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.
School was winding down. I still lifted with Brent, but we’d changed the schedule. It was Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays now. If Dad came home early, he’d meet Brent. Dad never did. Whether it was on purpose or not, I didn’t know. But I didn’t think it would be a problem now if they met, so Brent came on Fridays.
Brent and Caitlyn hit it off famously. It was Caitlyn’s idea that we should double-date. We ended up doing a lot of that. We’d go to the movies together, get pizza or burgers afterwards, and just enjoy being high-school kids. There’s a lot to enjoy, being that age and having friends like this.
I was continually kicking myself when I went home at night after these dates. I was a senior. This life was ending for me. And I’d missed so much of what it could have been. I’d been entangled with my jock buddies. It was always partying with them, or watching football on TV, or just messing around together, and countless practices. It had been my life, such as it was. But now? Now I was having fun, more fun than I’d ever had, hanging with kids who laughed and joked and were witty and funny, I had a girl friend who was becoming more special every day I was with her, and I could see the end of it all, getting closer every day. I could have had this so much earlier, if I’d simply have gotten my head out of my ass.
Once, when we’d been out together after trying to prove to the world that none of us could bowl worth a damn and having such a good time we only stopped when Jason said his thumb was getting sore, we stopped for pizza. A group of four boys that looked to me to be about the same age as Brent and Jason were in the same restaurant we were and left at the same time. I’d noticed them looking over at our booth during the meal, probably overhearing some things we were saying. Now, outside, they made some remarks that I was sure were intended to be overheard. Derogatory things about two boys being together—Brent and Jason didn’t try to hide that they were boyfriends even out in public.
I was getting upset. Brent saw it and told me to chill, that he’d handle it. So I stood still and watched as he approached the four kids. Jason hesitated, then quickly caught up with him and walked by his side. Jason wasn’t as conscientious about his lifting as Brent was. Brent was looking a lot stronger now, stronger than Jason, and I knew Jason wasn’t a fighter. But Jason walked with him.
Brent didn’t show any fear at all. He simply walked up and began talking to them. I think the boys had felt they had safety in numbers. They may have been just fooling around. Whatever it was, it was immediately obvious they hadn’t been expecting to be called out, and also obvious that they weren’t eager to fight.
Brent talked for some time, one of the four also spoke a little, and then Brent stuck out his hand and everyone shook hands. When Brent and Jason came back to us, Brent had a contented grin, and Jason was smiling, whether from relief or pride at Brent, I didn’t know.
Jason seemed sort of on a high, unable to control himself. “Man. I thought we’d have to take those guys on, but Brent was as cool as I’ve ever seen him. He just asked what their problem was—not in a confrontational way, just asking like he wanted to know the answer. They could see they weren’t being challenged, and they didn’t really have anything to say, so Brent just flat out told them we were gay and asked if they had boyfriends or girlfriends, and it just went from there. No problem at all. It was rad.”
Brent smiled at me. “Being willing is half the battle,” he said, and I laughed.
I’d been wondering, as I had for a couple years now, what I’d do after graduating from high school. I still didn’t know. What I did know was that the past few months had been the best time I’d spent in school. Somehow, after hurting Whitmore, after getting a come-to-Jesus talk from Donnie, after deciding I didn’t like myself very much and had to change, things had started improving for me. I was very conscious of the fact that right now I was at the beginning of the rest of my life. Yet, where I actually was in life, at the close of my high-school career, was more of an ending than a beginning.
I didn’t want what I had now to end. That was the truth of the matter. I’d just met and made friends with Brent. He was a great kid, and I enjoyed spending time with him, even with the age discrepancy. I was seeing things through his eyes that I’d completely missed at his age, a side of the world I really liked. Brent didn’t look down on anyone; as a jock, I’d lived in a world where we all looked down on anyone less athletic or competitive than we were. Now I could see how very limiting that was.
But there was more to it than the good parts of high school life I’d missed out on. I hated the thought that I’d move on and I’d be parting ways with Brent, and with Caitlyn, too. She was a junior; she had another year to go. The more time we spent together, the better our relationship grew. We hadn’t had sex yet, but I could see it happening, and when it did, I knew it would be special. I hadn’t felt this way about a girl ever. But she had another year in high school, and I was all done.
