By on January 5, 2014



“Coach says I’m not allowed to leave you alone until you’ve bought a new car.” The game was up, apparently.

Charlie the defensive end leaned against the edge of his locker, weary now after an especially brutal practice. His whole body ached from countless hits on the tackling sled in the scorching heat. All he wanted was a quick shower before heading back to his condo to rest. He didn’t like talking about his car, period. Especially not right now, after what had happened this morning.

Mike the punter stood there, a solemn look on his face. A serious countenance betrayed the sincerity with which he regarded his new assignment. Charlie knew there was no point in arguing. It was one thing when his old Lumina, the butt of so many locker-room jokes, quit on him when he was on the way to the grocery store or the gym. It was another thing entirely when a long-suffering coolant hose finally gave out on the freeway, leading to a huge white cloud of sorrow and a two-hour delay in his attendance at practice. Unacceptable, especially in the NFL. Now Coach had roped in his closest friend on the team to make sure the incident was never repeated.

“We can go to the dealerships this weekend. You know, that big row by the beach: Mercedes, Audi, BMW, Infiniti, Lex-“

“I don’t want a fancy car.”

“You deserve it. You have the money.”

“I don’t care.”

“Charlie, you gotta live some, man. There are guys in the AFL with nicer cars than you.” Mike leaned in closer and told him in a tense whisper: “Stepping up the car game is the first part of stepping up the lady game. You know what I’m sayin’?” Charlie waved his hand dismissively, then turned back to gathering his things into his duffel bag.

“Sometimes, I think you shoulda gone to preacher school rather than pro football.” They both laughed at that one. But Mike turned serious again, intent on completing his mission.

“9 AM, Saturday. I’ll come get you. I better drive anyway because you’d never get the time of day if you rolled up in that P.O.S.”

“All right.” There was no point in fighting it now. The writing was on the wall. Satisfied with Charlie’s commitment, the punter turned to leave. But Charlie called after him. “Mike, wait! Can you give me a ride home?” Mike laughed as they headed out to the parking lot together, two friends swimming in a sea of expensive automobiles.


At home that evening, Charlie gazed out the window towards the ocean, lost in thought. His car was well and truly dead now. A quick phone call to the towing company meant he had washed his hands of the matter. They’d probably sell parts of it on Ebay to the rabid souvenir hunters that always sought his autograph. Oh well, not his problem now. Even so, he felt pangs of guilt.

He remembered the first day he’d got it, cruising around campus with that nervous athletic trainer in the passenger seat. It was a surprise gift from a booster; not exactly NCAA kosher, he figured, but he was always told not to worry about such things. A casual mention that he’d like to be able to go home and visit family more often was all it took for a set of keys to magically appear. He’d never driven before, but the feeling was incredible. For the first time, he was in control of a machine that was bigger, faster, and stronger than his own body. Around town, he drove cautiously, but on the freeway, he hammered it. That earned him a very friendly traffic stop from a local deputy, who gently admonished the local university’s star defensive player that he shouldn’t be driving quite so fast. Some might have seen this as evidence of invincibility, but afterwards he was more cautious. Keep the speed runs confined to late at night, and there wouldn’t be any trouble.

The sentimental value of the car came from what it enabled him to do. Go anywhere, especially to faraway places where nobody could bother him. Blend in with the crowd, and avoid the unwanted attention that had been heaped on him since the start of his college career. He knew full well that the car itself was junk. By the time the Lumina filtered down to his ownership (or “extended borrowing,” as the booster had so elegantly phrased it) it was already a decade and a half old. The paint was coming off in large chunks, a trend that only worsened with time. The radio worked occasionally; the A/C was long since dead and gone. The velour interior was shredded and stained, and the dash curled and cracked from years spent baking in the sun. As he slowly pushed it past a quarter million miles, more important things went wrong. First it was a radiator. Then an alternator. Then a new intake manifold, followed by a head gasket. The latest had been a transmission rebuild, to the tune of several thousand dollars. His teammates castigated him for pouring money into the car, laughing as they jingled the keys to their S-Classes and Range Rovers. At that point, the car went from being a mere tool to a form of silent protest. He kept it as he watched rookies and scrubs with far less talent trade in yearly for the latest in automotive jewelry. He knew half of them would be out of the league in two years, flat broke in three. The madness had to stop somewhere.

