Back when I was in high school, John Degl picked on me. We were in gym class when it first started. Somehow I dropped a ball during a game, and afterward he punched me in the head. Being a wuss, I cried.
In the ensuing years, I literally hid from John. I’d hear his voice or see him from afar, and I’d turn the other way and bolt. Was I soft? Absolutely. But John was a big wrestling dude who scared the living crap out of me.
Fourteen years after I graduated from high school I published my first book, The Bad Guys Won! It’s a chronicle of the 1986 New York Mets, and it begins with my memories of that year. The first paragraph reads as so:
In 1986 I was a fourteen-year-old freshman at Mahopac High School in upstate New York, probably not the biggest nerd around but certainly pathetic enough to crack the Top 10. If that weren’t bad enough, most weeks a school bully named John Degl would make sure to kick my books across the hallway floor, eliciting laughter from the general populace. It was the worst time of my life, and the one thing that kept me afloat was baseball.
I can lie and say Degl was absentmindedly tossed into the text. But he wasn’t. I’d carried that bullying experience with me for many years. I no longer hated John Degl or disliked John Degl, because I no longer knew John Degl. But I did hate—truly, truly hate—the experience of walking the halls in fear. It made much of my high school life miserable. Beyond miserable. So, was there a small part of me that relished the payback of outing a bully in a book that went on to sell more than 100,000 copies? Yeah, there probably was.
That said, was I right in doing so? Absolutely not. I never meant to hurt John Degl. To me, the reference was more humorous than anything else. But I also never stopped to think how he might feel. High school was a looooong time ago. We all did things we regret. All change. A bully in 1990 isn’t a bully in 2010. A geek in 1990 isn’t a geek in 2010. Not usually, at least. We morph. We evolve. We develop.
I bring this up because, in yesterday’s CNN.com column about my high school reunion, I again referenced John with the line, “John Degl beat me up.” It was included among a list of the miseries from back in the day, and it was totally and completely gratuitous.
Earlier today, I received an e-mail from one of John’s relatives, saying, basically, “Isn’t enough enough?” She’s right, I’m wrong. I mean it—she’s 100% right, I’m 100% wrong. After high school, John went on to a remarkable wrestling career at the University of Iowa. He has since become a top-level prep coach, as well as a husband and the father of three. According to his website, John now runs a school, Iowa Style Wrestling. Among the mission statements, it says, “The ultimate goal is the be a better person … and to grow as a human being.”
Maybe I should attend.