I step into the maw of the cavernous Orlando Convention Center and am assaulted by the screaming of at least five hundred teenage girls. The air is peppered with arcing white volleyballs. A grid of volleyball courts spreads out in all directions, each with a net, a referee, and two volleyball teams. Players waiting their turn in the game line one side of each court. On the other three sides are family members and teams preparing to play, braiding hair, watching Tiktok videos, noshing on Clif Bars. An occasional ball flies off the court, spectators dodging. Like shoppers at a grocery store, college volleyball coaches stalk through the crowd, scouting their next crop. The smell of hamburgers, churros, coffee, and empanadas hangs in the air, peddled by food vendors dotted along one wall of the convention hall. They are well attended at 10:00 in the morning by lines of hungry volleyball players, moms, dads, kid sisters and brothers.
For over eight years, My Life’s Editor and I have watched two of our granddaughters play volleyball. You could assume that by now we would be savants of the sport. You would be wrong. Volleyball is chock-a-block with rules: you may do this, but you may not do that, but only if you have done this other thing before that. In volleyball lingo, our granddaughters are “liberos,” from the Italian for “free.” This position wears a different colored jersey from the rest of the team. A libero is more agile than the tall hitters on the front row who get the publicity. The job description calls for diving for balls and setting up plays, a quarterback in a ponytail. They don’t regard a match as successful unless they leave the court bruised and bloodied. After a game, their mother’s laundry room looks like it had housed a MASH unit.
When a wide receiver drops a pass in a football game, he returns to the huddle hang-dog, the other players moving aside as if he has bad juju. When a baseball hitter strikes out, he glares at the offending pitcher, stomps back into the dugout, slams down his bat, and teammates back off. The ethos on a volleyball court is from a different planet. Make the point, lose the point, volleyball girls exchange high-fives and pats, distributing love like social workers. A hitter who has dumped one into the net looks embarrassed, gets a round of reassuring pats from her teammates. The vibe seems Marxian: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” In contrast, the American male doesn’t expect or need a butt-pat to reassure him. He is rugged, resilient, and independent, not a fan of rules. He is a cowboy and cowboys are in our national DNA.
When I was six, I had a pair of Red Ryder cap pistols to go with my chaps and my cowboy hat. I squatted in front of the TV and watched Lash LaRue (was the whip a sadomasochistic thing?), Paladin, and Marshal Matt Dillon as they brought law and order to the back lots of Hollywood studios. In college I was a wannabe cowboy. I smoked Marlboros and wore beat-up blue jeans, an army surplus jacket, and my roommate Griff’s cowboy boots. I was the Marlboro man from New Haven, except for a brief period when I grew my hair longer, took a class in Epic Poetry and smoked English Ovals. I didn’t have a horse.
Cowboys in St. Petersburg don’t have horses either. They ride around in trucks and SUVs: Wranglers, Rogues, and Durangos. For the ardent urban cowboy there is the F-250 Ford V8 “King Ranch” model, a homestead on wheels for a cool $72,000. On weekends, urban cowboys can watch Kevin Costner in “Yellowstone” and dream of chucking the truck and flying a chopper around Montana.
The cowboy culture is not just an American phenomenon. I can’t take my mind off the photo of Putin, bare-chested, mounted on a scruffy horse. Both look ridden hard and put up wet. Cowboyism is not simply male. Margaret Thatcher felt her inner cowboy when she said, “The prime minister should be intimidating, there’s not much point in being a weak, floppy thing in a chair.”
Our Governor is an exponent of freedom (excluding our particular personal freedom), law and order, and the right to carry a gun under your burnoose. He ticks off all the boxes on the cowboy application form, save one. The ideal cowboy is tall and lanky. The Governor is, well, shortish. This may prove a problem when staged against The Donald at 6’ 3”and Uncle Joe at 5’ 11”. Our Governor has taken to wearing black cowboy boots with 2” lifts. If this fails to suit, he can model Alan Ladd in the movie Shane and stand on a milk carton.
YouGuv conducted a poll of 20,063 adults. The question: Could you safely land a passenger plane in an emergency, relying only on the assistance of air traffic control? Experts rated the chance of that happening at zero. Half the men who responded were confident they could do it. I’m sure they pictured themselves in the cockpit with a ten-gallon hat and stacked heel boots.
“I got this,” is the cowboy motto. Volleyball players would change the pronoun. “We got this.”
One thought on “The Volleyball Player and the Cowboy”
Marshall: Your description and commentary ring true. Son Michael and stepdaughter Katie both played volleyball. As a spectator at their games, if I glanced away from the action I was hard pressed to discern who won the point by the reaction of the players afterwards. Soccer, on the other hand, was distinctly different at the school age level. You just needed to pay attention to the parents who, depending on the point outcome, were either jubilant or yelling at the referee.
As for your cowboy comments, been there, done that in a fashion in Oregon. It’s a good deal less glamorous than imagined at an early age, cowboy boots and a very fast horse notwithstanding.