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.
Donnie pushed me up onto the team bus, then into the first pair of empty seats we came to. He sat down next to me. I was a little shaken. I hadn’t been in a fight since middle school, and there’d been four guys facing me. The adrenaline surge was burning away, and I felt shaky. But I was confused, too.
I was able to relax a little because the coach had to call roll, and the players were exuberant with the win they hadn’t been expecting. The bus was raucous, but the coach, being the man with the commanding presence he was, finally got them settled.
I turned toward Donnie, feeling a tired but still with a little too much adrenaline. “What the fuck was that, man? I thought you hated me. You should have enjoyed watching me get the shit kicked out of me. And now this… sitting with me on the bus? What gives?”
The bus started up, moving slowly because there were still people moving around outside. I couldn’t really settle back in the seat like I wanted to because Donnie was looking at me steadily, forcing me to return his gaze. Then he opened his mouth. He wasn’t one of those kids who dropped their eyes and spoke into your chests. “You’re a teammate; whether I like you or not doesn’t make any difference. Teammates have each other’s back.” He stared at me hard, then, and I got the idea that in similar circumstances he’d have expected me to do the same for him. But he wasn’t done talking. “You’re an asshole, that’s for sure. But you and I, we need to find some common ground.”
“Why?” I was still feeling the adrenaline, and this guy getting in my face telling me I was an asshole wasn’t helping it or my anger go away. “I’m supposed to like some gay guy I don’t even know? So you stopped those guys. Thanks, but don’t expect me and you to be best friends and go double-dating. I don’t want to even think about what you’d be doing in the back seat—or the boy you’d be doing it with.”
His voice was full of disgust when he said, “You’re a real piece of work, you know that? I probably should have let those guys pound you. Might have knocked some sense into you.”
“How’d you do that, anyway?” I asked, my curiosity coming between me and my demons. “Get him on the ground like that, I mean?”
He got a wry smile on his face, briefly. “I wrestle. You learn about balance and leverage and shit like that. He was off balance, and it was easy to take advantage of that. You wrestle?”
“No, never did.”
“You should come out for the team. I’m going to. Really helps with football. Leverage is everything in football.”
“Yeah, but by wrestling season I’ll be done with football. This is my last year.”
“Still wouldn’t hurt. You’d learn something about yourself. Help your confidence, too.”
I was quiet for a moment, then repeated what I’d asked before. “So, why you sitting with me? Being nice?”
“I had something to say to you, and this was a good time to say it.”
“Yeah. You played a good game tonight. But the guys on the team don’t know how to handle it—or you. Makes them all uncertain, uncomfortable. You need to do something about that. It’s your fault, so it’s you who needs to fix it.”
I sat up a little straighter. “What’re you talking about?”
“Whitmore. These guys saw what happened. They know he went to the hospital. He’s still there. Some of them went and saw him there. You, you never went. Now, they saw how much game you brought tonight, but most of the guys don’t know what to say to you. So you got a couple of things you got to do to make things right. As right as you can, at least. Me, I don’t think I’ll ever forgive you for trying to hurt him, but you can at least make it better with the rest of the guys.”
We were out on the road now, and the bus was full of the noise of the other players whooping it up and the hum of the road, but I could hear Donnie just fine. I wasn’t sure how to react. I still had really mixed feelings about what had happened. Mostly, however, I knew I’d been in the wrong, had done something stupid because of how I’d felt at the time, but I had no idea how to make it better. If this guy did, well, I was willing to listen.
“Why do you care?” I asked. But I wasn’t trying to be confrontational. I simply wanted to know.
“Because the team needs to be pulling together, and you’re messing that up. I saw how you can play. But the other guys need to be with you when we’re out on the field, not holding back because it’s you. If we’re going to be any good as a team, we have to have each other’s back, kinda like what I did getting you onto the bus. I didn’t stop to think whether it was you or not; I acted because I saw my teammate in trouble. That’s the way we all need to be on the field. Right now, there’s the team and then there’s you. The team needs to come first; we all need to be together. So you’ve got to get right with the team.”
I thought about that, then asked, “How?”
“You have to get up in front of the team and apologize. The coach has to hear it, too. And you have to go apologize to Whitmore, too.”
I didn’t want to apologize to anyone, and I stewed about it all the way back to school. Dad had taught me it was all about winning, that we had to do whatever it took. He’d never told me to cheat but had told me to win, to come back home a winner every night. And I’d seen him cheat on occasion. Take advantage of people. And he always acted like he was a big man to be able to do that. Had names for the people he’d used. I grew up thinking that bending the rules was part of being a strong man, part of getting to the head of the pack.
But now Donnie was calling me out, and while I knew I’d fucked up with Whitmore, that I’d crossed a line, it had resulted in my starting for the football team. I’d got what I wanted.
