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.
At practice that week, I could feel a difference. Everyone liked Whitmore. Coach had yelled at me that I’d hurt him playing dirty. The seniors on the team had known me for the three years we’d played and some of them longer than that. But even those guys were quiet around me. No one was joking with me. I wasn’t exactly shut out—if I spoke to them, they answered. But just an answer and nothing more. It was frosty in my section of the locker room.
There was a new kid on the team this year, a junior who’d transferred in. He’d be playing the other outside-linebacker spot. He was really good. Big, fast, strong, instinctive, and he could read plays quickly enough to get to the right spot ahead of time. He played on the left side of the defense against the right side of the offense. Most quarterbacks, and so most teams, were right-handed and ran the majority of their plays to the right. The new kid got the lion’s share of the action.
His name was Donnie Ellis. He played really hard and seemed very focused. So much so, he hadn’t really made many friends on the team. He just came out for practice with the rest of us. He did the job, and it was apparent right off he’d be starting. The guy who’d played there last year had graduated, and the other guys competing for that spot weren’t that good. Donnie was.
There was another reason he hadn’t made friends, however. After the first practice, in the locker room when everyone was getting undressed for the showers, he stood up on one of the benches and called out, “Hey, everyone. I got something to say. Gather round.”
No player ever did that, and even the seniors stopped and looked at him in surprise. When he had everyone’s attention, he said, “I’m new here. My name is Donnie Ellis. I’m going out for linebacker. I’ll be trying out for the wrestling team, too. Before any of that happens, I want you all to know that I’m gay. I don’t want it coming as a surprise. I’m gay. I’ll be taking a shower with you guys after practice and games. If anyone has a problem with that or with me, we can settle it now. Coach knows. I told him, and I told him I’d announce it to the team. He told me to go ahead. So, what’s happening, guys? Anyone want to make a deal of this?”
No one said anything; most of us were just too surprised. Then the team captain, Ron Cabroletti, stood up and said, “I sure don’t. I saw you out on the field today. I can’t speak for individuals, but I can speak for the team. I’m glad you’re here.” And he walked up and shook Donnie’s hand.
Donnie got down off the bench and looked around the room, meeting eyes. No one said a word. Donnie hit the showers with us. I watched him. He didn’t seem to be checking anyone out. He simply took a shower. I guessed maybe, after making a speech like that, he didn’t dare, but that didn’t seem to be it. He seemed as self-assured as any kid that age I’d ever met. I checked him out. He looked just like the rest of us, down there. I hadn’t been sure about that. I’d never seen a gay guy naked before, other than on some gay porn I’d looked at just to see what it was. Those porn guys were usually huge, so I’d sort of thought maybe all gay guys were. Donnie was just average in that department. As for the rest of him, though, the guy was built. Really solid, no fat, muscles well-defined. If anyone had been thinking of messing with him after he told us what he did, seeing him naked probably made them stop to think about it twice.
Some of the guys went up to him while he was dressing and shook his hand, introducing themselves. I wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t tell Dad about him or his speech. I sort of wanted to, because he liked hearing about what went on at practices, but Dad hated gays. All I’d ever heard from him were belittling, nasty things like they all had AIDS, or they had sex all the time, that they’d fuck anything that moved, that no boy was safe around a faggot, and to them there was no love involved in anything they did; it was all about sex, all the time.
I’d been hearing that all my life. Then, when we had sex ed, I was told stuff that was completely different. But because I’d listened to my dad all the time I was growing up, what he’d told me had become the basis of my thoughts about gays. I couldn’t help but believe him even though most kids at my school didn’t seem to have anything against the few gay kids who were out. Myself, I kept away from them. I’d never spoken to Donnie Ellis.
At the first practice after Whitmore got hurt, that changed. Donnie came over to me while I was putting on my shoulder pads. Trying to feel good stepping out onto the practice field as starting right linebacker for the first time. Trying to ignore the loneliness I felt in that locker room. Trying to dismiss the occasional hostile glances.
“You’re Greg Meyers.” A statement. I turned around. Donnie was standing there. Eye to eye. I was a big guy, 230 pounds, six foot three and a half. Most guys didn’t look me in the eye straight on. He did.
“That was shit, what you did to Whitmore. He’s a friend of mine.” Donnie had a deep voice, not a kid’s voice at all. The sort of voice that said, ‘Don’t fuck with me.’
Looking back, I don’t know why I said it. Probably because of the way I was feeling. I was angry. I’d been angry since coach had gotten all over me. Home, school, practice—I was angry. Most of the anger was at myself, but anger’s anger and usually is looking for an outlet. So when I responded to him, anger had a lot to do with it. “Oh?” I said, my voice hard. “He gay, too?”
Donnie’s eyes changed. They’d been kind of neutral. Now, they narrowed, and his body seemed to tense a little, to adjust. I took a half-step back.
I was already regretting what I’d said. But I’d said it. I’d already lost enough face. I wasn’t going to back down, the mood I was in.
