It was a warm day for that time of the year. It was one of those fall days where summer refuses to let go its grip. It was a damp day. The turf squished under my cleats as I stepped from the ply wood pathway covering the all-weather track onto the grass for the first time. I began my pre-game routine, which included a suppositious series of running and stretching drills. I slowly worked my way through my routine, preparing myself to play the same way I had for years. I was completely oblivious of what lay before me. I had no idea that this game would be unlike any I had ever played. This day would be unlike any I had ever experienced.
I saw him from a distance. His familiar shape stood out from the other players wearing black and orange. He had gotten bigger in the years since high school, he was however, easily recognizable. He was warming up, throwing with another quarterback. He was near mid-field which made it easy for me to get close enough to greet him. He had his back to me, I saw him before he saw me. I slowly made my way towards the fifty- yard line. I was nervous, I did not know how he was going to receive me. It had been over a year since I had seen him last, and given our current circumstances I did not know what to expect. I hung around mid-field long enough for him to see me. He turned slowly towards me, tears streaming down his face. He looked at me with eyes I had seen for years, standing in a huddle, being told what play we were going to run, or what we were going to do to win this game or that. He had always had a quite confidence. He could step into a huddle, and make every other young man feel that we were going to succeed. Those eyes that were so familiar, were crying. He looked at me and said: “Matt died this morning”.
We were never in the same classes in Elementary School. A football field became the first context in which I defined Mike. We practiced on the fields next to our elementary school. I hated football at first. To say I disliked the contact would be an understatement. I wanted to quit after a week. My father refused to let me quit. My parents had made an exception, allowing me to play a year earlier than they had let my brother. What came so naturally to Mike was a struggle for me. He was the quarterback from as far back as I can remember. I bounced from position to position. Not athletic enough for the skill positions, not big enough for a lineman. Mike looked like he was born to be a quarterback. He was tall and lean, with a strong arm and the head to handle the responsibilities of the position.
I grew to like the contact, with time I learned to relish it. By our freshman year of high school, Mike had spent years honing his skills at one position and I had finally settled into the role of a running back/fullback in what I pictured was the mold of former Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Mike Alstott. We had different core groups of friends in high school. We played different sports. Mike was an excellent basket ball and baseball player. I ran track in the spring, more to stay in shape than because I was particularly fast. The one thing that kept us united was football. Every summer we would work out at the school together, every August we would grind through double sessions. I bore witness as Mike developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the county.
I felt like the world had stopped spinning, the wind had stopped blowing, for I had stopped breathing. My words died in my chest. I looked into his eyes and felt his heartache. I stood, rooted on the spot. I have no memory of what happened then. My next recollection was back in the locker room. Our team would come together prior to taking the field. Our coach would give us a motivational talk followed by a prayer, and we would take the field. I did not hear a word he said. My head was swimming and I was a whirlwind of emotions. Football is a game that has to be played with a level of intensity not often found in other sports. To be able to throw your body at another human being as hard as one possibly can, you have to take yourself to a mental place that is not reached easily. I had spent the previous week visualizing myself hitting my friend as hard as I could. I had run through potential plays, and watched hours of video studying tendencies. I had spent the last nine years teaching myself to hate my opponents. I had trained my brain to forget logic and reason, to inflict as much punishment as possible, within the context of the game, on another player. Now I sat on one knee, tears streaming down my face, head in hands, forgetting all of that training, ignoring the honed instincts, all I wanted to do was hug my friend.
We took the field, went through our pre-game rituals and were ready for kick off. My dichotomy of emotions was overwhelming. At the time, Brockport had a very good team, and Buffalo State was no match physically. I watched with an increasingly heavy heart as my friend picked himself up off the turf, play after play. I bore witness as he would walk to the sideline series after unsuccessful series, sit on the bench crying until he had to go lead his offense back onto the field. The game quickly got out of hand. I begged my teammates, if they had to hit him, help the man back up. I had never in my life witnessed something so real, so brave, or so heart breaking. He would tell me later that he played because that is what he thought Matt would have wanted. I was speechless.
Our senior season ended disappointingly. We were not as good as either of us had hoped. I was injured in the first round of the playoffs, as was our starting fullback. Without his starting backfield, Mike did all he could, but it was not enough. In high school, we lived or died with the wins and losses, how little we knew. Mike and I both received All-County honors following the season. We were both asked to play in the Eddie Meath All-Star game. I was not surprised that Mike received this honor. I cannot say the same for myself. Mike and I lived around the corner from one another. We would drive to the practices together. We spent more time that week, just the two of us, than we ever had before. Mike and I had never been particularly close friends away from football. Our bond was forged on hot summer days, and wet and cold fall nights. It was cemented on nights like the one our homecoming game was played on. Our field was being dedicated to the previous Athletic Director. In a freezing driving rain, Mike handed the ball to me thirty-six times, we did not mishandle one exchange.
Mike was the unrecognized star of the Eddie Meath game. Among the pomp and circumstance surrounding that wonderful event was lost the fact that every drive that Mike led ended in a touchdown. That fact was not lost on me. Playing only defense in the game, I was able to watch him play from the sidelines for the first time. His calm and controlled attitude was palpable even from my vantage point. That night would be the last time I would share a field with Mike for three years.
As I stood, speechless, conflicted, and confused, I remembered that day, at Fauver Stadium, watching him control the game. I stood, hurting for my friend, as the game wore on. When the final horn sounded, I looked for Mike and I could not find him. I waited impatiently as our coach gave his post game speech. I ran back across the field as soon as I could hoping to catch him before I had to get on our bus. I found his head coach and explained to him who I was. He told me that he had left as soon as the game had ended. I felt out of place, I wanted to share with my friend how sorry I was. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to cry with him. I wanted him to know that I was there for him, that what ever he needed I would provide.
I boarded our bus and we headed back east on the Thru Way. There was a car accident along the way, and I had a moment of shear panic, fearing that he had gotten into and accident rushing to get home to his family. I had never felt so useless in my life. He did not need me, he needed his family.
I stood to the side at the funeral. I do not know if he saw me there. I did not know how to act or what to say. I felt like I had intruded on a personal moment. I felt that by being on the field that day, watching him struggle through such a terrible time, that I had somehow violated his privacy, like I had seen something he did not want anyone to see. I had witnessed the rawest of human emotions that day. I had stood, fifty-yards away as another human being, one I called my friend, had suffered. I did not watch as Matt’s body was lowered into the ground. I watched my friend’s face. I watched as something broke inside of him. Matt was more than his little brother, Matt was his best friend.
After that day, it was years until I saw him again. I had kept up with him from a distance. I knew he had become the quarterback for the Rochester Raiders. I knew that he had hurt his foot so bad that the doctors feared for his ability to walk again, let alone play football. I knew that his desire to play drove him to get healthy, to get back onto the field. I saw him at a wedding last fall. I had become a father the week before, but all I could talk about was him. He was smiling again. It was a smile I was afraid I would not see again. Mike Mikolachik was smiling, he had found someone to share his life with. Someone who made him laugh. I am going to take my daughter to see him play this spring. I want her to see her dad’s hero, doing that which always brought him so much joy. Doing that which Matt would have wanted him to do.