He had never been comfortable with wealth. There was one car in the immediate family growing up, and Mom and her sister used that for going to work. That was it. It was their lifeline; it was too valuable to risk on long trips or pleasure drives. They didn’t have the money for gas anyway: not to put in the tank, nor to heat the house in the winter. He’d never have gotten into football, had it not been for the eagle-eyed high school coach who saw what a rare opportunity he had in front of him. He was more than willing to pay Charlie’s fees, to give him rides to practice, to do whatever it took for the privilege of watching that gigantic teenager ruin the state’s top offenses on Friday nights. The number three most recruited prospect in the country still needed a lift to campus four years later; somebody stepped in and bought a bus ticket.

The glitz and glamour of a major D-1 program was bedazzling, but he tried to keep his wits about him. Go to class, go to practice, go out and play as hard as possible on Saturday. He was a god as they cruised to multiple national titles, but he used his privileges sparingly. A groupie here and there, a few late-night food deliveries, a new suit for when Grandma died and he didn’t have anything to wear to the funeral. There was always a fear in the back of his mind that the gravy train might be cut off at any moment, and then he’d be right back where he started. He waved aside the talking heads and the other know-nothings as he stayed out of the draft and finished his degree. He never asked for their attention in the first place.


The weekend came. After sidling his immense frame into Mike’s nearly-new A8, they headed towards the beach. In the most expensive part of town (far from Charlie’s discrete condo), a row of luxury dealerships stood on the main boulevard, a few blocks from the ocean. The glimmer of paint and chrome in the morning sun oozed money.

“Well, where do you want to start?”

“I don’t want to start,” Charlie responded cheekily. Mike sighed. “Oh fine, Mike. Just pullin’ your leg. Let’s check the Audi dealer first, since you seem to be keeping them in business anyway.”

“Yeah man! You’ll love it.” Thus began an eight-hour adventure into the world of luxury motoring. They formed quite the odd couple, wandering up and down the strip: a thin and dapper ex-soccer player in a thousand-dollar tailored shirt and Italian leather shoes, alongside an enormous wall of a man in a team logo sweatsuit, ballcap, and worn crosstrainers large enough to fit an elephant. Of course Charlie was instantly recognizable, and they had no problem getting attention at any dealer they entered. Too much attention, at times. Many overeager salespeople rushed to what they assumed was an easy mark, not knowing the hesitation of their reluctant customer. Perfunctory autographs and Instagram photos were followed by ecstatic sales pitches, with Mike chiming in as an echo. Although Charlie tried to maintain an air of bemused indifference, he found himself getting drawn in more than he would have liked to admit. He was no stranger to seeing the chariots of his teammates, who were forever champing at the bit to show off their latest acquisitions. He usually paid them as little attention as possible. But these cars… they really were something else.

Steering wheels with ten different heating and cooling levels. Twenty different settings for interior ambient lights. Radar adaptable cruise control. Infrared night vision. Monogrammed umbrellas that shot out of hidden pockets. Refrigerated compartments. And this was all on the “low end” cars; they hadn’t even touched the exotics. Mike begged him to go in the Lamborghini, Ferrari, Bentley and Rolls Royce place across the street, but Charlie put his foot down. He might wind up with a Lexus or BMW after all, but he was not going to go crazy. “Besides,” he told Mike, “God didn’t build me to fit into Italian convertibles.” Even though he was beginning to awaken to the pleasures of high-priced cars after years spent in his velour-lined hooptie, Charlie still couldn’t bring himself to sign on the dotted line. Even the plainest cars on offer seemed ridiculously flashy. He had settled in comfortably to the front seat of a Lexus LS, and thought to himself that maybe this was the one. But when he stepped out and looked at that front grill… Ugh. Maybe he could get them to put a new bumper on it or something.

It was getting late. They were nearing the end of the strip, and they were both tired. Mike refused to drive him to the more pedestrian dealerships on the other side of town, which would be closing soon anyway. Charlie steeled himself to buy a car he didn’t really like, just to get it over with. As they argued over the relative merits of an S-Class or a 7-Series, they came up on the last dealer in the row. It was a small place, with a tiny showroom. It clearly played second fiddle to the rest of the luxury crowd. Charlie looked up bemusedly, wondering if he might yet find something he could tolerate. Suddenly, he froze. As he looked at a car parked in the front row, festooned with balloons and big “FACTORY REBATES” signs, memories came flooding back. He remembered riding along with his assistant coach in one of those, along with four other poor kids. Coach rocketed around town in that thing, yammering a mile a minute about everything under the sun and forever puffing a fresh Marlboro. All as his cargo of awkward, overgrown highschoolers did their best to be polite and not gag on his cigarette smoke. Those were days he’d never forget. He rushed over to the car, leaving an incredulous Mike standing on the sidewalk.

