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.
I went to school early the next morning. Coach always came in early, and I knew I’d find him in his office. I’d been hoping he’d be willing to talk to me. He was. What I wanted from him was harder to get than I’d thought it would be, however. He didn’t want to go along with my proposal at all, but we talked, and I gave my reasons for what I wanted, and eventually, very reluctantly, he agreed.
After that, I still had time, so I went and looked over the place where Brent and Rocco were supposed to meet. One of the back doors of the school led to a small patio that was surrounded by four small storage sheds that were sort of tucked away outside a rear corner of the school building. They were used for athletic supplies, janitorial equipment, buildings-and-grounds maintenance stuff and textbook storage. I checked it all out, and then I went to my homeroom which was about to start.
I got increasingly nervous as the day continued. At lunch, Brent ate by himself again, and I watched from the jocks’ table, but Rocco didn’t approach him. After that, the afternoon classes began, and I was having trouble concentrating. When my last class finally rolled around I decided to cut it. I wouldn’t have got anything out of it, anyway, and I couldn’t afford to be late to the meeting.
The back door to the school wasn’t used very often. It led out to the storage buildings and not much else. It was possible to get to the athletic fields by walking past the storage sheds, but there were easier, more direct ways, and the parking lots were far away. I was sure Rocco had chosen this place because it would be deserted and he could take Brent to one of the storage buildings if he’d somehow got a key for one. Rocco was the sort who’d likely have done that. I’d smelled smoke on him in the past, and it hadn’t always been tobacco smoke. He’d have needed a private place for that. And maybe Brent wasn’t the first boy he was using this way.
I went through the door and walked around all the sheds to make sure I was the only one there. Then I went behind the shed that was closest to the door Brent would come through. I’d thought about the possibility of Rocco checking behind all the sheds, but it seemed unlikely to me. He was nothing if not cocky and overconfident. He’d be sure he’d scared the bejesus out of Brent, and so Brent would never tell anyone what was going to happen. Therefore, Rocco would have no reason to check for anyone. It probably wouldn’t even occur to him.
But still, in the very unlikely event he did decide to check, I’d borrowed a cigarette from a kid I knew who smoked and had it tucked behind my ear. Should I hear Rocco poking around the sheds, I’d light it. That would give me a perfect reason for being there.
The minutes crawled slowly by. It was a 45-minute class. I sat down with my back to the wall of the shed where I couldn’t be seen from the door and simply waited, trying to control my breathing and wishing my heart would slow down. The thing was, Rocco liked to fight. I’d seen him take on bigger guys in practice, and he’d been on top when the skirmishes were broken up. But even though he was a fighter and I wasn’t, I was pretty sure I could take him; I weighed thirty-five to forty pounds more than he did and stood at least four inches taller. But Rocco was mean, quick as a snake, had a lot of experience in fights, and I didn’t. I’d never had to because of my size. So, while I wasn’t really worried about fighting him if I had to, it was a concern. I’d be silly to be overconfident.
The other thing was, I didn’t have a switchblade, and in all likelihood he did.
I tried to turn my mind off. I could, but not for very long. I never did get my heart to slow down.
Eventually, after at least two forevers, I heard the back door to the school open, then shut. Nothing for a moment, and then a very tentative, nervous and high-pitched, “Hello? Anyone here?” Brent.
I couldn’t say anything. But I’d told him I wouldn't speak. He had to trust I was there.
I waited some more. Brent had to, too. I thought about how hard that had to be for him, and then I heard the door open again.
Then I heard it close, and Rocco spoke. “I’ve got a key to the athletic-equipment shed. We’re going in there.”
That was my cue. I stepped out from behind the shed, walked along its side and came out into the small area where Brent and Rocco were standing.
“Hi, there,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Brent looked scared. Rocco looked surprised and then angry. “You told him?” he said, turning on Brent.
Brent was no fool. We were in a rough triangle, each about five feet apart. Brent took three quick steps and was behind me.
I answered for him. “Yeah, he told me. He told me what you wanted to do. You’re a sick fuck, Rocco. I didn’t know you liked boys. When I tell the guys about it, they’re going to laugh you right off the team. ‘Old Rocco, gay as a freakin’ Tinkerbell fairy. He’s a pussy! Who’d a thunk it’?”
