Greg is driven to succeed on the football field.
What begins for him as a simple attempt to win a starting position on the team
ends up as a journey to discover who he really is.
It was the day of our final preseason practice session, which was being held even before school officially started. Our opening game would be a full week after that. But this was a crucial practice, and I was a little tense at breakfast. Dad was reading the paper, eating a donut and drinking coffee. Mom put some toast on the table. I dumped some cereal into my bowl. Breakfast of Champions. Well, if I ate large before practice it would all come up on the field; but a little cereal would be OK.
Coach made the last preseason practice the toughest. It would be brutal out there today with everyone wanting to secure a starting position. He’d make out his team depth chart and post it on the bulletin board for everyone to see on the first day of school.
“You going to beat out that Whitmore kid?” Dad lowered the paper just enough so he could see me over the top of it.
“Should,” I said through a mouthful of robustly baked, hearty grains, masticated with 1% milk. “We’re neck and neck. He’s pretty good, for a sophomore. Fast.”
“Should? Don’t give me that crap.” His voice hardened. “Whip that pansy’s ass today. You’re bigger than he is. You deserve to start. This is your senior year. What’ve you been playing for? Starting varsity linebacker. Your last shot at it. This is what you’ve been doing all this work for. It’s your spot! You go out and make it happen, you hear? Starting linebacker. Then what’ll those guys at the shop say to me, huh? None of their sons ever did that.” He glared at me a moment. I met his eyes, then dropped them back to the plate of toast and grabbed a slice.
He laid down his paper, grabbed his lunchbox, and stalked out the door. Seconds later he reappeared in the doorway. “Goddamnit, you make it happen!” he growled, seething with anger, glaring at me until I met his eyes, then shouted, “Goddammit!” again and left for sure.
Mom never said a word.
August. Hot. Hot and humid. But the coach, wearing a tee shirt, shorts and a baseball cap to keep the sun off his head—most of the time standing under an awning to keep it off his body as well—was running us. We’d been at it for an hour longer than usual. We were all exhausted, and even the frequent water breaks the coaches insisted we take to keep us hydrated didn’t help with that.
“OK, nutcracker drill!” he called out when we’d watered up and rested one last time. It was probably 92 on that field, and all the sweat we were losing didn’t lower the humidity one bit. No awnings for us.
A groan went up. We’d been hoping he’d call it a day. And only the largest and toughest of us ever liked the nutcracker drill, a test of courage and skill where we’d go one on one against another player in a confined space, each trying to get past or around or to overpower the other. You could end up looking really bad if you got beat, especially if it were by a younger or smaller player. All your teammates watched, lined up facing each other only about ten feet apart with the participants in the middle; it was the teammates all pushing in who were the ones doing the confining. And of course they were yelling and screaming and turning the whole affair into a sort of medieval joust of a nightmare.
Assistant coaches called out the names of the two guys going against each other, and the players selected jumped in and went at it. Their skirmish only lasted a couple of seconds, then the coaches would blow their whistles and the two guys were supposed to stop.
It didn’t always happen that way. Everyone was hot and tired and in a foul mood. Nerves were ragged. It had already been a hard, grueling practice with no one wanting to lay off even one play; starting assignments were on the line. So an intense, hand-to-hand battle, sometimes against a guy you were trying to beat out and may not have liked that much anyway, could turn into a fight lightning fast. The coaches liked to see how competitive the players were; they didn’t want to see anyone backing down. They didn’t want us fighting, however. They said it showed a lack of discipline, a lack of self-control that would result in flags during our games. But we were high school kids, we were already angry being forced to do this, and if the guy we were being forced to face and beat in this drill was a guy we’d been competing with every practice for a starting spot… well, fights happened. Incendiary, all-out, trying-to-hurt-the-other-guy, impassioned fights. Everything-goes fights that the coaches had to jump in and stop, and quickly, too.
Of course, we all had gear on. The fights were savage but didn’t last more than two seconds and no one really got hurt. At least that was the coaches’ interpretation. And, admittedly, it was usually true.
