Authors: John Coy
for the love
“Thumbs in. Grab and go!” Coach Stahl hollers as we line up for pass patterns. Ninety-five and humid and we've been practicing for three hours. I'm shot, but Coach keeps saying hard work in summer makes champions in fall. Over by the track, two linemen are down on all fours puking.
I run twelve yards, plant my right foot, and cut left. Jonesy fires a rocket. Instinctively I stretch my hands, little fingers togetherâthe way Dad drilled into me in the backyardâand make the catch.
“Thumbs in, Manning.” Stahl throws down his cap. “Can't you hear?” He holds his hands, thumbs touching. “Do it again.”
I run my pattern and twist my arms around to make the catch.
“Grab and go,” Stahl yells. “Don't do it half-assed.”
I run hard upfield. I like Dad's way of catching better.
Zach Turner, my best friend, who starts at the other corner, runs his pattern. We both wear the dark blue jerseys of starters. The other guys wear white.
“That's the way, Zach.” Stahl claps. Stahl teaches
gym. He's short, but he's got the big chest of a weight lifter.
Why's he insisting we catch like this? Dad always says fingers together is the natural way, like holding a watermelon.
When Stahl walks over to Coach Sepolski, the head coach, I put my hands out, fingers touching. It is more natural. On my next down and in, I catch that way.
“I saw that, Manning.” Stahl rushes over. “If I say thumbs in, I mean thumbs in. You understand?”
Stahl grabs my face mask. “I don't want any of your âbut Coach' BS. You think you're so smart. Take a lap.”
The other guys grin, glad it's me who's getting it from Stahl, not them. Everybody's sick of practice and ready for our first game tomorrow.
My Nikes kick up dust on the path around the fence. Stahl can be such a jerk. I was just experimenting.
“Head up. Dig! Dig! Drive your block,” Coach Norlander calls. He's a big guy, but he's got a high voice. Linemen are cracking pads in a two-on-two hamburger drill near the fence. Tyson Ruden, our three-hundred-pound All-State tackle, runs over a sophomore like a semi crushing a cardboard box.
On the sideline, Sam Hunter and a group of second
stringers take a water break. Sam staggers around like a drunk, and guys laugh. He's not serious about football. Why isn't Stahl yelling at him?
A light breeze blows as I circle the backstop. This morning, Coach Sepolski asked us to set goals. I want to repeat as conference champs and go to the play-offs. I want to be named first team All-Conference and to one of the All-State teams. I want to win State. I want to show Dad how good I am.
On the tennis courts, the girls' team is hitting overheads. They're wearing short shorts and sleeveless tops. I slow down for a look. This year, though, I'd like to do more than look. That's another goal. Megan Harkin hammers a smash so hard the ball sticks in the fence.
I turn the last corner and sprint back. “I've been coaching twenty-seven years, and I've had some excellent teams. This one has the potential to be the best.” Coach Sepolski chops the air with his right hand. “Live up to that potential. Be the best football player you can be.” He pauses to let it sink in. “Shower up.”
“Manning,” Coach Sepolski calls. “That's a bad way to end practice.” He puts his hand on my shoulder, and I smell his Marlboro breath. “You're a junior now; I expect some leadership out of you. Listen to Coach Stahl. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Coach.” Sepolski was my freshman biology teacher, and last year he picked me to start. Not many sophomores play varsity at Confluence, and at five foot eleven and 155 pounds I'm not that big. But I love to smash guys. Sepolski likes hitters.
“One more thing, Manning.”
“Carry the tackling dummies back to the shed.”
“Yes, Coach.” Sepolski won't hold the lap against me. I'm afraid that Stahl will.
“C'mon, Man. Let's go.” Zach's buttoning his shirt in front of the mirror. He fixes his collar and shakes his head to the music that's thumping through the speakers.
“I had to make a dummy run.”
“You shouldn't mess with Coach Stahl.”
