was given the part of Oliver Erwenter, the lead and biggest part in the play. I was elated and anguished at the same time. I was about to change the direction of my high school life in a major way and had no idea where all of this would end up. Little did I know that it would also change the direction of my adult life in profound and significant ways.
Bill worked with me constantly, pushing me harder than I had ever been pushed. And I was awful. I know I was awful because I saw the video tape of my rehearsals. The school had one of the first video tape machines created, one of those one-inch reel-to-reel kind with a camera that only recorded in black and white. Bill decided to use it as a teaching tool for us actors and the truth was brutal. But still he kept pushing. And on opening night, when I stepped out on the stage, a feeling of calm came over me and I knew that the theatre was where I really belonged.
Then Bill talked me into going to a speech contest. The truth is that students who are on a speech team are much more dedicated to their craft than any other student in high school because they have to get up at 5:00 a.m. almost every Saturday morning during the coldest time of the year and ride a school bus to speech meets! No other school event demands such dedication. But he insisted I enter the “Group Discussion” category and I reluctantly went. Alice Colley, Howie Katz and I sat in the back seat of Mrs. Smith’s car while she briefed us on the the discussion topic (pollution, I think), and I remember Howie Katz taking frantic notes as I dozed in and out during the two hour drive to Fort Wayne, Indiana. I took one page of notes that were, quite frankly, indecipherable even to myself.
When the day was over, Alice, Howie and I had swept the top three places of the discussion category. Amazingly, I took first place, which made Howie livid since he knew how little I had prepared, and quite frankly I would been a little steamed if I had been in his place. But it became evident to me that what the judges were looking for was someone who could listen well and then summarize all the views that had been expressed. So basically, I simply listened to all of the facts from everyone else and BS’d my way through the entire four rounds. But it again showed me that communication was my strength, and I competed at the state level for three years in a row.
I was in almost every play in high school, and in fact met my wife, Jodie, playing opposite her on that stage (however, it wasn’t until 25 years later that we got married! But that is another story!). Eventually I went on to acting school and professional acting, and I still write plays. 40 years later, I still keep in contact with Bill Ribblett, who is a retired teachers association president in southern California. Today I teach at the University of Notre Dame and speak to groups all over the country about the kind of “Personal Encouragement Philanthropy” that Bill gave to me. Thank you Bill Ribblett, I am who I am because you shared your fire with me and believed in me more than I believed in myself.