There was name-calling involved in some of those fights, too. Our best defensive tackle was a big black guy whose name was Foster, of all things. Foster Banks. To me, it seemed a strange name for a black kid. In his drill, he got tangled up with Dick Snyder, the offensive tackle he was up against in practice day after day. There was no love lost between them. So when Snyder got under his pads and put him on the ground, Banks came up swinging and cursing.
“You goddam faggot,” he shouted, and it took three coaches to control him.
Snyder wasn’t backing away, either. “Call me that again, you son of a bitch, and you’ll be eating soup while they’re fitting you for your new teeth!”
I was standing next to a defensive back. I turned to him and said, “I didn’t know Snyder was a fudge packer.” I said it softly because I wasn’t looking for Snyder to overhear me. You didn’t want to fuck with Snyder. The back next to me gave me a funny look and stepped away. Well, fuck him, too.
By the time I was called, there’d already been four fights; one, we’d learn later, had resulted in a broken hand after one kid had slugged another as hard as he could, his passion overcoming his common sense, and had hit his enemy’s helmet. We’d lose that kid for the entire season. I thought the coaches were crazy.
“Meyers, Whitmore, you’re up.”
I didn’t have time to think. Getting in there quickly was expected. To dawdle showed reluctance. At least that’s what the coaches said it meant. We were supposed to like this, supposed to be eager to join in. They didn’t want reluctant players on the team, let alone starting. And we didn’t want to look bad to the other players. We both jumped between the lines composed of screaming teammates.
Whitmore was two years younger than me and probably 20 pounds lighter. What he lacked in size, though, he made up for in technique and quickness. It was touch and go between us. We both wanted to win the starting right outside linebacker spot. Seemed to me, this drill might make a big difference. A picture of my dad glaring at me came unbidden.
I didn’t plan to get beaten.
The challenge was to get past each other, as though we were rushing an imaginary passer our opponent was protecting. If we couldn’t get past him, we should at least knock him down so a path would be open for another player, as if this were a game.
I had size on Whitmore, but he was fast enough to get around me, even without much room to work in. I’d been watching him throughout all our practices. The kid was good; he might even have been better than I was; but he was a kid. I had a vision of him juking me and going around and leaving me standing there eating his dust, of his running past with his arms up in exultation, untouched. And the other guys laughing. Whitmore was the clown sort, the kind who always had kids laughing at and with him. What if he ran around me, threw his arms in the air laughing? How’d I feel then?
The whistle blew. He came at me, and I went at him. I was expecting him to juke. He didn’t. He came in, dropped his pads low, and I’d been playing light on my feet, ready to move to one side of the other when he juked. His shoulder pad hit me in the chest, he was driving hard with his legs, and he had all the leverage.
I was going to go over on my back. I could feel it happening. I did the only thing I could. I grabbed his jersey with both hands, twisted as best I could, and managed to let his momentum take us forward and down, but I was heavy enough that my twist had put me partially on top of him. I pulled up my hands so they wouldn’t stop our fall, making a conscious effort to land as hard as I could on top of him.
He screamed. We’d landed with all my weight and his too on his shoulder. I could tell by his scream and the pop I’d heard that he’d dislocated it.
Whistles were going off all over, and I was jerked roughly to my feet. “That was bullshit; a bullshit play!” The head coach was raging in my face. “We’d get a holding flag on that every time. That wasn’t football! What the hell was that?! You lifted your arms to keep your weight on him when he went down. You were trying to hurt him!”
Everyone could hear the coach yelling. He didn’t stop there, either. He kept ranting, all the time his voice rasping against the background moans coming from Whitmore, then told me to hit the showers and wait for him in his office. He called what I’d done bullshit a couple more times, too. Sometimes the coach yelled at us with pretend anger. This time there was no pretend about it. Whitmore was still groaning and kicking his legs, slapping his feet on the ground, trying to do something to stop the pain. Two coaches were kneeling over him, trying to keep him still.
The coach gave me a hard shove toward the gym and locker room, hard enough to almost knock me over. Where there had been lots of teenage voices cheering and laughing and making raucous, ribald remarks as each pair of opponents collided, it was now suddenly silent. The only sound was coming from Whitmore, and it wasn’t pretty.