I brooded on all this. And then something happened I wasn’t expecting.
Spring football practice wasn’t really a practice. All the kids who wanted to play in the fall signed up and came to try out. They spent the afternoon running through drills and exercises and calisthenics and such led by next year’s captain, trying to make an impression on all the coaches who were there standing around watching them. There were rules preventing the coaches from teaching: showing any plays or techniques, coaching positions or anything formal like that. Spring practice was more so the coaches could see what sort of athletes and enthusiasm they’d be working with in the fall semester, to help the guys start to get in shape, and for the players who hadn’t been there before to get to know the coaches and other prospective players.
Usually seniors didn’t show up at all, even to watch. They’d had their fill of football or else were planning to play in college and were already working out on their own, sometimes with trainers, and the kind of uncoordinated activities that occurred on the field didn’t concern or interest them.
So why was I sitting in the stands, watching? Well, I have to go back some to explain.
Ever since I’d talked the coach into bending the rules a little and helping me get Rocco out of Brent’s hair—and in doing so learning just what a good guy the man was—I’d been dropping in on him at least once every couple of weeks, just to sit in his office and chat. I’d only thought of him as a coach when I’d been playing for him; he was a taskmaster, even occasionally a tyrant out on the field, and a no-nonsense guy off it. But he was much more than that. Since the time Donnie had told me off and I’d started to rethink things about myself, which was also about the time I realized how wrong my dad was about some things, I’d felt the need for a strong, supportive male in my life who wasn’t a closed-minded bigot. Little by little, as I got to know him, Coach began to fill that role.
He was much smarter and knew a whole lot more about a lot of things than I’d realized. Maybe it was a teen trait, but I’d never thought most adults were all that smart. They didn’t seem to have a clue about what was really happening in the school and with us. Oh, they knew a lot of stuff that had nothing to do with the world we lived in, but I just took it for granted that they really didn’t know much about anything important.
Well, I’d been wrong about that, too. Coach did know what was going on, he knew the personalities of most of the kids in school, he knew about some things we did that surprised me, and he sure knew a lot about life in general and not just about football.
We talked about a whole range of things. I found out he was very sympathetic to gay kids. He knew several at the school. He wouldn’t tell me who they were but did tell me he’d told them that if they were ever in trouble with anyone at school and needed help from someone their age, they could talk to me—that I was someone they could turn to who could help them.
I was shocked when he told me that. Not that anyone had taken him up on his offer. But then at our school, as I’d heard it was true at many others now, there wasn’t that much teasing or taunting about sexuality. About the only place where there could be some problems was with the athletic teams. Seemed jocks had more trouble accepting gay kids than other groups of kids did.
Coach had also been trying to get me to think about applying to colleges. I wasn’t really interested in that, but he kept pressing. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but delaying the decision for four more years by taking classes and more academic work had never appealed to me.
Don’t think my mom hadn’t had words with me about that, too. It was the one thing we argued about. She always said I should be earning mostly A’s with maybe a B or two but that was all. As it was, I got a lot of C’s and some B’s, good enough so I could play sports but not so good that my teammates would be on me about trying to show them up.
Anyway, with spring practice coming up, Coach had begun talking more about football, and at one point he asked me why I’d played so well as a senior when I hadn’t been anything but average before. I told him about how I’d begun studying the offense in front of me, watching how the other team’s players positioned themselves and the play that followed. How the quarterback set his feet prior to getting the ball from the center and how, with some guys, that signaled whether it would be a pass or a run. I’d gotten to the point where over half the time I had a good idea what was coming on the next play and could move to where I was needed to be much quicker than before.
I also told him I’d known it was the last year that I’d play, and somehow, wanting to go out with a bang just amped up my enthusiasm for the game. I told him that this final year was the most enjoyable I’d had on the football team.
He listened when I explained this. Didn’t really respond other than nod and agree that I’d played really well, better than he’d realized I could, and that I was a big reason we’d had such a great season.