“I ain’t no faggot,” Rocco growled, his eyes flashing. “He is.”
“Then how come you told him you wanted to suck his dick?”
He started to complain that that wasn’t what he’d told Brent, but I talked right over him. “It doesn’t make any difference what’s true because the guys’ll believe what I tell them, and that’s what I’ll say. No one likes you much, Rocco. They’ll love this. There’s nothing you can do about it. And, hey, you know what? I won’t tell them that you were going to do this; I’ll tell them that I caught you doing it, sucking hisdick. ‘Faggot’ will be the nicest thing they’ll call you after they get through kicking the shit out of you!”
His eyes were jumping around now, his face was bright red with anger, and his hands were clenched tight into fists. I kept talking. “My friend Brent told me you had a knife, but I told him that was crap. You wouldn’t have the guts to bring a knife to school and sure as hell wouldn’t have the balls to use one. Even if you did have one, I’d just take it away from you. You’re a coward, Rocco. You pick on kids who can’t defend themselves. And you’re finished on the team when I tell them about how queer you are.”
I’d pushed him as far as I’d had to. He’d reached the breaking point, as I was sure he would. Saying what I’d said, using the mocking tone I had? Of course he’d snap. And he did. One hand plunged into his pants and came out with a long, ugly looking switchblade. “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you both. No one will know who did it.” He clicked open the blade.
His face showed what he probably thought was a smile, and he started to step forward. Then, the school door crashed open. The coach filled the opening. He wasn’t as tall as I was, but he was big, and he had a physical presence about him. Nobody fucked with the coach.
Brent had had to trust I’d be there for him. I’d had to trust the coach.
“Drop the knife, Rocco. Drop it. The longer you hold it, the worse the charges against you will be. They’ll go from criminal intimidation to attempted murder. Drop it, son. Drop it now.”
I could clearly see the indecision in Rocco’s eyes. Everything had all gone south on him in a matter of seconds, and he wasn’t sure what to do.
The coach could see Rocco hesitate, too, and stepped out of the doorway onto the patio. He stopped just out of Rocco’s reach. “Drop it!” he said. Before, his voice had been soft, empathetic, sad. Now, it was hard and commanding. “Now!”
Rocco still hesitated, his eyes jerked around, apparently looking for some way out, and then his shoulders slumped, his arms fell to his sides, and the knife clattered to the concrete. He didn’t try to run, he just stood there. Defeated.
The four of us marched to Mr. Cosetti’s office. He was the vice principal. He listened to what the coach told him: that after school he’d been going out to get something from the athletic equipment shed and seen Rocco holding a knife threateningly and coming toward me, and he’d heard him promise to kill both Brent and me. Mr. Cosetti asked Rocco what he had to say, and Rocco just hung his head, not uttering a word. Mr. Cosetti picked up his phone and called the police department and asked to have a car sent over. Then he told Rocco he was suspended while an investigation was conducted, and that he’d probably be expelled. He also said as Rocco was a minor, but with priors—something I was unaware of—he’d probably be taken to Juvenile Hall to await whatever the state would do with him.
After that, Brent and I were told we could go but that we’d probably be questioned by the police the next morning—or maybe even tonight depending on what they wanted to do. I nodded, and Brent said, a bit shakily, “Thanks, Mr. Cosseti.” After that, we got up and left his office.
We walked out into the deserted main hall of the school. We only went a few steps before Brent stopped and slumped down so he was sitting on the floor, his back against the lockers which lined the wall.
I watched him for a moment, then sank down to sit next to him. He was silent for a while, and I didn’t say anything, either. Then:
“Will he come after me?”
I shook my head, but he wasn’t looking at me, so I said, “No. He won’t.”
“How can you be sure?”
“He’s in big trouble, Brent. He threatened us with a knife. He said he’d kill us. Mr. Cossetti said he had priors. He’ll either get some time in juvenile detention—probably quite a bit of time, because of the threat to kill us and the knife and the fact he had it on school grounds and because Mr. Cosseti said he’s been in trouble before. Maybe… probably… there’ll be a restraining order against him from ever coming anywhere near us again when he’s released. He’d be an idiot to violate that.”
Brent was quiet for a while, still obviously worried. Then he asked the question I expected. “How do you know that?”