I didn’t know what to feel. I’d got revenge on the kid for trying to take my spot. I’d showed him who was top dog. Showed everyone. But the screaming was bad. I’d known someone who’d dislocated a shoulder in JV football. Said it was the worst pain he’d ever felt. He never played again. I knew I’d tried to hurt Whitmore. I’d been getting beat in the drill, he’d been winning fair and square just by using good fundamentals and lots of heart, not by trying to be cute. Just one on one, playing it straight. As I’d been falling backward, I’d seen a flash vision of myself sitting on the bench. Playing behind a sophomore. So I’d done what I’d had to do. But somehow, it had ended up all wrong.
Why did I do it? Was it because my dad glared at me that morning because he wanted to be able to stand tall in front of his friends because I was starting? Was it the coach, making us play when we were tired and angry and tempers were short? Or was it just me, being willing to hurt a kid so I’d get what I wanted, or so I wouldn't be embarrassed at being beaten by a younger kid in front of my teammates?
I didn’t know. I didn’t like any of those thoughts. I kept looking for justification in what I’d done but couldn’t find any. It was a long, long walk back to the showers.
The coach yelled at me some more when he finally came in. Told me I was in desperate need of an attitude adjustment. Then he told me I’d be starting, but only because there was no one else. He told me if he saw me playing dirty again, I was done, no matter if we lost every remaining game. He told me I was a huge disappointment, that he expected his seniors to be leaders, not assholes. He told me I’d better have learned something from this, something that would make me a better person, because as far as he was concerned, I was crap.
I wasn’t feeling very good, walking home. Getting the starting position should have had me on cloud nine. Being able to tell Dad I’d won the spot should have made my day—hell, my year. But all I felt was bad. I’d let the coach down, and I’d let the team down, and I’d let myself down. The coach had told me if I couldn’t earn something fairly, if I had to cheat or break the rules to get it, I didn’t deserve it, and I didn’t deserve the position, and that Whitmore probably wouldn’t be playing at all this year because of me, and because I’d played dirty. He didn’t know if Whitmore would even come out for football next year.
When Dad came in, the first thing he asked was, “Hey, you starting?”
“Yeah, I made it,” I said.
He looked at me hard. He could read my voice pretty well. “So you whipped that faggot trying to steal your position, then.” A statement, not a question, so I didn’t have to do anything but nod. But even nodding didn’t feel right. Felt like I was lying. So I didn’t. I just said, “Yeah, I’m starting.”
He started to say something else, but I said, “I got homework, Dad, and I’ll be up late if I don’t start now. I don’t keep a C+ average, I don’t play.”
“You keep your damn grades up, boy! You hear me?” He was headed toward the kitchen to get a beer. First thing every night, a beer. Then a couple afterwards, watching TV. Every night.
I didn’t answer. I went up and shut my door. Lay down on my bed. Unhappy with myself, and the world.
At dinner, all Dad could talk about was that I was starting and finally people would see him in a different light. I wasn’t saying anything—and not eating that much. Finally he noticed.
“What’s wrong with you? You should be over the moon. We made it!”
I met his eyes briefly, then looked down at my plate again. “That Whitmore kid? I hurt him, maybe badly. Fell on him and dislocated his shoulder. They had to take him to the hospital. He’s only a sophomore.”
“So what?” My dad acted as if it was no big deal. “Kids get hurt in football. It’s a rough game. You weren’t trying to hurt him, were you?”
“No. Well, not really. I mean, not hurt like he was. But, when I fell on him, I could have pulled back a little, but I didn’t. I let my full weight fall on him.”
“Well, so what? You’re starting, aren’t you? So it was all for the best. You have to look out for yourself, and he had to look out for himself. Don’t you go letting up because of that.”
“But Dad, what I did was a little dirty.”
“So? Everyone plays a little dirty, cuts corners when they can. That’s how things work.”
I heard him, but somehow, it wasn’t making me feel any better.
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