“So that’s who you are, huh?” Donnie’s eyes were now showing disgust. “I didn’t know. Willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Accidents happen. You don’t know what guys are thinking in the heat of the moment. You might not have really meant what happened. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. But, now I know you better.” He paused, gathering his thoughts. “Look, stay away from me. You and me, you don’t want that. Believe me.” Then he raised a hand and poked me in the chest. “Just stay away from me.”
He didn’t move right away. Just standing there, not saying another word, he was challenging me with his eyes and posture.
No one challenged me. It had been years since that had happened. I had a rep. And I played hard on the football field. This kid was younger than I was, a junior, and that meant something. But there he was, and there I was.
I didn’t back down. I just stood there, meeting his eyes. Eventually, he nodded, then turned and walked away. I took a deep breath. There was something about Donnie. You just didn’t want to mess with him.
Our first game was an away game against a bigger school than ours. They usually beat us, and the games were tough. Exactly what I wanted. A chance to hit people—hard. An outlet for the anger that was still there. Simmering.
The first play of the game, they were on offense, and the crowd was making a lot of noise. It was a sweep around my end. A lineman was trying to cut me. I gave him a straight arm, stepped inside him and met the running back head-on in the backfield. Hit him hard, took him to the ground. Five-yard loss. I got up just as angry as before. Maybe more so.
The next play was a run up the middle, a trap play. Their pulling guard took out our middle linebacker, and the running back had a hole big enough for a tank to run through. I saw it coming and cut under the blocking lineman. I met the running back right in the hole, and put him on the ground again.
“All night long,” I said to the back as I was getting up; he was a short, stocky, black kid. He gave me a funny look. My voice had sounded nasty.
Next play was a pass. My assignment was outside contain. Their tight end had dropped back behind the line and was setting up to block, although there was no one to block except me and I was seven yards off the line, watching for any crossing patterns.
Their off guard and center were drifting my way, and I suddenly recognized it was a screen pass. The tight end was the only eligible receiver in the area. I closed fast on him and saw the ball coming.
I wasn’t quite fast enough, or close enough, to cut in front of him and intercept it, but I did get a hand up and knocked it down. I knocked him down, too, with my shoulder as I was tipping the ball away.
I wasn’t on the punt-block team. That was a special team, guys who saw it as an opportunity to get some playing time and make themselves known. I headed for the bench. I was expecting some high fives. But, nothing. No one said a word. I grabbed a place on the bench. Others did, too, but no one sat right next to me.
The rest of the game was much the same. I was involved in a whole lot of plays. I played my ass off, my energy high, my anger motivating me. I was taking it out on the team across the ball from me. Very quickly, they decided to attack elsewhere. But, when they tried to switch their running offense to the other side, Donnie wreaked havoc on them. They had to resort to passing and were only moderately successful, their offense having been built on a punishing running attack that usually was able to knock their opponent off the ball.
Their D was very good, and we couldn’t get a whole lot going when we had the ball, but we did manage a second-quarter touchdown. I blitzed and tackled their quarterback in his own end zone in the third quarter—my first safety ever. Neither team scored in the final quarter, just hammered on each other. Final score, 9-0. We hadn’t beaten them in six years.
I got a couple of nods from the coaches, and one or two guys slapped me on the back, but overall I was still isolated. And the fire inside me was still burning.
We showered and dressed. Leaving the locker room, we joined the late crowd leaving the stadium, walking among them to our bus. I was walking alone, something I was getting used to, when someone bumped me from behind. I stopped and turned. Four guys about my age were standing there. They were wearing the jackets of the school we’d just played.
The crowd was thinning and, mostly ahead of me. I’d been late getting dressed. After the game was over, after showering— only then had I realized how exhausted I was. I’d sat on the bench after dressing until I noticed pretty much everyone had already left. Even then, I’d still been exhausted, but I had to go get on the bus.
Now I was regretting having left so late. I was pretty much alone with these four guys. “You think you’re pretty hot shit, huh?” said the largest one of them. They were all big. Not as big as I was, but there were four of them, and they were on their home turf and thought they had something to prove. They were confronting me, and my anger, which had momentarily been banked, suddenly flared.
“You got a problem?” I said, turning so I was directly facing them.
“Yeah, we do,” said the big one, who stepped forward, fists clenched.
So did his friends.
Coach had rules for us. One was that we didn’t mix it up with anyone at an away game. No matter what. We walked in and out as a group. We just ignored any remarks. And if we got in a fight, we were off the team. No exceptions.
But I was by myself, and I was letting my anger rule my behavior. I hadn’t learned a thing with Whitmore.
I still don’t know how it happened. I know the big guy took a swing at me. I know I raised my fists. But then Donnie was there. Where he’d come from, I had no idea. But he stepped in front of me, blocked the punch somehow, did something with his leg and the big guy was suddenly on the ground. Another one had stepped forward, and Donnie had put his hand in the middle of this kid’s chest before he could swing and pushed, hard, knocking him back into the other two. He’d looked down at the one on the ground and said in a voice that brooked no nonsense, “Stay there!”
Then he had me by the arm and was pulling me away. I resisted for half a second, but that didn’t seem to make any difference. Even with my resistance, we were walking away, and the four of them weren’t moving at all.
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