I had to think about this. Think about what I’d done, how I’d felt afterwards. Think about where my anger was coming from. Right and wrong, actions and rewards, morality: they’d all been black and white when I was a kid. I knew what was right and what wasn’t. Then, as I was growing up, as the games I played had become more important to Dad, the black and white had started to get gray and blurry. My dad had started getting on my case about winning. I’d seen him wanting to show his friends what a stud he’d fathered. I’d heard him saying I had to do what I needed to do to win. Now, the line that separated right from wrong, the line I’d crossed with Whitmore, seemed to barely exist. And after Coach told me I was starting, my dad had clapped me on the back and told me it was damn well about time they noticed me.
So I felt bad about Whitmore, sure, and a small part of me knew what I’d done was wrong, but my dad was smiling and going on and on about how good I was, and lately what I knew I’d got real good at was repressing that little voice inside me. Not acknowledging it. Now I was thinking about that, and thinking about my anger, and thinking about not liking myself very well. Thinking about changing. Wondering if I could. Wondering about what Donnie was wanting me to do.
But, even with all that thinking, there was certainly nothing inside me telling me I should stand up in front of the entire team and bare my soul!
Still… No one on the team was acting like they used to do around me. I wasn’t being included in any locker-room antics. Catcalls stopped when I showed up. People in the shower on both sides of me turned away when I stepped under my showerhead. People only spoke to me when I spoke to them first, and then they were brusque. I felt a need to fix that, to get things back to how they’d been. I’d hoped playing a great game might make them come around, but it hadn’t. I’d played my heart out but it hadn’t made any difference. They’d ignored me during the game and then been icy as ever after. The only one even noticing me walking to the bus was Donnie. I hated it the way it was.
If apologizing to them would change that, well, maybe I would. Much of the reason for playing football at all, aside from the cheering and my dad’s approval, was the camaraderie with the other players. They were my buddies, my only real friends at school. I really missed what I’d had with them now that I’d lost it.
With happy celebrations going on around us, Donnie and I rode back to school in silence. I was deep into myself, thinking about all this, but when we stopped and kids were getting off, Donnie grabbed my arm. Damn, he had a strong grip. He held on, and everyone else left the bus before we did. I figured he must have something else to say to me. Before he could, though, I asked him something.
“You said Whitmore is still in the hospital. Why is he? I thought all they had to do with a separated shoulder was reset the thing.”
Donnie shook his head. “Sometimes. Not always. He was messed up bad; needed surgery. In some cases, when the ligaments have been torn, that’s what’s needed. That was Kenny’s problem and why he’s still in the hospital.”
“Yeah, Kenny. That’s Whitmore’s name.”
I hadn’t known I’d hurt him that badly. I thought about that, sitting in what was by then an empty bus except for Donnie and me. He started to slide out of his seat but then turned and said one last thing to me.
“If you do apologize, mean it. Don’t get up there and put on an act, either to the guys in the locker room or to Kenny. They’ll see it. They’ll know. And then it’ll be worse than it is now. So, if you decide to apologize, before you do, figure out why you’re apologizing, what you did wrong, and then say it from your heart. But you have to mean it.”
He stood up and was gone before I could reply.
My dad had been to the game. Even though he’d driven there, I had to ride back to the school on the bus—something about insurance rules for players and school-faculty responsibilities. He followed along behind with the other parents’ cars and collected me in the school parking lot. I hadn’t seen him till I got off the bus and got in the car. He was raving, ecstatic, bubbling over about how I’d played.
“Man, you showed ‘em, Greg! You showed those pansies how the game should be played! Coach must be kicking himself for not playing you more last year. That guy starting last year couldn’t have carried your jock.”
Dad went on and on in that vein. He was always excited by my games. Whatever sport it was, he came alive watching me, then reliving the game afterwards. I was used to his negativity towards gays; I’d heard it all my life, and it didn’t register now even as it seemed to have gotten worse in the last year or so. But there was more to him than that. He could be loving and fun just like most fathers. He’d spent hours with me all the time I was growing up, coaching and teaching me football, baseball, basketball and even tennis. He loved sports and wanted me to be good at them, and because of his enthusiasm and the time he spent with me, I had become good at them.
I hadn’t understood why in general he didn’t seem as happy now as he was when I was younger. But I had my own problems, and I had no idea how to help him with his. It wasn’t my place to, anyway.
The only downside to his interest in my athletic career was if he didn’t think I performed as well as I could. But he got over it quickly. He was quick to anger, and quick to forget afterwards.
You get used to your parents, and I was used to mine.