Finding the door unlocked, he climbed inside. They might have the same name, but this one was infinitely more luxurious than what Coach drove. Leather seats ensconced Charlie as he marveled at the dash. The best part, though, was the interior room. No rubbing knees or banging heads. He checked the window sticker. Not an inexpensive car by any means, but only a fraction of the price of most of the other machinery he had examined that day. The exterior was to his liking. A few chrome accents here and there, and wheels that gleamed, but nothing over the top. As an added bonus, the trunk promised to be far more useable than anything else they’d looked at. He noticed a gaggle of salespeople headed his way, but he didn’t need a pitch. This was perfect. He waved to Mike, still standing where he had left him. “Found it!” he shouted. Mike broke out laughing, but he was happy. That car had Charlie written all over it.

Charlie turned back to face the five breathless salespeople, fresh from their sprint to the edge of the lot. One of them broke into a wide smile and held out his hand, which Charlie grasped with enthusiasm. “Sir,” he asked, “Can I answer any questions about the new Chrysler Town and Country for you today?”


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39 Comments on “Sunday Story: The Reluctant Baller...”

  • avatar

    I loved this.

    I went to college with a kid like this. I’ll never forget that he used the backs of the papers he had saved from high school to take notes. I’m not sure if he ever went on to the pros, but like thing is for sure, he got his college education.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    This is all heresy, or urban legend. Apparently some Indiana Pacers players were good naturedly ribbing Rik Smits about driving a Pontiac. Rik’s reply was that he had to find cars that fit him.

    • 0 avatar

      I think it happens more then you would like to think. Some people are so scared by their impoverished childhoods that they will literally try to save every nickel they can. Some other people are so humble that they refuse to have any flash while they have more money they could ever spend.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep. The old Honda Civic wagovans were popular in the NBA for that reason.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, I remember John Wayne saying thank God for GM full sized cars, the only ones left he could fit comfortably in and not have to take off his cowboy boots to drive. I know a guy who’s 6’7″ and over 300 lbs. He drives a ’95 Buick Roadmaster for that reason.

      As for people who drive old cars, it’s not exclusively frugality, but familiarity as well, like an old pair of jeans. Even the well to do had a habit not long ago of driving ten year old Chryslers and Oldsmobiles. Chances are, you drive a better car than the millionaire next door, who you don’t know is a millionaire.

      In the story, there’s no reason the guy couldn’t have afforded a mechanic to go over the Lumina, and a paint shop to give it a new coat of paint, from the get-go. Once you’ve replaced all the cheapened parts, the Lumina, like Murilee’s ’65 Impala, was a well-engineered car.

      • 0 avatar

        Exactly. Lets say one goes out and buys a $40k new car. In five years, it’s probably worth half that. Well take that $20k (or a lot less) and you could buy, mechanically redo and repaint a nice car. The only difference is that the new cars have safer standards and features. But of course those features are more to worry about as a car gets older. Older cars have less junk on them and less to go wrong.

        Two weekends ago, it was a nice Saturday and I was out taking a drive in the country. I followed a really nice 60’s Pontiac Bonneville that was completely redone. Surprisingly it was a younger guy driving it (I just assumed it was going to be a 70 year old guy.) I thought I could drive that kind of a car all the time. :)

    • 0 avatar

  • avatar

    This is a great story. It resonated with me, because I’d have done the same thing in this dude’s place.

    I love the idea of a guy who can afford literally anything completely stickin’ it to convention and expectation and driving a complete hooptie – especially if he’s doing it on purpose.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I never had an impoverished childhood (squarely middle-class). Part of me likes flashy cars…the Bentleys, the Ferraris, the Range Rovers… But another part of me likes the idea of stealth-wealth. I would never have lots of money and choose to drive a poorly-built, out-of-shape car, but I might buy something like a Lexus LS or an old Mercedes-Benz Diesel and then preserve it for fifteen or twenty years. In fact, my grandmother has a very, very wealthy friend who kept a mint seventies’ Volvo for years. She was going to finally get a brand-new Prius or CR-V, but became insulted by the salespeople. In the end, she bought an excellently-kept 2003 E-Class from her son, and plans to keep it indefinitely.