“I wasn't messing with him, just practicing different ways to catch.” I unsnap my shoulder pads and throw them into my locker. I peel off my T-shirt: F
“Hurry up.” Zach gels his hair. “I'll wait for you in the truck.”
“Grab and go, grab and go.” Jonesy's coming out of the shower. He's got a new tattoo on his shoulder, an eagle with outstretched talons. “Coach giving you dating advice? He knows you need help with girls. Unless you're sticking with boys.”
“Shut up, Superstar.” I snap my towel at him.
“Don't be playing with yourself.” Jonesy snaps back. “You need to be at full strength tomorrow.”
Tyson Ruden and some of the linemen are showering.
Tyson's arms are larger than my legs. He's huge everywhere. I wish I was bigger.
On the ride home, I inhale the AC. “I'm going to beat you on interceptions this year. I can feel it.”
“You're on for a hundred,” Zach says.
“A hundred? You want to bet a hundred bucks?”
“Can't handle it?” Zach shrugs his shoulders.
“I can handle it. You want to lose that much?”
“I won't lose.” Zach stops for a red light.
“I won't either.” We shake hands.
We drive down the hill into the valley where the Clearwater and Hahawakpa rivers come together. We pass Division Street, where Dad has his paint store. He should be home by now. No telling what mood he'll be in.
“What's your max on bench?” Zach asks.
“About 160.” I can't exaggerate or Zach'll make me prove it. He weighs fifteen pounds more and has always been stronger.
“You should be lifting more.”
“What're you doing?”
“Up to 220. I want to do 250.” Zach pulls onto my street. “Got something for you.” He grabs his gym bag, opens a bottle, and shakes out two gold capsules.
“A little Rip Blast. Helps psych you up before the game.”
“What's in it?”
“A jolt of caffeine. Like drinking a bunch of Red Bull, but you don't have to piss.”
“I don't know, Zach.”
“Tyson's taking âem. Lots of the seniors. Gives you that edge.”
I stare at the capsules. I've never taken anything for an edge. I get out and shove them in my pocket.
“Take the Blast before the game,” Zach says. “Be ready to kill 'em.”
“I'll be ready.” I slap my hand on the door.
The smell of garlic hits me when I walk in. “Those floors are clean,” Mom says. “Take your shoes off.”
“They're not dirty.”
“Take them off, Miles.”
In the living room, my eight-year-old sister, Martha, sings to
The Lion King
. “Oh, I just can't waaaaaaaaaaait to be king!”
“Mom, I'm starving. When do we eat?” I kick off my shoes.
“Five minutes. Your father is cleaning up. Wash your hands and pour water.”
“Why can't Martha do it?”
“I asked you, Miles,” Mom says.
I put ice in each glass and pour water from the blue pitcher.
“Martha, wash your hands.” Mom brings in chicken, rice, and zucchini stir-fry. “Sit down, everybody, before the food gets cold.”
Martha hurries to the sink. Dad clumps down the stairs. We all take our chairs on separate sides of the table.
“Let's pray,” Mom says.
I bow my head and Dad leads the prayer.
“Amen.” Mom passes the food.
“I heard something at the store.” Dad scowls. He's got a deeply lined face and a scar on his cheek.
“What?” Mom pushes up her glasses.
“Someone was running laps at the end of practice.” Dad glares at me. “Who was it?”
How does Dad know everything? “It was me.”
“Why were you running?”
“Coach Stahl said I wasn't catching the ball right.”
“I don't want to hear about you running laps.”
“Listen.” He cuts me off. “Listen to me. Listen to your mother. Listen to Coach Stahl. You haven't been listening lately. I don't want to hear that my son is running laps. Is that clear?”
“Yeah.” I drop my head and pick at a piece of zucchini. He's the one who doesn't listen.
“You need to respect your coaches, respect your teachers, respect your parents.” Dad grabs the shaker and salts his chicken.