But then, just before spring practices started, he asked me if I’d be interested in helping him evaluate the guys who came to try out. He made it sound very much off the top of his head, just something he’d thought of because I happened to be there sitting there in his office. And that’s why I was now sitting in the stands. He’d given me a list of all the guys who’d signed up to turn out. I didn’t know half of them. He’d solved that for me and probably the other coaches as well by issuing each athlete a number that was worn on the vests they were all given to wear—red for offense, black for defense and blue for undecided. So I had my list and a clipboard and was in the stands making notes of who was coordinated, who was fast, who got tired quickly, who could do lots of pushups, who gave half-hearted attempts with things like jumping jacks and up-and-downs, whose body language showed they were into it all, that sort of thing.
Then I got a shock. Number 47 was Brent. He hadn’t told me he was planning to go out for football. Perhaps he hadn’t decided until recently. He was certainly solid enough now. Taller, too. He’d been going through a growth spurt like a lot of kids his age did. He was almost six-feet tall now, still slender but sturdy. And strong. I could see him at wide receiver or defensive back because he was fast. I had no idea if he liked hitting people, but I was sure he wouldn’t shy away from it.
I probably watched him more than I should have. I saw what he needed to work on and figured I could talk to him about things, maybe coach him up a little. He was used to me telling him how to work with the weights. This would sort of be more of the same. The idea got me excited.
Then I realized where I was, what I was doing. I wasn’t part of this any longer. I’d be working. Maybe in a garage, or a convenience store. Flipping burgers maybe, or wearing a paper hat. Maybe at Wienerschnitzel. “How’d you like your wiener, sir?”
What a depressing thought. I pushed it out of my mind and concentrated on what was going on below me on the field, putting notes on my papers for each kid. I looked on the sheets for Whitmore’s name, and it saddened me not to see it there. It was something I’d think of often for some time, that I’d effectively ended his football career before it had begun.
I came down onto the field when they were all done, intending to say hi to Brent, but didn’t see him now that I didn’t have an overhead view of the field. I was able to overhear some of the kids talking, however.
There were two kids I didn’t know standing just to the side of me. They were evidently friends the way they sounded, probably sophomores or I’d have known them. While I was organizing my papers they were talking, and I heard one say to the other, “Did you see that Adamson kid?”
“Yeah, he looks fast. Hope he isn’t going out for cornerback.”
“You worried? Hell, I heard the kid’s a fudge packer. You’re not worried about being beaten out by a queer, are you?”
“He is? Really.”
Now, I suppose I should have walked away. It wasn’t my place to do anything. Except, somehow, I felt that it was.
So I took the couple of steps needed to walk over to them. What was I going to say? I knew they were talking about Brent, and my inclination was to talk to them with my fists. But I couldn’t help but think of Brent doing the same thing, walking over to those kids at the pizza place. And I remembered what he’d done. How impressed I’d been with his maturity.
I was a graduating senior. These were two sophomores. Who was supposed to be the mature one here, anyway?
“Hey guys,” I said. “You both looked good out there today. I was up in the stands, watching.”
They both turned to look at me. They were sweaty and had dirt and grass streaks on their clothes. And they both looked young. Well, recently, most underclassmen had begun looking young to me.
“Hey, you’re Greg Meyers, aren’t you?” said the kid who’d used the terms ‘fudge packer’ and ‘queer.’ It was only then, thinking of it, that I realized I’d used that exact same term myself a few months ago.
“Yeah, that’s me. Coach asked me to help him out today. That’s why I’m here. But, look, I just overheard you guys talking. And I wanted to say something. You recognized me, knew who I was, so you probably know Donnie Ellis, too, right?”
“Sure,” said the fudge-packer guy, and the other one nodded.
“Well,” I said, “he’s gay, and he probably was our best player this year.” I stopped to watch them react, then said, “I had a problem with gay kids till I got to know him. And the kid you guys were just talking about? Brent Adamson? He’s probably my best friend now. So, tell me. Have either of you guys ever met a gay kid before?”