    • 0 avatar

      I gotta ask Kyree, how was your grandmother’s friend insulted by the Toyota salespeople?! That level of stupidity (alienating a good prospect) on their part is hard to believe. I love a bad dealership anecdote…

      • 0 avatar
        Kyree S. Williams

        The Toyota personnel assumed that because she wasn’t dressed up and made up, she couldn’t afford a new car, and were literally arguing with her about how she couldn’t afford a new car. I’m not sure what happened with the Honda dealership…

        • 0 avatar

          I’ve heard that about certain Toyota salespeople before as well, from a close friend. They wouldn’t even let them test-drive a Camry until they’d signed a purchase agreement. The Cornell-educated friend and his wife bought a Honda accord instead. My own experience with this kind of hubris was when I was helping a female friend car-shop. We walked into a Honda dealership which at the time was on Ben White in Austin, TX. The salesman proceeded to speak really slowly and say, “This is a s-p-o-r-t-s c-a-r. We only get a couple of these a year. This isn’t a car she can handle (referring to a 2005 S2000).” Keep in mind my friend could have paid cash for the car right there on the spot. We pulled out of the dealership, made a call to a certain Honda dealership in Killeen, TX, and made a deal for 200 over invoice on their only S2000.

      • 0 avatar

        When buying our first new car for my wife – we were eyeing a 2005 Corolla (don’t judge). That was back when Toyotas were flying off the shelves. It was a cold day in the middle of December, and we had just walked in from the blistering cold.

        There were 8 salesmen sitting at their desks. Some of them looked up at the open door, then resumed their work. Eventually, the front receptionist greeted us. We asked her if someone could help us (anyone walking in a dealership in that weather could only be wanting to do one thing). She made an announcement on the PA system asking for available people to come up, etc. After half a minute, a salesman stood up, seemingly with a resigned sigh, then walked over to help us. To his credit, he was straightforward and non-sleazy. He only went $750 above invoice after some half-hearted bargaining on my part (even though at that time we knew zippo above car buying let alone knowing what the dealer made, etc.)

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed. I have several family friends and acquaintances who have done exactly this. They drive their immaculate 90’s Lexus LSs, W126/W140 S classes, gen 1/2 Q45s, or 540I’s despite being able to buy pretty much anything they could want. The last two I can remember who actually bought new cars only did so because their previous cars were totaled in not at fault accidents. When I think about it, at most country/social clubs or wealthy neighborhoods around here you could probably lose any late 80s or early 90s luxury car in the parking lot.

      • 0 avatar

        These people just like to get their monies worth out of their cars.

        A well kept 90s luxury car with leather seats, a powerful engine, nice trim, a CD player, AC, and a tape deck is for most people (non-enthusiants) the same as a 2014. They can plug their iPod in with a tape adapter or simply replace the head unit.

  • avatar

    I, too, enjoyed this immensely. I think we’d all like to believe that there are more than a few guys like Charlie out there in the world of professional sports.

  • avatar

    I think there is another lesson in this story…
    Unless you were born with a wrench in your hand, you need to replace that beater when it starts affecting your work and private life.

    • 0 avatar

      A hard lesson I learned with Project Volvo

    • 0 avatar

      I was thinking, could you imagine what would have happened if he’d missed a game thanks to the old beater?

      Loved the story, great writing style too.


    • 0 avatar

      Supplement, not supplant. If your feelings for the old beater are strong enough, then provided you have the money, the ability to do basic maintenance (checking fluids, listening for noises, changing oil, replacing trim and hardware), and a good mechanic’s number on your phone (or written down) for major things if you aren’t so inclined, then there’s no reason not to keep it around. Get a boring midsize sedan (or something a bit newer and more reliable, anyway) and use the old car on the weekends, or occasional trips to work, or while the modern car is having its winter tires put on. I wouldn’t necessarily say a Lumina’s worth it – but I’m sure it is, to someone. After all, my grandfather feels this way about his Sable.

  • avatar

    This brings to mind the story of Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins. He has a 1991 Mazda 626 that he refused to get rid of. I just found out that Mazda teamed up with a dealership in the area and took the car and completely restored it for him…it looks great!

    • 0 avatar

      Was just going to say the same thing! Amazing that so many sports figures leave the game broke. Folks like Alfred warm the heart! I feel the same way about the 1997 Tercel my son drives right now. I know as he progresses through the ranks of the US Air Force, he’ll eventually want something new(er) to go along with his fighter pilot status. And though I’m in position to afford something much nicer (I am toying with a new Wrangler when I get back from overseas in two years), I really want that old Tercel back. Fresh paint and *maybe* a new clutch and she’d be good for another 200k. Guess I’ll never be a true baller…and I’m okay with that!

  • avatar

    Beautifully written story. Having money for the things you want and more is great. It should be used for exactly for this purpose and not to try to be someone else. In this story, Charlie is just happy that he can move on from the old banger and get on with his life with more reliable automobile.