Nobody says anything, so the only sounds are silverware clinking and people chewing.
What does catching a football have to do with respect? What about me? Is Dad respecting me?
Mom tries to change the mood. “Martha, how was Kelsey's house?”
“Fantastic. Kelsey's got a new ant farm. It's fun to watch them work. Ants carry loads that are much bigger than their bodies. People can't do that. That's why I think ants are stronger than people.”
I'm relieved someone else is talking. Dad and I sit on opposite sides of the table, avoiding each other's eyes.
At 7:00, I'm in the bathroom shaving before school. My face has broken out again. The electric razor whines as I twist it around zits.
Yellow pus oozes from one that's popped. I squeeze it until only watery blood remains and pat it with a piece of toilet paper.
“Move it, Miles,” Mom calls.
I pull on my white jersey and look in the mirror. Zits on both cheeks. Who'd want to go out with me? I look like a clown.
“Mom, what's your favorite song in Cats?” Martha cuts her poached egg.
“âMemory.' What's yours?”
“âJellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats.' I love that song. I think Cats is the best musical ever. Don't you, Miles?”
“Oh, definitely. I think it's the best musical in the entire musical history of musicals.” I unwrap a breakfast bar.
“Miles, don't start the day with sarcasm.” Mom's wearing her new blue suit. She must have a big meeting at the United Way.
Martha points at my jersey. “You look nice. Are you going to win tonight?”
“Yeah. Deer Rapids isn't any good.”
“Don't be overconfident,” Mom warns. “Your dad said to listen to your coaches.”
I open the fridge for some orange juice. Dad's telling me what to do even when he's not here.
At school, kids screw around in the hall before first period. Sam Hunter throws an empty water bottle, and a bunch of soccer players push to kick it.
“You might call it soccer, but most of the world calls it football,” Sam says. “You guys are footballers.”
Blue and white streamers decorate the lockers of varsity players. Each has a sign that's been painted by the cheerleaders. Mine says: H
For home games, we wear our white jerseys to school, so it's easy to spot teammates. Brooksy walks down the hall with Megan Harkin. She's wearing his blue road jersey. She's tall, blond, and the best player on the tennis team. Brooksy is ripped. Together, they're a sharp-looking couple.
“Hey, Miles,” she says.
“Hey, Megan.” I grab my A.P. history book.
“Ready for Deer Rapids?” Brooksy asks.
“Yeah, we'll destroy 'em.”
The buzzer sounds and we scatter.
“I know there's a football game tonight and everybody is excited, but that's tonight. Right now we're going to study some history.” Mr. Halloran stands at the podium and points to the board. “Let's explore immigration to America.”
I look over at Megan. I'd love to go out with her. Someone hot. Someone wearing my jersey so everyone knows she's going with me. I can talk to girls okay, but I'm afraid to take the next step. I'd be crushed if I asked someone out and she said no. Who'd want to go out with me anyway?
“Why else did people come to America?” Halloran is looking at me. “Miles.”
I say the first thing that pops into my mind. “Adventure.”
Halloran writes it on the board underneath “economic opportunity” and “religious freedom.”
“Some people came for adventure, but most people didn't leave their homes for that. Often, something forced them to go. What's another reason?”
Everybody looks around blankly. A new girl raises her
hand. She has dark curly hair and sits tall. “To avoid going to war,” she says.
“Very good, Lucia.” Halloran writes it down. “Many immigrants were escaping conscription into European armies. It's not something we talk about much, but America has a long tradition of providing a home for draft resisters.”
I never heard that before. Is it true? I look over at Lucia. Silver bracelets jangle on her wrist as she writes in her notebook.
“For Wednesday,” Halloran says, “talk with your parents about where your ancestors came from and why they came to America. Some of you may go back five or six generations. Some of you, it will be more recent. Talk with your mother and father and write down your answers.”
Great. Homework. Homework that means talking with Dad about family.
Thanks a lot, Halloran.