Now, however, for maybe the first time listening to him rant about one of my games, one where I’d played well, he was making me a little uncomfortable. Maybe for the first time in my life, I really noticed how he was putting down the other team as fairies, limp-wristed faggots, and all sorts of other derogatory terms. Saying we didn’t have any of those guys on our team, thank god; you could tell by the way we’d all played. We had real men on our team. Perhaps he’d done this before, and perhaps I was just more sensitive to in now because of Donnie. I didn’t know. I did know I noticed.
I didn’t tell him about Donnie. Donnie had done as much during the game as I had; and then he’d saved me from getting my ass handed to me afterwards as well. Listening to him rant, I started to really listen to him and began to realize that what he was saying just wasn’t true. He was saying fa… uh, gay guys didn’t have any courage. Couldn’t play a man’s sport. Were always thinking about sex and would be looking at the guys on the other team to see who was cute, potential fucks even, and wouldn’t be able to keep their heads in the game. All sorts of stuff like that. And for the first time, I knew he wasn’t speaking the truth. None of it was true. If I held Donnie up to what he was saying, I could see just how ridiculous it all was.
When we got home, he started in on Mom, telling her how brilliant I’d been, how we’d shown them all, and how from now on we’d be looked at differently.
Mom never said a word.
I thought about what Donnie had said and about how fucked up things were all weekend. I stayed by myself—in my room, mostly. And when I dressed for practice Monday, I was ready.
I’d already seen Donnie do it. I couldn’t do it with the same ease and confidence he’d had. I wasn’t like that. But I could do it. Just.
I’d already told the coach what I was going to do. He’d nodded, and I’d thought I’d seen his eyes smile. Now, after dressing quickly so I’d be ready before any of the others, I climbed up on the bench in front of my locker just as Donnie had.
“Hey, guys,” I said, loudly. “Can I have your attention for a sec? I have something I want to say.”
The room quieted quickly, guys turning around to look at me, some muttering to each other. Mostly, they stayed where they were, but then the team captain and Donnie both ambled over, and the rest followed. The coach was in the back, not interfering at all, trying not to be noticed.
“Guys, I screwed up. I made a mistake with Whitmore. At the time, I tried to just slough it off, act like it was an accident, something that just happened and wasn’t my fault. But it was my fault. I was mad about a lot of things, about Whitmore showing me up, about him probably starting in front of me, and about some things at home. I did something I shouldn’t have done. It was spur of the moment, but I still did it, and I knew what I was doing when I did it.”
I stopped. Everyone was looking at me, and there was dead silence.
“I didn’t mean to hurt him. I meant to show him up, yeah, but not separate his shoulder. I feel awful about that. He had me beat in that drill, and what I did was dirty. I know that now. It’s taken me some time to get my head around it. I was wrong, though, and I understand that now.
“I understand some of you have visited him in the hospital. I didn’t know he was still there. I just found out. I’m going to see if he’ll let me talk to him tonight. I need to apologize to him, too.”
I was looking around, meeting eyes. I was sincere. I had been at fault, I’d seen clearly what I’d done and why over the weekend, and I hoped by meeting eyes, my teammates would see that I wasn’t making this up at all. The guys were looking back at me, but I couldn’t read their expressions.
I finished up. “If you guys want me off the team, I’ll go. If you let me stay and play, I’ll play hard, but I’ll play clean. I learned something from this. I never want to hurt anyone like that again. That’s all I have to say.”
I climbed down, turned around and sat facing my locker. I don’t know why, but I felt tears come to my eyes. I dropped my head and just sat there.
The room stayed quiet for a moment or two, and then I heard the captain say, “OK, everybody finish dressing and hit the field. We have a game to prepare for. Nelson Hills Academy this week.”
And that was it. No one said anything about what I’d said. But the strange thing was, as they left the room, their cleats clicking on the hard floor, many of them touched my back or shoulder as they passed by.
I went out after everyone else had left. The coach had waited for me outside the locker room. “Good job, Greg.”
It seemed to me that was all he was going to say. That was the coach, terse and to the point. He walked with me toward the field, and I saw him taking a glance at me every now and then. Maybe he saw my eyes were a little red and thought I needed more support or something like that, because then, while we were still walking, he added, “I think you mended some fences in there. They’re kids. They know about getting mad, about making mistakes. They know how hard it is to admit they’ve done wrong, too. I don’t think you’ll hear much more about it. Just practice. Practice hard. Play hard. They’ll notice. Now trot on out the rest of the way.”
I wasn’t sure but thought maybe he was telling me that ‘the kids’ he said made mistakes included me, and as far as he was concerned, the incident was closed. I hoped that was the case.
And I did as he said. I jogged out to be with the team, and I practiced hard. No one said anything about my apology. But they began talking to me again. It felt like I’d come out from under a black cloud into the sunlight again.
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