I smiled. “He’s not the first kid on the football team to get in trouble. He’s probably in the worst trouble of anybody I’ve seen, but there have been others the cops have taken into custody. We get some bad asses coming out for the team. They think they’re tough guys, and that they’ll impress everyone just by being how they are. Some of them are tough, but most don’t last long. They learn football isn’t what they think it is, and just being bigger or playing dirtier than anyone else doesn’t cut it.
“But we’ve had a few kids on the team who had problems with the cops. What happened to them is what will happen to Rocco. He’ll most likely get put in the juvenile corrections system, or maybe someone will cut a deal and he’ll go away to military school or something like that. But thinking about getting back at you will be the last thing he’ll be doing.”
Brent didn’t say anything until, finally, he nodded. “I hope so,” he muttered, looking at his feet.
“Hey, believe it!” I said. “You don’t have to be afraid of him any longer, Brent. He’s gone.”
Brent finally looked up at me. “Why did you do this? Why did you help me?”
I thought for a minute. I’d figured he’d get around to that question eventually. I didn’t see any reason to bring Whitmore into it, even though this had been his idea. Mentioning him would probably just be confusing to Brent; he’d have to wonder how many people had been looking at him. So, I answered leaving that part of it out. “You looked like you needed help. I hate bullies. And I liked your looks.”
He sat up straight. “You liked my looks? Does that mean you’re gay, too? That you…”
I laughed, not at him but at the situation. “No, I’m not gay. I just thought you looked like a good kid who should have friends and be happy, and you weren’t, as far as I could see. Then, when I saw Rocco came over to you at lunch, well… I knew he wasn’t someone who should be involved with a kid like you. That’s all.”
He looked at me for a moment, then stood up and brushed off his bottom where it had been on the floor. I did the same.
“You walking home?” I asked.
“Where do you live?
He told me, and it was the same direction I was going. “Mind if I walk with you?”
For the first time ever, I saw him smile.
I went in early the next day to see the coach. As I’d been leaving Mr. Cosetti’s office, he’d taken me aside and told me he wanted to see me in the morning.
I sat across from his desk. He’d been reading the morning paper and drinking a cup of coffee. He folded the paper and set it aside.
“The cops handcuffed him and took him away,” he said in lieu of a greeting. “Then Mr. Cosetti got all over me, asking if I’d set it up, asking if I’d known in advance it was going down. I told him no, I’d just happened to be going out and I saw what was happening through the window. Well, actually, I was watching through the window so I’d know when to appear, just like you said. If Mr. Cosetti ever finds out I knew in advance what was going to happen, it’ll cost me my job.”
“He won’t find out from me, and Brent doesn’t know,” I reassured him. “I only told him to show up when Rocco had told him to and that I’d take it from there. So only you and I know. But thanks, Coach.”
He was looking at me steadily, and I could almost see the gears grinding in his head. Then, when I didn’t say any more, he said, “You told me when you were getting me to agree to do this that you thought Brent needed to do something to help him feel good about himself. That being brave, even when he was scared to death, might help him. Where’d you come up with that? That’s the sort of thing a psych major in college might think of, but not a jock in high school who gets mostly C’s.”
I almost laughed, this seeming so out of context, but he was serious, and I needed to be, too. “I’m not sure, Coach. Lately, I’ve been thinking about things a lot. Since I hurt Whitmore. I’m working on myself, trying to be a better person. You said I needed an attitude adjustment, and I’ve been trying. Trying to help Brent Adamson has been part of that, and it’s given me a lot to think about. I’ve tried to see things from his viewpoint, and I imagined being in his position. I knew if I were in the trouble he was in, I’d try to fix things myself. When I’ve been able to do that in the past, I’ve always felt good about myself. I thought Brent being involved in fixing his problem might be good for him, too.”
Coach smiled at me and then stood up, so I did, too. He offered his hand, and I shook it. “And this all started with you trying to make up for what you did to Whitmore. Incredible. Well, keep it up,” he said, and I nodded.
“I plan to make friends with Brent,” I said. “He’s seems to be a pretty nice guy. And I can use a friend who doesn’t play sports. There’s more to the world than football, you know.”
Coach wrinkled his forehead. “Says who?” he asked.
I was still chuckling as I left his office.
It was two months later that I first brought Brent home with me.
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