The expressions on their faces were different now. The guy who’d spoken looked very nervous, maybe scared. “Uh, no, not really,” he said.
“I hadn’t either,” I said, and chuckled. “But now I have, and I’m ashamed of how I was before. Look, I can’t tell you how you should feel about things. That’s private, and something you have to decide for yourself. But it’s important if you want to be on a team to think of everyone on it as family. You have to be able to do that because teammates often have to work together, to support each other, and they can’t be thinking, ‘That kid’s gay, so I’m not going to go all out for him.’ And the thing is, if you get to know these people, your minds will change. I know they will. Especially with Brent. He’s just like you are, a kid trying to make the team for the first time, trying to make a good impression. And you know what? If you make an effort to get to know him and support him, you’ll not only be helping him, you’ll be helping yourselves because it’ll be noticed. Anyway, think about it, and if you want to talk to me again, feel free. Anytime. I’d like to help if there’s any way I can.”
Then I held out my hand, and without hesitation they book stepped forward and shook it. They seemed eager to do so.
They turned to walk away then, but the talkative one hesitated, then said, “Greg?
“Uh… I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that. I’m not that way, and I don’t want to be that way.”
I smiled at him. “Good,” I said. “Very good.”
I watched them walk off, busy talking to each other, the one who hadn’t talked to me was being pretty emphatic, the other one walking with his head down. I smiled.
Then I had to go find the coach and give him my analysis sheets. He wasn’t hard to find. He was only about ten feet away. I had the impression he might have been watching.
We were in his office. He’d asked me to follow him in. I handed him my papers, and he asked me to sit.
He glanced at what I’d written, more than glanced, actually. He looked at each sheet, and then, without looking up, asked, “What did you think of that, evaluating those guys?”
“You’ve got some pretty fair kids coming out,” I said. “I think you’re going to be able to put together a good team next year. Donnie’ll be back, and if that Brent Adamson kid plays D, well, you might have something there.”
Coach was looking at me. “I didn’t mean that. I meant, how’d you like looking at those boys, thinking about how they’d fit in, about what they needed?”
“Oh. Well, actually…” I think I blushed. “I loved it.”
Coach nodded. “Thought so. Well, how’d you like to be an assistant here next year? Graduate assistant.”
“Yeah, but there are strings attached.”
“You enroll at the local community college. I checked your grades. They’re not good enough for anything but that, which is a shame because you’re certainly smart enough. You’re smart enough to see the parallel, too: you worked hard on the football field and cared how you did there, and you succeeded more than you thought possible. You didn’t work hard at academics, and you got just what you earned.”
He paused to let that sink in. It did, and I lowered my head.
He used a softer voice when he continued. “But you can get into a community college. If you work there, don’t goof off like you’ve done up till now, you can then go on for the last two years at a regular four-year school and get a degree.
“If you’re interested, our local community college offers a program in coaching. You wouldn't have to take that. Take anything you want, but enroll. As long as you’re in school there, I’ll let you coach here. You’d still be involved with this school and you’d find out if you liked coaching. You could work with the defensive players. Teach ‘em what you learned. Does that sound good to you?”
“Yeah!” I might have said that too loud. But working with Brent? Still being around Caitlyn? Not entirely leaving this place after all, leaving it just when I was finally seeing there was a lot more to it than football? Still able to walk these halls without looking out of place doing it? I could have said ‘Hell, yeah!’
He reached out his hand, and I took it—I grabbed it, really—and I shook it like I meant it.
Coaching football. Working with kids like Brent, high school kids. I’d seen where I could help him. Thinking of some of the other kids who’d come out, I realized there were things I could teach them, too. Would coaching high school football be for me? Maybe even, with a degree, teaching at one? Well, maybe. Maybe that’d be pretty good.
For the first time, I regretted not working harder in high school, letting the academics slide. I was smart enough. I could have done better. But Coach was offering me something, and I was going to take him up on it. I’d coach with him, I’d go to community college, and then eventually get a bachelor’s degree, maybe in education. Maybe get a high school teaching job and get into coaching if I liked it. And I thought I would. I really thought I would.
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