I judge time and space by National Football League seasons. During the 1995-96 season, I was a student at Ball State University, an hour north of Indianapolis, the only school that would take me, and I only wanted to take cool classes because I assumed I would never graduate. A girl had just dumped me and I had nowhere else to go, I thought. I took classes like Physics, Sports History, Acting, Playwriting, and Fencing (no, not “stealing”—sword fighting, foot speed, strategy).
I wore a black leather motorcycle jacket then. At that age appearances were important, and I wanted to make certain people saw me as a rapscallion at first glance, even if I felt like a loser. I hid behind arrogance, strutting around all tough, but I always went to bed early. At first glance, my ’95-96 Colts appeared to be quite the team. But looking back, we were both pretending to be something we weren’t.
The Colts that season had a young and commanding defense, a kid named Marshall Faulk in the backfield, and “we,” as I called my team, traded for Craig Erickson, a quarterback widely viewed as the missing piece to a playoff team, something that was elusive to the franchise in that era. The team was solidifying its favored underdog status.
It was also about that time school began to jell for me. I was settling on what to do with my life, what to do with a degree. I was on my way to becoming a high school guidance counselor, maybe live in the suburbs and eat donuts for breakfast, until I read a Sam Shepard play. True West altered my trajectory. The play is about two brothers, two sides of the same coin, who flip roles: One, a criminal, becomes a writer, and the other, a writer, becomes a thief of toasters. The play is bizarre, chaotic, and violent—just like football. It’s a story of losers and underdogs.
That season started rough for my Colts, as their losing ways showed their face again. Erickson lost two of our first three games, with our only win coming against the lowly New York Jets by three points. Erickson was soon replaced with Jim Harbaugh, who would be dubbed “Captain Comeback” for his improbable fourth quarter victories. Harbaugh was something of a has-been; best known for being scolded by Mike Ditka as the Chicago QB for blowing a game, he was now in Indianapolis with nowhere else to go.
But with the Colts, Harbaugh was encouraged to be himself under the tutelage of fatherly head coach Ted Marchibroda and offensive coordinator Lindy Infante. The two coaches told him to let it rip—to let it fly and not worry what people thought about him. Appearances don’t win games. I didn’t realize it at the time, but those men might have been my greatest teachers, save one: my college acting professor.
In high school I had “acted” in a few plays, and when I say “acted,” I mean yelled across a music pit. I smoked a lot, drank a little, and made out with girls in a high school parking lot behind the auditorium, pretending to be something I wasn’t. I thought that was a good enough reason to be an artist, and I figured college acting would be the same. I was wrong. College acting is more like football. There is a methodical thought process, a playbook in the script, and, once you hit the playing space, the need to let it all go and react.
My acting professor was an old man from Detroit who lost his teeth from drinking too much sugar. He gave me a book during my second week of classes called An Actor Prepares. It had a pink cover, the most uncool cover there could be, and was written by a Russian guy. My professor told me not to read the whole book, knowing that I wouldn’t. He coached me toward a few chapters where the author was playing a black man onstage and smeared his face with chocolate cake to become something he wasn’t, at least on the surface, and hence could never grasp the character. That is, until he tripped onstage—a fumble, if you will—and stopped trying to be something else. He started saying his lines and playing his character in a moment of panic from his guts, his heart, from what he knew of himself. It was a fourth quarter comeback. My professor thought I would like the story.
He also said I was a bad actor, but that I was good at telling stories and I should consider writing plays. At that time I could never think of a good enough reason to be a writer, and was certain I was headed for the safety of a career as a high school guidance counselor. But I started writing plays, really bad ones, plays where I tried my damnedest to be someone I wasn’t, plays about cool and dangerous characters. I wrote plays about boxers (I can’t take a punch) and ghosts (I’m not dead, yet), and all my titles I stole from albums by the Pixies. Nothing I wrote was sincere. It was all hollow and cosmetic and skin-deep. I wore that black leather motorcycle jacket when I wrote. I was a fraud.
The Colts finished the season 9-7. They snuck into the playoffs, a wild card with nothing to lose. First my Colts dispatched the Chargers in San Diego. Then we went to Kansas City and defeated the top-ranked Chiefs 10-7, always edging our opponents in the fourth quarter. The Colts didn’t care what people thought of them. They were party crashers, townies at the country club. Then we went to Pittsburgh and something wasn’t right. With a head of steam and momentum to kill, my Colts played with fear in their eyes, afraid of doing something wrong. We were one game away from the Super Bowl, one game away from where we were never supposed to go, and at halftime the soft-spoken Marchibroda exploded at his gang of losers: “You’re playing not to lose. Play the game to win!”
And in the second half, losing under a Pittsburgh crowd, we outplayed the Steelers; we outplayed them all. We threw everything at them, every play we had, every blitz, like swashbuckling sword fighters, and it all came down to one last Hail Mary in the final seconds. Captain Comeback’s trajectory was off, however; gravity took hold, and we lost the game in the end zone as our wide receiver dropped the ball just off his stomach.
That night I stayed up late and wrote, and I didn’t wear the leather jacket. The dialogue wasn’t hip, and I wasn’t cool, it was just me letting it rip. The play was how I saw things in that moment. In it a young man boarded a train for nowhere, leaving a girl behind who never loved him. With no sleep, I printed the script and I showed it to my toothless old teacher. I sat in his office as he read. He told me this was my best play yet, and asked if I thought about being a playwright.
“For a living?” I asked.
“No. You don’t write plays for a living. Just ‘being’ a playwright.”
Weird, I thought. “I’ll think about it.”
The next year the Colts let Marchibroda go and promoted Infante, we drafted a wide receiver named Marvin Harrison who has the surest hands I’ve ever seen, and Ball State produced my play. It was called Dig for Fire. We paired the production with a Sam Shepard one-act, Fool For Love. I think back to that time when my teacher gave me Stanislavski to read and how I came to understand that acting, art, writing, and playing the game to win is about being truthful with yourself, knowing who you are, and what you aren’t, and not being fearful in the moment, regardless of how afraid you are.
Marchibroda died this year, Infante passed last season, and on the 20th anniversary of my first play being produced by a small school just north of Indianapolis, Marvin Harrison is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I’m glad he wasn’t on the team that year. We might have won.
Timothy Braun is a writer living in Austin, Texas.