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From The Sandlot to the Schoolyard: My Experience With Bullying and Learning to Fight Back

By Wil Horneff

My name is Wil Horneff. I’m a black belt in BJJ and an instructor at Training Grounds Jiu-Jitsu & MMA in Westwood, NJ. My biggest claim to fame was being the bully ‘Phillips’ in the classic film The Sandlot. At the age of 35, I can safely say that I have been told through the years that I “play ball like a girl!!!” more times than any other man alive. Unfortunately, this accusation is undeniably true. In the 8th grade, I stood an impressive four foot eleven inches tall and was always the last kid picked for teams; it just went without saying.

So it was ironic that in the Sandlot I was supposed to be a badass baseball player (and the team captain, no less).

But what’s a child actor doing talking about baseball on an MMA website? I’ll get to that in a second.

As a kid doing his first film, everything about The Sandlot was incredible and it’s hard not to look back on it with a bit of nostalgia. The lot itself was nestled behind houses in Salt Lake City, Utah. I was there for about 2 weeks for shooting and even though I had a smaller role, I hung out with the sandlot kids as one of the gang. In real life, everyone seemed pretty true to the characters they played in the film which is one of the strategies for casting kids. However, leaving the set and going back to real life was always a let down because when I left the set the real life bullying would resume.

Bullying is a hot topic nowadays. On the one hand, even the smallest slight can summon accusations of bullying, as was the case with a student who attended my Jiu-Jitsu school. The child did not want to invite a particular student to his birthday party and the uninvited child’s parents accused them of bullying their child by not inviting them. These days, bullying not only includes sins of commission but omission as well, apparently. On the other hand, you have California mayor Cameron Hamilton saying that kids who are bullied need to simply “grow a pair.” There is a ditch on either side of the road and keeping oneself on level ground is not always an easy task.

Speaking from personal experience as someone who was on the receiving end of bullying behavior for a good majority of my adolescent life, there is wisdom in “just growing a pair.” But the solution is never that simple. I had several bullies growing up. The first was when I was in the 5th grade; his name was Benny. Benny was quite the character, whose favorite line was “you can’t hustle a hustler.” He walked around with a pretzel stick in his mouth and acted like it was a cigar, pretending to inhale and blow out smoke. He was heavyset, he thought that being out of shape meant being tough, and he would slam my head into my locker and try to intimidate me every chance he got.

This went on for months until I explained the situation to my father. After helping me practice my jab-cross, my father gave me some advice along the lines of mayor Cameron Hamilton. He told me that I needed to tell Benny during lunchtime to come outside with me to “show him something.” Once outside, I was to say “put up your hands” and proceed to kick his ass. So naturally, despite being scared out of my wits, I followed the game plan to the tee and eventually won the fight. I even bought him some ice cream after to soften the blow to his ego. It worked all too well, until Benny’s mother took him to the police station and had his bulbous body photographed with all those bruises and then sued my parents. I, not Benny the Bulbous Bully, got expelled from school. And believe it or not, they walked away 10k richer. You certainly can’t hustle a hustler.

The next bully I faced was in middle school, during the time I filmed “The Sandlot.”  There was a kid named Doug, who at the age of 12, had a grown ass man’s body. I mean pecs, triceps and wide shoulders. He would manhandle me every chance he got. I’d be sitting with a couple girls and he’d walk up and say “there’s going to be a fight after school today.”

“Really, who?” I’d ask.

“Me and you,” he’d say as he grinned.

I’d walk the hall to see my locker broke open and “Penis Envy” written all over my books and binders. At 12 years old, I had no clue how a penis could envy so I was stumped as to what that meant. Little did I know that the body that Doug had in eighth grade was the body that he would have for the rest of his life. That was the extent of his growth, physically speaking. I hope that as a human being he did a lot more growing.

I actually saw Doug about a month ago in a pharmacy parking lot. Now, I’ve won adult no gi pan ams at brown belt level and received my black belt in BJJ from Ralph Gracie as an affiliate. I additionally train striking and wrestling, yet still, the sight of Doug put butterflies in my stomach. I called out his name as I approached him.

“Remember me?” I looked down at his confused and slightly alarmed face. I had just gotten back from practice, drenched in sweat and sporting a black eye, and obviously much larger than in eighth grade.

“It’s Wil, from middle school?”

“Oh….yeah” he stammered. I was very friendly and we caught up for a few minutes.  I extended my hand and he shook it.  A chapter closed.

Reflecting back on my personal experience, two things stand out. The first is that bullying has a lasting effect on the direction of someone’s life. For example, I graduated from Columbia University and could have easily gone into a more lucrative field such as finance like a lot of my peers. I am not aware of many graduates of the class of ’05 who decided to take out of a bunch of student loans to go to a prestigious university only to open up a martial arts school. Bullying during the formative years shapes a personality and certainly played large role in why I do what I do today. I’d like to think it shaped me in a positive way.

The second thing is that it could have just as easily had the opposite effect. I myself could have become a bully as soon as I got bigger and tried to pay the world back. In the words of Bono, “You become the monster so that the monster will not break you.” I could have allowed my fear of others to become a deep seated parasite embedded in my psyche. And once you go down that slippery slope it can get hard to get back up.

The solution to bullying isn’t an easy one. However, I believe it lies in both tough love and more awareness. I don’t completely agree with mayor Hamilton’s “grow a pair” comment as it’s too simplistic. However, in its context it’s easier to see what he was talking about. He said, “I’m against bullying, but I’m getting damn tired of it being used as a mantra for everything and the ills of the world.” The “bully” label is like the scarlet letter or like being accused of being a “witch” in the late 1600’s.  Just the accusation, warranted or not, is enough to be damaging. Some parents do really need to be told to grow up when their child is not invited to a party. And on the other hand, real and psychologically damaging bullying does need to be addressed immediately before it can detrimentally affect a child.

When I’m a parent, I’m going to make sure that any detrimental bullying is stopped immediately; especially when it’s uneven or unfair as is the case when kids gang up on one another. But if my kid wants to have it out with some cocky 12 year old in pin stripes who “plays ball like a girl” I’m going to let him fight his or her own battles and allow the small victories or defeats to do their own formative work in their life.

Wil Horneff is an instructor at Training Grounds Jiu-Jitsu & MMA and teaches both adult and kids martial arts in Bergen County, NJ.  

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