    However, it wasn’t sensible for Charlie to hold on to his old car longer than he has to. Too old cars are not reliable, they can cause accidents and in his case make him late for an important game. When you can afford it you don’t want to deal with car troubles.

    Some people buy cars as show, others buy them for function. If you are comfortable with what you got and you can afford it, it is great. The problem with cars is that you can upgrade them easily but it is very hard and painful to downgrade.

  • avatar

    Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I was in the same position. I have a pretty strong aversion to “baller” cars as well, so the last thing I would do is rock the standard cheeseball black Range Rover with $8000 rims.

    However I still love cars, so I would probably buy a bunch of great classics from my childhood. I’d be the guy showing up in an Merc 190 or a 928 (with checkered seats of course).

  • avatar

    I wish I have this problem.. Making so much $ that I can choose to buy cheap.

  • avatar

    About the Lumina photo: what was it with white Luminas? They all did that paint-peeling thing. Leave it to GM to find a way to screw up the most durable color!

    • 0 avatar

      I know right? One of my co-workers drives a silver first-gen Lumina with severe paint peel, but the majority of the second-gen Luminas I see with bad paint peel are white.

  • avatar

    Going back to NFL players and cars, reputedly Philip Rivers, quarterback of the San Diego Chargers, drives a minivan. Not sure which one, but seeing how he has a large family (at least 5 kids!) that makes sense and he did mention that it’s easier loading stuff into a minivan rather then a taller SUV. That makes sense.

    His backup from a few years past, Billy Volek, drove a huge lifted F250…. the BACKUP QB.

    Almost like this story, Luis Castillo drove a beat up Nissan Xterra and when it broke down, his teammates got him to upgrade to a Lexus RX. He was also initially hesitant like Charlie in the story. He was good, but injury prone and he was cut a few years back.

    Also, if you look at the cars in the parking lot at Chargers Park, it’s filled with the usual suspects; BMW’s, Mercedes, Audi’s, Cadillac Escalades, Lincoln Navigators and some Bentley Continentals.

    Here’s a funny one though, about 3 summers ago I was driving by the Mission Valley mall in San Diego in my ’06 Mustang GT; I had just washed it and waxed it, I had just installed a cold air intake, headers and axle back exhausts and I cruising for the hell of it, drinking in the mean bark my 4.6 growled out. I then see a little red car coming the opposite way, a Smart Car. On said Smart Car was a gigantic Hello Kitty sticker on the door. I’m thinking this has to be a young teenage girl driving this car, has to be. Nope. The car passes me and to my astonishment a HUGE dude is driving it. My jaw drops and I stare back… he must have seen my response as he just smiled back at me as he drove by. When I got home I learned it was Antonio Gauray, a Chargers LINEBACKER. I wish I could post pics here and I probably butchered his last name, but there’s pictures on the internet, though he’s no longer with the Chargers; Jets or Jaguars I think.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s awesome! FWIW, Garay was a 320 pound defensive lineman, pretty much as big as you’re going to see on the football field. He played one season for the Bears before taking his talents to warmer pastures.

  • avatar

    Great story ! .

    Resonates strongly as I could have pretty much any new car I wanted at this point (reasonable , no exotics etc.) but I keep driving my 30 & 40 year old cars and truck because they suit me and I don’t give a rat’s @$$ if anyone likes what I drive .

    I’m pleased to hear there are some good professional sports guys out there too , the news always seems full of looser stories .
    Once poor , you should never , _ever_ forget , I sure won’t .


  • avatar

    I tried to guess what his vehicle of choice would be, but the “trunk” made me think about sedans. Since when does a T&C have a trunk?
    A great read, though!

  • avatar

    RE : Arrogant sales people .

    I hate ’em .

    I _always_ make a point of letting them know I’m in the market to buy m not jet jerked off so I’ll be taking my money and their sales commission , else where .

    If you let rude behavior slide , you’re rewarding and encouraging it .


  • avatar

    Can’t say I blame him. the new Town & Countrys are damn nice. Plush interiors, good steering/brakes, tons of power, good transmission, and able to fly at 90mph yet still under the radar. Cheap too.

  • avatar

    “Monogrammed umbrellas that shot out of hidden pockets. Refrigerated compartments. And this was all on the “low end” cars; they hadn’t even touched the exotics.”

    Show me a monogrammed umbrella in something low end, since ya hadn’t been to RR or Bentley yet.

  • avatar

    Like Mazda refurbishing Alfred Morris’ Bentley?

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